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One of the central challenges to working with animals in the making of a movie is the inability to communicate context. While a dog, for example, can be trained to perform a certain task, or execute particular blocking, what doesn’t exist as part of the acting process is the director being able to thoroughly explain motivation at a given moment, or demand specific emotional expression.
This has been an issue plaguing filmmakers trying to adapt Jack London’s classic novel The Call Of The Wild for decades, what with the story’s main character, Buck, being a canine – but that wasn’t the case with the latest adaptation from director Chris Sanders. Part of what made the work making the new film so special was Sanders’ relationship with Terry Notary, the performance capture actor playing the movie’s protagonist, as they were able to collaborate day to day not only trying to provide the best material possible for the production’s visual effects artists, but also really dig into the character’s mind like never before possible.
With The Call Of The Wild hitting theaters on Friday, this past week I had the pleasure of hopping on the phone to interview Chris Sanders about his time making it. The film is the first he’s made in the live-action realm, having previously co-directed animated features like Lilo & Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon, so working with actors on set was a novel experience. In particular, he showed great enthusiasm for working with Terry Notary, as the two would have discussions every day on set regarding Buck’s headspace in a certain scene.
Not only was it the blocking that we would discuss and work to create, but it was also Buck's emotions at the time and we would talk through how he was feeling and how he was reacting. Terry would lay down rough timing – sometimes the exact timing – that we would want, and I remembered everything we did. So when we sat down later on with the animators, I could elaborate on what we had shot on set.
Of course, Terry Notary is far from a novice when it comes to portraying animals. While he's worked as a movement coach and choreographer for decades, one of his specialties in recent years has been doing incredibly realistic performance capture work for non-human characters. Working alongside Andy Serkis, he was an incredibly significant figure in the making of the recent Planet Of The Apes trilogy, and also went into primate mode for Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island.
The Call Of The Wild marks the first time that Terry Notary has played a dog in a big screen feature, but it surely must have been great for him to be working with a director so engaged in the work he was doing and willing to collaborate closely.
You can see the finished results of their efforts now on the big screen, as The Call Of The Wild , starring Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Omar Sy, has begun Thursday preview screenings all around the country. Stay tuned here on CinemaBlend in the coming days for updates about its box office performance, as well as more behind-the-scenes news and stories from the making of the film.