The Film Technology That Brings Us Closer to the Apes

As used in the 2014 movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

planet of the apes
Courtesy WETA

Karin Konoval is a 52-year-old actress, a former dancer, and a 260-pound orangutan (but only in the movies). Playing the role of Maurice, a tough lieutenant in this summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Konoval brings her ape alter ego to life when she dons a bodysuit dotted with 40 small “markers” to track her movements, which are picked up by dozens of cameras. A series of up to 50 tracers on her face map out every smile and grimace. She moves around the set on special hand stilts that, thanks to over 450 special effects technicians, will later transform into fur-covered arms. Why all the effort? Because in an attempt to feature animals on-screen, we risk hurting them in the process.

For example: The 1978 film Every Which Way but Loose starred Clint Eastwood and an orangutan named Clyde, who was trained to stand upright and walk—unnaturally—on his legs. If he didn’t behave properly, the orangutan was purportedly beaten.

While conditions have improved in today’s productions, many animals still die from the abuse and neglect that occurs off camera. Director Rupert Wyatt—who won a PETA award for his CGI innovations in Rise of the Planet of the Apes—would argue that an actor’s performance is just as good as an animal’s. Why? Because actors like Konoval do their research. Before diving into her role in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Konoval spent a great deal of time observing real-life orangutans. She describes meeting an orangutan named Towan in 2010 during the filming of Rise of The Planet of the Apes: “One day, he came up to the glass and pressed his face to mine—we stayed like that for about 20 minutes. I was breathless as his eyes traced up and down my face,” Konoval says. “It was that 20 minutes that gave me Maurice.”

She didn’t meet him again until November 2011, when she was officially introduced to Towan and the rest of the orangutans at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Since then, she has continued to visit the orangutans regularly and paint for them—especially for one named Melati, who likes to pick the colors.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves, will be released in the U.S. July 11.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest