Pets on Film

I don’t know about you, but I love taking photos of my pets. Pictures preserve amazing memories … but actually taking those photos is not as easy as you think! The second you reach for the camera or get your phone out to snap a shot, they move and the moment’s lost. Trying to get them to sit and pose in a particular place or position is nigh on impossible! I was attempting one of these impromptu photoshoots the other day when the three of them were curled up by the fire. I naively thought it might make a nice Christmas card… but half an hour of fruitless snaps later I gave up and flicked on the TV instead, to be greeted by the classic film ‘Beethoven’ which follows the adventures of a newly adopted and loveable (but very slobbery) St Bernard. I started to think … if I can’t even take a photo of my pets then how on earth do they get a cast of animals to act in a film?!?

I began thinking about other pets on film, and realised that throughout my life I’ve watched hundreds of films where an animal is the star. So, I began to look into the process of animal actors – how do they become actors and how are they trained? The more I thought about it, the more mind-blowing it became! I mean, these animal actors are everywhere, from printed adverts to TV commercials and blockbuster movies. And, it transpires, it really is quite an industry. For a start, there are agents for animals. Makes sense, I suppose, but it’s just not something I’d really given much thought to previously if I’m honest! There are many companies and professionals that act as agents, hiring out people’s pets for film, TV and photoshoots. If you have an obedient, amiable, outgoing and particularly photogenic pet then maybe they could have a modelling or acting career!

Of course, the worry is that animals will be exploited or abused in these situations. I mean, we all know that Hollywood stars are treated like royalty but what about their animal co-stars? Are they given the red-carpet treatment, too? Well, it seems that using any animals in productions is something that’s very closely regulated. While it sadly hasn’t always been the case, and several occasions have been documented in the past where animals have been harmed, injured or abused in the name of entertainment when cruel training methods were used to force animals to perform, nowadays anyone training or exhibiting animals has to be registered and adhere to the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act. They must always prioritise the animal’s welfare, as explained by the RSPCA, with trainers, handlers and a qualified vet required by law to be on set at all times during filming with animals. Animal welfare monitoring services such as exist to ensure this happens, providing qualified and experienced vets to film companies.

Do you think that your pet could have what it takes? Well, being a star isn’t easy! Your pet will need to be trainable and eager to please – which is slightly easier with dogs, but cats? Well, I’ve been a vet for many years and I still struggle to get cats to do anything on demand! While they’re more independent creatures and are generally less affable than their canine counterparts, Hollywood Cat Trainer Karen Thomas says people shouldn’t confuse this with being untrainable. When using cats in productions, from adverts to feature films, Karen explains that they usually cast several similar-looking cats, rather than just one, so that they can alternate the work and allow plenty of breaks. They spend a lot of time acclimatising them to the film set and letting them get to know co-stars: humans or other animals. They’re rewarded with attention and treats, and the training happens slowly, at the cat’s pace. Karen explains that “usually the hardest things to teach are natural behaviours on cue. These aren’t things that people at home would necessarily be training, but when you’re watching a commercial, oftentimes you’ll see the cat sleeping on top of a clothes dryer or kneading his little paws on a pillow, these behaviours a cat does every day. But to tell a cat, “Ok, lie down, curl up, put your head down, close your eyes and stay” is a tough behaviour to teach, especially when you’ve got an entire film crew watching.” I can imagine! It’s mind blowing that they can achieve this – which is partly why they cast multiple cat ‘actors’. This allows them to choose theright one for the right scene, making the most of their natural behaviours therefore reducing the need for actual ‘acting’ or performing anything that’s not in-line with their natural character.

Karen’s services wouldn’t have been required for the 2016 film A Street Cat Named Bob, the true story of a London Big Issue seller, James, who met Bob, the cat who changed his life. While multiple cats were cast to play Bob in the film adaptation of his life story, it seems real-life Bob wanted the limelight and ended up playing himself for most of the film! What a talented cat – not content with helping James to turn his life around from Big Issue seller to published author, he also wanted to be a film star! And, who can blame him – no one knew his story better! Karen is just one of many people who make their living training animals for film and TV. Camilla Naprous, co-owner of Buckinghamshire company ‘The Devil’s Horsemen’, was the horse master for Game of Thrones, where she designed and choreographed all of the show’s battle scenes featuring horses. She was responsible not only for making the scenes look great, but first and foremost ensuring that the horses’ welfare (and that of the riders) was paramount. The Devil’s Horsemen is the leading film-industry horse supplier in Europe; they’ve hired out horses to projects including Peaky Blinders, The Crown as well as Game of Thrones.

Of course, while we’re thinking about animal actors, who could forget one of the most famous of all … Lassie! It turns out that there were 9 Lassies in total, all descendants of the original dog, Pal. But Lassie was never actually a lass! She was always played by male dogs due to the fact that female rough collies moult much more heavily and so would have looked very different at different periods throughout filming. A female was originally cast in the role, in the 1943 movie ‘Lassie Come Home’ and Pal was her stunt double. But, during filming, the female lead wasn’t keen to enter rushing water for a scene so Pal stepped in and filmed the complex sequence of events in just one take, earning him a promotion to star of the show. He was immediately recast which not only cemented his future but also that of his offspring.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of another famous animal face – the Andrex puppy! It was 1972 when the first advert featuring the adorable Labrador puppy aired, and the breed has since become synonymous with the brand. In the past 50 years over 120 adverts have been filmed with 120 puppies playing the iconic role (no pun intended… well, maybe just a little pun intended!). According to the creative directors behind the ads, ‘the puppies were treated like royalty on set, with a qualified vet on hand, frequent nap breaks and even their very own air-conditioned trailer!’. I’m very glad to hear it – those playful pups deserve nothing less.

Nowadays, clever special-effects and CGI can often replace animal actors in films which is especially useful for more exotic animals and certainly reduces the risk of wild animals being exploited in the name of entertainment. It does, however, seem there’s still a place for animal actors, although it’s vital that they’re properly cared for by genuine animal lovers (which most trainers and agents are). The industry does need to be very closely monitored to ensure cruelty and exploitation is never tolerated but, so long as that’s the case, we can continue to laugh and weep along with wonderful stories of animal escapades, fact or fiction, and the special relationships they have with humans. So many of our favourite films would be lacking without their animal stars. I mean, Turner without Hooch certainly wouldn’t have made entertaining viewing, Blue Peter presenters would’ve been lost without their on-screen pets and just imagine what catastrophes would have occurred if Lassie hadn’t been around? That would’ve been a whole different programme, and not nearly so popular I’d imagine! Animals enrich our lives in so many ways, it’s only right that this is reflected on screen, too. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to get them to follow the script! Now, where did I put that camera…? “Poppy! Ziggy! Goose! Say cheese!”