The making of Buddy

Buddy is the (largely) true story of a baby gorilla which is brought up as a human by an eccentric American woman in the Twenties. The Creature Shop’s brief was to create four separate Buddys at different stages of development – baby, toddler, juvenile, and fully grown, 180kg adult male gorilla. Unlike Babe, an earlier Creature Shop project, in which real-looking animals spoke and behaved like cartoon characters, Buddy had to be believable as a gorilla in every respect.

The creative team, in search of authenticity, visited London Zoo and Howlett’s Zoo in Kent to observe gorillas in captivity. A baby gorilla called Kwami, being raised by one of the keepers from Howlett’s, was brought to Camden Lock for observation and sculpture sessions.

The first stage of building each costume was to take body casts of the three actors who’d be inside the suits (the baby gorilla is wholly animatronic). Each actor in turn was covered in Vaseline, then plastered from head to toe. The sculptors then got to work shaping clay around the resulting life casts.

While the mechanical team concentrated on fitting the heads with an intricate network of electro-mechanical apparatus that would facilitate a whole range of expressions, the sculptors worked on the body, using foam and fabric to simulate the awesome musculature of a gorilla. Finally, there was the pelt, real fur apparently, painstakingly inserted one hair at a time. On the fabric areas, the hairs are knotted in place, using techniques developed in wig-making, while on the silicone skin, they are punched into holes, where the natural elasticity of the material keeps them in place.

Meanwhile, creative supervisor Jamie Courtier was working out how many different types of hands and feet were required. The adult gorilla, for example, would need three sets of arms. One for walking and running; a second with movable fingers; and a third with total dexterity for close-ups. This made director Caroline Thompson’s job more laborious than usual.

A simple scene, such as Buddy walking across the room, reaching out for a cup and picking it up, required three separate arm changes.

To affirm Buddy’s authenticity, Thompson was keen to use frequent close-up shots. This meant that Courtier and his team had to be extra sure they got the eyes right. They experimented with bulging lenses, instead of the simple glass eyes used in previous films. They also developed a mechanism which allowed the creatures to fix their gaze on a particular object, then track it independent of head and body movements.

The baby Buddy was, according to Courtier, the Creature Shop’s biggest electronic challenge to date. Inside the orange-sized head chief engineer Chris Howes had to accommodate tiny servo motors and computer circuitry for eye, mouth, lip and nostril movements. Cosmetically and facially, the baby was modelled very closely on Kwami from Howlett’s Zoo.

The 12-week shoot was exhausting for all concerned, with many of the crew working 17-hour days. On the set, a small army of Creature Shop personnel were constantly on hand to protect and maintain both the costumes and the performers. Keeping the gorilla’s pelt shaggy proved a full time job in itself.

Each performer was assigned two dressers, who were responsible for ensuring they came out of the shoot alive. High-powered airguns were used to blast fresh air into the stifling suits at every available opportunity. At the end of each day, the suits were hung out to dry in front of huge fans.

For Peter Elliott, who plays the adult Buddy, it was a living hell. “I’ve sweated off as much as seven pounds in a single day’s shooting. You’re playing a creature with great strength and agility, so every movement must look effortless. But it isn’t. You’re fighting the suit all the time.”

Courtier sums up the pressures of making Buddy: “When we’d finished we felt like a small band of commandos returning from a successful mission.”

The Buddy film will be released on video in the UK next year

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