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Animals are at the center of their own practical-vs.-digital effects debate

Where Jackass, Y: The Last Man, PETA, and an entire Hollywood industry collide

a man being thrown in the air by a bull with a graphic arrow pointing at the bull and the words “NOT CGI” in a box by the arrow Image: Sean Cliver/Paramount Pictures via Polygon

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Many a wisenheimer movie buff has compared Johnny Knoxville to silent-era greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The commonality is reality, and the difference is pain. Whereas Keaton put himself under the falling façade of a house, only to come out unscathed thanks to a well-placed window, Jackass frontman Johnny Knoxville would prefer himself crushed — as long as he can get back up and endanger himself again. Still, it’s part of a continuum.

In the franchise’s 20-plus years, however, one complaint against Jackass’ brand of yes-this-is-real stunt comedy lingers, and it’s cropping up again in anticipation of Jackass Forever, the group’s fourth feature film. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) doesn’t care if Knoxville wants to light Steve-O’s flatulence on fire underwater, but the animal rights organization won’t sit quietly when the fraternity of pranksters wrangles a rampaging bull for its particular brand of showmanship. In January, PETA issued the following statement (which representatives for Jackass Forever and Paramount Pictures declined to comment on for this story):

Johnny Knoxville can choose to retire from dangerous stunts, but the bulls, bears, snakes, and other animals tormented for movies like Jackass Forever are the real victims who spend their entire lives facing harassment and often deprivation and harm at the hands of Hollywood trainers. Paramount Pictures should know that animal exploitation doesn’t belong on a 2022 movie screen, and PETA is calling on moviegoers to stay away from this sordid sideshow.

The weekend of the film’s release, PETA went one further, calling for an investigation into criminal charges on the basis that the production may have broken [California] animal protection laws. “PETA is reminding city and county prosecutors that no one is above the law,” said PETA senior vice president Lisa Lange said in an additional statement, “and that while the rest of the world wants to save bees and recognizes animals as sentient individuals, these jackasses exploit and abuse them for fun.”

The Jackass Forever debacle, in an unlikely way, feels like the end of an era — one when animals could even casually share the screen with human cohabitants. We are at a tipping point in the making of movies and television: Visual effects artists have become so good at using computer-generated imaging tools to recreate reality that a common part of filmmaking craft may soon be obsolete. Fake animals — for now, exotic ones like tigers and monkeys, but soon, plain old dogs and cats — are becoming so indistinguishable from real ones on screen that producers may soon weigh the cost of hiring on-set handlers, leaving the next Trigger, Beethoven, or Clyde the Orangutan on the unemployment line. Having spoken with experts, the industry’s pivot to CG animals seems like less of an “if” than a “when.” It’s what many want, while sitting in contrast to many an auteur’s push for “practical” effects.

The Horse In Motion (or Sallie Gardner at a Gallop) by Eadweard Muybridge Image: Eadweard Muybridge

The animal kingdom has been a principal subject for artists since the prehistoric days of the Lascaux caves. Nine out of 10 historians agree that the very first motion picture is The Horse in Motion (or Sallie Gardner at a Gallop) from 1878, a series of images from multiple cameras that British inventor Eadweard Muybridge lined up in his “zoöpraxiscope” in order to depict a thoroughbred’s gait. Unfortunately, the relationship between filmmakers and great beasts soon became grisly. In 1903, cameramen from the Edison film company went to Coney Island, New York, to record the well-attended murder of Topsy, an elephant that had attacked a drunken man who burned her trunk with a cigar. The resulting 74-second film, Electrocuting an Elephant, proves that the early 20th century could have used some different hobbies. (The only silver lining is that it went on to inspire a Bob’s Burgers musical.)

Early moviemaking was the Wild West, and the welfare of animals was given little consideration. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt’s “Running W,” used in the 1939 movie Stagecoach, was a brutal device that delivered results at a tremendous cost.

“They would drill holes in the front horseshoes and run a wire up to the reins,” stunt coordinator Steve Dent explained to The Telegraph in 2016, speaking about the Running W’s use in 1959’s Ben-Hur. “Then when the horse’s front feet were up mid-gallop the rider would pull and the horse’s feet would stay up. Or they’d gallop horses into pits that were about eight feet deep.” In 1940, the Darryl F. Zanuck-produced film Jesse James featured a horse who was forced to leap off a 70-foot cliff. For his hard work, the horse was then shot.

The Jesse James incident led to the group known as American Humane (different from the Humane Society) to create its first Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media, and the establishment of the famous “No Animals Were Harmed” stamp of approval. By 1980, an American Humane signoff on any animal appearance — from aardvark to zebra, from gorilla to ant — was codified in a Producer-Screen Actors Guild agreement.

This brings us to today, and something that a senior publicist at Industrial Light and Magic was very eager to make sure I saw. In an interview with Den of Geek, Y: The Last Man showrunner Eliza Clark said that when it came time for American Humane to give its seal of approval, the organization said, “Well, we can sign off on the horse, and we can sign off on the dog. But we weren’t there when you shot with the monkey.”

Members of the group weren’t there because there was no monkey.

