Brian Trenchard-Smith looks deep into the art of directing animals, long before the digital age.
When Brian Trenchard-Smith wants to tell you about directing animals on film, you step out of the way. Here’s Brian with many, many wonderful tales (and tails).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the latest example of how digital makes possible previously impossible animal actions, like a gorilla leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge into a helicopter cockpit. Take a look at the Comicon teaser.
But there was a time when the animal and the lens were all you had to work with. In the pre-CGI era, I was lucky enough to stage sequences involving cats, bobcats, dogs, lions, elephants, boa constrictors, chimps, spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, a mud crab, a pigeon, and a frog.
Working with All Creatures Great And Small requires complex planning, flexibility, and infinite patience. I hold the trainers who helped me deliver the shots in the highest regard. So I want to single out a few extraordinary practitioners from yesteryear and today, and comment on the tricks of the trade.
From the early nickelodeon days, the horse became the number one movie animal. The Silent era was wild, unregulated, learn-on-the-job. Safety was not the priority it is today, as evidenced in this Utube piece, which also serves to introduce Hollywood’s greatest stuntman and horsemaster – Yakima Cunutt.
Recognize the narrator? James Mason. What a voice.
Animal cruelty in movies is hopefully a thing of the past. Humane Society monitoring coupled with the basic decency of cast and crews have ensured that regulations are followed. I remember when directing Night Of The Demons 2, and I needed a close up of a cockroach squashed by the yardstick of Ninja Nun Sister Gloria. (Ninja Nun? And your problem is…?) Regulations required that a licensed person be hired to “humanely kill” the cockroach, (with gas, I believe) before the fresh corpse was flattened by the yardstick.
Action adventure pictures often take audiences to exotic places where carnivores lurk in the shadows waiting to pounce, and pounce they did in the sword and sandal/muscleman genre throughout the 50′s to the mid 60′s. This Peplumz TV compilation of man versus beast sequences runs an hour, and you pretty soon get the regulation shot structure: Wide shot beast prowls towards star’s double – medium shot across tethered beast to actual star or looser angle with glass wall between star and beast – intercut close-ups of them snarling at each other – cut to beast leaping past low angle – cut to beast and double falling to the ground – cut to close up of star wrestling with stuffed animal… and so on. But it’s worth skipping to around 22 minutes for the DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS tiger fight, nicely staged in 1954 by director Delmer Daves and tiger trainer Melvin Koontz. There is no digital enhancement as there was in the tiger fight in Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR. Check it out.
I featured Mel Koontz’ work in my 1976 DANGERFREAKS. It’s 100 stunts in 90 minutes, many of them carried out by Australia’s greatest stuntman Grant Page. Here’s Grant’s encounter with a leopard.
Yes, we have to remember they are wild animals. I have occasionally been close to lions, never had a problem. Or was I lucky? Here I am with 5 year old king of beasts Sudan, at Agua Azul, Mexico.
However, Sudan’s brother once nuzzled his trainer’s leg in a gesture of feline submission, then suddenly bit him in the thigh. A playful nip to the lion, a game he was playing like tag. But a painful puncture wound to the trainer Hubert Wells, a remarkable man with many big movie credits to his name. He made a full recovery and gave the lion to a wild life park. Here’s a picture of Hubert presiding over a remarkable animal ensemble. Cats & Dogs, Lions & Chimps are inimical species. It’s not trick photography. How did he do it?
The answer is training. Repeatedly rewarding the animals for tolerating each other’s close proximity until it becomes automatic. Hubert and another top Hollywood trainer Boone Narr provided the exotics on the TARZAN series, shot in Palanque, Mexico. Despite Hubert having been bitten by Sudan’s brother, he and Sudan had a very trusting relationship. In one scene, Hubert doubled an actor who was meant to be killed by the lion. As the cameras rolled, Hubert showed Sudan a chunk of raw meat concealed in his hand. On cue, Sudan knocked him over, then nibbled at the meat which Hubert held beside his throat. Through the lens, with Hubert’s legs kicking violently, it really looked like he was getting his throat ripped out. (BTW: this was a kids TV show! Well, if writers write it, I will shoot it.) Here Hubert and Boone are on hand as actor Chuck Shamata tries to hold off Sudan with a firebrand.
Sudan’s tether was out of sight of camera, so he could never have reached Chuck, even if he had felt overwhelmingly hungry. Chuck left the set that day with all his parts intact, as did Ron Ely, TV’s original Tarzan, this time guest starring as an evil hunter. Here Sudan has him tree’d.
Boone Narr’s BOONE’S ANIMALS FOR HOLLYWOOD INC. has a website with impressive video demonstrations of their work with birds, cats and dogs.
Two of Boone’s key trainers worked on the Tarzan series. Here’s Ursula Brauner happy snapping the temple scene. And still cute 20 years later.
Here she is with colleague Mark Harden wrangling a bobcat as we set up the shot. Mark is a sought after trainer all over the world.
