Behind The Scenes

Creating the Gorillas of CONGO: Behind the Scenes at Stan Winston Studio

Go behind the scenes of Congo's lifelike animatronic gorilla suits at Stan Winston Studio.

May 27, 2017

Congo: The long-sought opportunity to create gorillas

While in the middle of production on Interview With the Vampire, Stan Winston Studio was also designing and preparing two other films: Tank Girl and Congo, both released in 1995. While Tank Girl was a relatively small project, Congo was a big one - and Stan Winston had wanted it badly, for a number of reasons. For one, Congo had much in common with Jurassic Park, Stan Winston’s most successful endeavor to date. Congo was based on a popular novel by Michael Crichton, just as Jurassic Park had been. Kathleen Kennedy, one of Jurassic Park ’s producers, was producing the film. And Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy’s husband and another longtime associate of Steven Spielberg’s, was directing.

Pictured above: Director Frank Marshall with Stan Winston, Lorene Noh as Amy, and actor Peter Jason. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company.

But an even more compelling lure was that Congo would offer Stan Winston the long-sought opportunity to create gorillas. Through his work on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and Gorillas In the Mist (1988), Rick Baker had built a reputation for creating stunningly realistic apes. If Stan Winston was the ‘robot man’, Rick Baker was the ‘ape-man’. Stan Winston’s naturally competitive nature drove him to challenge Rick Baker’s turf. “Congo was kind of a proving ground for me,” Stan admitted, “or, at least, that’s what I had wanted it to be. I wanted to show the world that we could do gorillas, too, and do them well.”

Pictured above: Filmmaker Steven Spielberg meets Amy (Lorene Noh) while visiting Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy on the set of Congo. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company.

Crichton’s novel, adapted for the screen by John Patrick Shanley, tells the story of a mountain gorilla named Amy, who has been taught sign language through the efforts of a team of primatologists. When Amy begins to manifest signs of depression, Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh) takes her home, into the heart of the Congo, joining other expeditions that have less altruistic motives.

Amy, the good gorilla

Stan Winston Studio was charged with creating both Amy and the mutant gray gorillas that attack the parties when they venture too close to a treasure mine. In many respects, the Congo project was as doomed as the story’s characters, due in part to early design decisions intended to make Amy a more comely leading lady.

Pictured above: Stan Winston befriends a chimpanzee brought in as a reference for SWS artists before launching the Congo project.

Rather than re-create the features of a mountain gorilla, the studio had instructions to design Amy so that she would more closely resemble the ‘cuter’ lowland gorilla. “We took a lot of artistic license with Amy that, in hindsight, we shouldn’t have taken,” Stan Winston said. “Part of that artistic license was putting a lowland gorilla face on what was supposed to be a mountain gorilla, just to make her more appealing. She was cuter, but we paid a price for it because there was a sense of reality that was lost in the character.” Stan Winston and his crew did not have the benefit of that hindsight, however, as they began to design and build a suit and mechanical heads for the character.

Pictured above: Amy on the set of Congo.

Creating realistic skin

Stan Winston’s crew lifecast the main Amy performer, Lorene Noh, at the studio, then sculpted Amy over her lifecast. From that sculpture, the crew created a 'hero' Amy head that was covered in silicone skin and hand-tied hair. It was one of the first times the studio would use these new silicone formulas, rather than foam latex, for a character. The main advantage to silicone was that it simulated the translucent look and feel of real flesh far more convincingly than foam rubber.

Pictured above: Clay sculpture of Amy at Stan Winston Studio.

Pictured above: Lifecasting a gorilla performer at Stan Winston Studio.

But silicone had disadvantages, as well. “When we were first experimenting with it,” said Shane Mahan, “we found that it was too oily if we didn’t get the formula exactly right. The oils would come soaking through and ruin the paint. We had to figure out what kinds of paint worked best with it, how to attach mechanisms to it. It is heavier than foam rubber, so there was a weight factor we had to learn to deal with, too.” Today, silicone formulas that have advanced far beyond those used for Congo are industry standards for makeups and puppets requiring a fleshy look.

