He is the film industry's go-to gorilla... now animal movement director Peter Elliot is working with a Birmingham theatre group, writes Diane Parkes.
One moment the man on the telephone is talking completely calmly and the next he is roaring at me. And I don’t mean shouting, I actually mean roaring – like a tiger. And it is frighteningly realistic.
But then it would be as the man I am listening to is Peter Elliott, animal movement director on a string of hit Hollywood films.
Peter, who has also directed the animal characters in Birmingham Stage Company’s Jungle Book, is demonstrating what he calls ‘the essence of a tiger’.
And, in doing so, he is explaining how he created the character of Shere Khan in the show which plays Birmingham’s Old Rep Theatre over Christmas.
“There is no point in having a tiger which is amazingly realistic and scares all the children and then breaks into song and dance,” he says.
“So, for example, with Shere Khan we are trying to get to the essence of a tiger. You know when you see a tiger and it is walking back and forth but it is looking at you. And it doesn’t take its eyes off you so that its body is moving but its head is the last thing to move. Shere Khan takes that element of the tiger. But, because it is a stripped down tiger, the actor also has a lot of freedom with it.
“We start with something totally realistic and strip that down so that the actor is a tiger but can also talk, sing and dance.”
Peter has been working with Birmingham Stage Company since it first created The Jungle Book in 2004. And with each new cast he has held animal movement workshops to ensure they can take on the roles of Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear, Shere Khan the tiger, the wolves and the orangutans.
In these workshops the actors are able to develop those characters, and each actor will also bring a bit of themselves to the part, making each production fresh.
Peter also collaborated with BSC on creating the orangutans which appeared in its 2005 adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom.
But Peter’s work on animal movement goes back much further to the 1970s when he had just finished his studies at the E15 method actor drama school and was auditioning for a job in the Tarzan film Greystoke.
“There were lots of us auditioning for Greystoke because they were looking for apes. They were doing test films of people in costumes and they knew that something wasn’t working but they weren’t sure what it was. So they sent me to Hollywood for a week to do the test filming. And then I ended up being made head of research and development looking specifically at chimps.
“It was funny as they asked me if I wanted the job as head of R and D. I was an actor so I just said yes without giving anything away, then I rang a friend in England and said ‘what is R and D?’ It was unbelievable. There I was about 21 years old, running a department in Hollywood.”
Peter’s research took him to the Oklahoma Primate Research Centre where he spent hours studying the chimps.
“I really tried to see how they moved but also how they thought,” says Peter. “That is what is important. You need to get to the essence of the animal.”
Learning to mimic the apes and interact with them did carry risks though.
“People think chimpanzees are cute but they are thinking of the babies. The adults are actually quite dangerous animals to be around. I was mauled twice and I had a metal arm extension bitten right off.
“The original idea for Greystoke was that all the apes in the foreground would be people and those in the background would be animals. They had no idea how dangerous they could be.”
Having spent so much time with chimps means Peter understands the complexity of an animal many of us only see in zoos.
“A lot of people do not realise that chimps can be quite violent. But to them it isn’t violence it is just natural. Chimpanzees have a language and are highly intelligent. They are individuals but they live in communities so it is inevitable that conflict will break out.
“Can you imagine living with all your relatives 24/7? Wouldn’t you be falling out? It is the fact that they need to cooperate with each other which actually leads to the violence. That and the fact that they are hierarchical, with different chimpanzees jockeying for space.
“It is important to remember all of this when you work with them. A chimpanzee has an upper body strength which is eight to ten times that of ours, they have an IQ of 85 but they have the mind of a child. You need to remember that.
“By the time they are eight months old they are impossible to work with as they have become individualised, self-assertive and very powerful.
“But spending that time with them did mean I could understand them. In the end it meant that I could get to the essence of the animal so that I understood how they would respond to something.”
Peter was then able to use those studies to recreate the animals before the camera.
“I evolved a methodology where you study the way they breathe and move and think. That way when you work with an actor you are not just choreographing their movement and giving them no opportunity to develop that.
“If they understand the essence of the animal they then have the freedom to adapt that to the role and to the specific situations. If you give the actor the idea of the whole life of the animal rather than just a choreographed part they can respond to certain situations in the film in a much more natural way.
“Until that point this was being done by stunt men or choreographers rather than people who had really studied the animals.”
Peter’s methodology involves not just watching or interacting with the animals, he also records himself replicating those moves, improving all the time.
And his methods have proved hugely successful. Greystoke was released in the early eighties and he then went on to work on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire in which he acted and also choreographed early humans.
Further projects included the film Instinct with Anthony Hopkins, who played an anthropologist studying apes in the African jungle, and Gorillas in the Mist with Sigourney Weaver who took the part of primate expert Dian Fossey. And Peter became so renowned that when Michael Crichton wrote his book Congo he named the gorilla expert Dr Peter Elliott.
When working with the Hollywood stars, Peter is usually training them to interact with an animal rather than be one.
“They don’t tend to be wearing the masks,” he says. “But with Sigourney Weaver for example she needed to be able to respond to the gorillas and to use movements they would understand.”
Movement direction covers a good deal more than apes. Peter worked on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and recently finished work on the big budget action film Jack the Giant Killer, directed by X-Men’s Bryan Singer and starring Ewan McGregor and Bill Nighy. And his latest project is another blockbuster, Snow White and the Huntsman with Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, which is due out next year.
“Once you have the methodology it can be applied to anything so I have worked on aliens and in Snow White I have been working on the dwarfs,” says Peter.
After four decades in animal movement, Peter is today known as the entertainment industry’s “primary primate” but he admits that his timing was right.
“From Greystoke it all just snowballed,” he says. “It was a time when people wanted to be ambitious with films and wanted to include lots of special effects. But if you want to use animals as part of that they need to look like real animals. If you put someone in an animal costume in front of a camera and they can’t do it then it is terrible.”
And over the years Peter has continued to expand his animal repertoire, combining acting with movement direction in film television and animation. Together with his wife Vanessa, who leads movement studies courses at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, he has undertaken a long term study of animal movement but admits some offer more challenges than others.
“Insects are among the most difficult because they have all those limbs going in different directions and because they tend to work as part of a commune rather than being a whole brain. Birds are also difficult because of the body split between their tiny little legs and their body.
“But you can do most animals with enough study.”
I ask him if there is any creature he thinks would be impossible to imitate. After a brief pause he says: “Fish, they would be difficult.” He pauses again as he thinks it through. “But even then there would be ways of doing it.”
* The Jungle Book, Old Rep Theatre, Nov 31-Jan 21. Tickets: 0121 245 4455, www.birmingham-box.co.uk