Published on 06 April 2022 in Career

Working with Animals: what you need to know

In March, we were thrilled to host director Andy Hay, actor Nicholas Ralph and animal handler Dean Clark for a session on working with animals on the set of All Creatures Great and Small.

In a fantastic session led by director Ruth Carney, who also had experience working on the set of All Creatures Great and Small, the expert panel talked through how they put together a major TV success story — all with the help of the animal kingdom!

Below, you can read a refresher on their discussion, including tips on animal handlers and how they work, and other things to consider if you're thinking of working with animals on your next project.

Animal Handlers: What do they do, and why do you need one?

  • Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which applies in England and Wales, those responsible for an animal have a duty of care to provide for the animal's needs.

  • Productions should adhere to the RSCPA’s guidelines for the use of animals on set, which is available to download for free here.

  • While not legally required, an animal handler and a vet should be present on the set – or at least available to ring on the phone.

  • Animal handlers are essential for the animal’s welfare – to make sure that the animals is safe and not scared.

  • An animal handler’s role is to make sure animals are looked after, and introduce them on set.

  • However, animal handlers are also important for actors, so that they feel safe with the animals and know that they aren’t distressing it. This puts performers at ease and helps positively effect performance.

  • Animal handlers can also help source appropriate and properly trained animals for the shoot.

  • Animal handlers are also beneficial for insurance purposes.

Filming with animals – getting prepared

  • It’s important before shooting that you are absolutely prepped and clear on the story you want to tell with the animal, so that everyone is ready.

  • However, you will also need to be flexible. When an animal wants to do something, it will, and if it doesn’t, it won’t. So you need to be able to move with it. Proper prep will be able to help with building a platform for that flexibility.

  • In the making of All Creatures Great and Small, the cast did an animal bootcamp at the start of production – getting to know the animals, and learning the safe areas to stand.

  • You need to have discussions with animal handlers well in advance of shooting, to make sure your animal cast is adequately trained and sourced. For example, if you are shooting a battle sequence, you need to know you have specifically trained horses which can handle noise, pyrotechnics, and crowds.

  • Your 1st AD is even more invaluable when you’re planning to work with animals. Have detailed discussions with them in advance on exactly how they will be used.

  • Bare in mind that there are also scheduling implications with certain animals. For example, under current rules, any animal with a cloven-hoof needs to be quarantined at your filming location for 7 days, and then for 7 days afterwards. A pig will need 21 days. Check in with your animal expert well in advance to make sure you don’t have any nasty schedule surprises.

  • Just like their human counterparts, animal actors often need a form of “rehearsal” off set, going through the scene in advance. This means that, where possible, animals are introduced to the set early in the day.

  • It’s also beneficial to schedule “meet and greets” for any actor and animal-actor sharing a scene, so that they can get to know and become comfortable with each other.

Filming with animals –when the camera rolls

  • Remember that a happy animal is more likely to listen, and less likely to cause trouble.

  • Remember that animals also need breaks and time-outs throughout the working day.

  • Animals can be used for wider shots or when non-specific detail is required. For any close-ups of specific or unusual detail (ie. an injury), prosthetics are recommended.

  • A good animal prosthetic will have some movement function incorporated – a twitching ear or a throbbing vein, for example.

  • Naturally, when shooting veterinary scenes, you cannot shoot any treatment an animal doesn’t require and which you are not trained to provide.

  • To get around this you can use props, creative camerawork and documentary footage.

  • You sometimes need animals to act distressed, without actually making them distressed. Consider how use of sound can give this impression instead. Be a creative problem-solver.

  • Sometimes, animal handlers will need to be costumed and form part of the scene to help look after and direct the animal. (Leading to a fun game you can play when watching All Creatures Great and Small – can you spot animal handler Dean Clark?)

  • Take care when filming with drones. Most pre-trained animals will be familiar with drones, however it’s recommended that they be kept further away and kept out of the animals’ eyelines, as animals can be distracted or startled by the sound.

  • In the final product, animal sequences can often be a collage of real footage you’ve shot, incorporated documentary footage, props and VFX. Embrace what you can in service of the story.

Working with badgers

  • Don’t even think about it!
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