Thesp and movement choreographer talks about his craft

Not only was Terry Notary the movement choreographer and stunt coordinator for all the apes on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” – he also played three of the primates. The film used motion-capture technology to transfer the actions of the ape-playing actors to the photorealistic CG creatures created by Weta Digital for the Fox feature, which opened to a domestic gross of $54 million this past weekend.

A former gymnast at UCLA and Cirque du Soleil performer, Notary earlier applied his skills to such pics as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Avatar” and the upcoming “Tin Tin.” He’s now working on Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” movies.

Earlier in his career, Notary was choreographer and movement coach on Tim Burton’s 2001 “Planet of the Apes.” Here he talks about the talent and technology that converged in the creation of the latest “Apes” film, an origin story for the entire opus.

Peter Caranicas: What does a movement coach do?

Terry Notary: I taught all the ape movement to the ape actors.

PC: How did you pick the actors?

TN: We cast from about 150 stuntmen and picked about seven or eight – the guys that could move the best. I developed some arm extensions that are about 12 inches off the ground, and we used those for quadruped (movements). We didn’t have those for the Tim Burton version 10 years ago. I wanted them on this one and it made a world of difference.

PC: How long did you train?

TN: We had about six weeks for training and educating them on the three types of apes in the film, and the differences in their movements, and all the subtleties. We watched tons of footage and reference video.

PC: What kind of videos?

TN: I collected every single video with apes in it that I could, real apes. And I went to the zoo and shot my own. I would put together my list of the best shots, then show them to Rupert (Wyatt, the director) and say, “this is a beautiful moment here; we should capture this somehow.”

PC: What was it about the apes you most wanted to capture?

TN: The soul, the connectedness, the depth. Apes are like old souls, deep-rooted characters. They’re so grounded, unaware of themselves, with no social conditioning.

PC: How did you convey that to the actors?

TN: It’s a wonderful thing for an actor to play an ape. There are no mental distractions pulling us out from what’s happening internally. They have whole rainbow of emotions; they have anger, they’re sly and sneaky, happy, with joy and elation, they get depressed, they mourn and they celebrate. The big challenge was getting in that zone where you’re vulnerable because you feel everything, you don’t disguise any feelings by being tough, or mask that you’re hurt by a certain comment.

PC: What changes when the apes become more like humans?

TN: Once we became genetically modified with the drug, we started to lose that ape essence. You see thinking behind the eyes, and the eyes become more of the focus of the characters. Rather than leading with the heart and the gut, it becomes the mind and the head and the eyes.

PC: Was everything motion-captured?

TN: Every ape is a mo-cap character, with body suit and a head camera. I worked with Weta on “Avatar” and they pushed the envelope on that, but they broke some new ground on this one.

PC: How did you work?

TN: Everything was with real actors equipped for mo-cap performing in real time. We would block scenes, the actors would take positions, and then we would shoot until Rupert was happy with the scene. We were in grey velcro mo-cap suits with LED lights on. We were wired for sound and carried battery packs – pretty loaded up. The beauty of mo-cap is that you can play a character one way, then move to the next spot and play the same scene out, and then move again and play – then they marry them all together and you’ve got a giant crowd of apes. It takes about three minutes to switch from an orangutan to a gorilla to a chimp – you can become any one at any point in time.

PC: What happens after the acting is done?

TN: Once it was all there and Rupert was happy with it, it was in the hands of Weta. They took all of that capture data, the facial capture performances, the sound and voice, and they married everything together. They even married two or more characters that weren’t acting at the same time together. But most of the time we had enough guys – we could capture about eight or ten apes any given time. Then it came back from Weta as a rough cut of unrendered apes.

PC: What were you able to see?

TN: They were beautiful – unrendered but amazing. You could see all of the little subtleties, the shoulder shrugs, the head tilts, without any facial performance. You’d see the movement of a three-dimensional character. You couldn’t see loose hair and so on. It’s a shell, but a really beautiful puppet to work with. You feel an emotion. People say it’s animation. It’s really not. It’s acting.

PC: Andy Serkis played the lead ape character, Caesar. Who did you play?

TN: Mostly I played Rocket, his right-hand. I also play his father, who gets captured, and I played his mother. Mo-cap allows that. With mo-cap, if the role requires you to be 6’5″, you don’t have to be that tall to play the character. You can put good actors in suits and they can take on any physical form.

PC: Where did you do all the mo-cap work?

TN: In Vancouver at Mammoth Studios. There were about three-and-a-half months of principal photography and some reshoots that Andy and I did in New Zealand, where we’re currently working on “The Hobbit.”

PC: You’ve worked on “Avatar,” “Tin Tin” and “Apes.” What are the biggest advances in mo-cap technology?

TN: On “Apes” we went from reflectors – reflective tape that the cameras would see as light – all over the body, to little LED lights. They had to power you up, but it allowed you to take the mo-cap stage outside, shoot in the bright sun, and still pick up motion. We were running over real cars, getting chased by real horses, leaping over things, getting shot at, dodging explosions – it really helped with the performance because we were in real situations.

PC: Which other artists on the film did you collaborate with the most?

TN: The vfx people. While I was training the actors, at the end of the day I would work with the puppeteer who was building the characters. You’re essentially a puppeteer when you’re doing motion capture. You’re the heart and soul of a character that has a completely different anatomy.

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