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Jennifer Sheridan lays out the most important rules for working with animals on set. 

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Jen and her dog Bowie on the set of “Rocket”

Never work with children or animals…or so the saying goes, but in my experience both of these are a quick-fire round to an audience’s emotion and empathy. Personally, I can watch any number of humans come to gruesome ends, but when the psycho killer goes for the family pet? My eyes. are. closed. In fact there is even a website to help you avoid the emotional scars associated with pet deaths in cinema.

Animals on their own are good enough (just ask YouTube), but having an actor interact with animals in a film can say a lot about their character without resorting to explanatory dialogue. A clear example is a character who kicks a cat. Now we know instantly they are a bad egg, probably a villain, and someone for the hero to watch out for. It can be more complex than that – like what if they kill a mouse and instantly regret it? That’s potentially saying that they are impulsive, likely softhearted, maybe even trying to suppress a killer’s instinct.

In Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, Save The Cat!, he talks about giving the main character a scene where they climb a tree to save a cat. He’s using this example figuratively to say that the audience is probably going to like that character for the rest of the film. Job done, right? Well, nothing is that simple I’m afraid, but when you begin to understand how animals resonate with an audience, then you see how they can help tell your story. This is especially useful in a short film when you don’t have a lot of time to endear an audience to your protagonist. As a director who has had a lot of experience working with animals, I’m here to give you some inside tips on getting the best performance from our fine four-legged friends.

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Behind the scenes of “Set Adrift”. Photo credit: Simon Buck

Make time and have patience.

Don’t leave yourself half an hour to get that quick scene where the cat knocks over the plant pot. Unless you are extremely lucky, it just isn’t going to happen on the first take – a hungry (hungry + angry) Christian Bale will most likely wrap before you do. Animals are very intuitive and pick up on our emotions, so the more stressed you are the less likely Fido is to be co-operative.

Think quick and be adaptable.

If on the 18th take the dog won’t look left on cue, reposition the camera and adapt to the situation. The definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results. As an editor I’ve seen numerous cameramen trying to coax Beetles into the focus range of the nicely composed shot to no avail, or plucking at spiderwebs to make them move. It doesn’t really work or feel natural, so try to find a way to let the creature do their thing undisturbed and you move to get the shot.

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A scene from “Set Adrift”

Be aware of what’s around you and put yourself in their paws.

Might sound stupid, but if you need a dog or cat to be calm and relaxed in your actor’s arms then having gaffers charging at them between takes is not going to help matters. Prepare your crew to speak quietly and walk slowly when Helena Bonham-Critter is on set. You don’t want to rile them up before you’ve even turned over; give yourself a fighting chance. Animal trainers are hugely protective over their stars and rightly so – always put the animal’s needs and feelings first.

Plan for the edit.

Obviously, amirite!? But there are a few extra considerations to be made when editing ‘Pup Fiction’. An animal’s eyes are very noticeable and a big part of why we love them so much, so of course eye-line is a big thing. Always know where your animal should be looking for the cut to work; if they are glaring upwards adoringly at their handler but your actor is across the room it’s not going to look right. You may want to cover yourself with another angle for the edit, as it’s not always easy to get an animal to repeat an action. Close to medium shots are easier to control, as the handler can get nearer the animal. Wide shots are a lot harder to achieve, as they may be looking for their handler’s prompts offscreen. Again, this comes down to being able to control the eye line as much as possible. Another big consideration is sound; be sure you can ADR or pick up clean dialogue whenever your animal trainer is having to audibly command an animal to do something within a scene.

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Bowie with co-star Philip Barantini in “Set Adrift”

Working with animals doesn’t have to be mission im-paw-sible. All it really comes down to is respecting the animal, expecting the unexpected and making sure that they are enjoying it as much as you are. My latest short film Set Adrift, made with my own dog Bowie, is a story about loss told entirely from a dogs perspective. This threw up many interesting challenges, and I also learned what motivations to use for the type of emotion I was aiming to get on film. Tennis balls were for the deep pensive, reflective moments, whereas chicken would evoke a sense of longing in his little eyes that can bring you to tears.

Something humans have been doing for centuries is transplanting emotions on our pets’ faces that possibly aren’t even there. Just type ‘guilty dog videos’ into YouTube and you’ll see what I’m talking about, but do dogs really feel guilt? Or have they learned that big eyes up, head tilted down tend to produce less angry human responses when they have done something naughty? Who really knows, but what I do know is that planning shots and a narrative from a dogs perspective was very creatively satisfying. If only humans could be coaxed into Oscar-worthy performances by a bit of grilled chicken. Personally I’ll settle for the Palm Dog this year.

*No animals were harmed in the writing of this feature.

Jennifer Sheridan

Jennifer Sheridan is a director and editor from South London. After gaining set experience on Pirates Of The Caribbean 4, she honed her skills as a storyteller by becoming a respected editor of comedy in television and film. Her first short film Rocket (starring her dog Bowie) won the Virgin Media Shorts Grand Prize in 2012. Since then she has racked up a number of award winning shorts including Acoustic Kitty which premiered at the Oscar qualifying Heartland Film Festival & won the People’s Choice Award at the BAFTA qualifying Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2015. Her latest short Set Adrift is entering festivals this year.

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Posted on Jul 11, 2016

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