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Winter 2013-14 - Act•ionLine

by Meg McIntire | Winter 2013-14

“No Animals Were Used in the Making of This Film”

THE IMPACT OF CGI ON THE ANIMAL ACTING INDUSTRY 

Those familiar with the 1993 movie Jurassic Park will likely be able to recall the iconic scene of ripples forming in a glass of water, indicating the thundering approach of an angry dinosaur.

For its time, Jurassic Park was a revolutionary example of what was technologically possible in filmmaking and sent ripples of its own through the entertainment industry.  The ability to turn the seemingly impossible into a believable reality using computer-generated imagery (CGI) was an exciting and groundbreaking idea that immediately took off.

Two decades later, great strides have been made in terms of technology available to filmmakers, and CGI has been arguably the biggest game changer so far.1

This is particularly relevant when viewed from an animal rights standpoint, as it means filmmakers are now able to limit the number of live animal actors they use and instead hire more graphic designers...all while still achieving a sense of realism in their production.       

The methods animators use are much more agreeable and humane than those employed by animal trainers on non-human actors.  Instead of forcing a chimpanzee into submission using cruel training tactics, it is now possible for animators to observe a video of a chimpanzee in the wild, process the image, and create a 3-D computerized version of a chimp instead.2

Although most of the discussion surrounding CGI focuses on aesthetics, there is also an interesting ethical issue to consider involving the effects of CGI on the animal acting industry.

For years, film companies that aim to use animal actors in their productions have had to seek a stamp of “approval” from the American Humane Association, delivered in the form of a single sentence applied to the production’s end credits:  “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

The truth behind that sentence is open to interpretation, however, and there have been countless incidents involving harm coming to the animal actors the association supposedly protects.  Examples include three horses that were euthanized after injuries on the set of HBO’s series Luck,3over a dozen animals dying between takes on the set of The Hobbit,4and the cruel treatment of an elephant who starred in Water for Elephants.5

The guidelines the association gives to studios are, at best, merely ineffectual suggestions about the welfare of animal actors. In some instances, when they are not enforced, it leads to animal abuse and occasionally instances of death.

Nothing sounds very humane about that.

But what if the sentence “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” was changed to “no animals were used in the making of this film?”  With CGI technology, that is becoming increasingly plausible.

            An excellent example of the usage of CGI in cinema today can be found in the 2012 movie, “Life of Pi,” which tells the story of a boy stranded at sea along with a Bengal tiger.   

Sticking a real Bengal tiger and a teenage boy in a lifeboat would have been a precarious situation.  Thanks to computer-generated images, however, the moviemakers were able to create that illusion and present it as startlingly realistic.        

Although “Life of Pi” did not abstain completely from live animal actors, a very large part of the film was created using digital effects.  Bill Westenhofer, the film’s visual effects supervisor, told The New York Times that four live tigers were used in the production.  He explains, “We used them for single shots, where it was just the tiger in the frame, and they’re doing something that didn’t have to be all that specific in the action that we were after.”6

What makes this different from typical animal actor usage is that the tigers were not forced to act in a specific way and were instead used as reference points for creating realistic animations.

It is that distinction that is key to understanding the potential of CGI to eventually eliminate the animal actor industry.

CGI is about watching an animal and observing the way it acts naturally.  It’s about studying the animal’s bone structure, muscles, and mannerisms.  It’s about paying attention to seemingly insignificant characteristics and details in order to create the most lifelike replica possible.

 It is, in essence, the complete opposite of the way the animal acting industry operates.

While not only being a game changer for the entertainment industry, CGI also could be a life-changer for animals everywhere.

 

Meg McIntire

Act•ionLine Winter 2013-14

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