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,” opening 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 present yet 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 theater 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.