The other day I read a list of fun facts about “The Wizard of Oz,” one of which was “reports suggest each Munchkin earned $50 per week, while Toto bagged $125 per week.”
The notion that animals out-earn their human counterparts is one I hear occasionally, most often from a low-budget producer who is balking at the idea that an animal might earn more than he does…
I thought perhaps it would be useful if I explained some of what goes into the animal team budget, and why it sometimes seems like an animal is earning more than a human:
Nine times out of ten, this just is not true. On all but the smallest jobs, the actors earn more, often far more than the animals.
Animals and trainers get no residuals. The actors may earn twenty times more in the years to come than they did on the day, while the animal team earns nothing after that day;
The animal fee includes more than one animal, often 3 or 4 per character;
The animal fee is divided between at least 2 on-set trainers;
The animal fee subsidizes employees back at the ranch caring for the other animals;
The animal fee includes weeks or months of prep time spent training and rehearsing the scenes. You can just tell an actor to climb the ladder, but it may take weeks to train an animal to climb the same ladder;
Animals never earn more: even when we are working on 100M movie and the actors are getting millions each, the animals and trainers are getting essentially the same amount that may have seemed large on a tiny production. So the actor or producer will climb the ladder and earn far more later in his career to average out the small paying early jobs, while the animal has to earn a fair and livable wage on every project;
It is quite expensive to feed even a few large carnivores per day;
The animal team often works longer hours than actors: after wrap, the cast and much of the crew may go out for drinks and then back to the hotel. We are feeding, exercising, walking, grooming, picking up poop, changing bedding, and repairing tack, and then we may get up hours before anyone else to take the animals out for some exercise before filming begins;
The animal team works 7 days per week: when almost everyone else gets a day off, we still need to be taking care of the animals, feeding, and practicing with them so they are ready for their next scene;
An animal and trainer may have spent years of unpaid training to be ready;
Sometimes the animal simply has a bigger part. For example, Toto had a more central and larger role than any Munchkin and appeared in almost every scene of the movie, or Lassie or RinTinTin who put more butts in seats than most human actors;
Sometimes the animal is extremely expensive to secure: there are countless actors available to play any role, there may only be a few snow leopards in the world;
Often the animal has more experience and better credits;
Transport: most actors drive to set in a Prius or get a ride from production while the animal team needs a large truck and/or trailer to transport animals and keep them comfortable and safe throughout the day;
Facilities: many animals cannot be kept in an apartment, or even a typical house, so large acreages of expensive land are required;
The animal department has a huge array of tools that need to be purchased and maintained. Brushes, leashes, cages, beepers, clickers, looksticks, etc;
Permits and licensing fees to legally keep animals and work them in the film industry are considerable;
Animal companies need to maintain considerable insurance;
Hazard compensation: working with animals generally means getting kicked, bitten, and scratched. Often times it means working with animals that are easily capable of killing a person;
Supply/Demand: every movie needs actors, only a few need animals. This means that even the best animals may only work 20 days in their lifetime;
After filming is complete, the animal trainer has to pay to feed and care for the animal for its lifetime, even if she never gets another job. Veterinary care, enrichment, vitamins, housing, food, etc.
So on most jobs the human actors really earn far more than the animals. Even on days when it may appear that a single animal is making “more” money than many of the people on set, it is quite rare that the net profit of any individual person or animal in the animal department exceeds that of most actors. In fact, if you look at most animal companies, it is rare that there is a net profit. Most companies do this work because they love the animals and want to spend their days playing with them, and this work supports that passion, so none of this is a complaint! We love what we do, and wanted to explain a few of the reasons that typical industry animal rates are what they are…
The Story of Making of the Greatest Music Video Ever from the Talented Animals Perspective
A few years ago I was in a meeting about an upcoming television show when the director took me aside and said to me, “My brother is in a band, and I have an idea for a great video that would need animals, could we get together and talk about this sometime?” I grinned and said sure, knowing that everybody in Los Angeles has a relative in a band, and the odds of anything ever coming of that conversation were slim…
It was over a year later that Trish called and suggested that they were getting close and would like to set up a meeting to brainstorm ideas. She casually mentioned that her brother Damian was the lead singer in the band OK Go, the most downloaded band in history, and I ‘might’ have seen a few of their previous videos like the ubiquitous treadmill dance…
Damian explained that they had been dreaming of this video for years, but that so far they had been unable to find an animal trainer with the right combination of skills, experience, and unfettered creativity to help them succeed. “We want to make a video in which the dogs are the stars, Damian said. “We want the band members to support the dogs and dance with the dogs, and we want it to be magical and charming and something that has never been done before. No canine ‘agility’, ‘freestyle,’ or ‘obedience.’ And no cutsey tricks or circus acts. Something new.
“No problem,” said I. “The trainers and animals at Talented Animals are the best in the world, and if it is physically possible, we can do it.”