Food (plus positive re-inforcement) is what movie animals work for, their reward after each take. We could only work Sudan every other day. We needed him to be hungry and motivated after a day on short rations. Not too many takes either. Once he was sated, he just wanted to lie in the shade. So we had to get the difficult shots first time. We had some great adventures on the TARZAN series. Both my sons played boy Tarzan at different ages in flashback. Here I show Eric the next shot in the temple scene. He has wisely stayed out of showbiz.
I wrote about one of my funniest memories – though it was slightly alarming at the time - in another blog. Here’s a link.
Dogs snout my groin. Cats nuzzle my cheek. Animals like me, and the feeling is mutual. So I have always been attracted to animal projects.
The first task with an animal sequence is to break it down into individual animal actions that the trainer believes can be achieved in one shot. Say: Close up – Animal’s head turns to view camera right, intercut POV, Animal immediately exits camera right. But, probably that’s two actions, needing two shots. The Animal may not be able to be trained to turn its head then leave frame quickly in the same shot. The pause may be too long. You will need a close-up of the Animal, with the trainer positioned for correct eyeline, who gets the Animal to look at him via a noise or a whistle. Then you set up a low wide angle and the trainer induces the Animal to walk forward past camera right. The trick is to plan a series of shots which, when edited together, make the animal actions fluid and continuous.
When I first broke down the script of Atomic Dog, it had close to 300 individual animal actions. Yikes! When the dog looked at the driveway gate, then ran and leapt over it , clearing its iron spikes - that worked out to be 6 different animal actions, 6 changes of A & B camera positions, to be rehearsed and executed at night. Like I said – patience. The lead dog, named Rambo, part wolf, part German Shepherd was wonderful. Here’s the trailer of the Spanish version entitled RABIA.
It’s not my best movie. The script was quicksand. The network wanted Cujo - ” but make sure it’s not too frightening or bloody for family viewing…” Right. A neutered Cujo. Got it. Here’s a dog movie in which three out of 4 dogs die. Dog lovers watching with their kids will really appreciate that. But I did like the TV Guide Ad line: I know he’s radio-active, but can we keep him…?
Boone Narr says the most important part of his job is casting. Just like a director. (When a director’s allowed to cast, that is…) Finding the right animal, with the right look and aptitude can take time. Then it’s largely a matter of training the animal to react to visual or aural cues, and to move from A to B, which is where you make your edit to the next action in a change of angle. Reaction shots can bridge wider angles. However, if your script, props, location choice, etc. can take into account the behavior range of the animal in question, then you might get a lot of different actions in one shot.
This squirrel knows knows there’s food at the other end…
You always need a back up for your lead animal. Animals may look alike but they have diferent skill levels and different personalities. Sometimes every performer has a bad hair day, and is unco-operative. Bring on the double. Here I am with Archie, a very smart chimp who would peel his bananas slowly and savor every morsel.
Wheras Kiko would just stuff it whole into his mouth. Kiko was capable of much less that Archie. The trainers on Tarzan indulged my need to be close to the animals. Normally they prefer the animal’s relationships to be solely with themselves as the alphas, and with the cast with whom they interact. Too many humans in their lives can confuse the animals and make the trainers’ task harder. I learned a lot working with them.
I particularly enjoyed working with the elephant. You steer with the ears. Want to go left, tug on the left ear. I felt I was riding a sentient being that enjoyed interacting with humans. A lot of people believe the Utube postings of elephants painting portraits are fake, or they have been trained through a harsh mixture of reward and punishment to make the motions by rote.
I think the elephant is a very smart animal, with emotions. So personally, I believe they can paint. What painting means to them – who knows? But it’s sure better than picking up logs all day.
I met Jane Goodall at a fundraiser for a wild life charity. I admired her courage and her lifelong dedication to her work and still do. Foolishly I told her how much I enjoyed working with chimps in movies. ( Obviously brain dead that night.) She looked at me askance, and gave me something of a lecture on how the use of animals for entertainment is physical and emotional cruelty under any circumstance. She said I was just as guilty of cruelty as someone running a circus or a zoo. I am not often tongue lashed by iconic figures. So I thought about it. And a Pandora’s Box of animal rights issues opened up, which I quickly closed. It’s a complex, vexed question. I don’t know the answer. It would be a sad day if animal performers were banned from movie sets, and only digital creatures remained on our screens. All I can do for my part is make every animal I work with feel that the movie experience is like play, rewarded by food. That’s how I like to feel on wrap too.
And to close, how about some of Randy Miller’s work with lions, tigers and bears…
Brian Trenchard-Smith has been making pictures for nearly 40 years. He has racked up an impressive list of over 40 films that he lovingly and self-deprecatingly refers to as “crimes against cinema” (though we reckon that a number of these can only be considered crimes if you’re the kind of hard-hearted toad that considers Robin Hood a criminal). Early in his career, BTS — like a couple of other gurus at Trailers From Hell — edited trailers. His knowledge is vast and we all hope he’ll come by the blog again soon.