Terry Notary: Ape Movement Coach
Terry Notary, Hollywood’s go-to ape-movement coach and the mo-cap hero of the new blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Also at the Telegraph
In a coffee shop in Eagle Rock, north east Los Angeles, the barista looks up from her iPhone, startled. One of the customers is prowling around on all fours like an ape. He’s holding 12in arm extensions to mimic a gorilla’s long-armed gait, and he’s snorting and grunting as he goes. By the time he returns to his seat, it’s not clear whether he’s going to drink his mocha or start beating his chest.
“It’s a really great workout,” he says, suddenly snapping out of character. “I’m actually thinking of marketing those arm extensions. All the guys I taught, they were shredded by the end of the movie.”
Of all the strange jobs in the film industry, Terry Notary, 46, might have the strangest: he’s Hollywood’s go-to ape-movement coach, the only one practising in the world. And it suits him. A former gymnast and Cirque du Soleil acrobat from Marin County in California, he’s small, strongly built and, when he sets his mouth just so, more than a little simian. He also has the energy of a kindergarten teacher, never just describing his work when he can leap from his chair and act it out. Being an ape, he says, is “super fun”.
Notary’s first ape-movement gig was on Tim Burton’s version of Planet of the Apes in 2001, in which he taught Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter (Roth was a star student, Bonham Carter less so). He then spent several years as movement coach for various superheroes such as the Silver Surfer, Superman and the X-Men, as well as the Na’vi people in the 2009 3D spectacular Avatar. But in 2011, he returned to apes for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and now the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opens on July 17. And these apes are of another class entirely.
“With the Tim Burton film, we used ape suits and make-up, it was completely different,” he says. “But Rise and Dawn are all mocap. It’s a totally different way of working.”
By “mocap”, Notary means motion-capture technology, a method most often associated with the actor Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, the ape leader, and who made his name as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. Serkis and Notary are the world’s leading mocap performers: on Rise, they played all the apes between them, and on Dawn they play several too, though Notary trained five other actors as well. “Every morning, they’d put this plastic mould on my face with 52 small reflective dots on it, in a standard pattern,” he says. “Then I’d have this helmet with a chinstrap, with a camera attached so it’s pointing in my face at all times – you just have to learn to look right through it.
“And the camera records the distances from dot to dot, as my expression changes, and translates all that information into the face of an ape. So every eye blink, every tiny gesture or expression is recorded. It’s very subtle.”
Sometimes they would shoot indoors in a specific “entertainment capture stage”, with cameras in all corners, to capture the mocap dots as they moved through the space. But at other times, they’d shoot outdoors on live sets – a freezing forest in Vancouver for the scenes of the nascent ape society, and, after that, several months in New Orleans for the eventual showdown between humans and apes.
“Say 10 apes are going to charge through here,” Notary says, looking around the café. “They’ll set up cameras in the corners here to capture everything, sound too. And we’d all be here, with cameras on our helmets, screaming like apes and running through and smashing into things, all of us in our suits, with our helmets on. It’s wild!”
Motion capture has been the subject of much controversy within the entertainment industry, since it blurs the lines between animation and live action. After the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, many said Serkis deserved an Oscar. His co-star, James Franco, claimed he had broken new ground in acting. “No one has yet given a performance like his, ever,” said Franco.
However, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers doesn’t cover motion-capture acting in Screen Actors Guild contracts, classifying it rather as “lower-paying background work”, according to Variety. All that motion capture does, the association says, is assist animators, who ultimately produce the final performance – and there’s no way of telling how closely the final performance matches the actor’s movements. Steven Spielberg wanted his 2011 motion-capture movie The Adventures of Tintin to be considered an animated feature, but equally, when the 2006 movie Happy Feet won the Oscar for best animated feature, having employed motion capture, many animators felt the technique either disempowering or, at worst, a cheat or shortcut.
What’s clear is mocap provides an increasingly nuanced rendering, given its ability to show facial expressions. In the past, apes were played by men in suits – there’s a rich heritage of ape actors in Hollywood, going back to the silent days. The actors – often mimes, as was the case with Moon-Watcher, the ape who clubs his rival to death in the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey – would study apes at the zoo as Notary did, but too often their performances’ strengths and weaknesses stemmed from the suits themselves.
The suits haven’t gone forever. The British actor Peter Elliott, 57, was a leading ape actor through the Seventies and Eighties, acting in films such as Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and Gorillas in the Mist. He still works – in 2011 he shot scenes for the documentary Project Nim, donning a suit to portray a chimp in a reconstruction of real events.
But mocap is undoubtedly the new normal. And, for Notary, it’s ushering in a revolution in acting. “The most beautiful thing about mocap is that it doesn’t matter what the actor looks like now,” he says. “You’re just looking for the person who can best embody that character. It’s not about just fitting into a costume – it’s about being the best performer.
“We’re going to start to see big-name actors playing totally different characters, that you’d never think were them,” he says. “Like Robert De Niro playing a pig. It could happen!”
