Part II of Clicking the Canine Actor
More and more people are teaching their dogs a variety of clever and unusual actions and behaviors commonly presented as "tricks." To give more entertainment value to tricks, one evolutionary step would be to make movies using these actions and behaviors, along with the dog's entire trained repertoire, to tell a story. Movies are fun to create and fun for audiences to watch.
Internet websites are teeming with videos of people showing tricks they have trained their dog(s) to perform. These videos have become widespread and commonplace. As a natural progression in the evolutionary process and to add entertainment value, many trainers are doing performances where they link a number of tricks together in some sort of theme, others are using tricks in musical canine freestyle routines, and some are producing movies.
Creating stories for movies that use the dog’s entire trained repertoire opens up new opportunities and challenges for dog training enthusiasts as well as a whole new field of entertainment possibilities. Even if everyone used the same actions, behaviors, and tricks, each movie would be unique because each moviemaker would put their own spin on a story and each dog’s trained actions and behaviors would be used in different contexts. Well-conceived, well-acted dog movies evoke emotions in the viewer, making them memorable. Movies are also a way to preserve, in a fun-to-watch format, all that a beloved dog has been trained to do, whether for limited viewing or to be put on the Internet for the entire world to see.
I have always been intrigued by dog actors and have been making movies of my own dogs for many years. I write scripts to fit each dog’s personality, creating scenes where my dogs’ actions and behaviors tell the story, using trained behaviors that look like emotions to make their performances believable. I also try to capture any spontaneous action my dogs might do that highlights the uniqueness of their personalities as I can often use these to enhance a scene.
In my article Clicking the Canine Actor (January ’09) written for the German-language Clicker Magazine, I related what type of things I train my dogs for "acting" in their movies. In this article, I will take the reader through constructing a short movie.
1) Start with a concept for the story (what will the story be about?) Is it a comedy or drama, action flick or an adaptation of a well-known story?
In most movies, the visual content and dialog are what develops a story. Dialog and imagery are used to foreshadow what’s to come later in the movie: this setting-up takes time. One way to shorten the process is to narrate the story and let each clip in the movie illustrate the words. This allows us to use narration to tell the audience what is happening rather than taking the time to visually lead them to a reason the dog is doing a specific action or behavior. However, the visual aspects in the movie should be so well-conceived that the story can stand on its own without narration.
After the initial image begins the story, we need to be introduced to the characters. We need information about their situation: "Where are they?" "What’s going on?" Then, some event needs to start the story. This is the catalyst which begins the action in the story. Once that happens, the audience then knows what the story is about. In our "furry tale" of Hansel and Gretel, once the dogs have decided to run away from home, the audience knows that the consequence of their decision can put them in grave danger. This raises the central question: "Will they overcome their challenges and find their way back home?" Once that question is raised, the setup is complete. The story is now ready to unfold.
In even the shortest story, there are usually three acts: Act One raises the central question, "What is the movie about?" A catalyst occurs that triggers the main character(s) to take an action that starts the sequence of events. Act Two is the action in the story that is precipitated by the catalyst in Act One. Act Three is the climax of the story followed by a short resolution that ties up loose ends.
We’ve written our script, made our storyboard, and trained our dogs to perform the behaviors needed for the movie. We are now ready to begin shooting. To make a movie, a bare minimum of two people is needed: one to work with the dog(s) and one to run the camera. My husband and I have been doing this successfully for over ten years. Even better would be one more person to hold lights and do other "helper" jobs. Working with more than one dog in a shot (as I often do) can be a challenge. The director of the movie Beethoven II, which is about two Saint Bernards and several puppies, once said, "Working with more than one dog in a scene isn’t double the trouble, it’s 100 times the trouble." And . . . big-screen movies have lots of handlers to work their dogs!
These "Five Essential Positions" were dispersed throughout the movie:
1) Ground level
When preparing to shoot, visualize how a first-time audience will see your movie. What information do they need in that shot to understand what is going on? Give them this and no more. Wide shots are needed in some scenes to orient the audience to where the characters are located. Close
up shots show the dog actor's expression. Think of what the audience needs to see in order to understand the scene. Think about where each shot needs to go in order to link up with the next one in the scene. A well-structured scene will often have its own three acts, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
For instance, if you have two clips that are vital to the story that must be adjacent, but you find they make a jump cut when put together, having a cutaway shot or a close-up to go in-between the two clips will often make them usable. Also, when you log video footage into the computer, capture all clips that look good even though you think they won't fit in your script. These odd shots have an unexpected way of being “just right” for something you need in a sequence.
Once you have all the camera shots captured into your video editing program and have edited them into their correct sequence, turn the sound off and look at just the visual story as if you were a complete stranger seeing it for the first time. Would this stranger be able to understand what is going on just by watching the movie without sound? If you are satisfied they could, add narration and sound effects. Finally, put in carefully selected music to enhance and complement the ambience of your story. Music adds power and unity to your visual scene.
Hansel and Gretel lived in a nice house. Their family loved them dearly, and they had lots of toys to play with. Hansel was very good to his sister and always took care of her. Gretel felt like a princess and thought she should always do just as she pleased. And . . . she was NOT pleased to share toys. If Hansel had a toy, Gretel wanted that one too. Gretel wanted ALL of the toys.
One day, Hansel and Gretel were reading books.
(In the Woods Scene)
Gretel trotted happily through the woods . . . with Hansel following.
(The Woodsman Scene)
Soon, they came to a clearing. A woodsman was sitting by a campfire cooking bacon.
(Hansel Saving Gretel Scene)
After her frightening experience, Gretel vowed never to run away again.
Hansel and Gretel - a furry tale
The part of Hansel was played by Jyah
Camera and technical support by Glenn Dunlap
Music by: Gene Michal Productions, CSS Music, Fresh Music
Copyright February 1, 2009
Angle shot with foreground framing
Behind tree shot with foreground framing