As someone without a background in photography, film, television, or media, I often find myself mystified by the objects I deal with on a daily basis. However, I regularly come across material that no amount of expertise can prepare you for. In this series I’m going to highlight some of the weird and wonderful objects I come into contact with down here in the museum’s collection stores.
During my time at the museum I’ve led many tours behind the scenes looking at our collection storage areas. It’s one of my favourite things to do, because no two tours are the same. My audiences have consisted of academics, media specialists, enthusiast groups, students, and the general public. The diverse array of interests means that each time I will highlight certain things, and miss others out.
However, I’ve never managed to get through a tour without talking about these two pieces:
These animatronic gorilla heads were used in the production of the 1997 film flop Buddy, in which a woman adopts a gorilla as her son, for reasons I’m sure make sense to her.
It’s a very strange film, somewhat based on a couple of real life gorillas and reveals *SPOILER ALERT* that raising a gorilla in a city around humans leads to unhappy gorilla rampages. The movie ends with the sensible solution of allowing Buddy to go live in an ape sanctuary. Why they didn’t do this in the first place is a whole other issue. Needless to say, there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of this movie—although the trailer is a work of art.
Once I’ve explained the background to the heads, the question that usually follows is: ‘but why are they here?’ (This is often said by someone holding a hand over their eyes, or pointedly looking in another direction.) The reason we keep them is because they are a good example of practical movie effects. With the prevalence of CGI these days it’s good to have the (terrifying) reality check of pre-computer effects. It’s something that really allows you to get under the skin of prop making.
Even though computer generated images go back to the 1970s, it’s not until the late 90s/early 00s that they really seemed to take off and become widespread. Perhaps that means at this time it was simply easier and cheaper to stuff a poor actor into a costume than use CGI (or you could get a real gorilla, but considering the movie’s plot that’s probably a bad idea).
So these heads are surprisingly relevant to the history of film technology, even if they are among the more disturbing artefacts we keep behind locked doors. For their own safety, of course…