Julie Tottman, animal trainer for films like Resident Evil, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Harry Potter films, discusses how animals are selected and trained for movies and television.
Ever wondered how animals know what to do in films and TV shows? How do actors and stunt people not get hurt when animals seemingly attack them? Where do these film animals even come from?
Julie Tottman, animal trainer extraordinaire, best-known for her work on the Harry Potter films, Game of Thrones, Resident Evil, 101 Dalmatians, and many more, spoke at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai about the tips and tricks of training different animals, how various film departments work to prevent animal cruelty in movies and to keep animals (and humans!) safe, and why hers is the best job in the world.
Finding the Right Animal
Tottman tells the audience a bit about the process of actually training animals for the screen. It begins with a call from either the producer, production designer or art director with their specific requirements. Following the initial conversations, Tottman is then sent a script which she goes through and breaks down the animal action required.
Tottman also decides at this point what the animal in the scene(s) should look like and accordingly narrows the breeds down to three. This task is particularly effective in the case of dogs and cats.
The animals are then taken to a casting session, very much like the ones for human actors, and the director chooses the animal that is closest to their vision for the film or television show.
Tottman tells the audience that when the part of Crookshanks, Hermione’s cat in the Harry Potter films, was being cast, she was asked to find a grumpy-looking cat. It was surprisingly easy, says Tottman, to find Crackerjack, the cat actor who played the part.
Casting done, Tottman heads back to put together a team of animals. “I always have at least three animals that will play the one part. Quite often they get hot or bored or they just don’t want to play ball that day; that’s absolutely fine because we’ve always got a backup.”
When it comes to sourcing the team of animals, Tottman always heads to rescue shelters. “All the dogs that played Fang [in the Harry Potter films] were rescue dogs.”
Going to breeders for animals is an absolute last resort for Tottman and she prides herself on the fact that she has almost always managed to find the animals she needs at rescues. This is commendable as the rescued animals then get new homes to go to.
Tools of the Trade
There is a standard foundation training programme that Tottman puts the animals through at the very beginning. “Sit and stay; lie down and stay; stand and stay” and running to marks makes up the bulk of foundation training. “Most of the training is play; it’s positive reinforcement. It’s working out what’s good for each animal because they’re all so different.”
To get dogs to bark, for instance, Tottman says she usually puts them behind a barrier and then moves away. The dog becomes excitable at this point because it wants to get to the trainer and thus begins barking. The trainer returns to the dog with a treat and through this Pavlovian conditioning, the dog learns to bark on cue.
“The mark is really, really important to us,” says Tottman because, “quite often you can’t be near the animal.” Teaching the animals to get to their marks requires them to associate with an object.
Tottman starts them off with a large piece of wood and then uses smaller and smaller objects that will be less visible on screen but still have the same association for the animal. “It’ll be a leaf or a stone; something that matches with the environment.” Cats can be directed via laser lights, so that makes things easier for the trainer.
It takes an average of four months to complete training. Tottman says she prefers to do it slowly but it depends on the personality of the animal, yet positive reinforcement is key. To simulate more natural reactions from the animals to their film environment, trainers often use a very long stick with a bit of food at the end of it that will serve as the eyeline for the animals.
For tricky scenes, trainers try to reward the animals immediately after with food, a toy or a hug. But, this isn’t always possible, says Tottman. If the trainer cannot get to the animal but really wants to let them know they have done a good job, a clicker acts as a bridge to let the animal know that the behaviour is complete and that their treat is coming to them.
Alongside the clicker, Tottman also places buzzers around the set. If she is unable to get to the animal, she can use the buzzer to direct the animals to their treat. Tottman balances the amount of food treats the animals get every day against their diet so there is no chance of the animals’ shape changing during filming.
Different Animals, Different Methods
Over her career, Tottman has worked with several kinds of animals and clearly dogs are the easiest to train. They are “people-pleasers”, says Tottman and thus are willing to go the extra mile for their trainers. Cats, on the other hand, are “cat-pleasers” and need extra incentive. However, they are not as difficult to train as people imagine.
While preparing the scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where the kittens appear in Umbridge’s plate collection in her office, Tottman found the kittens raring to go on their very first day. What should have been a complicated shoot with so many kittens having to hit their marks, interact with props and wear unusual costumes, became a fun day out for them and a satisfying experience for the trainers and filming crew.
However, teaching cats to retrieve an object is extremely hard, whereas it is much easier with dogs. Getting Crookshanks to grab the enchanted ear in Order of the Phoenix was incredibly challenging. It took Tottman three months to train Crackerjack to do that one action and, even then, she was concerned it would not work. On the day, however, Crackerjack was excellent.
