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'Luck' raises stakes on animals' use

The deaths of three horses on the HBO set put the focus on American Humane Assn.'s oversight.

March 17, 2012|By Richard Verrier and Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times

In the case of horse racing, the maximum effort may still have not been enough. HBO officials learned that horse racing — whose popularity has waned in recent years — has dangers much of the public never sees, a point echoed by the sport's enthusiasts.

"If you spend any significant time at the track, you're going to see a horse break a leg," said Ted McClelland, author of the memoir "Horseplayers: Life at the Track," about his experiences at a racetrack. "Horses are oddly designed creatures. They have no muscles below the knee, and their hooves are essentially nails.

"As we saw with Barbaro and Eight Belles, even the healthiest, best-trained Thoroughbreds can break down. Landseer broke down in the 2002 Breeders Cup Mile and had to be euthanized."

PETA has been prodding studios to end animal performances and replace them with CGI techniques, such as was done with last year's feature hit"Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

"With all the highly advanced technologies that are available today — including animatronics, animation, computer-generated imagery, and more — there is no reason for subjecting apes to a lifetime of misery as 'actors,'" the organization says on its website.

But inevitably, cost considerations come into play. Fox's"Terra Nova" of course had no choice but to create computer dinosaurs, but the elaborate special effects caused costs to balloon, helping make the show TV's most expensive ever.

Then too, audiences have certain expectations and are quick to reject what seems fake or hokey, producers say. "Planet of the Apes" was able to use a sophisticated performance-capture process involving actor Andy Serkis, who played the chimpanzee Caesar. But the movie was science fiction and never pretended to be anything else.

"It's hard to cheat the human eye with animatronics or CGI," said Howard, the producer who organized the guild's animal event. "In fantasy movies you can do that but if you have movies that are set in the real world, they expect everything to be real."

Steven Spielberg's World War I epic"War Horse," which used more than 100 horses, including 14 that played the title role of Joey, completed production without an animal injury. The film used CGI effects and an animatronic horse for one battle scene, but relied mainly on the real animals.

"I knew that if we were going to tell the story, it had to be with real horses," Spielberg said in production notes from the film. Horse trainer Bobby Lovgren worked closely with AHA representative Barbara Carr to avoid horse injuries.

"I gave her full power to pull the plug if she ever felt any of the horses were not up to the challenges or if she thought they would be injured in any way," Spielberg said.

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