For the next several hours we all sat around throwing out ideas and getting more and more excited: we had come up with some really great ideas that seemed achievable in a short of amount of time and we all thought would make a great video. Then Damian said something that sent a chill up my spine: “Oh, by the way, this will be done in one take, with no cuts…” Now for those of you who have never worked an animal on film, we use cuts and optimal camera angles for everything. They are the tools that let us succeed. Without cuts, the animals would have to all work at the same time with their trainers far away, and we would need to get each dog and trainer and bandmember and crewmember to nail every single behavior all in the same take. Not bloody likely.
For the next several hours I patiently explained why we needed cuts in this video. That we could do many more things with cuts than without, that we could nail the video in a few days because each dog would do their behavior in isolation and would only have to be perfect for 10 seconds at a time, but that 12 dogs and a goat could not all work together without a mistake for over three minutes straight. And Damian patiently explained that one of the things that defined this video was that it was not going to rely on cuts or tricks or camera magic—it was going to be a continuous dance without cuts and we would have to work within that constraint…
Over a year passed and we were together again for two intense weeks of choreography and planning. Three dogs and two trainers sat in a small warehouse in downtown LA with the band, and Trish the choreographer, for two weeks of nonstop, delightful brainstorming.
Another year passed as we all worked to get schedules and finances and everything else to come together, and finally in the spring of 2010 we were ready to get started.
We developed an almost entirely new language for this video. Each of the 21 “sections” of the video had a name. Each prop had a name, and most of the animal behaviors had names. We would spend much of the day saying things like, “Can Sequel other foot Tim before he chung chungs over the popcorn wangs?”
Then we needed to select ideal dogs, find a location, and so much more… After looking at several options, we decided Oregon was the best place to film this video: beautiful, no sales tax, excellent production resources, inexpensive housing, perfect summer weather, less bureaucracy, and of course Talented Animals has one of its main facilities in Oregon.
The Oregon Film Office was extremely helpful in finding housing for the band, recommending skilled and flexible crewmembers, and best of all securing an amazing location to film the video!
We had only four weeks total to make the video from beginning to end: two weeks to train the dogs, one week to rehearse with the band, and one week to film it. Or so we thought! Once we started, we discovered that much of the first two weeks needed to be spent figuring out the trainer choreography! We had 12 trainers, two furniture movers, 12 dogs, one goat, 38 buckets, and a bunch of furniture, all of which needed to move around and be in the right place at the right time without anyone stepping in front of camera. We ended up with stuffed animals, spreadsheets, flow-charts, and recorded audio instructions, and for many hours we tried various configurations until we finally found one that worked. And then we practiced and practiced.
Of course, at the same time we were training the dogs. Most of the behaviors were not that challenging to teach, it was the transitions and the positioning that were complicated. And it was essential that the dogs were at all times having a truly joyous experience, so there were lots of breaks to go run in the field, take a nap, or splash in the pool.
Then Damian, Tim, Andy, Dan, and Trish arrived… Since we had been rehearsing without them we needed to learn how to work with band actually dancing their parts, and they needed to learn to work with the dogs. The band and Trish are about the most wonderful team to work with that you could ever imagine. They are creative, collaborative, generous, imaginative, kind, and just all around fun. They are also serious and consummate professionals. I hate to tarnish the “slacker-rockstar” trope, but these guys work harder than you can imagine, and bust their asses to make their videos perfect, and we had no intention of letting them down! We ran through the whole routine a couple of times for them with stuffed animals and then showed them the pieces with dogs, and while they loved 80% of it, there were several parts that were not quite as magical in execution as they had seemed in concept. So we began tweaking those parts. The challenge was that each person had a specific place to be at every moment, so each time we made a slight change there was a ripple effect. Suddenly people were on the wrong side of the stage, or could not get to where they needed to be to perform their next behavior, or were crashing into one another. It was chaos again! As the days ticked by, we kept making changes and the routine kept getting better and better. But we were running out of time, and while each behavior was solid, we could no longer string them all together. Finally we put them together, but at half speed, and then we began steadily increasing the speed.
With four days left, we got out the slate and tried our first official take at full speed and with everything in place. We made it about half way before a mistake. Then again, and again, and again. Many times we were virtually perfect, but we just got too far off the beat. Or we would get to the end and the dogs would be out of sync with each other. Or a dog would not have time to make it to his next position.
Take 49 was our first true success. It was not perfect, but we made it to the end without any real mistakes and still in sync with the song. “OH MY GOD,” Trish whispered breathlessly, “We did it…” And every person in the room finally exhaled!
After Take 49 we got better and better. Sure, we still all made mistakes, and there were more than a few dropped buckets, chair collisions, and the like.
