We caught up with the talented Terry Notary to hear about his journey as a movement choreographer. From Cirque de Soleil to transforming into orcs and apes on set!
Read on to learn about his creature transformations.
How did you become a movement choreographer for the mo-cap industry?
I began as a gymnast at the age of eight and was lucky enough to have some very good coaches. At 17 I came in second place at the Junior National Championships and was offered a full scholarships to Stanford, Berkeley, West Point and UCLA. I chose UCLA and became a theater major, where just as I was completing my studies I was recruited by the Cirque du Soleil.
We spent a year in Montreal training in all aspects of performance including voice, bodywork, percussion, and character creation. We also trained in teeter board, Chinese poles, trampoline, clowning and developed the acts for each. It was an amazing experience going from the very regimented and technical aspects of gymnastics to being thrown into a world where all rules were tossed out the window. It was great to have the opportunity to take all of the years of gymnastics training and technique and learn how to turn it into a performance – essentially becoming an artist by learning how to take all of the tools of the training and technique and tell stories with them. It was an intense training schedule that began at 8am and finished at 6pm I honestly learned more in one year in Montreal than I did in five years at UCLA.
I performed with Cirque du Soleil for four years in Las Vegas in the original cast of Mystere. It was there I met my wife Rhonda and we decided to get a bit of culture by moving to New York.
In New York I started my own circus production company and Rhonda was dancing as a Radio City Rockette. We also run a photography studio where I photographed hundreds of acrobats and dancers, usually flying through the air.
After three years in New York I received a call from the stunt coordinator on Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and was offered the job to join four others from Cirque du Soleil to create a bunch of cool acrobatic gags for the Whos in Whoville. When the extras started coming in, I began working with some of them to structure a common denominator on how the Whos should move – so that we all looked like we came from the same gene pool – a necessary foundation before you find your own specific signature for your character.
I was then called into Ron Howard’s office (thinking I was in trouble) and he asked if I would teach the rest of the actors what he saw me teaching the extras. That was my first job as a movement choreographer. Ron called it ‘Who School’ and, unbeknownst to me, my career as a movement choreographer began.
Can you tell us about your first experiences working on a motion capture film?
My first job working on a motion capture film was Avatar. It was an unforgettable experience getting to work closely with James Cameron. He was truly passionate about this project and I made it a point to always over prepare. I poured myself into cultural research for weeks before I even began working with actors – studying animal behavior and tribal cultures from all over the world. Needless to say this very intense year-and-a-half of my life went by in a flash.
In true Cameron nature, the technology was being pushed to the max. It was the first time there was a virtual camera being used in the motion capture volume and it paved a new path and redefined the tool set for countless directors to follow. It was an intense learning process for everyone as Jim wanted to shoot the film like he was shooting a live action picture in a completely virtual environment.
I never imagined this technology would align so perfectly with the skills I was refining for 10 years prior – from character creation to culture, movement, behavior and more. I had never planned to work in the film industry, but I have always tried to go with what feels right. I truly believe that if you love what you do, you never feel like you’re ‘at work’.
I had never planned to be a movement choreographer or even work in the film industry. After my first job on The Grinch I thought ‘Oh it was cool to have worked on a movie…now what?’ But then I kept getting calls for different projects in the industry and kept saying yes. I continued challenging myself more and more on each film and after five years began to develop my own approach to creating unique characters.
It still never ceases to amaze me how often actors are unaware and disconnected from their most powerful vehicle of expression – their bodies. My greatest reward is when an actor looks at me and goes ‘oh my God, I get it!’ – when they ‘tap in’ or ‘drop in’ as we call it. It’s all about allowing it to continue to happen with a soft mind and body connection.
How has your role has changed as technology has changed?
My role has not changed the slightest as technology has been changing. As technology improves, the head cams become lighter, the data is recorded more accurately and there are less crashes.
I’ve always said, performance capture is the same as any other acting. The character will only be as good as the actor’s performance. The subtle details of emotion and expression are recorded and translated with 100% accuracy so it is important for the actor to allow all of the technology around them to dissolve away and immerse themselves in a world full of things that are real to them.
Which films have you worked on with Animatrik?
I’ve worked on Dawn of The Planet of the Apes, Warcraft and another upcoming film which is yet to be announced.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you did for Animatrik Warcraft and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?
When I’m brought onto a film I like to get into the skin of each of the characters and see what works and what doesn’t.
This means starting with a generic orc, chimpanzee, goblin – whatever the character may be – and playing the character for several days. I learn a foundation that I feel works and from there I will start to ‘feel’ what I’m feeling when it is working. Taking pages of notes, I begin to form a book of dialogue. It is from this physical dialogue that I create a technique breakdown that I then teach the actor.
This book becomes a good starting point of discovery while I am working with the actor. From this moment on I guide them and highlight gems and successes when they come across them. It is kind of like digging in a big sandbox full of gems. When you dig up enough of them they will begin to tell you who the character is – by the end it becomes very clear what is real and what is not.
The most important part of the process not thinking about the gem while you are digging – rather just dig without getting the mind involved. That is when you will begin hitting the real stuff.
This is what I call the foundation work and it is probably the most important work of all. If the actor doesn’t have a foundation before they start creating a character, it will never work. By foundation I mean finding the blank slate, neutral first – without any of the baggage of our own social conditioning getting in the way or any preconceived BS clogging up the truth. After you find that ‘home’ for the character then you can go out and play – always knowing where home is.
What is it like working with the team at Animatrik?
I love the entire team at Animatrik! I usually come into a film with a bunch of characters to define. That means spending days if not weeks in the volume by myself working out a race of monsters, a culture of aliens or whatever it may be. Through that time, I have come to truly appreciate the seasoned team at Animatrik. They have the experience both socially and technologically, meaning that they have established a truly creative environment that functions efficiently despite all of the challenges that the go along the cutting edge technology that’s required by these performance capture films.
What has been your favorite scene to shoot?
There are so many scenes that come to mind, but there is one coming out in War for the Planet of the Apes that I’m looking forward to seeing. It’s an emotional scene between Rocket and Caesar at a pinnacle point in the film.
Is there any advice you would give to someone looking to become a movement choreographer?
Remember that the moments of stillness are as important, if not more important, than the movement. Movement for movement’s sake is just that. Everything must move the story and the character. If it doesn’t move the story then you probably don’t need it. Remember the power of subtlety and stillness – they are key.