Yorick sits alone on a tree branch in Y: The Last Man
Yorick and a sketch of Ampersand the Monkey sit on a tree branch in Y: The Last Man
Yorick and a 3D model of Ampersand the Monkey sit on a tree branch in Y: The Last Man
Yorrick and a finished ampersand the monkey sit on a tree branch Images: Industrial Light & Magic

An unaired pilot for Y: The Last Man, shot in 2019, actually used a real capuchin monkey for the part of Ampersand, sidekick to the show’s apocalypse-surviving protagonist. But when it was time to retool and reshoot the series, the decision was made to go with a CG lookalike. As Clark told Polygon last year, this freed actors up to not worry about showing their teeth, which is a no-no with a capuchin monkey. And Disney’s 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox, and the FX brand, also necessitated the change. Seven years earlier, Disney had established a “no primates in entertainment” edict.

Bruno Baron and Mike Beaulieu, VFX supervisor and animation supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic, respectively, were the leads on bringing Ampersand to life. Via Zoom, Beaulieu explains that realism with CG animals had up until now been more challenging than with digital characters based off of humans, which could incorporate motion capture. There was never a time where putting a gorilla in a golf-ball suit made sense.

“You have to rely on animators to understand the movement and anatomy,” Beaulieu says. Now the studio’s artists — who, in the VFX supervisor’s words, are getting better and better with every project — have learned to give photo-real VFX technology more of a soul. Achieving true realism means avoiding the impulse to let things work smoothly. If you picture an actual monkey jumping around a room, it’s not going to be precise. “If it’s too calculated, your mind will tell you that what you are seeing isn’t real,” says Beaulieu. And asking artists to think outside the box and experiment with more advanced systems offers “a little more freedom to explore and get things out of a performance that you may not get without 37 takes.”

Needing to shoot take after take with your fingers crossed brings to mind what might be the apogee of ludicrous, almost fake-sounding animal training for a feature film. Just before the dawn of our current, CG-singularity moment, Tim Burton demanded that 40 feral squirrels undergo training to crack open nuts on demand (and do other stunts) for his 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The process took 10 months and gave the world this insane behind-the-scenes featurette. (You can watch ol’ Tim with his manicured mad scientist coif mumble about his “poor squirrel people go[ing] kind of squirrelly” while the trainers fry their brains trying to make his request a reality.) Recalling this bit of filmmaking lore, Baron, through his French accent, diplomatically remarks that his job is to help the director achieve what they want on screen. If Burton were making Chocolate Factory today, Baron would encourage going digital. “How many takes for those squirrels?” he says. “You shoot half a day to try and get that one joke?”

Monkeys and nut-cracking squirrels are unusual animals. And surely any beast a film’s script requires to “speak” might be better served by CG. If the Air Bud franchise comes back, we could understand why that high-scoring pooch might be made of pixels. But what about just regular household pets? What about the bedrock of every Hollywood Western, the horse? The West was not won riding a motherboard. We’re talking about an entire industry employing experts in the orbit of film and television production; trained specialists that can still get a funny-looking schnauzer to the set for a perfect reaction shot with just a phone call. At what point does the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule come into play? Why would any producer want to hire CG artists for something so basic?

Lauren Thomasson, the associate director of animals in film and television at PETA, has an answer. PETA is not American Humane, and while it does offer a stamp of approval for productions (which many gladly accept), it does not have the same legacy connection with Hollywood guilds. As its recent missive to Jackass and Paramount suggests, PETA has much more aggressive tactics, and a readiness to cause a fuss. (If you want to look at it this way, American Humane is Charles Xavier, while PETA is Magneto.)

Thomasson, aware that a capuchin monkey was integral to the story of Y: The Last Man, tracked the show from the beginning of development. (Via Zoom, she says that the early pilot’s monkey was “supposedly the one used in Friends,” in case you were curious.) This was a red flag that the organization condemned because, Thomasson says, “we know that all animals, but specifically, wild animals and primates, suffer behind the scenes at training compounds from the way they live, the way they’re trained, and the deprivation that they experience.”

Recently, PETA has used its megaphone to slam Kate McKinnon- and Queen Latifah-led projects for using tigers. The argument in favor of computer-generated imagery is that since people have less direct familiarity with exotic animals, Thomasson says, audiences are very likely to buy CG versions — as seen in movies like The Jungle Book and Jungle Cruise. (This psychological effect is something the ILM team agrees with.) PETA’s ultimate goal, Thomasson confirms, is the cessation of all animal use in film: dogs, cats, birds, you name it. “We’re not there yet, but we see it coming. It’s going to happen,” she bluntly states.

Part of this stems from PETA’s overall philosophical ethos — a “who are we, man, to be bossing animals around?” sentiment — but also from a belief that there’s really no such thing as a safe set for animals.

Thomasson says that American Humane, despite its famous phrase at the end of most movies, “offers us no assurances.” She points to an exposé in The Hollywood Reporter from 2013 that detailed a great many oversights at the organization. (The “no animals were harmed” stamp is, to her, still “meaningless.”)

