Thursday, May 22, 2008

(Never) work with animals...

W.C. Fields famously proclaimed that, "One should never work with children or animals." Presumably he was talking about the film business, which is an industry dedicated, at leas in part, to an individual's desire to make things happen exactly as they want them to. So yes, children and animals, being uncontrollable to an extent, might derive some pleasure in seeing the cinematic control freak not get what he or she wants.

I was taken by a presentation at the Academy last night about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The great Dan Richter, aka Moonwatcher, was in the audience, and he was frequently called upon by MC Tom Hanks and special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull to shed light upon working with Stanley Kubrick in the opening Dawn of Man sequence. It was pointed out that the film was not nominated for costume design, possibly because crusty old Academy members failed to realize that those were people inside monkey suits! Yes that's right, Stanley, truly, by anyone's yardstick, the ultimate control freak, trained a group of apes to drive to the studio, hit their marks, and tell a story about a strange space monolith that whispers the secrets of evolution in their ears. Not. Actually there are real animals in the sequence. Grazing tapirs. Grasseaters are containable as long as there's grass.

With Moonwatcher in the audience, it was pointed out that Kubrick made many films of various apes, shot walking and moving about at different camera speeds. He would make Richter and his co-apes watch these films over and over. For months and months these people lived as apes, sadistically goaded by Kubrick to unlearn their natural behavior patterns and recondition themselves to act as the ape amalgams he imagined: chimps on top, gibbons on the bottom, with a dash of brutish gorilla thrown in for dramatic flair.

The un-directability and unpredictability of animals does pose some problems for traditional control freak filmmaking. Knowing this, you really must hand it to Noel Marshall for casting more than 100 giant flesh-eating cats in the lead of his demented epic Roar. To this end, and with no disrespect to Richter's amazing performance, I am somewhat dismayed by the fact that Yann Martel's book The Life of Pi is being made into a movie. Not because it will be bad, but because it has already been confirmed that they will be using a computer generated tiger. I know the animal rights folks will be happy about this, but I am a champion for the real experience of living animals. It crushes me to think of all the lost nuances and triggers, and obvious human substitutions that will occur in the "making" of this tiger.

This post could go on and on, but I'll make my point: Work with animals. Work with them.

1 comment:

tapirgal said...

I enjoyed your article, especially since my decades-long work with tapirs (originally real, later virtual and via conservation projects) started after I saw Kubrick's milestone film. Regarding W.C. Fields' comment about working with children and animals, I always thought he meant that an adult would be upstaged by either of the above and that he didn't like losing the spotlight. But control could certainly be an issue! The tapirs for 2001 came from Twycross Zoo in England - the lowland species, which are usually the most tractable, especially after a few generations in captivity. Since tapirs are not herd animals and Kubrick employed several of them, I always wondered what it was like on the set. You notice occasionally (if I remember correctly) an "ape" slapping one on the butt or shoving it out of the way. Tapirs are curious nibblers. Actually, they eat broad leaves and fruit more than grass, but they will nibble on anything, presumably including the fur on an ape suit. Also since they are not herd animls, I expect that trying to control several at one time would be like the proverbial herding of cats. They can, however, be led by holding bananas and other treats in front of their noses. It works like a charm.