Animal Actors- Producer Week

It is one thing for a director to get an actor to convey an emotion that properly illustrates his vision, it is an even more difficult task to get the perfect performance out of an animal.

Though directors and actors tend to garner the most amount of praise upon the release of successful films, there’s a reason the list of end credits is always so long.

Animals have captured audiences’ hearts for decades, but as convincing as they are, Lassie, Marley, and the rest of our beloved furry friends didn’t naturally know the perfect moment to bark, run, or roll over. Extensive amounts of effort are behind all of those heart wrenching performances.

Animal Trainer Mark Dumas with his polar bear, Agee.

Photo courtesy of Mark Dumas.

There are two very important components to the inclusion of animals in movies, the trainers that have raised them and the American Humane Association’s Film and TV Unit, who together make sure our animal actors (and actresses) are comfortable and prepared.

“You just have to make it so that none of the animals have a negative experience, which is difficult, because sometimes it can be fairly negative,” says Mark Dumas, creator of the animal actor company, Beyond Just Bears. “For example, what people like to do most in film with deer is to drive a car at them, because, you know, that’s what people normally see, or that’s what the director visualizes. Deer don’t like that a whole lot.”

Dumas, having trained animals for roughly 41 years, is no stranger to what it takes to appease both a director and an animal performing on set. His ten acres of land outside of Vancouver houses 45 different creatures spanning from dogs to crows to reindeer to bears, including the only acting polar bear in North America, Agee.

Agee in a Nissan Commercial.

The process of preparing these animals usually starts with hand-raising them from birth and exposing them early on to people, change, and travel. Dumas also always makes sure that the animal has everything they could possibly want on set — an animal’s tour rider if you will. Because most performances are based on positive reinforcement, Dumas makes sure to have a wide variety of treats to coax and satisfy them. However, despite this thorough dedication to making sure the animal is as prepared as possible for the set, not everything can always be planned.

“Animals can have bad days just like people have bad days. So you just have to try to work through any of the specific problems that occur. Sometimes, the most difficult thing to face could be an unseasonably hot day,” says Dumas. “First job I ever did, I had an African lion panic. He got scared of a crane above him. He was fine until the crane started moving. Certain things in life you can’t prep for because I don’t have a crane at home.”

At the beginning of a project, though, it’s important for the script to be analyzed and discussed with the director to determine which requests on the part of the animal are possible and which are not. One of the biggest struggles for animal trainers can be letting a director know that actualizing his exact vision might not be possible. Dumas says young directors’ egos can sometimes create problems for trainers unwilling to push their animals to their limits.

This is where the AHA’s Film and TV Unit fits in. Famous for the “No animals were harmed…” disclaimer, this non-profit sector of the American Humane Association became necessary at the advent of the film industry before guidelines for the inclusion of animals in films were established. In 1939, the film Jesse James incurred public outrage when a horse was forced to jump to its death off a 70-foot cliff during filming. The Film and TV Unit, who will be celebrating their 75th anniversary soon, was created shortly after to insure such abuses would never happen again.

The unit currently works on over 2,000 productions a year, according to Jone Bouman, its Director of Communications. Sanctioned by the Screen Actors Guild as a regulatory entity, any production intending to have animals on set is contractually obligated to make the AHA aware of any animals they may use and, when deemed necessary, allow an AHA animal safety representative to oversee filming. They also provide an ever-developing list of guidelines film sets must adhere to.

“On any given day, we may get around 20 different scripts. The process begins with those scripts, which are read fully and analyzed completely for all animal actions,” says Bouman. “Every animal action is rated whether it’s mild, moderate, intense, etcetera. At that point, when we get the call sheets, usually a couple of days before production begins, we already understand what’s going to be asked of the animals involved.”

The AHA employs nine full-time safety representatives with 10 on-call in Los Angeles as well as roughly two to three dozen on-call all over the country. These representatives, responsible for ensuring the safety of the animals, have extensive backgrounds in animal sciences and are comprehensive experts on a large variety of species.

Gina Johnson, an AHA animal safety representative on a production set.

Photo courtesy of the American Humane Association.

“Even when you’ve read a script and have an idea what’s happening, once you get on set, something different might be taking place,” says Bouman. “Our reps not only have to know all different species, they have to be aware of what [are] the safety measures that apply to everything from insects to elephants.”

The AHA also has the power to pull animals from sets if they are being overextended.

Despite all this procedure, sometimes inconsistencies occur. With a limited budget, AHA officials cannot always be on film sets. Just as actors and actresses are pushed too far at times, animals, who are much more volatile, can suffer from the irresponsibility on the part of the trainers or the film crew. For example, take HBO’s recent cancellation of the series Luck after three horses died on set. This inexcusable negligence has been blamed on several different components, but ultimately is a tragedy caused by recklessness.

“It’s actually a much more complex process than people realize,” says Bouman.“Over the many years that we have been doing this, we continually expand our guidelines…When we’re on a film, we do our very best to be on set when there is an animal present. There are occasions when we can’t cover something. We need to specify that we are a charity organization that relies and depends upon donations and grants to do this work. ”

It’s apparent that everything cannot be perfectly regulated and controlled when introducing an animal to a film set, but the inclusion of animals today is significantly more scrupulous than ever. Between the AHA and the animal trainers who have invested so much care and commitment to their pets, the process of responsibly bringing animals to a set has become much more structured.

“You have to realize my job is the safety of the animals, the safety of the crew,” says Dumas. “You always know, hopefully, how far you can go without pushing it too far. “