The clever canine stars of the family comedy "Hotel for Dogs" had to learn more than sit, stay, fetch and play dead. They had to become adept at sitting on toilets, herding mechanical sheep and operating a vending machine filled with shoes.
"It wasn't something that we could show up on the day and show the machine to the dogs," says trainer Mark Forbes, who also worked with the four-footed stars of "Marley & Me." "We had to figure out what were the best dogs for what machines and get the dogs used to the machine and whatever they had to do to manipulate the machine."
We're not talking about pushing a lever and out drops a pellet of food. We're talking machines of Rube Goldberg complexity. Take the dogs' feeding machine, for example.
The elaborate device -- composed of a cuckoo clock, an old erector set, a toy train and tracks -- resembles a Ferris wheel with dog cans attached to each arm. As each arm swings around, it drops food into the dog bowls, at which point the model train takes the bowls down a long table where the dogs are patiently waiting for their kibble.
The timing had to be perfect "between the turnings of the cans to the filling of the bowls," says special effects coordinator Michael Lantieri. "It had to be measured perfectly or it would dump food between the bowls. We had many trials on that."
Not only did the dogs have to get used to having bowls passing in front of them on the train, says Forbes, they had to learn that the food in the bowls was fake.
"We had fake food in the bowls, so the dogs weren't tempted to start eating right way," Forbes says.
"We first took each dog individually and we would put little cinder rocks that looked like food and we would have them on a leash and collar, so they couldn't dive into it, and let them sniff and realize there was no real food in the bowl. Once the bowls stopped [in front of them] they started getting real food to eat."
Based on the children's book by Lois Duncan, "Hotel for Dogs," which opened Friday, revolves around orphaned Andi (Emma Roberts) and her mechanical genius younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) who, because they live in a no-pet foster home, must keep their dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Friday, hidden from their foster parents.
When Friday, Andi and Bruce wander into a big, abandoned hotel, they find two stray dogs. With Bruce's genius for turning everyday objects into devices, Andi and other kids in the neighborhood transform the hotel into a magical place for stray dogs.
An early script had descriptions of what type of devices Bruce would make for the dogs. Production designer William Sandell came up with drawings of the machines, which were then refined by the film's director, Thor Freudenthal.
Lantieri, who has worked on such films as "Minority Report" and "A.I: Artificial Intelligence," says he and his team had never been busier than when working on the quirky gadgets.
"We would build these little mock-ups to see what they look like in scale," Lantieri says. "When you start shooting animals down on four legs everything is taller than normal, so we built the mock-ups to see how the dogs looked next to the gadgets. You didn't want to lose them" amid the machinery, he says.
Lantieri worked closely with Forbes getting the machines built quickly so the dogs would have time before filming to get used to the sounds and movements. "We would have the exact noise the machine was going to make so there was nothing startling or shocking to the animals," Lantieri says.
"Sometimes, we would start with simple things -- some wires to a motor so the dogs could hear it."
"We would fit the right personality to the right machine," Forbes adds. Dogs that loved to fetch were tried out on the fetching machine -- a device created from such items as a mannequin's hand and a tennis racket. "It did have a hydraulic arm that made a hiss and when it threw a ball, it made a noise that they had to get used to," Forbes says. "We didn't take any skittish dogs for that machine."
Beyond making sure the dogs could operate the machines, Lantieri also had to make sure they looked like a pre-teen could have made them from scavenged items. Sandell, his set decorator and the prop guy scoured swap meets and garage sales looking for stuff that could have been left in garages or in storage.
"I would go into work and there would be a giant pile of stuff from mannequins to snow shoes to Christmas lights to old tennis rackets to fans," Lantieri says.
Lantieri also notes how professional the dogs were. "They did what they were supposed to do," he says. "I would rather work with dogs than people any day. They were great."