If you saw the film “Gorillas in the Mist” you watched scenes of mountain gorillas in the wild. However, you might not realize that alongside footage of actual mountain gorillas, you were looking at one of the greatest feats of realistic puppet and creature making ever executed by a special effects crew.
In 1985 I was the costume shop supervisor for make up effects artist, Rick Baker. We were finishing up work on the film Harry and the Hendersons when news came that primatologist, Dian Fossey had been murdered. I remember I was sitting with several crew members when Rick brought us the December 29, 1985 article from the LA Times with the headline “Naturalist Dian Fossey Slain at Camp in Rwanda”. I was somewhat familiar with Dian Fossey and her work with mountain gorillas from National Geographic and from working with Rick Baker who was known industry-wide as the authority on film gorillas.
Rick had built the gorilla for the 1976 version of King Kong, and the apes in Greystoke, Legend of Tarzan and was known industry wide to be the best artist to go to if you needed a gorilla built . Within weeks of Fossey’s death, Rick and his shop was retained to make gorilla suits and puppets for a film about Dian Fossey’s life.
Rick Baker had a lifelong fascination with gorillas. I remember him saying that he had always been bothered that by matching the proportions of a gorilla head to the human inside the suit, the faces were necessarily disproportionate. The director of the film wanted to intercut film of real gorillas with shots of actors in the gorilla suits. If the gorilla suits were to be successful then the eyes would have to be mechanized. This resulted in a realistically proportioned head for the first time on a gorilla suit.
Rick’s shop spent the next several months making prototype gorilla suits and puppets while drama raged about which production company was going to produce the film. Universal and Warners were in a court battle over the rights and Dian Fossey’s family was giving their support to an independent filmmaker. Eventually Universal and Warners jointly produced the film. Meanwhile, in Rwanda the search to find someone to officially blame for the murder raged on.
Michael Apted was chosen to direct the film, which was to star Sigourney Weaver as Dian, and co-starred Bryon Brown and Julie Harris. The plan was to shoot Sigourney Weaver at Karasoke, Dian’s research station in Rwanda with real gorillas, and edit in shots of suits and puppets to match the gorillas they got wild footage of.
Rick was told that there would be no acknowledgment of gorilla costumes and puppets, or of the crew that built them. He was given a producer credit. I heard it said many times, that “if we were successful, no one would know that we had done anything at all” Publicly, the producers were claiming that all of the film was done with real gorillas. There was some scrambling later to explain how they shot scenes where gorillas were killed. The production company then admitted that some gorilla costumes were used, but only for the death scenes. They then were able to assure the public that no gorillas were harmed in the filming. In actuality, about half the footage of gorillas used in the film was of gorilla costumes, or puppets.
As we worked on suits and puppets back in the shop, Rick Baker traveled to Rwanda with the producers to do some research of the mountain gorillas. When Rick returned, he gathered everyone in the shop together. His first words to us were, “Mountain gorillas are not black, they are brown”. The shop had purchased large amounts of black yak hair and had custom fur fabric created from real yak hair. We scrambled to change the hair order.
A small film crew went to Ryanda to film the mountain gorillas with Sigourney Weaver. While the production team was in Rwanda, we were building the suits and puppets back at the shop in LA. Every few days video would arrive with rough footage of the real gorillas interacting with Sigourney. There would be notes about what sequences might form the basis of scenes. Rick would then guide his crew in recreating specific gorilla costumes that matched the real gorillas in feature, color and size. Much of the reason this succeeded was due to the brilliant editing of Stuart Baird. The script was built around the footage they shot of real gorillas interacting with Sigourney.
There were several different approaches for the gorillas we built. Adult gorillas would be portrayed by actors in gorilla suits. The actors wore muscle suits constructed from Scott foam, and covered in spandex. There would be two adult gorillas that would play a large part in the story. One was Digit, the silverback that Dian developed a close bond with, and whose death was a pivotal event in the story concerning her war on the poachers. He was played by John Alexander. The second was an adult female named Simba. Peter Elliot played Simba. The hair for these suits was individually hand tied by a team of wigmakers into spandex skin that I had dyed and painted. I believe the team of 6 wigmakers worked for about 5 months tying hair.
Some of the gorillas would only be seen in the background. It was decided to use custom made fur fabric fabricated from yak hair for the bodies of those suits. Baby gorillas were either puppets or chimpanzees in tied hair suits with make up on their faces.
In the next blog, I will go into more detail about the process of building the suits and puppets, and the filming.
The following clip is of Sigourney with an actor (John Alexander) in a gorilla suit. The only real gorilla is seen 2:07 for a fraction of a second.
Since the production company denied the use of puppets and gorilla suits, the crew of over 50 sculptors, painters, mold makers, mechanics, puppeteers, sculptors, suit performers and costumers were never acknowledged or credited for their work.
Here is a photo of part of the crew who brought you some of the most beautiful realistic creatures ever seen (or in this case never seen) in a film.