For Dawn, however, Notary trained not actors but stuntmen. Many were adept in parkour, a kind of urban gymnastics that involves leaping off balconies and down stairwells: “I wanted men that were stronger than average,” he says. But his training – two hours a day for five weeks – didn’t focus on their athleticism. For Notary, the most important goal was to connect with one’s “inner ape”, a process he describes in the language of yoga or meditation.
“Lesson one is just breathing,” he says. “Just sit back into yourself and let your mind soften so that it becomes a guide rather than a control. It’s about being grounded and connected and honest, open and vulnerable. Let go of all the cerebral checks and judgments that block our natural state…”
Lesson two is relearning how to stand up from a sitting position. Humans have a jerky way of bending first, whereas apes rise to their feet without effort. “Apes are very economical with their movement,” he says. “People come to my class feeling like they need to do something all the time – to do an ape impersonation. But you don’t do, in my class. You undo. It’s a process of deconditioning.”
As he talks, he drifts into ape mode. The chin comes out, he starts huffing, his shoulders soften and he rises to his feet, his knees bent, his back curved. He looks out across the coffee shop as though it were an endless savannah.
As for the fun part – the marauding around, making ape noises – that’s where the arm extensions come in. “You put an equal amount of weight on your arms and legs, so your sternum is your centre, your drop point,” he says. “Then you step with the left foot first. It goes foot hand, foot hand. The tendency is to try too hard – apes glide.”
Notary came from a family of performers – but they were musicians, not actors. His father is a drummer, and his mother’s a flautist. He won a gymnastics scholarship at UCLA, but soon turned to performance himself, graduating in theatre and spending four years in Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.
His girlfriend was offered a gig as a member of the Rockettes dance company in New York, so Notary went with her, finding work as any number of acrobatic characters in stage shows. “I did operas at the Met, where I played characters running around at the back, behind Pavarotti.”
Then the director Ron Howard called. He was hiring Cirque gymnasts to play the Whos of Whoville, for his Dr Seuss movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2000. Notary soon found himself with five Cirque guys on a sound stage at Universal Studios, all of whom Howard had instructed to “just play around and if you see anything good, video it, and maybe we can make a movie out of it”. Notary started to organise the acrobats. “I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we figure out a common denominator for the Whos, and all move from the same gene pool?’ So we’re all in there working, and Ron Howard came by and called me into his office. I thought I was in trouble. But he said, ‘I like what you’re doing. I want you to teach all the actors Who movement.’ ”
It was his first job as a movement coach. Burton’s Planet of the Apes was the second. “I just went to the LA County Zoo and practically lived there,” he says. But since it wasn’t a motion-capture film, using costumes and make-up instead, the apes were relatively unsophisticated. “It was more of a mimicry,” says Notary. “Now, with the mocap, we’re really deepening who we are and grounding into the animal.”
Planet of the Apes put Notary on the map. And in the 2000s, a period during which superhero films became a mainstay, demand for Notary’s services grew exponentially. In Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer in 2007, he trained the actor Doug Jones to move like a surfer.
“I put him on an old surfboard on a gimbal, so it could move in any direction. So he did the full-body prosthetic stuff, and I did the mocap on that movie.” He went on to train Zoe Saldana in Na’vi movement for Avatar. “We worked on flow. The Na’vi are pushed from behind, like by wind. I told her to think of seaweed in the ocean, the way it ebbs and flows.” Superman, on the other hand, was much more powerful and strong. “He’s very tricky because he’s so pure and good, and to play that, you can’t really put it on. So me and Brandon [Routh, star of Superman Returns] read Eckhart Tolle to get a real philosophy of life going. That way, he had more than the costume and the chestplate to work with. That’s all superfluous.”
Returning to apes felt like coming home. And in Dawn, the apes aren’t merely apes anymore – they’re taking on human characteristics in terms of language and community. Notary was tasked with imagining their evolution.
“What we found works is when people embody the ape, but show this underlying intelligence through the eyes,” he says. “You’re still rooted and instinctive, but you let the mind come in and rein the instinct back, like a leash.”
Not that reining back is easy, even when the cameras stop rolling. “All the guys were doing it after a day on set,” he says, laughing. “Like, ‘Dude, you’re still in the ape zone, look at the way you’re drinking your beer!’ ”
As Dawn comes out, Notary will be in New Zealand, working with Peter Jackson on the mocap characters in The Hobbit, most of them goblins. Notary plays the body of the Goblin King while Barry Humphries provides the face and voice. “The thing about goblins,” he says, darting about the café again, “is they’re very nose-driven, skittish and full of tension. They go from point to point to point, and they’re never comfortable. Three steps forward. One back.”
After that, it looks like Notary will be returning to the LA Zoo, to observe the animals – and not just apes this time. “There’s talk of Andy [Serkis] maybe directing The Jungle Book as a live-action, mocap combo, only a dark version this time. So hopefully I’ll be a part of that – I might be doing bears and tigers this time. Who knows?”