Lights, Camera, Animals!
Jennifer J. Chatfield
American Humane Association, Film and TV Unit
Certified Animal Safety Representative™
Los Angeles, CA
The Film and TV Unit of the American Humane Association was established 70 years ago in direct response to the abuse of horses in filmmaking. Horses were routinely “tripped” in westerns, and this practice often resulted in injury or death. In 1940, the Unit was authorized to monitor any filming involving animals. In the 1980’s, Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media was introduced in an effort to standardize the monitoring of animals use. Over the years, these guidelines have evolved, with the help of animal experts, into a very detailed manual with species
specific information. It continues to expand and grow as more information in known and the intricacies of production change. While based in Los Angeles, the unit monitors an average of 2000 productions across the US and around the world; this includes not only motion pictures and TV, but commercials, music videos and student films.
Safety Representatives™ are selected for their knowledge of animals, both domestic and exotic, and are certified only after classroom training and on the job training “shadowing” experienced reps on set. No matter how familiar you are with animals, it does take some time to figure out who’s who on a film set, who to talk to, and how to approach issues as they arise. In my experience, production is usually happy to see American Humane on set, and welcoming and cooperative. Sometimes, an issue arises, and you have to intervene, but if the problem is approached with an effort to figure out how to get the shot and keep things safe, everyone is happy.
Working on set sounds glamorous to some, and it is fun to spend the day on the set of a favorite show, but the actual business of making movies is often times tedious. The hours are long, and the locations can be very hot, very cold and very remote. Big name stars become far less interesting when it’s 3:00 am, you can’t feel your fingers and you’ve heard that same line 28 times. Generally, the animals are far better at hitting their marks and performing their behaviors than the actors are, so it far more likely the numerous takes are due to mistakes by human actors. Being an animal person, I usually scan the call sheet to see what animals are working, before I bother to look to see who the actors are. When friends ask how was work today, I’ll tell them all about the tiger I worked with then mention Leo Di Caprio was there as an aside.
A day on set usually begins with a call sheet that should tell you the location, what animals are working, who the trainers are, and what time the animals arrive. It will also give an idea of how many scenes will have animals, and one line describing the scene. Scene descriptions can be deceiving though, and could be as innocuous as “Mary holds the cat on her lap”, no mention until you get on set that Mary tosses the cat out a window and, oh yeah there’s a fire. I’m exaggerating, but you always need to be prepared. The director may get an idea at the last minute, and change things, or the
action may be more or less than described. Sometimes a stunt doesn’t pan out or look the way they want it, so the action changes on the day. This may cause a last minute change in a scene, or possibly change the entire days schedule. Once on set, letting production know you are there, then finding the animals and their trainers or wranglers is first on the agenda. Reps file detailed reports indicating the animal’s names, condition and how they are kept on set, as well as a description of the action, how many takes and how the animals are used. Reps are there to ensure that he animals get
enough rest between takes if needed, and have what they need to be comfortable and healthy.
A lot of the things seen in a finished film are not what they seem. Through the magic of post-production and technology, the big cat seen running through the jungle after a person, never got near a jungle or the actor, but was filmed in front of a green screen in a closed sound stage. Later, film of the jungle and the actor are married with the cat running and all is edited into an exciting scene. Sometimes though, animals are used in unusual places. Lions in banks, horses dressed as unicorns in car washes, bears in a fast food restaurant, porcupines in desk drawers and bulls in gymnasiums; sometimes you really wonder who thinks of these situations. In cases like these, the animal’s safety is foremost, but everyone on the set needs to be safe also. American Humane Safety Reps play a role here, monitoring safety meetings and reminding crew to be quiet on set.
Potentially dangerous animals are transported and handled by skilled professional trainers, and sets are closed with very few people allowed near the animals, cameras are sometimes operated remotely.
While lions, tigers and bears are exciting, a lot of the work we do is with dogs, cats, reptiles and even bugs. With the number of “crime scene” type show on TV, flies, maggots and beetles work a lot, and yes, they are transported appropriately and the wranglers leave with the same number of bugs they arrived with. Dogs and cats consistently work in pet food commercials, and play important roles in a lot of TV shows and movies. Dogs and cats are required to do average pet type behaviors in a lot of their work, but even eating a dog biscuit with “feeling” has a limited number of takes.
Horses continue to be used quite a bit in film, and while a good percentage of the action is mild, horses are asked to do some of the most intense action seen on film. From race scenes in Secretariat to westerns, horses rear, run, pull wagons and often interact with or are ridden by actors. They also often work with vehicles that have cameras mounted to follow the action closely. Movie trained horses are generally picked for temperament
or a particular stunt they perform well, like rearing or jumping. When a horse, or other animals has a major role, there are usually several “heroes,” so one animals doesn’t work all the time, they can be switched out for rests on long shooting days. In the upcoming film “The Lone Ranger,” there are 6 horses that play the role of Silver.
The use of animals for entertainment has become a controversial subject for some groups. Some zealous animal rights groups claim no animals should ever be used for entertainment, more mainstream welfare groups believe that specific animals, such as primates and elephants should not be used for entertainment. No matter how you feel about animals, and their use in media, there is no legislation forbidding the use of these animals, and
American Humane’s experienced and compassionate Safety Reps are present to monitor the action and the treatment of these creatures.