Answering the Call of the Wild: An Interview With The Man Behind Buck

First published in 1903, Jack London’s novella “The Call of the Wild” tells the tale of Buck, a gentle St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix who is kidnapped from his family in California and forced to work as an Alaskan sled dog during the Klondike Gold Rush. The movie is headlined by Harrison Ford as narrator John Thornton, but the real star is the loyal and heroic Buck, a CGI protagonist played by veteran motion capture artist Terry Notary.

Buck’s likeness is based on a real-life rescue dog. Buckley was adopted by director Chris Sanders and his wife Jessica as a family pet during production of the movie. The lovable character’s movements and personality, however, are brought to life by Notary. Terry is no stranger to this unique work. His lifelike movements have been utilized for big screen behemoths like King Kong, the Hulk and many more. We caught up with him to find out what it takes for a man in spandex to become a dog.

Terry Notary in his motion capture suit while filming "The Call of the Wild."

The man behind the dog.Photo by 20th Century Fox

What is performance capture?

Motion capture, or performance capture, involves putting on a spandex suit made out of velcro material like a onesie for a kid. Next, you are covered in markers that are visible to dozens of cameras placed around the filming space. The mocap cameras capture a 3-D record of your every move and the character you are playing (an ape, alien, dog or whatever it may be) is laid over your performance. You are essentially wearing a 3-D costume. It’s pretty cool to watch your performance back on the monitor as a 3-D animated character in real time.

What inspired you to get into this form of acting?

Ray Harryhausen was a visual effects creator, writer and producer who created a form of stop-motion animation known as “Dynamation.” He used this on films such as “Jason and the Argonauts”, which featured the unforgettable sword fight with the skeleton warriors. He has had a huge impact on me as a performance capture artist, even though the two technologies are very different.

How does it differ from regular acting?

There’s no difference at all in the performance aspect of it. It’s just that you are wearing a performance capture suit. Every little bit of subtle movement and emotion is captured, and even your facial expressions are recorded by a camera mounted to a helmet.

A still of Buck, the CGI dog played by motion capture artist Terry Notary.

The background is real; the dog, not so much.Photo by 20th Century Fox

What drew you to “The Call of the Wild?”

I loved the book as a kid and having read it again, it still really holds up. When the producer Ryan Stafford called me and asked me to play the part, I was thrilled.

How was this role different from your other performance capture experiences?

This role was very different. I played the ape Rocket in Planet of the Apes, where we went for realism and subtlety. In “The Call of the Wild”, the director wanted the character to be larger than life and to push the expression just past the norms of a real dog.

Terry Notary performs as Buck on the set of "The Call of the Wild."

Terry Notary bounds down the street on his carbon fiber arm extensions.Photo by @terrynotary

How do you prepare to play a dog?

My two dogs, Gizmo the Havanese and Georgia the CavaPoo, were my biggest teachers. I started by videoing them in the front yard. I had my kids run around with them while I filmed them in slow motion. I like to watch things in slow motion to really study the biomechanics of how an animal moves. I then built a pair of arm extensions that were proportional to the height of Buck and worked for about a week in my studio in Los Angeles. I also wanted to get into the internal character of Buck and found through observation of my own dogs how amazing they are at reading the energy of a person. Dogs read the whole person all at once without judgement, with absolute loyalty and forgiveness.

How has performance capture changed the movie industry?

Performance capture has made it possible for filmmakers to turn their wildest dreams with the craziest of characters into a reality. When talented performance capture artists work together with skilled visual effects artists, amazing things can happen.

A still of Buck and Thornton from "The Call of the Wild."

Buck and Thornton hearing “The Call of the Wild.”Photo by @callofthewild

How was your co-star, Harrison Ford?

The best part of the film was getting to work with Harrison. He is just a down-to-earth, real guy who was a joy to work with. Super fun. I learned so much from him. Talk about a seasoned pro!

How did you get in shape to play Buck?

I always try to stay in relatively decent shape, but for this role I took a month and ran everyday for an hour on my arm extensions out on the trails of the Santa Monica mountains.

Were any real dogs used in the film?

There was a real dog on set that they would bring in after we had shot the scene. The dog trainer would walk him through so that the animators had a good reference for the lighting on the fur.

Motion capture artist Terry Notary with his family.

Terry and his family in the Santa Monica Mountains.Photo by @terrynotary

How do you unwind after a movie?

When I’m not filming, my wife Rhonda and I, along with our four kids (and never without Gizmo and Georgia), love to go to Malibu and surf.

Why should people watch “The Call of the Wild?”

This is a fun family film that takes you on an adventure with heart, humor and a message that extends to everyone: be true to yourself.

Terry Notary and his wife, Rhonda, own and operate The Industry Dance Academy, where he teaches classes on performance capture.

“The Call of the Wild” is available now on streaming services. Check out the amazing stop-motion summary below, made with materials from around the studio, and plan a movie night with the whole family. Who knows, Terry might even fool your pooch!

This post from BringFido originally appeared as Answering the Call of the Wild: An Interview With The Man Behind Buck.