Primate Cinema: Apes as Family

Prepared By Andrea Polli for isea2012

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is an original drama made expressly for chimpanzees which premiered in front of an actual chimpanzee audience. The drama-for-chimps follows an urban female chimp, played by an actor in an animatronic costume, who meets a group of wild foreigners.

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is a two channel video installation made by and for apes. The first channel is a 22 minute original movie I made expressly for chimpanzees at the Edinburgh Zoo. A primate drama, like many made for human audiences, the film follows a young female as she befriends a wild group of foreigners. The second channel, presented side by side with the movie, is a documentary of the chimps’ responses to the film, when it premiered at the zoo. The two channels create a prism for human beings to learn about the inner world of chimpanzees. By watching a movie through chimps’ eyes, we can imagine what they think and feel. Chimps are, after all, our closest relatives. Known for their complex social, cognitive and emotional lives, they also share with us a fascination with cinema.

Receiving a major arts award from the Wellcome Trust, and commissioned by The Arts Catalyst, I collaborated with comparative psychologist Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick to attempt to learn chimpanzee preferences for film. We worked with chimps at Edinburgh Zoo’s Budongo Trail, who voluntarily accessed a research pod, viewable by the public. Over several months, I chose a variety of cinematic genres and primate behaviors to show the chimps – animation to documentary, foraging behavior to displays of strength. Professor Vick and I videotaped and observed their reactions.

Vick’s analysis of the chimpanzees’ responses to different types of media was inconclusive, though she found that females preferred television more than males. During the testing phase, several chimps were interested in human actors in chimp suits having sex. Some chimps were lured to the television by Teletubbies and kettle drums. A male responded to watching other chimp’s “display behavior” by displaying himself – hooting and hitting the monitors.

Chimps in zoos vary a lot in their personalities as well as in their life histories: some were raised by chimps in the wild, some grew up in zoos, still others were raised by humans in labs. Those raised in the lab – the “Beekse Bergen group” – were more interested in staying in their indoor sleeping enclosure and were much more interested in television overall. As with humans, it would be difficult to appeal to the entire species with one film.

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is an indoor wildlife documentary. The film follows the young female protagonist as she meets and befriends a foreign group of chimpanzees – much as female chimpanzees actually do in the wild (think Wizard of Oz for chimps). Designed to appeal to a primate audience, it depicts social dramas surrounding status, territory, sex and food. The chimpanzees in the film are played by actors in chimp costumes, one of which is especially realistic, through animatronic puppetry.

-Rachel Mayeri October 5, 2011

Impact and Significance

The first work of this set, The Open: Mediating the Human and Non-Human Interface, is one of the first significant artistic media technology investigations in connection with the closest species to humans, the great apes.  How nonhuman primates interact with media informs and illuminates the human relationship with media.  This work also brings to light assumptions we make about our relationship to animals, investigating the nature of being human, and bringing up ethical questions about human and non-human interaction

The work in progress received an honorary mention from Ars Electronica in the hybrid art category. Primate Cinema: Apes as Family premiered in Liverpool at the Abandon Normal Devices festival.  It has also been shown in London at The Arts Catalyst and at Sundance! 2013.

Further information


No comments yet. Why not add the first?


Prepared By Andrea Polli on behalf of ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness

Areas Covered

Acknowledgements & Credits

By: Rachel Mayeri 

Commissioned By: The Arts Catalyst 

With Support From: The Wellcome Trust 

In Collaboration With: Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick 

Kind Thanks To: The Edinburgh Zoo 

Additional Support From: Harvey Mudd College & Mediterranean Institute For Advanced Studies 

Director, Writer, Co-Editor: Rachel Mayeri 

Producer: Matt Johnstone 

Director Of Photography: Pj Raval 

Narrative Editor: Augie Robles 

Sound Designer: Tim Stutts 

Lead Female Chimp: Denise Pearlman 

Puppeteers: Dave Nelson And Norman Tempia 

Narration: Isabel Balseiro 

Lead Male Chimp: J.C. Lee 

Male Chimp: Song Man Choh 

Female Chimp: Heather Sultz 

Female Chimp: Dawn Meyer 

Juvenile Chimp: Lex Quarterman 

Female Chimp: Angelina Prendergast 

Animation: Janelle Miau, Matthew Benzinger, & Dai Toyofuku 

Set Designer: Steve Pallrand 

Costume Designer: Miss Kk 

Mask And Prosthetic Designer: Joe Seely 

Art Director: Shauna Nevens 

Camera Operator: Allen Ho 

Documentary Camera Operator: Ian Dodds 

Gaffer: Syd Yang 

Key Grip: Ian Quigley

Assistant Director: Elana Antzon 

Office Production Coordinator: Chelsea Clark 

Office Production Assistant: Locke Webster And Alan Marx 

Set Production Assistant: Sean Mcdonough And Tim Pelletier 

Office Interns: Sylvie Ramirez And Lauren Wimbush 

Still Photographer: Matt Chaney 

Wardrobe Stylist: Willie Watana 

Art Department Interns: Ximena Amescua, Ted Neckar And Jenny Shaughnessy 

Assistant Editor: Jose Ponce 

Color Correction: Alex Juutilainen 

Post-Production Assistance: Braden Neufeld 


  • Rob La Frenais 
  • Gillian Dickie 
  • Steve Pallrand 
  • Joe Seely 
  • Erin Merritt 
  • Alex Juhasz 
  • Anne Bray 
  • Roberta Kenney 
  • Deborah Forster 
  • Tran, T. Kim-Trang 
  • Alex Juutinlainen 
  • Many Chimp People 
  • Edinburgh Zoo Caregivers 
  • Edith, Eva, Pearl, Emma, Lucy, Liberius, Cindy, Rene, Paul, Ricky
You need to be logged in to report.