Job Title: Animal Trainer Or Film Animal Trainer
Maintain, train, and provide animals of all types for movies, television programs, commercials, and still photography.
Basic dog obedience skills are an asset. Although schooling is not necessary, any study of animal care and behavior are also assets.
Expanded Job Description:
Film animal trainers have three typical days: prep days, days on the set, and days when there is no current job. On a typical prep day, the trainer is on payroll to work certain animals for a specific trick or project. “Right now I'm prepping for the new Benji movie,” says trainer Anne Gordon. “There are two Benji dogs and two of us trainers. We start about 9:00 in the morning and train all day long. We take turns with the dogs and work different behaviors and actions. We try to anticipate what we're going to need. We give them lots of breaks during the day, walks, and naptime. We work many, many short little sessions.”
On days when the animal will be acting, the trainer receives a call time, which can vary anywhere from 6:00 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. “You check in with the first AD and let them know you're there and find out what time you're going to be needed. Ideally, you like some time on the exact set where the animal is going to work. If the animal is not going to work for a couple of hours and they aren't shooting on the set you're going to use, you go in with the animal and run him through what the action is going to be so the animal is prepared. There is also a lot of down time, just sitting around waiting and keeping the animal happy, comfortable, and exercised. When the animal is called to work, you work with the director and the first AD to set up what you need. If you're working with a tiger, then everybody that doesn't need to be there clears the set. If you're working a house pet, you tell everybody when they say ‘cut’ that the grips need to wait until we get the cat or dog out and safe before they start moving equipment.” Once all the logistics are worked out, the animal performs its role however many times are necessary to get the shot. The animal is then either released or waits for an additional scene. Although there are no time limits on hours an animal can work, the Humane Society governs the welfare of actor animals to ensure they are not abused.
When Gordon is not working on a specific project, she volunteers at Silver Screen or other animal facilities. “I help take care of the animals. I've got some wild animals I brought down from my old company [Anne's Animal Actors] and I do the cleaning, feeding, and care. I do some basic training with animals that need to be brought up to a higher level so they will be more marketable when a job does come around.”
Advice for Someone Seeking This Job
“The best way to learn this job is by doing it,” says Gordon. “Every single animal training company that I know of takes volunteers and welcomes volunteer help. That's the way you get started. When I'm not on the payroll, I still go out and volunteer my time at Silver Screen Animals. The more time you volunteer, the more likely you're going to be the one who goes out the door when there is a paying job.” To obtain names and telephone numbers for film animal trainers in your area, contact your state film office or commission.
What do you like least about your job?
“Ofttimes the animal will be put on the back burner, if it's not a major starring role.” At the end of the day, after the actors are released, the animal is brought in and expected to quickly do its scene with no rehearsal. “Sometimes, there is not a lot of respect given to animals. They expect them to be a little robot and come out and work instantly, even though they've been made to sit around for 16 hours. That can be very frustrating.”—Anne Gordon
What do you love most about your job?
“It's very, very satisfying when you take a dog or animal that knows almost nothing, bring it to the point where it can be a lead role in a feature film, and they pull it off.”—Anne Gordon
Professional Profile: Anne Gordon, Film Animal Trainer
“I knew from a very, very young age that I wanted to work with animals,” says Anne Gordon. “I just didn't know how that would manifest itself.” The Washington state native attended Western Washington University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in animal behavior.
While still in school, Gordon volunteered at the Seattle Zoo, where she was hired on after graduation and worked her way up to being a zookeeper. Three years later, she wanted a job with more animal interaction, so she spent eight months working for free with a trainer in Riverside, California, who taught people how to train wild animals.
Once back in Seattle, she acquired a few wild animals (wolf, tiger, fox, deer, raccoon, and so forth) and started an educational program to teach local school children respect for wildlife and endangered species. Recognizing that there was no one in the Northwest providing animals for film work, she began networking to let people know that she and her animals were available.
After five years with the school program, Gordon decided to let it go and devote her efforts to film work. Realizing that dogs and cats were in greater demand than wild animals, she focused more in that direction, forming Anne's Animal Actors. Her first feature job was providing forest animals and a dog pack for Harry & the Hendersons. For her first television series, Disney's Danger Bay, she trained skunk, otter, bear, raccoon, and dogs.
Gordon has since amassed an impressive resume that includes providing animals for feature films A River Runs Through It, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Legends of the Fall, Practical Magic, Vanilla Sky, and for television movies and series Stephen King's Rose Red, The Fugitive, Northern Exposure, Sliders, and Twin Peaks.
When the film business in the Northwest began drying up in 2001, Gordon decided to relocate to Los Angeles. She sold her animals to Silver Screen Animals in November and took a job with the company. One month later she landed the job of co-trainer for the two dogs that will share the starring role in the upcoming Benji movie.
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