When you think of animals in film, television, and commercial photography, the first thing that comes to mind might be cute and cuddly dogs or cats. While working with animals has its perks, sourcing professional talent for a production that requires casting animal actors has a unique set of challenges. Whether you need a specific dog breed for a commercial or an exotic animal for a high-end fashion shoot, you can find experienced agents and animal handlers on Wonderful Machine’s Find Crew page.
Depending on the complexity of the shoot, you may find yourself needing several crew members, each with distinct responsibilities and specialties. Luckily, there are agencies and crew that specialize in just about every aspect of animal casting, handling, and training. Hiring the right professional is the best way to ensure you have the right talent for the job and that the day of the shoot goes smoothly.
There are more than 40 animal talent agencies in the US like Studio Animals, Dog Nerd Talent, and several across the globe like Animal Agency in the United Arab Emirates. Many of the larger agencies that work with film and TV producers maintain an active roster of talent that they carefully curate. Agencies use this database to show prospective talent to photographers and film producers looking for a specific look or set of skills for commercial production.
For more significant assignments, agencies offer convenience by bundling several services. In addition to providing the talent, they often have experienced trainers and handlers on staff who can also assist while on set. They may also have relationships with animal organizations and potential shoot locations or studios.
Animals used in TV and photoshoots undergo obedience training and can handle being on set for longer than your average household pet. However, some productions may require animals to perform specific tasks; whether it’s as simple as picking up a bowl or more elaborate sequences, a skilled trainer can work with talent to help you achieve what you need.
In a commercial photography or film set, an animal handler is responsible for the safety of the animals. They will keep an eye on the animal and identify body language that may signal an animal is stressed or can trigger unsafe behavior. They also know when to use positive reinforcement to encourage specific responses from the animal. An experienced handler can keep the animal calm and redirect them, so the client gets what they need to ensure a smooth and safe shoot for both animal and human talent.
William Berloni is an animal trainer and handler who has been providing humanely trained animals for the media for the last 44 years. William and his company, Theatrical Animals, have trained numerous dogs to perform in the limelight, including the dog that played Sandy in Broadway’s legendary production of Annie. As Broadway’s go-to trainer, William works closely with producers, directors, and photographers, but he often has to educate people on working with animal actors and handlers.
The industry thinks of animals as “props”. There are no unions for animal handlers, and there are no laws protecting animals on set so I have to educate people that animals are sentient beings, and I’m a professional just like any other technician on set.
William rescues and trains his animals, but he also works with other trainers and owners to train their dogs for tv, film, and photography work.
I require the knowledge of what action is needed, and what’s going to happen ahead of time so I can tell the director how to achieve what they need. When I have a good relationship with the photographer or director, we are successful but we’re also economical because we’re not wasting time trying to teach something to an animal without time to prepare.
SF-based pet photographer Mark Rodgers regularly works with trainers for brands like Barkbox, PetSmart, Healthy Paws, and Kinship. Mark’s local go-to crew is Bow Wow Productions, an agency with a talent roster in Los Angeles and San Francisco. When he has to source new people to work with, he first looks to his network for recommendations.
If I’m working out of town or my regular crew isn’t available, I’ll first look into referrals from that regular crew or from local pet photographers. If I’m shooting with an agency that works with a particular client a lot on shoots involving animals they’ll typically be a good resource as well.
When speaking with a new trainer he hasn’t worked with before, he will ask how they source their animals. That will determine the amount of prep time necessary. If they outsource, more time must be built into the schedule than if they have their own animals. He also looks for experienced people who are realistic about the prep time and cost involved in production.
Clients often expect animal talent to be able to do complex behaviors immediately or to be trained in a brief amount of time but that’s not usually the case. I want to work with trainers who know it’s going to take them a couple of days to get an animal to perform or who can suggest an alternative if the requested action isn’t possible.
Mark works closely with the animal trainers on set, so he also wants to make sure that whoever he works with is compatible with his work style and comfortable in close quarters with him.
We’re literally cheek by jowl since I often want eye contact from the animals and the only way to get it is for a trainer to be right next to me or behind me or both — oftentimes with two trainers at once.
I’m also on the ground a lot so it’s not uncommon to see me prone in the dirt with one trainer standing or squatting over my head holding a bait stick to draw a dog’s eye line to the camera.
When working with a company for the first time, make sure that whatever facility or individual you work with holds a valid United States Department of Agriculture license or your country’s equivalent. In the US, the Animal Welfare Act establishes requirements concerning the transportation, handling, and sale of certain animals. You could be liable if the individuals are unlicensed or not reputable. According to William, some trainers skip this necessary step, but the license requires an inspection of their facilities and will help you ensure they are reputable.
Anyone who works in the industry should be licensed with the US as an exhibitor. You also want to make sure they have liability insurance. Everyone working on a set should have at least a 2 million liability insurance and be able to show proof of that.
Atlanta-based photographer John Fulton worked closely with a professional handler on an Aflac commercial, which featured their brand sigil, the Aflac duck. He recommends communicating with the handler before setting a schedule for the shoot to get a sense of what they think the animal can and can’t do. In this case, since the duck is such an integral part of the Aflac brand, the brand had a handler on staff who works extensively with the two Aflac ducks.
We relied heavily on the handler’s knowledge of them and we communicated extensively before the shoot to understand what the handler thought the ducks would do. Would the duck stand on Hershel Walker’s back? Would it walk on a moving treadmill?
The ducks were surprisingly even-tempered during the shoot. The handler stood just off-camera jumping in to pick up, nudge, or cajole the duck as needed.
The handler’s knowledge of the animal is crucial to a successful shoot. John also recommends asking if the animals have been exposed to strobes as some animals may react adversely to flash. Animals can be unpredictable, so be sure to plan for additional time in your production schedule.
Continuous lights may be necessary but you don’t want to find that out after it’s too late.
After the shoot, the crew packs up and takes the animals with them, but that doesn’t mean the relationship needs to end there. Suppose you’ve found a new crew member you especially enjoyed working with — the best thing a photographer can do is express their gratitude so that the relationship can evolve into a lasting and mutually beneficial one. Mark typically follows up with a personal thank you and makes sure to share the work once it is published.
I’ve found that simply being respectful of their process and expressing gratitude during and after the shoot works wonders. I think the best thing one can do is contact them again for the next potential job that comes through. It’s nice to be able to re-hire and work with the crew you can rely on and know will get the job done.