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Using animals in films leads to a jungle of issues

Rights groups have taken on trainers who worked on 'Water for Elephants,' 'Zookeeper' for a giraffe's death and 'The Hangover Part II' for not using monitors and depicting a monkey smoking.

August 14, 2011|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
  • The Hangover Part II couldnt use the No animals were harmed  notice. With Ed Helms as Stu, Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow and Bradley Cooper as Phil in
The Hangover Part II couldnt use the No animals were harmed notice. With… (Warner Bros. )

At the premiere of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" last month, a clutch of impassioned animal activists gathered on Hollywood Boulevard. But they weren't there to throw red paint on fur-coat-wearing celebrities. Instead, one demonstrator — dressed in a full-body monkey suit — had arrived with a sign complimenting the filmmakers: "Thanks for not using real apes!"

The creative team behind "Apes" used motion-capture technology to create digitalized primates, spending tens of millions of dollars on technology that records an actor's performance and later layers it with computer graphics to create a final image — in this case, one of a realistic-looking ape.

"There are some performing animals that actually do have a more fulfilling life, but apes, you could probably say that's not the case," director Rupert Wyatt said. "In order to do what we need to do with them [in the film], you'd need to dominate and exploit them. I'd like to think that hopefully with performance-capture, we can bypass that and keep apes in the wild."

Yet "Apes" is more exception than the rule — in fact, Hollywood has been hot on live animals lately: The nonprofit American Humane Assn., which monitors the treatment of animals in filmed entertainment, is keeping tabs on more than 2,000 productions this year, 100 more than in 2010. Already, a number of high-profile 2011 films, including "Water for Elephants," "The Hangover Part II" and "Zookeeper," have drawn the ire of activists who say the creatures featured in them haven't been treated properly.

In some cases, it's not so much the treatment of the animals on set that has activists worried; it's the off-set training and living conditions that are raising concerns. And there are questions about U.S. films made overseas, which sometimes are not monitored as closely as productions filmed stateside.

For studios, dealing with such questions is often a small price to pay given the box-office payoff for animal films. From the "Lassie" movies of the 1940s, to "Flipper" in the 1960s and more recent hits like "Free Willy" and "Seabiscuit," animal films often resound strongly with audiences, raking in huge ticket sales. "Marley & Me," which starred Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson as a couple who own a rambunctious Labrador retriever, grossed over $240 million worldwide in 2008.

At least two more high-profile films that prominently feature animals will be released this year — Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo," which has wildlife including tigers and porcupines, and "Dolphin Tale," about a boy who befriends a marine mammal named Winter that has lost his tail in a crab trap.

Though many animal-protection groups are supportive of the AHA's efforts, several groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Animal Defenders International seem to be ratcheting up their pressure on Hollywood to be more vigilant or explore alternatives.

"I think it's very disturbing, the trend that we're seeing of more and more animals appearing in movies, and I think we should be moving in the other direction with the technology we have," said Matt Rossell, campaigns director for the U.S. branch of ADI, a nonprofit group. "We're calling on these studios to really take a good, hard look" at their use of animals in fictional entertainment.

Monitors and activists

The practice of monitoring the treatment of animals on sets dates back some 70 years. After a horse went over a cliff and fell to his death during the making of 1939's "Jesse James," Hollywood designated the AHA as the sole authorized on-set monitoring group. Any U.S. production — commercials, music videos, small independent films or major blockbusters — under a contract with the Screen Actors Guild or the AFTRA union is required to inform the organization if animals are to be used. The group will then read the script and determine whether a certified safety representative is required on set.

It has a film and television unit whose office, headquartered in Studio City, employs about 24 staff members, half of whom are safety representatives. The AHA also has about three dozen representatives on call around the country who are used on an as-needed basis. It does not charge for its monitoring services in the United States.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data was available, the AHA received roughly $10 million in public gifts, grants, contributions and member fees — none of which, the group says, comes from studios or networks because it refuses such donations to maintain its independence. That figure was up somewhat substantially from 2006, when the group brought in $6.1 million.

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