A Behind the Scenes Look At Briards in Film
by Christi Leigh
The making of Top Dog sounds simple, right? Just team up a Briard, a canine with the utmost in intelligence and personality, with action adventure star Chuck Norris for a big screen hit!
But making a film like Top Dog happen is anything but simple. It took not one but three Briards to make the character of “Reno” come to life as the irresistible canine co-star of the hit movie (at least it was a hit with us Briard lovers).
“Getting your dog into the movies is not all that easy,” says Bonnie Judd founder of Canine Co-stars an organization in Vancouver, British Columbia that supplies animals for movies, television and independent films. “The production company will ask to see pictures of small, short-haired, black dogs, for example, and then choose the exact opposite because they are tired of looking at pictures of small, short-haired, black dogs.” Or “they will choose a breed that the producer or director lived with as a kid. Everyone has a soft spot in their heart for the dog they grew up with.” Usually, that is not a Briard. On occasion they will ask for a dog with certain talents (rather than specifying the look of the dog) or they might ask her for a dog that they have worked with before because the interaction was successful. Rarer still, a director may just see a dog that he likes and have the writers add a part for the dog.
Bonnie vividly remembers the day when her Briard, Mayhem (star of I’ll Be Home for Christmas) landed the part of Cousin Its’ dog in the made for television series The New Adams Family. “The production company wanted an Afghan hound. I made my way to the studio with my portfolio of Afghan hound pictures, Mayhem in tow. Mayhem goes everywhere with me. Mayhem went bounding up the stairs to greet the crew, and they fell in love.” They said to me, “Mayhem is the perfect dog for Cousin It. We have to have this dog.”
But to play Cousin Its’ dog (call name “Them” in the series) Mayhem had to undergo a bit of a transformation. They wanted the dog to match the color of Cousin Its’ hair. Bonnie was not willing to dye Mayhem, but chalked him down everyday before shooting with a dark brown chalk instead.
Bonnie notes that there are just some things she is not willing to do just to get a part. In a recent series of “auditions” she showed Mayhem to the production crew in all of his brushed-out, highly groomed glory. On the “call backs,” they asked her to bring the dog when he was not brushed out and a little dirty. So she did, and then they wanted to know if they could cut his hair. That is where she drew the line. “No, they can not cut his hair,” Bonnie says.
“I receive emails every day from people who want to get their dog into the movies,” says Bonnie. “Usually they think that having their dog in the movies will make them money.” But they are not aware that “making a movie with a dog is a monstrous project.” She almost always puts in eighteen-hour days and goes many days without pay waiting for the next project to roll in. If she is not feeding, grooming, or training the dogs (which takes about eighteen hours a day), she is busy marketing them for new projects.
“When we are working on a project, I am up at 4:30 AM getting everything ready for the day,” she says. Bonnie prepares steak, chicken, and weiners as treats for the dogs (her steak budget was about $500.00 every ten days when she was working on Air Bud III). She packs leashes, collars, blankets, toys, and noisemakers. She loads a 24-foot trailer (outfitted with a loveseat, crates, air conditioning, and heat) with the dogs that will be shooting that day, and then usually drives a couple hours to get to the set.
Once she is on the set, there is a lot of hurry up and wait. “When they want you they want you,” says Bonnie. “I have to make sure the dogs are groomed, watered, pottied and ready to go at the right moment.”
Bonnie checks with the director first thing in the morning to determine what dogs are needed for the shots that will be filmed that day. Then, she learns the pattern. “Every shot is basically a pattern, like the patterns that dog’s learn in agility.” In fact, she says that animal acting is kind of like a master agility run where the dog is sent to do the pattern without the handler. The dog has to move from point to point on queue. For example, the dog may need to stand by a kid on one side of the street, then run over to a woman with a shopping cart, and then chase a car. Bonnie learns this pattern first without the dog.
The other thing that Bonnie has to determine is where she can stand when the shot is being filmed. For that she checks with the director of photography. He tells her where the cameras will be located in relation to the dog and where she can stand to remain out of the shot but in sight of the dog.
Only then does she take the dog to the set to teach the pattern to the dog. She teaches the pattern with verbal commands sometimes as simple as “one” for when the dog stands by the kid, “two” for when the dog runs over to the lady with the shopping cart, and “three” for when the dog chases the car. After awhile, the verbal command is not necessary; the dog will just do it every time by himself. In fact, Bonnie says that three to five times through the pattern as practice and the dog has it.