According to Tottman, the snowy owls she worked with for Harry Potter were the hardest. “What it would take me two months to train an owl to do, it would take me two weeks to train a raven to do… Ravens are quirky and fun.”
Owls can only be taught to do very simple tricks and are thus difficult to train. Considering how important the owls are in the Harry Potter universe, this was a surprise to hear. For scenes where they have to deliver the mail, they were generally attached to a harness and guided to a mark, says Tottman.
Generally, with birds, trainers don’t often work with them directly on the film set. Instead, they do wind machine work. “It’s teaching the birds to hover just in the wind, and the camera will move around, against a blue or green screen. The bird is put in afterwards.” This particular method is used a lot in Game of Thrones for scenes featuring the ravens and for shots of Hedwig flying around Hogwarts.
Among other animals, rats are very trainable, almost on par with dogs. They react to buzzers well and are excellent at hitting their marks.
Another animal that is surprisingly trainable are squirrels, says Tottman. When she was requested to train squirrels for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, she was a bit concerned as she hadn’t worked with them before. “We had a little bit of time up front to understand squirrels and to see what we could achieve with them and we were blown away.”
The core group of 30 squirrels came from several rescue places and Tottman took care of five of them when they were babies. “At one point when we were prepping for this my bedroom was like a laboratory. I had all these squirrels in incubators and I had to get up every two hours to feed all these babies.”
The squirrels were divided into teams and taught different tricks so they weren’t overwhelmed with too much information. “We had some squirrels that would just bang the nut and listen, some that would bang the nut and throw them, and some that would just run, from A to B, to buzzers.” The nuts used in the shots were fake because the squirrels wanted to eat the real walnuts.
Tottman is quite comfortable working with most animals except spiders, which made her work on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets rather difficult. As head trainer of Fang, Hagrid’s pet dog, Tottman had to confront her dislike of spiders during the scene where Harry, Ron and Fang face off against Aragog the spider. Unfortunately, the dog playing Fang took a liking to the Aragog prop and decided to play with it, causing some amount of damage. “I wasn’t popular that day.”
Perfecting the Shot
No matter how much training one does, an animal can only do so much. But, to realise the director’s vision, more than just the animal training department needs to be involved. According to Tottman, her department will work closely with the props, stunts and visual effects departments to achieve a scene.
For a number of films, like 101 Dalmatians and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the animals present will be duplicated using CGI because it isn’t possible to have that many animals on set at the same time.
The other departments are particularly needed for scenes where the animal has to be handled roughly. One single shot with an animal can have intercuts with the actual animal and a prop, to ensure the animal comes to no harm. Though the audience cannot tell when a prop is being used, Tottman always can, she says.
Another kind of scene which requires multi-departmental cooperation is when animals have to appear aggressive towards humans. For scenes in Resident Evil and Game of Thrones where dogs had to attack human characters, several methods were used to ensure the safety of all involved.
For one, the dogs in those scenes only looked ferocious. “They are all gorgeous dogs!” assures Tottman. “We never do aggression training with a real actor. Though they are acting, the dogs do get a little enthusiastic sometimes so we use trainers, stunt department or props.”
To achieve the scene, shots of the animal with an actor are intercut with the animal reacting to a trainer. For shots of the animal actually attacking something, a green ball is used as a prop for the animal to attack and is later replaced in CGI with a human.
For the zombie dogs in Resident Evil, Tottman also had to deal with make-up on the dogs, which added a further complication because the dogs would get very hot. “It took about 45 minutes to get them into costume and they could only wear the costume for half an hour so the cameras had to be absolutely ready to go when the dogs were ready.”
The direwolves in Game of Thrones, on the other hand, were never ferocious enough for the showrunners of the series. The Northern Inuits that Tottman used for the direwolves looked very much like wolves but were too mild mannered so they were replaced after two seasons. “Once they finish filming they’ll go shoot a real pack of wolves to get a little bit more aggression stuff, which they go to the US to do.”
If there is something the animals can’t do, Tottman has no compunctions about being the bad guy if it means protecting her animals. “I’m quite often the baddie on the film set because I find myself arguing with film directors and producers… I’m the ‘no’ person.”
She also works closely with American Humane to ensure the safety of the animals at all times. “We can use the real animals to a level and then the visual effects department will take over as soon as it starts to get a bit dangerous or hairy for the animals, then we stop using them.”
Unsurprisingly, Tottman admits to forming a strong bond with all the animals she works with and has adopted five dogs herself. “I live in a lovely little village of about 400 people and about 100 of those have a dog of mine so I can keep an eye on them, I can make sure they’re safe and can still use them for film work. I get too attached.”
The next time you see an animal on screen, no matter how scary or playful, you can rest assured that a loving trainer is just on the periphery of the camera waiting with a treat.
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