Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stuntman turned monkeying around into a movie career

  • Print
Terry Notary


Terry Notary

LOS ANGELES -- Terry Notary is Hollywood's human shape-shifter. In a blink, he can become an elf, an ape or almost any other moving creature.

An expert in motion-capture performance, he specializes in bringing non-human characters to life on screen. He's played goblins in The Hobbit, a Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and a winged, dragon-like banshee in Avatar.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opens Friday, Notary plays more than 100 primates. He also taught the film's stars and stuntmen how to find their simian side.

"He's like an ape Zen master," said director Matt Reeves. "He lives in every frame that has an ape in it."

Notary demonstrated his technique during a recent visit to the Hollywood dance studio he uses to prepare for films. The compact, muscular father of four visibly transforms as he describes how apes are gut-driven and grounded. His stomach softens, his neck and shoulders slouch, his lower jaw protrudes. His eyelids drop slightly as his eyes take on a faraway quality.

He grunts and howls before springing from his chair and breaking into a quadruped run. He bounces around the empty studio on all fours, with "arm extensions" he developed allowing him to mimic ape-like movements. He stops suddenly, as though he's spotted a threat, and becomes even more animated, emitting loud wails of distress.

Then he's back being human again to talk about the process.

Notary aspired to compete in the Olympics while training as a gymnast at UCLA but then found work with Cirque du soleil after graduating with a theatre degree. He came to Hollywood as a stuntman and from there, developed into a sought-after movement coach for motion-capture shots, where actors are wired and their movements captured electronically for the building of computer-generated imagery.

He created the lithe, long-limbed motions of the Na'vi in Avatar, taught the Silver Surfer how to ride in Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer and went ape in three films, starting with Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes in 2001. (He performed stunts in all as well.)

"I'm a good observer of movement and behaviour," the 45-year-old said. "That's what my talent is, I think."

He begins with an image of the character. For imaginary creatures, he might picture objects from nature. When conceptualizing the Na'vi, for example, he thought of reeds swaying underwater, gracefully at ease with the energy around them. For a goblin, he thought of a piece of crumpled tin foil.

"If you throw it, it has hard edges," he said. "It's not going to be predictable. It's going to be edgy and sharp and not have any root."

To develop ape expertise, Notary hung out with a couple of chimps and spent a lot of time watching primates at the zoo, videotaping and studying their behaviour.

"I just took every little video I could and dissected it into moments," he said. "And I just always watched the videos as though I was watching a person in an ape suit, playing an ape. It made me realize ... it's all in the subtleties."

Notary had six weeks to put the actors and stuntmen starring in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes through his ape training. The first step? Shed preconceptions and human conditioning and just "be."

"It's not about doing anything, it's about undoing," he said. "If you can start to get back to the base, neutral animal that we are, you're an ape."

Letting go of human tendencies can take weeks, but once the actors get it, "it's magic."

With a relaxed mindset and intention rooted in the gut, this would also include bounding about on all fours -- with a little help from Notary's foot-long "arm extensions."

For the latest Planet of the Apes film, Notary even trained his two daughters, 9 and 11, in simian technique. "They're playing little kid apes," said Notary, who was on a media tour to promote the film.

Nearly every ape in the film, except the tiniest baby, was played by a human actor in a motion-capture suit. Tiny lights recorded their every movement, including a helmet with a face camera that tracked emotional expression. Animators at Weta Digital then transferred the data onto each of the computer-rendered apes in the film.

Now, Notary is off to New Zealand to work on the next Hobbit film, but it took a while for him to let go of his inner primate.

"It takes me about four months to get out of it," he said. "My wife's like, 'Can you sit up please? You're slouching."'

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2014 C3

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets fans take Anaheim by storm

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Someone or thing is taking advantage of the inactivity at Kapyong Barracks,hundreds of Canada Geese-See Joe Bryksa’s goose a day for 30 days challenge- Day 15- May 22, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Gardening Column- Assiniboine Park English Garden. July 19, 2002.

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google