Kids and Animals, Oh My: Working with Child Actors and Wild Animals on the Set

by Jack Anderson

 

You’ll be reading the script, and you will notice pretty quickly whether your film will involve kids or animals. No matter how well-behaved they are, kids and animals mean that it will take more time to shoot. What will affect your photography is the way you have to work around them. If there are wild animals, you can only prepare in the most general terms. When the animals want to do something, they do it, and you’d better be ready to catch it. I worked on a western in which we had a white buffalo. Well, buffalos don’t come in white, so the trainer had to spray paint this very large animal. I’m sure he used water-soluble hairspray or something of the sort, and I’m sure the buffalo wasn’t harmed. But no one told the buffalo that, and the beast was very unhappy about being an albino.

The buffalo was at one point quietly munching grass on one side of the set. The crew was busy setting up a shot. The grips had set up about ten reflectors—large boards covered with silver or lead foil to redirect the sunlight. It takes a grown man to handle the reflectors, and the most he can do is one at a time. Meanwhile, the buffalo decided that the grass looked tastier across the way, and he walked over to it. Of course, he was tethered with a rope, so as he ambled over, he took the rope with him, and the rope knocked down every one of these large, heavy reflectors and stands. The crew scattered everywhere; I grabbed my camera and ran (I was an assistant and responsible for the camera), something I have done only once or twice in my career—the camera’s about 50 pounds with the tripod. The set looked as though a hurricane had gone through it—all of our heavy equipment scattered like twigs. And the buffalo calmly ate grass. I learned that day what we mean when we say someone is buffaloed. I’m just happy the big guy only wanted to eat, not play. But we could do nothing to influence the animal, and it’s pretty much the same with any animal you work with.

And it doesn’t have to be wild animals that upset your plans. I worked several weeks on an old Disney movie, The Cat From Outer Space. We used real cats, cute little guys. One night we were shooting in an airplane hangar. The hangar substituted for a stage; we needed a big place for the spaceship models. We had a “hero” cat (the hero object or character is, in advertising and sometimes in movie parlance, the object of your attention) and a look-alike to sub for him. When the lighting was ready, the trainer brought out our star. The kitty star immediately ran off as fast as he could. Several minutes later we heard our star meowing up in the rafters at the highest point of the roof where no one could reach him.

Well, no problem. We had another cat, and the trainer brought him out. You know what happened. So the crew of eighty sat around, drinking coffee and gossiping, on overtime, for eight or nine hours until the producers called it a day. I didn’t go back on that unit, so I don’t know if they ever got the shots. I think Uncle Walt had the right idea when he had animators draw the animals.

Besides the production trouble that animals give you, you have to work around them and their trainers. Usually you have to be quiet around animals, and they don’t like quick moves. So you need to have a crew that can understand that and be sensitive to the animals’ needs. You can’t always set up your ideal shot. Often you have to use a long lens so you can stay at a safe distance from the animal. Safe for you and safe for the animal’s nerves.

You’ve always got to be prepared for the most astonishing risks in this business. I got a call to work one day on a movie at Universal. It was called Cat People; I didn’t know anything about it. The head of the camera department asked me, on the phone, if I had any problems with cats. At that moment I was petting my cute little black-and-white cat, Rocky, who had the sweetest disposition in the world. So I chuckled to myself and said, “No.”

Then I got to the stage. The amazing Art Department geniuses at Universal had turned the sound stage into a replica of the African savannah. Yes, Africa. I started to get a bad feeling. I was right. This was no kitty Cat From Outer Space; this was lions and tigers, oh my. In a dazed state of fear, I got the camera set up for the first shot. The director decided the tiger should run directly at the camera and veer off at the last second. Once again, no one had explained this to pussy. The trainer stood behind the camera with food. So the tiger made a beeline for it and ran right under the camera. I was saying my prayers as the cat ran straight at us, and I think my operator used up one of his own lives as the cat zoomed under the tripod, brushing his legs.

A little after that, the trainer had to go to one of the cats to do something. He handed me the food—a frying pan with a raw steak in it on the end of a ten-foot pole—and told me, “Let him have the meat if he wants it.” No kidding. I wasn’t going to argue. And sure enough, one of the cats—did I mention there were several roaming the “savannah”?—came by for dinner. Very gently, almost daintily, he took his paw and flicked the meat off. I was just glad to have the proverbial ten-foot pole between us. Even at that distance it felt as if some monster was trying to tear off my shoulder. So think twice before working with animals, be prepared, and bring some clean underwear.

And kids. A whole other kettle of fish. Of course, we love the little monsters, but your scheduling and approach have to change. First, children under 18 are limited in the hours they can work. It’s different in each state, and of course it varies by age. That’s why 18-year-old actresses who look 12 are in great demand. They can work a full twelve-hour day without breaking the law. Younger kids are limited to eight hours or less. They have to have breaks for school or for recess. And if they’re babies, they may be allowed as little as thirty seconds on set once the camera rolls.

Lots of crews think, “Oh, eight hours with talent! Swell, we get out early.” Au contraire, mon ami. The laws are observed, and the kids work a short day. But that means you must get all your shooting done with them in the few hours allowed. So all the kids’ coverage is shot first, irrespective of what the adults are doing. Then, when the kids go home, you have to relight the scenes with them and shoot the adult coverage. Without the kids, without someone for the actors to react to. Your lighting at 8 at night has to match what you did at 8 in the morning. You have to make sure eyelines match. The rest of the crew—props, script supervisor for example—have to make sure everything matches despite the gap of time. It’s not fun; people can get testy. So now what seemed a pleasant shoot has become a bitchy endurance test.

And don’t think of breaking the law. Not only is that a bad idea as a moral principle, but you can put yourself in a world of hurt. There are probably not many people today who remember the Twilight Zone movie from the early 1980s. John Landis was directing a sequence that involved children, explosives, a helicopter, and night shooting. First off, you can’t have kids around explosions and stunts, which a helicopter is. Second, you can’t have young kids (these were under eight) on the set at night—not at all, ever. So these very big Hollywood filmmakers just disregarded the law. And no one but the crew—and we don’t gossip—would have known. Except the explosions made the helicopter crash and the spinning rotor decapitated the two kids (and another actor). John Landis (Animal House, Blues Brothers) didn’t go to jail for murder or manslaughter, although he went to trial; but then he hasn’t directed a major movie in over 20 years.

No, it doesn’t have to be that bad. Neither animals nor children are an inevitable disaster. But you as DP have to be aware that pitfalls lie ahead; you have to use your experience to make things work. You won’t keep the director from unwarranted optimism, but maybe you can buy a little extra time in the schedule.

 

Jack Anderson is a thirty-year Hollywood veteran. He was DP for “Always Say Goodbye,” first-prize winner at the First Hollywood Film Festival. He did second-unit DP on “Hook,” “Noises Off,” and “Mad About You.” Short films he shot won prizes at the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, Waterfront Film Festival (Muskegon), and Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. His new book, “Shooting Movies Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot,” is published by Focal Press.

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