PLANET OF THE APES’ John Chambers: Man Of Merit

The man who gave us the iconic look of PLANET OF THE APES left an indelible mark on cinema and lived quite a life.

When Planet Of The Apes was released in 1968, much of the praise went towards two elements that made the Franklin J. Schaffner film stand out among its science fiction contemporaries. The first is the socio-political commentary, the credit for which goes to Pierre Boulle, upon whose novel the film is based, and screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. The other element is largely what keeps the film from becoming hokey so many decades later: the amazing detail that went into the look of the apes themselves. For this, praise is due to John Chambers.

Chambers’ early career indicated his eye for intricacy and aesthetic. Following training as a commercial artist, he designed jewelry and carpets before landing a post-WWII position creating prosthetics and facial reconstruction materials for wounded veterans. It was in that role with Veterans Affairs that Chambers learned how to work with rubber and plastic materials where he spent three years learning techniques in plastic and rubber chemistry for prosthetic work. Chambers found early tutelage under Ben Nye at 20th Century Fox, eventually joining the NBC Network staff as a makeup artist in 1953. Three years later he worked on the set of his first film, Around The World In Eighty Days, and joined Universal Pictures. He came up with the iconic Vulcan ears for Spock on the Star Trek series. He worked extensively on Matinee Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, The Munsters, and The Outer Limits television series, but it was his work on the Planet Of The Apes franchise that earned him acclaim and industry attention.

In an interview with Cinefantastique, Chambers revealed that the original concept for the apes was a more human-like one, a “Neanderthal type”. But then:

"I read the script, and agreed with the director, Franklin Schaffner, that the apes should not be made to look like hair-faced human beings - they should be animals, apes, with perhaps some minor concessions here and there. In other words, we carried the evolutionary process only very slightly beyond what you might call 'basic ape'. To arrive at our final concept for the three ape types - chimpanzee, orangutan, and gorilla - we resorted to a good deal of sculpture. We would take a basic human head in plaster, and then in clay, model on this head our ape variations. We came up with things looking like the Neanderthal Man and so forth, which we discarded. The concepts were too ambiguous - they lacked the strength of the animal face and personality. We needed the pleasantness, yet the strength, of the animal without being too grotesque."

The film dedicated most of its budget toward the apes themselves, particularly their makeup. And with good reason: a proper visage would keep the apes from looking unintentionally funny, which would undermine the story’s power. Fortunately, Chambers and his team of artists came up with a facial prosthetic that could be applied to the face and still allow for maximum movement of the actors’ facial features. It was an innovation built upon the previous work of makeup master Jack Dawn upon the set of The Wizard Of Oz, who came up with a single facial appliance that allowed Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion) to fully emote amid jowls, whiskers, a full mane, and a false nose. Standing upon the creative shoulders of Jack Dawn and further balanced by an unprecedented makeup effects budget, Chambers went through several iterations of life masks and appliances before arriving on what we see in the film.

Chambers and his team had multiple hurdles to clear during development and shooting. Color could be inconsistent when mixing paint day-to-day, so they conjured up a special paint that could be airbrushed onto facial appliances, saving them 45 minutes in the makeup chair per actor (which, in turn, cut down on the initial five hours that the actors had to sit in the chair each day). This paint also had a plastic base that could be sprayed at low pressure and was permeable enough that the actor underneath could breathe and sweat normally. Then, the sweat became a problem, because the appliances wouldn’t stick. So these guys came up with an entire new kind of spirit gum adhesive that not only held against heavy perspiration, but didn’t reflect under direct light (which would’ve given away where the lace-front wigs were attached). In short, Chambers and crew devised several materials that never before existed.

In order to protect the integrity of the final product, Chambers even had some say over how his creations were captured on film:

"When I sanctioned to do the first film, I had to have conditions... I felt there were areas where I had to maintain director and camera control. We had to confer if I felt the shot was not good for the makeup. If the acting or the shot, no matter how good it was, wasn't done properly for the makeup, it would have to be redone. There were very few faults in the makeup on the first one because I was on the set every day."

In addition to his innovations in prosthetics, Chambers blazed through untrodden territory throughout his career and beyond. He became the first makeup artist to budget a feature film for one million dollars - money well spent, in hindsight. For his work on Planet Of The Apes, Chambers earned an honorary Oscar at the 41st Academy Awards in 1969, over a decade before an awards category was created for Best Makeup. In 1979, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first makeup artist to do so. His most interesting award, though, didn’t come off any ape movie. John Chambers was awarded the highest civilian award that the CIA can bestow, the Medal of Merit. He got it by doing what he did best: makeup transformations.

Since the early 1970’s, Chambers was contracted with the CIA under the code name Jerome Calloway (which is a totally boss cover name, like Burt Macklin). At the tail-end of the Vietnam War, he put his artistry skills to use by constructing disguise packages for American agents abroad and teaching trainees the art of visual deception. The work he provided in 1980 aided in the extraction of six American diplomats who were being held in Iran in what was known as the “Canadian Caper”. If you’ve seen the 2012 movie Argo, you are already familiar with this story. Posing as a Hollywood film crew shooting a fake film (for which discarded concept art by Jack Kirby was used), CIA agents traveled to Iran during the hostage crisis, claiming they were shooting a sci-fi film titled Argo. CIA officer and infiltration expert Tony Mendez enlisted the aid of Chambers (played in Argo by John Goodman) to create an entire cover for the caper, going so far as printing business cards, setting up a fake production company (”Studio Six Productions”), holding a press party in LA, and taking out advertisements in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Upon arrival in Iran, they made their way to the residence of Canadian diplomat John Sheardown, where the American embassy personnel were hiding, and, completing the fake film crew with a convincing performance from the diplomats, successfully escorted them out of country. For this, Chambers was awarded the CIA’s highest civilian honor, though the rest of the nation went unaware of the CIA’s full involvement in the rescue mission until 1997 when the whole ordeal was declassified. 

Though John Chambers died in August of 2001, his legacy to visual artistry endures today. Whether on the set of Planet Of The Apes or within the halls of the CIA, his contributions to the makeup fx industry cannot be understated.