At around Take 60, a new challenge arose. The dogs all knew the pattern perfectly, and absolutely loved doing it, and they started going too fast. They would rush ahead of the routine and run to their next behavior, and instead of getting behind the beat we were now starting to get ahead of it, or have dogs running onto the stage before it was their turn. Every few takes we would have to stop and do one at half speed to remind the dogs that they had to wait for the right moment before they could perform.
First thing on the morning of the third day, we began Take 72, and by about the midpoint, we could all feel that it was going really, really well. Each piece had been solid, and the rhythm and timing felt great. Everyone was fresh and looked good. This might be it….. As we ticked off each challenging moment it felt more and more like this might be it, and by the final scene when all the dogs were lying on tables next to the band, there was a silent vibration in the room. None of us were moving, or breathing, as Damian finally lifted his head and said, “We got it!” We had all agreed early on that no matter what happened, we would not erupt into a loud cheer as we did not want the energy of that to startle or alarm any of the dogs, and everyone honored that agreement, but it may have been the loudest silent cheer ever! And the dogs absolutely participated. We were all hugging, laughing, quietly jumping up and down, high-fiving, and hugging our dogs in absolute gratitude! They had done it, and we all knew it!
One of the biggest challenges of having no cuts in a video comes at the end when you have to pick! By the end, we had filmed for three and a half days and 124 takes. We had 30 complete takes, of which 10 were deemed excellent. And in each of these takes there were magical moments, but we could not concatenate them into one ideal, we had to discard every take except one, even knowing that in some of the discards were some of our very best work. That is painful! For a brief moment I thought about going to Damian one more time and trying to persuade him to cut them together into one supertake with all the best moments. But then I watched Take 72 again, and I saw exactly what Damian had imagined years earlier—one uninterrupted dance between OK Go and 12 amazing dogs. There was something so special about NOT having “cheated.” Somehow it came across on screen that this was real and had integrity. This three-and-a-half minutes of unedited truth allows the viewer to connect with the band and the dogs and essentially experience the dance exactly as it was, and that is far more genuine and touching than any perfectly-polished and cut-together special effects extravaganza.
We have been fortunate enough to work on many wonderful projects: independent art films, $100M blockbuster movies, and just about everything in between. We have worked with some of the great directors and actors in the world, and the most amazing animals. But I cannot think of any project we have enjoyed more than this one, nor any project of which we are more proud. I hope from the bottom of my heart that watching it brings you as much joy as it has brought all of us who worked together to create it!
Note: It is very difficult for music videos to generate any revenue. Making a video like this takes considerable resources: there are a lot of people and animals and equipment and props, travel, lodging, etc., and this comes directly out of the pockets of the bandmembers. So please, if you enjoyed this song, video, and dogs, purchase the album or go see Ok Go in concert.
We got a call for a project that needed an antelope lifting his head suddenly on cue. Easy enough…
But they had previously hired another company who had failed because getting to the studio required riding in an elevator and the antelope would not get on the elevator. According to the producer who called us, they had tried to push and pull their antelope onto the elevator, and he had bucked, kicked, flailed, and generally had a frightening fit! The producer was understandably very concerned that the same thing not happen again because they had wasted a LOT of money that day having the entire crew waiting…
I said, “No worries, we need a week to train.” He argued that it was a really easy scene, and I explained that the week was to train him to enjoy the elevator, and that I would not take the job with less.
I got the job, and for the next five days we took our antelope to town to play on elevators. For the entire first day we never asked him to get on an elevator, but he got treats and praise for approaching the elevator and had a great time, and we practiced walking him over a piece of carpeting in a doorway. We moved his feet all over and around the elevator entrance and released pressure whenever he got near to the elevator. The second day he learned to trot into the elevator over the same piece of carpet and right back out. The third day the door closed and then opened right away, etc… By the end of the week he was leading perfectly onto several different elevators and happily riding up and down, and a lot of people thought we were crazy…
We went to the soundstage the next week, where we met with the producer and went up to the studio. Of course, Gamble led onto the elevator and rode perfectly and walked into the studio and nailed the shot. The man smirked at me and said, “I can’t believe you charged me for a week of training when obviously your antelope has no problem riding the elevator.”
I tried and tried to explain to him that IF I had shown up the week before and attempted to force Gamble onto the elevator he would have behaved exactly as the other animal did, but no amount of arguing would convince him. I had taken some video of the prep, so I could have shown him the hours of work, but at no point during the prep did we try to force Gamble, so there was never a confrontation, never a moment that looked like there was a problem, never a moment in which Gamble was not having a good time. Because, as in most animal training, the best path to success was for me to be smart enough to manipulate the situation so that Gamble was able to succeed without ever really knowing that there was even an issue.
If we do our jobs well as animal trainers, it creates the absolutely untrue illusion that we are doing nothing–animal trainers generally only look like heroes when they have allowed something to fail and then appear to be saving the day…