Hollywood's cute canines and furry felines will soon be on the movie scrapheap

Using CGI is cheaper and easier than repeatedly trying to persuade a recalcitrant animal star to play its part

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The Independent Culture

Pampered Hollywood actors’ frustrations at being upstaged by unpredictable, scene-stealing co-stars who get more attention than they do gave birth to the old showbiz adage “never work with children or animals”.

But A-listers may soon be able to breathe a sigh of relief with the demise of one of their bêtes noires as canine actors are increasingly replaced or made to “act” by computer-generated film trickery. Future stars of films like Lassie, Marley & Me and 101 Dalmatians could find themselves relegated to the role of body-double.

Writing in the journal Screen, film studies expert Dr Michael Lawrence said the use of CGI was cheaper and less time-consuming than repeatedly trying to persuade a recalcitrant animal star to play its part.

“Supplementing real dogs with digital animation produces performances that are much more effective dramatically; they are also  more appealing because [they are] more anthropomorphically expressive to suit story needs – and economically – they are less time-consuming and therefore less expensive because [they are] no longer determined by the unpredictable or intractable volition of real animals, however well-trained.

Real animals appearing in films could lose out to CGI creations such as Garfield the cat (Rex)

“The problems that arise even when working with ‘professional’ dog actors can be exasperating.”

The crew on the 2009 movie Where the Wild Things Are were so exasperated by one of their animal actors that they made a short film about it.

Called The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time, it shows director Spike Jonze trying to persuade the animal to stick to the script in a scene with the hero, a nine-year-old boy called Max.

An animal trainer instructs the dog to “speak” but when asked by Jonze whether the dog could run and bark at the same time, the trainer replies: “He stops and barks, he doesn’t bark and run.”


Dr Lawrence, an academic at Sussex University, said: “The technological mediation of dog actors’ performances by digital effects allows contemporary film-makers to overcome such problems and present – should they so wish – dogs flying and talking at the same time.” 

While dogs – such as Bonny the shih tzu in Seven Psychopaths and Snoopy the fox terrier in Moonrise Kingdom – are still getting work, there is a trend to augment animal actors digitally, as seen in the films Garfield and Cats and Dogs. The difference between live action and animation was now “less easily discerned”, Dr Lawrence added.

Actor Josh Lucas has spoken of his problems on the film Red Dog, saying his canine co-star Koko was “not a dog that loves acting at all”.

“He was very much a diva in the sense that he would do it right once and then he was like, ‘I don’t need to do it again, I already did it right’,” he told CraveOnline. “And he would just take off running... a lot of the times, with many of the rest of the crew and cast. He just didn’t want to be there.”

Bonny the shih tzu was the canine star of 'Seven Psychopaths' (EPA)

Julie Tottman, head animal trainer at Birds and Animals UK, who has worked on the Harry Potter films and the new live action blockbuster Cinderella, said she felt animal actors brought a special quality to films that audiences would miss if they were ditched.

“I think they lose something when they computer generate it – but I’m not against it, because they help us out in so many situations if there’s something that’s dangerous or whatever,” she said.

“In some ways they’re very helpful to us, but I really believe that animals will still be used for years. I think a lot of the magic in the films would be lost because you can see if it’s real and you can see when it’s fake.”

And – even if their human counterparts don’t necessarily welcome them on set – Ms Tottman said: “The animals enjoy doing it, so it would be a shame.”