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Tips for Working with Animals on Set

Mark Vargo, ASC

Bring life to your video production with these techniques for recording animals.

Cover image courtesy of the author.

Early in my second unit career, I worked on films where animals played prominent roles. The second unit typically photographs the scenes that feature animal actors for several reasons. First, filming animal action requires patience and can be time consuming — two attributes that first units are not known for. Additionally, second units are smaller and therefore far less expensive — which is ideal for insert type photography. Most directors prefer human actors to animal ones and are more than happy to give this part of their production to someone else.

Working with Animal Actors

Image from The Green Mile (Warner Bros.).

Of all the animals I’ve photographed, dogs are the easiest to work with, and mice are the toughest. On Stuart Little, Stuart was easy because he’s a CGI character, but Mousehunt and The Green Mile featured real mice that are central to the films’ stories — particularly Mousehunt.

In both films, the mice had to perform tasks that were very different from their normal instinctual behavior. On The Green Mile, Mr. Jingles was trained to “stay,” walk straight down the middle of the “mile,” and push a thimble around. The Mousehunt mouse could walk atop a cheese wheel, negotiate an obstacle course, and climb into bed. There were dozens of mice on each film, and they all learned these and other tasks during a prep period of four to six months.

Tips for Working with Animals on Set — Lens Angles
Image courtesy of the author.

Filming mice requires that you position the camera lens as low as physically possible. We tested low-angle prisms, the Frazier system, snorkel lenses, and endoscopic probes. We used each one of these systems based on the visualization of the scene. The Frazier system was perhaps the most effective way get into the cramped world of the mouse, but it presented environmental challenges for the mice because of the number of lights we needed to shoot at F16 for maximum depth of field. In other words, the set got really warm. The mice were truly impressive given the tasks they had to perform!

The Routine

Tips for Working with Animals on Set — Paulie
Image from Paulie (DreamWorks).

Before filming begins, the crew must light and sanitize the entire set. Afterward, anyone who is not essential to the photography clears the area. Then, the trainer brings the mice to the set and “preps” them for the desired action. This can take up to twenty minutes. While shooting, the crew must maintain absolute silence to keep from startling or distracting the animal.

Tips for Working with Animals on Set — Trained Animals
Image courtesy of the author.

Under the watchful eye of an American Humane Society officer, filming commences and continues until the trainer determines the animal has given everything it can. Typically, this requires twenty or thirty takes at 40fps to get one acceptable shot. If the trainer has another animal that is trained up for the bit, you can go on to film the new animal and occasionally achieve better results. Before moving on, track down the director and show video playback of the best takes for approval.

Be Patient

Tips for Working with Animals on Set — Group Shot
Image courtesy of the author.

Filming animals requires a special brand of patience and determination — as well as a skilled trainer and a well-prepared animal actor. Be advised: you have to allow ample time to achieve the results you want. First and foremost, however, you must take every step to ensure the safety and welfare of the animal. These extraordinary actors love to learn, and they work very hard. Many even come to enjoy being on camera. By the end of the shoot, many will know what “Action!” means and will actually relax when they hear “Cut!” Remarkable and rewarding, filming animals is different than any other facet of narrative filmmaking, but it’s certainly just as important.

If you’re interested in seeing the results of this process, you can take a look at films I have worked on that featured animals:

Do you have other tips for working with animals on set? Let us know in the comments.

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