Animal Actors


The use of animals as onscreen performers presents a range of technical, legal, choreographic, medical, and strategic difficulties. Special medical insurance may be required for animal just as for human performers. Because animals are relatively incompetent linguistically, choreography and cinematic trickery must take the place of direction. In the film-within-a-film in Truffaut's Day for Night (1973), for example, there is a scenic reference to the director's earlier The Soft Skin (1964)—itself a play upon Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934)—that uses a kitten to demonstrate this difficulty. The scene calls for a pair of lovers to wake up one morning, open the door of their motel room, and find a kitten begging for a bottle of milk that has been left on their stoop; when they pour a little into a saucer, she drinks. But the feline actor has other things in mind and keeps heading offscreen; in the close shot that focuses upon her as she sniffs at the saucer of milk, the hand of the assistant director is visible, pushing the animal back into the frame. Many takes are needed before everyone is happy: while in "real life" nothing would seem to be simpler or more natural, in filmmaking this moment is a supremely difficult technical achievement.

Filming with animals is demanding in the extreme, and often arcane. Disney's Old Yeller (1957) required a coyote and raccoon wrangler; Daddy Day Care (2003) called for cockroach handlers. Duplicate or even triplicate performers must frequently be on hand; in Seabiscuit (2003), ten bay horses played the lead role. Animals must be rested between takes, because they tire under the intense heat of the lights and are likely to react adversely to prop noise. Sometimes animals are very close to props themselves: from a design point of view, their natural coloration forms part of the aesthetic challenge of a shot. A telltale example of this kind of problem was presented to Woody Allen when he was filming the lobster-steaming sequence of Annie Hall (1977). Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are supposed to lose control of the lobsters they are about to cook, so that the animals fall to the kitchen floor and a "chase sequence" ensues. Unexpectedly, the lobsters scuttling around the kitchen in the rented location disappeared against the brick red floor tiles because the crustaceans had been painted red (authentic greenish uncooked lobsters being unappealing to the eye), so a plywood floor had to be dropped and speedily whitewashed. Against this "kitchen floor," the cosmetically improved animals showed up beautifully on camera.

While screen action involving animal performances is constructed to look believable and is often intended to represent excitement and danger, care must be taken to ensure the safety, nourishment, and protection of animals working in the film industry. Originally in line with section 12 of the Production Code Administration's guidelines in 1930 ("There shall be no use of any contrivance or apparatus for tripping or otherwise treating animals in any unacceptably harsh manner"), and more recently under a 1980 agreement with the Screen Actors Guild, the responsibility for overseeing animal care in filming motion pictures and television shows rests with the Film and Television Unit of the American Humane Association. This office assists in the production of about 1,000 films a year involving animals. Here scripts are vetted in collaboration with filmmakers to plan the safest ways to shoot animal scenes—a goal entirely different from that used, for example, in the explicit beheading of an ox in Apocalypse Now (1979). Sets and animal costumes must be safe for animal contact; animal action must be meticulously planned to keep within the bounds of what training can effect and to protect animals from harm. In Anger Management (2003), for example, a fashion line is designed for husky cats and modeled by Meatball, a tabby. Under the "adorable" cat outfits (including a hip-hop hooded sweatshirt) lay a fiberfill "fat suit" that required the scenes to be photographed under air conditioning so that the cat would not become overheated.

Many techniques of scene simulation are used, including blue or green screen background projection, mechanically operated simulated animals or animal parts or "animaltronics" (an industry pet name for using animatronics––building a robot to look like an animal)––a process involving hydraulic systems, manipulated camera speeds, editing, padded environments, and specially designed costumes. In Dr. Doolittle 2 (2001), for instance, a suicidal tiger paces on a window ledge and is "talked down" by the animal psychiatrist (Eddie Murphy). The tiger was filmed pacing against a green screen, and this image was then combined optically with a shot taken at a designed window ledge. Using computerized two-dimensional imaging techniques, frames showing an animal moving its mouth naturally can be individually coordinated with a prerecorded sound track to give the impression, in close-up, that the animal is mouthing words. Other examples can be found in Animal Farm (1999) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998). Three-dimensional animation makes it possible to superimpose computer-generated mouths onto images of animal faces. Stuffed stand-ins ("stuffies") are used frequently. In There's Something about Mary (1998), a dog gnaws at a man's trousers, is kicked away, then gets picked up and thrown out a window. A real dog went for the trousers, but a stuffed dog was kicked away and tossed. In The Birds , one of the most celebrated animal films in the history of the medium, Ray Berwick was responsible for training and handling dozens of gulls, sparrows, crows, and other avians. In a birthday party scene, gulls fly at children eating cake. The birds' beaks had been wired shut, and one creature managed to fly off. Berwick insisted that shooting be closed down for the afternoon while he went off to rescue it, since in that condition the bird would have died from hunger.

The tricks that trainers, cinematographers, directors, and handlers use in order to produce realistic but bizarre animal performances onscreen are uncountable. In Daddy Day Care , a tarantula crawling over a character's head was created by using a real tarantula and a Styrofoam human head—such a creature was as easy to obtain in Hollywood as a cute puppy: the animal manager and supplier Jim Brockett keeps cockroaches, tarantulas, alligators, vipers, and other lethal and nonlethal insects and reptiles at Brockett Film Fauna in Ventura County. For Open Range (2003), horse "agitation" during the climactic gunfight was produced by trainers throwing dirt near the animals' hooves. In Seabiscuit , horses never ran more than three furlongs at a time in the meticulously choreographed simulated races. American Wedding (2003) made use of trained tree squirrels (as did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005), a pair of identical Pomeranians (who shared one role), and a dog who was cajoled into leaping onto a character's pants by a hidden pocketful of creamed chicken.

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