Working with animals in your film - a brief guide - Raindance

The rights of animals have been a topic of fierce debate for many years, in one form or another. As American political and legal philosopher Joel Feinberg explored in his book The Rights of Animals and Future Generations, although animals are not moral creatures, they have interests and thus rights. Even if animals do not speak our language and it might not always be evident what exactly their interest is, it is certainly of their interest to not be killed nor abused or mistreated. Media has added to that debate by either exposing animal cruelty to people and thus confronting them with harsh realities or enable people to gain fast access to educational information on animal rights.

Animals in movies have been a popular presence since the invention of the cinematograph. They haven been drawn, animated and humanised in films such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse or Bambi (1942). They have been computer-generated like in Life of Pi or Junglebook. Or they have been real animals such as in Doctor Dolittle (1967), Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009), Free Willy (1993) The Horse Whisperer (1998) and most recently Wiener-Dog (2016). Some animals have been portrayed as a man’s worst enemy such as in Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), or they have become a symbolic element of a genre like horses in Western films. Most frequently, animals have been portrayed as a man’s best friend and loyal companion such as in Umberto D. (1952), in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Turner and Hooch (1989).

While the latter examples convey a positive image of animals, film history has shown that unfortunately human beings have not always been respectful of an animal’s right. Animals have been killed, abused or neglected for the sake of art, such as in Electrocuting an Elephant (1903), Ben Hur (1925), Pink Flamingos (1972) or The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). Even though animals’ rights have improved in recent years with the introduction of new laws, and people have become more aware of them throughout the 20th and 21st Century, mass culture has in some ways worsened their rights.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was the first welfare charity to introduce laws for the protection of animals. They aim for an animal’s life free from any pain or suffering. Among their many guidelines, one addresses the welfare of performing animals. These guidelines are applicable to any programming for film, television, advertisements, TV chat shows, children’s television shows, theatre, webcasts or multimedia, live events and displays (such as zoo, wildlife parks or art installations).

I will outline the most important aspects of RSPCA’s guidelines, but I will advise the reader to carefully read all of RSPCA’s guidelines, which can be found here.

These are the most important aspects one should bare in mind when shooting with an animal:

1. Choosing the right animal is a crucial point for any film shoot. Besides agreeing on what kind of animal is perfect for a narrative, it will be important to evaluate what kind of animal is possible to shoot with.

  • Using wild and non-domesticated animals is not advisable since they will be more likely to be stressed out and most productions cannot create an environment similar to the animal’s natural habitat. In some cases, using wild animals is even illegal. If one is still interested in using wild animals in a film production, one has to contact either the Independent Animal Welfare Advisor (IAWA) or call the RSPCA PAAS hotline 0300 123 8787.
  • Choosing an ordinary pet is also not advisable, as these pets are not used to performing on set and can be more easily distressed.
  • Using domesticated animals will be a suitable choice for a film shoot as they are more trusting and dependent on people. Nevertheless all their needs must be met.

2. Expert advice will most likely be necessary.

  • The Animal Welfare Risk Assessment (AWRA) will be able to tell one if an expert is needed for production.
  • If expert advice is needed, the RSPCA PAAS is able to advise on which expert to consult.
  • An Independent Animal Welfare Advisor (IAWA) will be able to advise on any possible risks for the animal and measures for the production.
  • A vet might be needed on set, depending on what kind of animals are being used and how many of them.
  • An animal behaviour expert can also be useful on set as he/she will be able to help smooth the production in the interest of an animal’s welfare.

3. In order to allow a smooth production with an animal on set, the preparations before production are vital.

  • It is advisable to consult and hire an animal trainer or handler for the film shoot. It will be important to check the credentials of this person and make sure he/she has worked with the chosen animal before. Do not hire any animal trainer that uses an aversive training method.
  • The production needs to be adjusted to an animal’s capacity – one should not schedule too many hours at once for a shoot with the animal.
  • It is important to keep records of everything that happens on set while the animals is there as it allows to keep up a smooth production as well as to retrace any problem that might occur on set.
  • A safety meeting and an emergency plan have to be made in order to protect the animal in case there is any unforeseen danger or incident.
  • For any advice concerning the adjustment of production for animals, one can always consult either IAWA or RSPCA as they will review the storyboard.

4. Once the pre-production is done, it will be important to define everybody’s specific responsibilities towards the animal.

  • A call sheet will help inform everyone on set about the animals shooting times and which person has what kind of responsibility for the animal – ranging from the production team to the animal trainer.
  • The animal expert/trainer/handler should always be able to raise a concern to the production team, even during the shoot.

5. On set (rehearsals or production) different aspects must be considered in order protect the animal’s welfare.

  • All animals should be kept on set during a shooting break, as it might be more distressful for an animal to change environments.
  • Intensity of lighting, heat and noise should always be adjusted to the animal during the shoot
  • Props, equipment and special effects should neither harm nor distress the animal
  • An animal must always be trained or prepared to cope with any changes on set (e.g. weather conditions) – whether real or simulated. Aversive methods such as food/drink deprivation or electric shock devices, hobbles or mutilating the animal should never be used for any kind of training or production.
  • Never should an animal be killed or injured for any kind of production.

No matter how many hours an animal is on set it must be provided with on-set housing. If an animal is used for more than 72 hours for a production, off-set housing must also be provided.

6. Transportation must be organised by the production.

  • Animals should not be imported unless they cannot be found in the country. For more information on import refer to:
  • Transportation should not cause any harm or distress to the animal. A journey should not be longer than 8 hours
  • Any transportation of an animal for commercial purposes must have documentation of: animal’s origin and ownership, date/time of departure, intended place of destination and expected duration of the intended journey.
  • No sedatives, tranquillisers or behaviour-altering drugs should be used during transportation unless a vet regards this as necessary. If so, the animal can only be administrated under veterinary supervision.

In case one decides to use an animal for their shoot – whether for a big or low-budget production – these guidelines will hopefully have given you an impression of what has to be considered in order to allow as smooth production and most importantly to protect an performing animal’s welfare. Now let the production begin!