The three things you learn in indie film producing 101: minimize locations, never work with animals, and pizza for lunch as often as possible. While 2 of these are rules that should never be broken, the animals one is a bit misleading. What it should say is: Never work with animals that aren’t professionals. Amateur animals are a nightmare and can be seriously detrimental to the productivity of a film set. A true, professional animal actor on the other hand is there to help you bring your vision to life (and likely to be murdered by a ghost or home intruder).
I first began working with professional dog actors in my 2010 short film, Let’s Ride Donkeys. Gustav was a true gentleman of a Rat Terrier. He was pleasant to everyone on set, even the PAs! He never barked when things didn’t go his way and his tail was almost always at a full wag. While I was at first hesitant to hire a shedding creature for my short film, his professionalism and grace really turned my views on the whole species around. Now I prefer to have dogs on all of my sets! But I try not to discriminate. I’ve worked with cats, fish, and even a large pig one time.
In 2013 I met Mr. Finch and both of our careers were changed forever. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime actor/director pairings. Like Werner and Klaus or Nolan and Caine. We’ve made countless films together, learning more about the craft and each other along the way. And as a result of this long, magical collaboration, I truly believe that working with an animal as beautiful and wise as Mr. Finch has taught me how to be a better human being.
BUT! There are definitely some things you need to know before you can hire a gorilla to jump off a diving board in your super-8 music video…
Animals are wild (even the domesticated ones).
I don’t care how talented of a director you are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked with Gene Hackman, Katherine Heigl, or even Rami Malek. Until you’ve tried directing a Golden Doodle, you have no idea what a “challenging actor to work with” actually means. There’s simply no training a four-legged animal to work on a movie set. They may be professional enough to bark on command or shake a human actor’s hand, but chances are high they definitely aren’t showing up at call time. My suggestion is to hire a PA designated to do nothing but keep eyes on the animal. The animal will need to be driven to location each day, they’ll need constant affirmations in between takes, and they will definitely NOT poop in the bathrooms. The poor PA will have to pick it up in a little bag with their hands. Gross.
Animals are picky eaters.
Have you ever tried to feed a bird lasagna? It probably didn’t go over well. Most animals require specialized animal food for their sensitive animal bellies. You can find animal food at most grocery stores. It looks and smells a lot like dirt. But be careful, because this is an easy way to put a production over budget quick. Even animals like dogs who will eat anything put in front of them, shouldn’t be eating lunch with the camera department. You may think all is well, but you’ll be kicking yourself after the next set up when your furry talent pukes all through the 3rd take.
Animals have a pretty complicated work union.
You think working with SAG is a headache? Try working with the Animal Actors Association of the East. They require each on-set animal to have a minimum of 14 daily breaks which does not include the mandatory 3 naps every 8 hours and 20 petting hours per work week rules. And don’t forget, most animals are minors so their parents must give written or verbal consent AND be on set while the minor is working. It gets even more complicated when the parents of the talent are minors themselves! And yeah, dog years do not apply so unless you’re working with a tortoise or my ex-girlfriend’s cat, you’re probably shit out of luck. Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous backend deals these creatures get.
Animals are a distraction to canophiliac crew members.
Your crew is bound to fall in love with the animal talent. There’s nothing you can do to avoid this. It’s going to cause days to be shorter the talent’s ego to sky-rocket. Try to keep your crew in line and your production running smoothly by spreading rabies rumors.
Animals are too pure. We don’t deserve them.
Movie sets are filled with bad people and unjust motivations. Everyone is out for themselves and their wallets and nothing else. Except for animals. They’re on set because they love us and we force them to be there. And while they’re often the best part of any movie they’re in, they rarely receive the credit they deserve. Where are the Dog Academy Awards? Why has no cat ever been nominated for best leading actor/actress? There is simply not enough representation in today’s media!
I hope that you now see the benefits (and dangers) of working with animals on movie sets. They bring a wealth of enthusiasm to the production and can make the most difficult days so much more bearable. But they should never be taken advantage of. Work with animals that you trust and trust you back. Like your dog or your cat or turtle or parakeet or chinchilla or whatever. Collaborate with them to strike a balance between your vision and their personal experiences. Treat them with care and dignity. Love them unconditionally. And for the love of god, please don’t kill them off for cheap plot advancements!