I sat down with Movie Animal Coordinator, Bonnie Judd, and asked what it means to be an Animal Coordinator for film.
Bonnie responded that her job is to act as a casting agent for a film, tv series or commercial. This involves reading the script, breaking down all the animal action so she knows what is expected of each character as well as notes about their personality and appearance. Then there are meetings with the writers, producers, and director to learn their vision of the animal characters and their actions.
Ok so now you have a list of what you are looking for what is that actual process of casting – How does that work?
“Sometimes the direction is really clear – for the Art of Racing in the Rain we provided Golden Retriever puppies and they need to be a certain age at a certain time and roughly the same colour as the dog playing the adult lead. But… sometimes, particularly for commercials, background roles and, smaller projects, the direction is much broader – medium-sized working dogs for example. With commercials, specifically, because of their short lead-time they often just ask me to provide a couple of dogs that already have the training to do the required action.
Once I have a pretty good idea of what the dog needs to look like and the actions that will be expected of the dog during filming. I start by looking at the animals that I got to know through my group classes, private lessons, or who have come to the pool to learn swimming and dock diving or have just been boarding clients.
I usually start by sending in photos and if they like any of the dogs they will send me a short list of selected dogs. The next step is often a meet and greet at the studio. Sometimes none of the first batch of dogs are chosen and then I need to widen my search. My next step is to go through the dogs that have been submitted through my website. If we are still looking after that set of dogs I widen the search further and do casting calls – typically I post these on facebook and I put the word out to the huge network of dog people I know from years of participation in a variety of dog sports.
Do dogs that have been through your classes have a better chance of being chosen for a role?
For commercials and tv appearances, it really helps because the short lead time for those projects means that we have to choose dogs that at least have the basics of obedience and some of the movie behaviours have been at least roughed in. For other projects being a dog that I have gotten to know well helps when a director is saying “I want a dog that cocks its head” or “ I want a dog that looks a certain way” I can immediately picture that dog. Not all the dogs I put up have come through classes – some I have met at the park, or they have come to the pool or I have got to know them when their owners came to pick up dog food. It really helps if people I meet submit the dogs through the website because I might remember that I met an awesome golden retriever at the park but unless they fill out the form I won’t have their contact info.
How do I know my dog would be right for film work?
Movie dogs need to be really social, confident and healthy. I often get told by people that their dog is a star in the making but in the next sentence they will say something like “Buffy can’t be more than 10 feet away from me without having a nervous breakdown” and that isn’t going to work. Or I will get told the dog hates kids or men or other dogs and those are things that are often found on movie sets. Movie sets can be loud and crowded and this wouldn’t be a happy experience for a timid dog. If a dog is really a happy confident dog then a day on set can be fun for everyone including the dog – they get a lot of attention and praise. The doggy version of a Walmart greeter makes a perfect move dog.
Any tips to help make that first impression with producers and directors?
“The first thing a producer will see is a picture of your dog – make sure it’s a good one. And by that, I don’t mean spend a lot of money and get professional shots. Pretty much all the pictures we use are taken with an iPhone and that is totally fine. The big thing is to focus on the dog and show all of the dog (feet, tail, and ears included). No costumes and no props. Try to have a plain background if possible. Remember they want to see what the dog looks like not the sweater and not the sunglasses. And…. submit pictures in which your dog looks happy and alert and is looking at the camera. Dogs whose pictures showcase their personality and looks definitely get more attention.”
What should people expect if their dog gets chosen?
“It depends on what type of project. For a commercial often we are often on set within a day or so of the dog being chosen. We often won’t know our call time until late the night before so we need to keep in contact with the owner so we can pick up late at night or early in the morning. We often don’t know when we are going to be done but we try our best to keep the owners in the loop as the day progresses. We tell people that they shouldn’t expect to get rich from the dog rental – in other words, don’t quit your day job. For a movie project, these roles are usually cast further out and they typically involve more paperwork – you may be asked to sign a contract guaranteeing the dogs availability as well as a non-disclosure agreement. Dogs that work in the movies come in for training and we teach the specific behaviours they need to know. The dogs will typically stay with us from the beginning of the prep time until principal photography wraps – the amount of time will vary with the project and the role. ”
How are the dogs cared for when they are on set?
“The dog’s safety and wellbeing are of the absolute utmost importance. Nothing tops that, not getting the shot, NOTHING. The dogs have a professional trainer with them at all times. We make sure that they get chances to rest and to chill out, lots of little walks to relieve themselves and we make sure they stay hydrated. We monitor their condition at all times. And in most cases, there are also representatives from the American Humane Film Division or the reps from the Animal Protection Agency to oversee the care of the animals. We do everything we can to make sure that a dog’s day on set is a good experience for them. ”