WORKING WITH ANIMALS

I’ve worked on 15 feature films that have relied on animal actors, and here are the animal species I have directed and photographed: dogs, cats, mice, parrots, horses, bears, wolves, raccoons, prairie dogs, ferrets, cattle, primates, insects, amphibians and reptiles. Sadly, there aren’t too many 1st Unit directors who have the patience and empathy for the processes needed to get a performance from their non-human actors. Consequently, large chunks of these critical story points are handed over to the 2nd Unit.

The animal’s welfare is always our primary concern. To enforce that responsibility is an army of American Humane Society officers. They can be a humorless bunch. Sometimes, the needs of a shot collide with the willingness of AHS officer to allow the animal to attempt it, even if the trainer has prepared the animal for the stunt. This can lead to tension and frustration and solutions must be worked out quickly. We are on the clock! So, everyone gets his or her heads into finding a new approach and hopefully that leads to a successful and safe shot that advances the story as effectively. When someone throws up a roadblock unexpectantly and perhaps even unnecessarily, I often wonder if they realize how soon it will be before CG animals take all of our jobs away, forever.

I find myself tensing up when discussing animal work. Particularly if the trainers assigned to the project are inexperienced or unprofessional.  It’s funny; everyone thinks they can train animals for the movies. But I digress. If we don’t have  “A” level trainers, the shots will be compromised, everyone becomes dispirited, and then you’ll want or have to lower your expectations. The only problem is, your boss – the main unit director, will never lower their expectations, and so you can’t either. 

On the other hand… I have been fortunate to work with some of the best animal trainers in the business. (I’m married to one of them!) Working with topnotch trainers makes every shoot day a potential success! They arrive at work well prepared, their animals are enthusiastic, and they anticipate well and always have an alternate performance prepared. But above all, they understand the scene and the filmmaking process. A really committed animal trainer can put a lot of pressure on themselves. They set the bar very high and are determined to deliver something really special. If I sense some magic, I’ll give a trainer all the time they need to get the animal ready for a shot and make sure the crew is respecting the effort being made to that end. In other words, keep the set quiet during this critical rehearsal time. If an animal is startled, you can lose it for the rest of the day. I’ve seen this happen and it can be heart breaking! I must say, when an animal delivers and incredible performance and the camera team captures it well, (in focus, well lit and composed) there is an indescribable feeling that you have recorded something truly unique and memorable.

Three films with such memorable moments come immediately to mind. The great Sue Hanson’s work on MOUSEHUNT. Particularly the scene where the mouse first climbs into bed and then- is rudely awakened by a nail gun and is chased through an interior wall, narrowly dodging nails that are affixing baseboard on the other side of the wall. And Betty Vargo’s impressive contribution to PAULIE: A PARROT’S TALE. The night scene where Paulie sneaks into a bedroom, stealthily walks across an occupied bed, hops up on a dresser, opens a jewelry box and swipes a necklace. And later in the movie, the kitchen scene where the house cat chases and almost captures the Paulie. And then theres a cellblock scene from THE GREEN MILE where Betty trained the mouse, “Mr. Jingles” to retrieve a sewing spool and then run back and forth across the arms and shoulders of the late Michael Jeter’s character, “Delacroix”.

I operated the camera on all of the shots and what impressed me most was the determination each of these animals showed while performing for the camera. Don’t groan when I say that I saw “grit” in their eyes, because I did.

Filming animals require a special brand of patience and determination that will pay off big if you give a skilled trainer and a willing animal actor the time they need to deliver the shot. When great things happen and are captured successfully by the camera you get this feeling of accomplishment that is different from everyday shot making. This special feeling maybe because they’re animal actors and for once, they control the outcome of the effort.

 

Betty Vargo preps "Sport" for a shot on THE PLUMM SUMMER.

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