Getting 'The Bird' From a Bird

Filming with animals can be a lot more complicated than filming with people and it takes a lot more preparation than one might think. One wants it to go well, so one can never be prepared enough. One example of how filming with animals can be complex is the following story:

I shot a western in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a great deal of fun. I would get up early and watch the wranglers herd the cattle to their pens. I would have breakfast with real cowboys and eat fresh tamales along the banks of the Rio Grande. Some of our locations could only be accessed on horseback. We utilized stagecoaches and buckboards. We hired many of the enthusiastic local residents and dressed them in western garb.

One shot required the services of a trained hawk. The hawk was to swoop low over the outlaws as a symbolic image of impending retribution. Out came a man with a trained hawk. It stood on his wrist, its head covered by a cloth hood while it awaited instructions.

The guy never stopped bragging about how well the bird was trained, how faithful it was to him and how obedient to his every whim and will.

"It will fly when I tell it to and swoop when I signal. It will fly in a straight line and come back upon my command," and on and on and on.

Came the moment. The trainer removed the hawk's hood. The bird straightened up in preparation for flight. It trained its laser-like gaze on some distant object. The director barked "action" and the trainer made a signal with his arm. Off went the bird... and went, and went, and went.

"Make it swoop," ordered the director. The man made an arm signal. About 200 yards out, the bird looked back over its shoulder and must have said to itself what they say when someone hits a home run in Yankee Stadium, "See ya!"

Have you seen this bird? "Cause I sure as heck haven't and neither has anyone else.

The last I saw of its trainer, he was standing in a field of daisies mumbling: "But the bird loves me. It spirals when I signal and swoops when I call. And it always comes back."

To which I say... "uh huh."

Here is another example of a film depicting an animal:

You can't ask too many questions... you can only ask too few.

A young woman sat in the first row at one of my many safety seminars. I do 18 safety seminars a year. I was just finishing my speech about our close relationship with the American Humane, when she raised her hand.

"If I have my own horse, can I use it in my film?"

Easy enough question, you would say. But this is a film student. Ever hear the expression "two people separated by a common language?"

Or, better yet, "the devil is in the details."

"What will your horse do," I asked?
"It will be coming into the barn," she replied.
"Will an actor be riding it," I queried?
"Yes," she readily admitted.

"Okay," I said. "What you will need to do is contact American Humane and get the name and number of a reputable horse trainer. Work with him or her and your actor until both the horse and the performer are comfortable with one another."

She dutifully jotted down what I said and assured me she would do as I suggested. I continued on with the seminar.

Six weeks passed.

One day she strode into my office and asked: "Remember me?"
"Yes," I said. "The horse-in-the-barn lady."
"Right. And I'm ready to shoot."

We went over the requirements for filming with animals and she had done everything I had asked her to do. We were all set to go.

And then, out of sheer dumb luck, or maybe an instinct developed over a thousand conversations with film students, I asked: "How does the horse actually enter the barn?" I simply meant, did it walk, did it trot, or did it gallop?

She said, "Oh... it crashes through the window."

Yikes... gulp...

She had seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, True Lies, and been inspired by a scene in which Schwarzenegger rode a horse into a glass elevator on the side of the hotel. Unfortunately for her, her budget and timeframe was considerably shorter than that of James Cameron who directed the film.

I explained the complexities of training a horse, any horse, to jump through wood and glass, even breakaway wood and candy glass. She had also never bothered to mention her plans to the owner of the barn, nor explain, nor account for "scoring" the wall to break, be replaced and busted again. The term "scoring" in this context, as opposed to scoring the music for a film, means pre-cutting something so it will give on a small amount of contact. She had neither the time nor the money to accomplish her surprisingly complex vision. And apparently her communication skills were of a somewhat limited nature as well.

I am reasonably sure, somewhere out there in Southern California, there is a barn owner, a stuntman, an animal trainer, a carpenter and an actor who is happy I asked that last question.

Somewhere, out there in Southern California, I am positive, there is a horse that is glad I asked that last question.

You can't ask too many questions... you can only ask too few.