Peter Elliott tells Terry Grimley how a training in method acting helped make him an expert on animal movement...
Suppose you want to make a film or stage a show that involves actors impersonating animals. Who are you going to call for expert advice? Peter Elliott, obviously.
Since first masterminding the apes in Greystoke 20 years ago he has gone on to contribute his specialised skills to nearly 50 films, and recently advised Birmingham Stage Company on its productions of The Jungle Book and Kensuke's Island. After a successful run at the Old Rep in the 2004/5 Christmas season, The Jungle Book revisits the city when its national tour comes to the Alexandra Theatre next month.
"It's not my usual line of work - usually I just do movies," he told me when I spoke to him last week. "Usually my schedule doesn't allow for it.
"With Jungle Book what you see is a jolly romp, with songs and dance. It's a fantastic show.
"When they first did it two years ago I helped them cast it, gave animal workshops and choreographed it.
"I did casting workshops and by the second time they did it they sort of knew what I was looking for."
He adds that he enjoyed working with the company and found stage work a refreshing change from films.
"It's also slightly different. In film everything has to be made accurate and realistic, whereas with this you can have a bit more fun. What we do is have workshops where we start with something that's as realistic an animal study as possible.
"You can do an accurate panther, say, but then it can hardly stand up and sing and dance.
"So the work you do with them becomes a basic repertoire, and it may come down to things like the way the animal looks at you. If you go to the zoo and look at a tiger, the way he looks at you, you just know he could tear you to bits."
Working in theatre is apparently something of a holiday from the more exacting discipline of film.
"People always think film is easier because you get several attempts, but in fact film work is more frightening because you may do several takes sometimes, but when they say 'it's a print' that version is it forever. Whereas on stage you can say 'I'm not not quite happy with that, I'll do it differently tomorrow night'."
The obvious question is how Elliott carved out this specialist niche for himself. It's a longish story but the essential answer is that it was a lucky break.
"It started a long time ago with Greystoke," he explains.
"I'd trained for three years to be a normal actor. They cast about 40 of us for the film in London and they thought they were ready to start, but then they did a test shoot in Los Angeles and it was dreadful.
"But they liked what I was doing in London.
I trained as a method actor, and I didn't just want to move like a chimp, I wanted to be a chimp. I was doing my own studies at the zoo.
"The guys from LA liked what I was doing so they asked if I would go there for a couple of weeks and that turned into two years.
"They liked what I did on the test shoot but decided that they weren't really ready. They asked me if I would take on the job of R&D and I said fine, then called a friend to find out what it was.
"I was only about 22 at the time and I had an office with my name on the door."
These were the pioneering days of animal movement. The established practice was to spend a lot of money on a costume, then put an actor or dancer inside it and wonder why the result wasn't very realistic.
Another example of the naivety of this time was that the Greystoke producers planned to mix actors in
costume with fully-grown chimps, overlooking the fact that they are unpredictable and potentially dangerous animals (the chimps, that is).
"I got attacked three times and found this was not going to work. I had a pair of metal arm extensions so I could walk on all fours and had one bitten off four inches below my hand."
Thanks to such hard-earned experience Elliott now has a long list of film credits and has visited Africa 50 times. But his expertise has not been limited to animals that can be studied in a zoo or the wild.
There is a major Channel 4 documentary series called Toumai coming up in the next few months in which he contributed to animating the world's oldest biped based on the discovery of a seven million year-old skull.
"One of the films I did recently was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Because what I learned was that, like taking a degree, you don't just learn the subject, you also learn how to learn - how to look at some-thing a certain size and shape and think about how it could move.
"So the last thing I did was about aliens, and there aren't many aliens about to go and study. You learn how to think about how something probably thinks, as well.
"I hate being called a mime artist because that's just the way some-thing moves, not the way it lives. It's not an animal problem or a move-ment problem, it's an acting problem."
In any case, he doesn't just do the movement, he does the sound as well. Later on the day we spoke, he was due at a sound-dubbing session.
"I do all the sounds and we record them in the studio. The faces are all radio-controlled, and trying to get the sounds in sequence with how the face works is a nightmare.
"I learned with the aid of a few little pipes and devices, like the glass from an oil lamp, to do sounds so that experts can't tell them from the actual ones. I can do a chimpanzee in the back garden and get a reply from the zoo."
* The Jungle Book plays the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, from May 16-20 (Box office: 0870 607 7544).