Hollywood's Primary Primate; He Is the Film Industry's Go-To Gorilla. Now Animal Movement Director Peter Elliot Is Working with a Birmingham Theatre Group, Writes Diane Parkes

The Birmingham Post (England), November 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

Hollywood's Primary Primate; He Is the Film Industry's Go-To Gorilla. Now Animal Movement Director Peter Elliot Is Working with a Birmingham Theatre Group, Writes Diane Parkes


Byline: Diane Parkes

Peter Elliott in the gorilla suit he used in the 1997 film Buddy One moment the man on the telephone is talking completely calmly and the next he is roaring at me. And I don't mean shouting, I actually mean roaring - like a tiger. And it is frighteningly realistic. But then it would be as the man I am listening to is Peter Elliott, animal movement director on a string of hit Hollywood films.

Peter, who has also directed the animal characters in Birmingham Stage Company's Jungle Book, is demonstrating what he calls 'the essence of a tiger'.

And, in doing so, he is explaining how he created the character of Shere Khan in the show which plays Birmingham's Old Rep Theatre over Christmas.

"There is no point in having a tiger which is amazingly realistic and scares all the children and then breaks into song and dance," he says.

"So, for example, with Shere Khan we are trying to get to the essence of a tiger. You know when you see a tiger and it is walking back and forth but it is looking at you. And it doesn't take its eyes off you so that its body is moving but its head is the last thing to move. Shere Khan takes that element of the tiger. But, because it is a stripped down tiger, the actor also has a lot of freedom with it.

"We start with something totally realistic and strip that down so that the actor is a tiger but can also talk, sing and dance."

Peter has been working with Birmingham Stage Company since it first created The Jungle Book in 2004. And with each new cast he has held animal movement workshops to ensure they can take on the roles of Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear, Shere Khan the tiger, the wolves and the orangutans.

In these workshops the actors are able to develop those characters, and each actor will also bring a bit of themselves to the part, making each production fresh.

Peter also collaborated with BSC on creating the orangutans which appeared in its 2005 adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's Kensuke's Kingdom.

But Peter's work on animal movement goes back much further to the 1970s when he had just finished his studies at the E15 method actor drama school and was auditioning for a job in the Tarzan film Greystoke.

"There were lots of us auditioning for Greystoke because they were looking for apes. They were doing test films of people in costumes and they knew that something wasn't working but they weren't sure what it was. So they sent me to Hollywood for a week to do the test filming. And then I ended up being made head of research and development looking specifically at chimps.

"It was funny as they asked me if I wanted the job as head of R and D. I was an actor so I just said yes without giving anything away, then I rang a friend in England and said 'what is R and D?' It was unbelievable.

There I was about 21 years old, running a department in Hollywood."

Peter's research took him to the Oklahoma Primate Research Centre where he spent hours studying the chimps.

"I really tried to see how they moved but also how they thought," says Peter. "That is what is important.

You need to get to the essence of the animal."

Learning to mimic the apes and interact with them did carry risks though.

"People think chimpanzees are cute but they are thinking of the babies. The adults are actually quite dangerous animals to be around. I was mauled twice and I had a metal arm extension bitten right off.

"The original idea for Greystoke was that all the apes in the foreground would be people and those in the background would be animals. They had no idea how dangerous they could be."

Having spent so much time with chimps means Peter understands the complexity of an animal many of us only see in zoos.

"A lot of people do not realise that chimps can be quite violent. But to them it isn't violence it is just natural. …

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