I’m sure you’ve heard the cautionary tale from W.C. Fields, “Never work with children or animals”. As an amateur filmmaking enthusiast and former professional pet trainer, I’m here to challenge this notion. T4G Kick teamed up with super-dog Zephyr to film an Instagram Story for National Dog Day. Guess what? It was an amazing experience (although Zephyr did steal both the scenes and our hearts). In honour of National Train Your Dog Month, we’d like to share 10 tips to help you film your pets like a pro.
Getting Started Filming Your pets
1. Not just any pet will do
If you’re filming on a tight budget it can be difficult (if not impossible) to have a professionally trained animal on set. When we began searching for a pet to star in our film, we knew we had a shoestring budget, but we also knew we needed a star that could perform on cue and help us get the shots we wanted. Zephyr was an excellent candidate because he’s used to being around lots of people, animals, noise, and lights. He’s also VERY well trained with an arsenal of tricks up his sleeve thanks to his owner, Sarah McManaman, owner of Halifax’s Call of the Wild Canine Services.
2. Know the animal and work with their idiosyncrasies
Filming your dog or cat starts with having realistic expectations, so be sure to work within the scope of your pet’s training. When we were compiling the shot list for our National Dog Day film, we learned that Zephyr doesn’t bark (he’s the strong, silent type). Rather than trying to train him to perform a trick that didn’t come naturally to him, which can be frustrating for all involved, we focused on the tricks that he could do. As a result, we were able to shoot our scenes quickly and efficiently simply by playing to Zephyr’s strengths.
3. Recruit helpers
You’ll need assistance setting up shots, moving props, keeping stragglers from walking through a shoot, etc., so be sure to recruit adequate help. During our shoot, we enlisted the help of four people: two people to film, one person designated as the runner (responsible for moving props, setting up shots, etc.), and a pet wrangler. Which leads us to…
4. Have an on-set ‘pet wrangler’
This person is worth their weight in gold and should be an experienced trainer with whom the pet is used to working. Amateur productions don’t require a professional pet wrangler (yes, there is such a thing). However, having someone who possesses solid training know-how is essential to ensure a smooth, efficient filming process. In our case, Sarah was on set to move Zephyr around the set and cue his tricks. She knew exactly which prompts and rewards to use in order to elicit the desired behaviours from Zephyr, and this made filming a very painless process.
Zephyr the Wonder Dog (photo: Call of the Wild Canine Services)
5. Prepare in advance
When it comes to filming pets, preparation is key. Create a concept and shot list, and outline the tricks the pet will be expected to perform during the shoot. Send this shot list to the pet wrangler so they can give the nod of approval and start the pet’s training in preparation for filming. Keep in mind that even if the pet already knows how to perform the tricks on the shot list, they will need to practice with increased distractions (tricks performed perfectly at home in a quiet, familiar environment don’t always translate to a busy film set).). It’s vital to ensure that both the filmmaker and the pet wrangler are on the same page and that expectations align perfectly with the pet’s performance capability.
6. Allow the pet to familiarize themselves with the environment when they get on set
Allow sufficient time for the pet to acclimatize to the set environment. Relaxed pets are more eager and able to perform. Sarah knew that Zephyr required a bit of “getting to know you time” before he would feel comfortable performing, so she made arrangements to arrive early and allow him to familiarize himself with the working environment. This really paid off when it came to filming – Zephyr was relaxed and happy on set, and performed like a pro!
7. Be positive
Use food or toys to lure and reward the behaviours you want to see from the pet. Punitive techniques will scare the pet, stressing them (and you) out. It also completely removes the fun-factor from filming. When it comes to training and performing, positive reinforcement is the only way to go!
8. Film in short increments
Pets should only be expected to work a maximum of 5-10 minutes at a time and require frequent breaks; be mindful of the pet’s body language (are they getting bored? Tired? Frustrated?) and adjust the film schedule accordingly. Indicators of stress in dogs include behaviours like lip-licking, yawning, avoiding eye contact, shaking-off, and displacement behaviors such as scratching. While filming cats, look for behaviours such as lip-licking, immobility, crouched posture, flattened ears, and hissing. If the pet is exhibiting any of these, they are signalling that they are stressed out and need a break. When filming, we didn’t ask Zephyr to work for more than 5 minutes at a time. We found that balancing action shots with periods of rest and play kept him bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and eager to work.
9. Have a closed set
It’s important to have a quiet set free of distractions in order to get the best performance from the pet. When we filmed with Zephyr, we had only the essential personnel on set. This kept him relaxed and focused. Insist on a closed set – no exceptions.
10. Be flexible. Literally
Be prepared to get down and film on the pet’s level in order to get the best shots; this can mean bending, twisting, and crawling on the floor – a sacrifice one must make when filming an epic pet saga. To film your pets successfully, you’ll likely find yourself crawling around on four legs, too.
So there you have it, my best tips on how you can make the most of filming with animals. Feel like this may be a little more advanced than you’re ready for? Start with the basics.
Have any tips you’d like to add? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.