More importantly, she says, most productions want to do right by animals, and audiences are “becoming much more aware about animals’ rights.” As such, studios are being proactive and seeking out PETA’s input; the group no longer has to rely on a whisper network of what’s in development. Disney, for example, worked with PETA on 2021’s Cruella, not just in shaking out where it could use CG, but also to help “work on the messaging.” (A specific area of concern was Disney’s public relations scandal from the ’90s where 1996’s 101 Dalmatians resulted in a glut of difficult-to-train dogs being adopted and ending up abandoned.)

The final film does include some real dogs, but, as Thomasson puts it, “we are realistic; it’s Cruella.” PETA’s big win was in adjusting the way dogs were presented, and to normalize working with studios from the beginning.

The main fight for now is to try and stop anything with exotic animals. PETA is not yet demanding a ban on horses in Westerns, but feels that a blend of CGI, false mechanical horses, tricky editing, and sound design is preferable and effective. The group’s mission is to let people know that “accidents still happen. Stress still happens,” according to Thomasson. This goes all the way down the food chain to bugs, too. “Roaches, insects, butterflies, spiders,” Thomasson says, are all candidates for CGI.

Someone who disagrees with that notion — and a whole lot else — is Paul Rutledge, an animal wrangler and stuntman/stunt coordinator with 37 years of experience in the field.

“I had hundreds of flies on a horror movie called The Prodigal,” Rutledge says. “They all swarm when the kid opens the door. We had to order them, get them breeding, and release them at a certain time.” Rutledge cites that instance plus “about 50 rats on an actor’s face for What We Do in the Shadows” as something where having to mime a reaction for a later CG insert would “make it a little more difficult for our actor friends.”

Though Rutledge made his bones with horses, he’s currently known in the business as one who can source any animal you need. “I’ve worked with African porcupines with sensational long quills, with tigers, wolves, cougars, kangaroos, you name it,” he says with the nonchalance of a true professional. “Worked with a squirrel monkey on Night at the Museum with Robin Williams, too.” His company Ontario Animal Casting, also trains the Maine Coon Leeu, better known to sci-fi fans as Grudge on Star Trek: Discovery.

“PETA is strong in their belief in how animals should be treated on set — and so am I,” Rutledge says. “They make me a living, they are part of my family, I take good care of them.”

Tilly holding Grudge on Star Trek: Discovery
Tilly and Grudge on Star Trek: Discovery.
Photo: Michael Gibson/Paramount Plus

Rutledge says that the people at PETA are “entitled to their opinion” about American Humane, but added that many of the group’s overseers who come to set are veterinarians, not just people who think that “animals are so cute.” When there are problems on set, it’s likely due to “not enough prep time” or a wrangler who is “too inexperienced” to ask for more time built into their budget to get the desired result. Productions can get frustrated and think “next time I’ll write it out, or I’ll use CGI,” but “working with the right people, figuring out what the production needs, and having enough prep time” is all a good wrangler needs, according to Rutledge.

That — plus the comfort to say when “an animal has had enough.” Rutledge says he’d feel comfortable working with anything, even a great ape or a chimpanzee, even though, as PETA’s Thomasson was happy to report, “there are no chimpanzees left in Hollywood, and the top 10 ad agencies have banned the use of great apes.”

Rutledge does agree with PETA (and ILM) that audience members are likely to buy a current state-of-the-art CG exotic animal, due to lack of familiarity. But when working on the Civil War-set series Copper, there was a stable set up near his company’s studio in downtown Toronto. “The crew would come out at lunchtime, feed the animals, that sort of thing, like therapy,” says Rutledge. “A nice break from the craziness of filming to have some fresh air and pet a donkey.”

“Now, our culture is changing,” Rutledge notes. He hasn’t gotten calls from producers saying that they are making the switch to digital. “It’s more like you just don’t get any call.”

While proud of his work, a career he hopes to continue, Rutledge adds that spontaneity on set “like a bump from a goat in the middle of a line” is something that can’t be programmed. (TCM buffs certainly remember a camel sneezing in Bob Hope’s face in Road to Morocco.)

As a classic film aficionado, but also someone who cares about all creatures great and small, I find myself torn. Clint Eastwood needs to ride a horse. Dopey sitcoms need to cut to a quizzical canine at key beats. Grudge the Cat is the best character on Star Trek: Discovery. But I understand wanting to keep costs down and avoid bad PR from an organization like PETA.

ILM’s Bruno Baron believes that in “a few or 10 years,” anything shot on a modest budget or above will likely have far more CG than it does now, even for nonexotic animals. And while he’s no doubt eager to continue to practice his craft, he understands that there’s always room for compromise. There’s a reason why Yellowstone and 1883 creator Taylor Sheridan just used part of a $200 million production deal with Viacom to scoop up a ranch in Guthrie, Texas, on which he’ll raise horses and cattle that could appear in future series.

“Someone walking a dog, it’s just so easy to shoot,” Baron says. “And a horse on set, for now, will definitely look real.” But citing a darker moment from Hollywood lore, the visual effects artist adds, “If you want to throw your horse off a cliff — use CG.”

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