Pictured above: Gorilla sculpture by Paul Mejias and Joey Orosco, used as the basis for muscle suits created by the SWS fabrication department.

Animatronic innovations

Another innovation in building Amy was the use of a computer-controlled lathe for making character eyeballs. “Around the time of Congo,” said Alan Scott, “we started creating eyeballs with corneal bulges for every character we built, to give the eyes a much more natural look. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park had been fine with their little round eyes, but more expressive characters like gorillas or humans needed those corneal bulges to keep their eyes from looking dead. We’d tried creating the corneal bulges in the molding process, but that wasn’t an accurate method. The only way to do them really accurately was with a computer-controlled lathe. We’d cast the eye as a solid sphere, and then we’d put it into the lathe and machine the corneal bulge back onto it - and it would be completely true.”

Pictured above: Gorilla puppeteer Brock Winkless demonstrates Amy for Stan Winston and studio visitor, makeup legend Dick Smith.

Perhaps the most innovative and advanced aspect of Amy was the construction of a single mechanical head that was able to perform all but one of the character’s facial functions. In the character effects field, it was typical to build multiple heads to perform a wide range of actions, since a single head did not provide sufficient room to fit all of the mechanisms required to execute that range of actions. Another problem was foam rubber’s inability to stretch and contract like real skin as the head went through different facial expressions. Because of those limitations, Stan Winston’s crew, and other effects practitioners had sculpted more extreme expressions into separate heads, exchanging a neutral hero head with these extreme-expression heads as needed.

Pictured above: Amy's mechanical underskulls.

Pictured above: Three Amy expression heads — neutral, screaming and smiling. The 'hero' Amy head was able to create every expression except screaming.

Pictured above: Puppeteer Brock Winkless rehearses with one of Amy’s radio-controlled heads.

By the time Congo came along, some of those problems with silicone had been overcome. As a skin material, silicone was more flexible and ‘stretchable’ than foam rubber; and advancements in radio technology allowed for more points of movement to be achieved with fewer mechanisms. Except for wide-mouthed screaming — which would be realized with a separate head built specifically for that purpose - all of Amy’s facial functions and every expression could be performed by a single head. That enabled Frank Marshall to direct Amy just as he would any other character in a scene, without having to wait while the effects crew switched from one head to another.

Pictured above: Test fitting Amy's muscle suit, worn beneath skin and fur to simulate gorilla anatomy.

Pictured above: SWS mechanical designer Rich Haugen oversees testing of Amy's articulated finger mechanisms.

Stan Winston’s crew built a second fully articulated head to fit the larger skull of ape behaviorist, Peter Elliott, who would perform some of Amy’s more demanding actions. The studio also built two non-mechanized Amy stunt heads for long shots where the movement was not required. All of the Amy heads could be attached to a multi-layered suit that included an underlying muscle suit, which transformed Lorene Noh’s human physiology to a more muscular gorilla form, and an outer hair suit, covered in hand-punched yak hair. Aluminum and steel arm extensions inserted into the muscle suit gave the limbs the appropriate ape-length.

Pictured above: Lead Amy suit performer Lorene Noh during a suit fitting with SWS mechanical designer Rich Haugen.

One of the most critical elements for bringing CONGO's gorillas to life were the performances of the actors and actresses inside the suits. Under the direction of veteran gorilla performer Peter Elliott, it took approximately six months of intensive rehearsal for Lorene Noh and Misty Rosas to become Amy, and for the gray gorilla actors to become mutant primates.

Pictured above: Gorilla performers wearing extension arms and stunt heads rehearse ape behaviors for Congo. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company.

Creating the Mutant Gray Gorillas

In addition to Amy, Stan Winston Studio created twelve genetically mutated gray gorillas for Congo, eight of which were built as fully articulated hero heads and suits. To initiate the design of the twelve grays, Chris Swift rendered a series of drawings. Stan Winston then gave key artists at the studio the opportunity to design and sculpt one unique character each. Because the grays were a fictional, mutant breed of gorillas, the sculptors enjoyed a lot of creative freedom in devising their designs.