So how on earth can they learn that fast? Her reply is that the dogs are always working. They are always looking for the pattern, and because the dogs are constantly being trained, they understand how to learn. Most pets do not get the kind of consistency and consistent patterns when they are being trained. The owners are not consistent. “Their life is not consistent, and there is no pattern for the dog to find.”
Bonnie starts her training with obedience tricks. The dogs learn to sit, lie down, stand, go to a mark (point), go to another person who is stationary, and go with a person who is moving. Bonnie has to be able to work the dog when it is 12 to 20 feet away from her. She teaches them to back up, go left, go right, move forward, lay on a side, and put the head down. She notes that “the dog has to have a good temperament.” She works alone with the dog, and then she works with the dog in crowded areas so that in the midst of the chaos of making a film, the dog can still concentrate and focus in on the reward. (verbal rewards, treats, and play time with toys).
For more advanced training, Bonnie keys in on behaviors that the dog already displays. For example, like every Briard, Mayhem could be found at times sleeping on his back with his feet straight up in the air. Bonnie started associating a command with that behavior and praising the dog for doing it. Pretty soon Mayhem learned the command, and when Bonnie tells him “sleep upside down,” he lies down on his back and sticks his feet straight up in the air. She taught him to sneeze on command and snarl using the same technique.
So when scenes have to be shot over and over because of human actor’s “bloopers” (which we get to see now at the end of many films), the dog is usually the one who is right on queue. “The only actor who doesn’t need to do it over and over again is Mayhem,” Bonnie says. “He just gets it, like mental telepathy or something.”
Nevertheless, there are times when the technical challenges are vast. Timing is everything. Bonnie has to guard against getting the dog worn out or letting the dog get bored. She cannot have the dog on the set when she is doing other things (like talking to the director). The dog learns that when he is on the set he is working, and he has her complete, undivided, attention (that is part of the reward). She can never let the dog think that there are times when he goes to the set and does not work. In fact, the “star” canine doesn’t spend that much time on the set. She takes the dog to learn the pattern and then puts the dog up. Another dog will be used for things like lighting checks and sound checks. Sometimes even for practice until the human actors get it right.
Other challenges involve working the dog without verbal commands (if there is dialogue between the human actors and the dialogue will not be dubbed in) and working the dog when you cannot see him. Scenes where a dog comes running into a room require two handlers. One handler sends the dog into the room and the other handler (standing in a corner of the room) directs the dog while he is in the room.
And then there are the body doubles. Yes, human actors use them and so do animal actors. It is a matter of efficiency and safety. If a canine is the star of a film, the insurance company that covers the production will insist that a back-up for the dog is available. That way, if anything happens to the dog while the movie is being filmed (on or off of the set), the production can continue. Plus, there are usually several camera crews working at the same time on any given day of shooting. With only one dog, the dog and handler will get pretty worn out running back and forth between crews. One crew may be shooting the scenes that involve the human actors and the dog while another crew may be shooting scenes that involve the dog in background shots or doggy mob scenes.
“Mayhem had a character part in the movie Air Bud III,” says Bonnie. He was the dog who lies around the gas station and watches over everyone. It involved several close-ups with lots of expression. At one point in the movie, a mob of dogs goes running down the street, and the audience sees Mayhem joining the mob of dogs running down the street. But, it is not Mayhem. It is Chaos (a little girl Briard that Bonnie got about a year ago) who runs along with the pack. She calls Chaos her “stunt puppy.” With the role that Mayhem was playing, Bonnie could not afford to have him running along with all of the other dogs with the possibility that he could injure himself. So, little Chaos was used instead (of course no one was injured but prevention is everything).
Ironically, the first movie ever produced was filmed by Thomas Edison on his new-found contraption, the movie camera, and it featured Buster, a small dog performing tricks for the camera. The movie industry was alerted then about how animals can enrapture audiences and drive profits up. Briard owner Patricia Martin said recently, “The movie Top Dog of course says it all! If you haven’t seen it, rent it on video. Not only is the star of the movie a Briard, they caught all of the traits of the breed as well. Chuck Norris has a supporting role.” It is exactly this type of sentiment that moviemakers are targeting, hoping to carve out a big chunk of the wildly lucrative animal lovers film market. After all, like Patricia, you would go to see a movie if it had a Briard in it, wouldn’t you? I know I do!