Pictured above: Some of the Gray gorilla heads, created by Stan Winston Studio. For Congo’s population of genetically defective gray gorillas, key studio sculptors created individual characters, following them through from design to completion. 

“Stan really let us use our imaginations in coming up with something unique and specific for each of our characters,” recalled Joey Orosco. “Greg Figiel, for example, sculpted an amazing gray gorilla that was a combination of a man’s face, a chimp’s face, and a gorilla’s face. I based mine on the features of a gorilla and a chimp, and then came up with an interesting paint job to make it look as if my gorilla had vitiligo, that pigment disease that discolors the skin.”

Pictured above: Separate elements of a gray gorilla suit, laid out for paint matching.

Although the sculptors welcomed the artistic freedom they were given in creating a look for their individual characters, they were frustrated by what seemed to be an ever-changing vision of the grays. “The design of the grays, what they were, exactly, kept changing,” recalled Paul Mejias. “Even as we were working in clay, the design would change. We were told that these gorillas were ‘winding down’ genetically, but I don’t think we were ever clear on what that meant.” Final looks included skin lesions, tumors, and fingers fused together to form a club-like hand.

Pictured above: Gray gorilla underskulls come together in the mechanical department at Stan Winston Studio.

Pictured above: Gray gorilla test fitting at Stan Winston Studio.

Problems with the grays in the design stage only intensified when the characters started shooting. The mine in which the Grays’ scenes were set was essentially a large, empty cavern of red rock. There was no foliage of any kind, and without it, director of photography Allen Daviau was unable to justify the kind of dappled lighting that would have gone a long way in making the grays look more authentic. “In any kind of creature work,” Stan Winston commented, “so much of its success depends on the lighting and setting those characters are in. I wasn’t at all happy with the Grays’ environment. That big red cave didn’t allow for interesting or dramatic lighting at all.”

Pictured above: Mechanical designer Christian Colquhoun demonstrates a gorilla underskull for Stan Winston and the legendary Dick Smith.

Pictured above: Gorilla mechanic Rich Haugen tests one of the Grays' radio-controlled heads.

In the final film, the distinctive characteristics of the twelve gray gorillas, so painstakingly integrated into the original sculpts, were undetectable, as the characters were seen only in quick cuts. “The gray gorillas could have been more than what they were,” Stan Winston admitted. “As wonderful as these characters were when we were looking at them at the studio, as wonderful as they could have been, they wound up looking like a bunch of guys running around in gray fur suits, mainly because of the limitations of the set and lighting.”

Pictured above: Dress rehearsal of a trio of completed gray gorillas.

Hungry Hungry Hippos

The hippopotamus that attacks the team in the movie was a 2.5-ton animatronic puppet, controlled by off-camera puppeteers. A one-handed telemetry device controlled the head and neck while other puppeteers operated the animal's ear, nose, and eye movements. Its body was made from fiberglass, and silicone used for the skin.

Pictured above: Paul Romer works on the mechanical interior of Congo's full-size animatronic hippopotamus.

Pictured above: Painting silicone hippopotamus heads at Stan Winston Studio.

Pictured above: Transporting the hippo puppet to the set of Congo.

Pictured above: Kevin Hudson and Eric Ostroff on set with completed hippo puppet.

Stan Winston came out of the Congo experience feeling as if he had learned something, yet knowing that he had not accomplished his original goal. “A lot of what we did in Congo was interesting, but it didn’t do what I had wanted it to do, which was prove that we could do terrific gorillas. We worked very hard, and we learned a lot; but, at the end of the day, these weren’t the gorillas I’d wanted to create.” 

- Blog assembled by Balázs Földesi with selections from The Winston Effect: The Art and History of Stan Winston Studio by Jody Duncan