How animal trainers get 10 kinds of bugs and animals ready to star in Hollywood movies and TV shows

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner,Kyle Desiderio
·13 min read
  • Hollywood has recruited the whole range of the animal kingdom to appear in its movies, from the goat in "The Witch" to the cats of "Pet Sematary."

  • It's up to animal trainers to get the performances they need out of all of these critters.

  • Find out how expert trainers prepare 10 different insects and animals for big roles in movies and TV shows.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Following is the transcript of the video.

Narrator: How do you teach a parrot to dance?

Or a cockroach to hit its mark?

Well, Hollywood has a range of tricks to train these stars and every other kind of insect and animal imaginable.

Trainers: Come on, baby! Right here, come on!

Narrator: From penguins to house spiders, let's look at how 10 different members of the animal kingdom prepare for some of Hollywood's biggest roles.

Scout Raskin: Good boy!

Narrator: These goats, named Gizmo and Doc, can shake hooves, give high fives, jump on a person, balance on their back, and even walk on their hind legs.

Scout: Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk.

Narrator: Their trainer, Scout Raskin, says they're just as smart as dogs, and maybe even smarter in one area: object permanence. That's the ability to know that an object continues to exist even if it disappears from your view.

If Scout needs a goat to go to a certain spot on set, she'll hide treats in that area and show the goat, but not let it enjoy them just yet. Then, when the director calls "action," the goat will go right to the hidden treats. Not because it's sniffing them out like a dog would, but because it remembers the treats are there.

Other tricks rely on goats' natural movements. Like in the horror movie "The Witch," where this goat bounces sideways -- that movement is actually an expression of joy.

And getting a goat to rear on its hind legs, like in this scene, mimics how goats naturally reach leaves on tree branches. Scout usually uses a grabber tool with a treat to have the goat get up on its hind legs. Then, slowly, she adds in two-legged walking.

But these animals can also be dangerous. On the fourth day of filming "The Witch," Charlie, who played Black Phillip, rammed his horns into actor Ralph Ineson's ribs, something that happened in the movie but wasn't supposed to happen in real life. Ineson spent the rest of the five-week shoot on pain killers.

The incident led to the movie's director, Robert Eggers, to say after filming, "I don't recommend making a movie with a goat in a major role," and, "You can't train a goat."

You can, Scout says, but you have to start when the goat is very young, less than two months old, and practice nearly every day.

A lot of people don't like spiders --

- Can we panic now?

Narrator: Which makes them a great character in Hollywood movies. But how do you get these critters to do what you want on screen? You get them to react to stimuli in predictable ways, according to the entomologist Steven Kutcher.

Steven is Hollywood's go-to bug guy, who's worked on films from "Jurassic Park" to "Spider-Man" and orchestrated this spider attack in "Arachnophobia."

For that movie, he got the spiders to run where he wanted by stringing extremely thin wires on the set. These wires vibrated faster than the eye can see, forming lanes that the spiders would run through. For this pivotal "Spider-Man" scene, Steven staged a "spider Olympics" to find the right actor for the part.

He settled on this type of house spider and had an artist paint its body radioactive red and blue. When they shot the scene, Steven was above Tobey Maguire holding the spider on a paintbrush. It crawled along the edge of the brush, and when it reached the end, Steven tapped the brush to make the spider drop down towards Tobey. Only the bite was CGI.

A peppered cockroach named Nancy played a roach with the voice of God in the horror movie "Saint Maud."

But Nancy couldn't have pulled off the role without her trainer, Grace Dickinson. Here, Grace is holding Pepper, Nancy's sister who served as her acting double for "Saint Maud." Grace says cockroaches are scent-oriented and naturally explore the places they're in.

Before a roach's big filming day, she'll typically practice leading the insect from point A to point B by repeatedly guiding it down a path that ends in something sweet, like a pot of jelly or a sip of nectar or honey water. Grace says cockroaches in general have naturally even temperaments, but since they're small creatures, sudden light or temperature changes can stress them out.

If a roach performer is having a bad day, it might make hissing noises, drop a stink bomb, or try to fly off or run away. So Grace brings a rigged habitat on set, where her actors can get some much-needed rest between filming sessions.

In battle scenes from older movies, like this one, you may see horses falling head over heels. That's because battlefield sets were lined with trip wires, a dangerous and inhumane practice that's now illegal.

Today, horses are trained to fall to the ground in battle scenes, and to do it safely. First, the horse has to get comfortable lying down on its side. Some trainers will help this process along by first lifting their horse's legs and laying them down. Then they'll walk the horse and lay them down over and over until the horse can do it alone.

Eventually, the horse will be able to lie down on cue in one fluid motion. The faster they do it, the more dangerous it gets, so trainers will usually make sure the horses land on a cushioned bed, like two feet of soft, natural material called peat, or, in the case of "Game of Thrones," padded mattresses.

Productions use padding in chase scenes as well, like this horse and motorcycle chase in "John Wick 3." Trainers laid 400 feet of rubber tarps on the streets of New York City and fitted the horses' hooves with rubber horseshoes. This helped the horses maintain balance, so they'd feel comfortable galloping at full speed.

When it comes to training birds, not all species are created equal.

[clicker clicks]

Benay Karp: Good boy.

Narrator: Of the 3,200 trained birds used in "The Birds," Alfred Hitchcock said the ravens were the cleverest, while the seagulls were the most vicious.

Back in 1963, the seagulls on the film were reportedly fed a mixture of wheat and whiskey to get them to stand around for scenes. Luckily, training approaches have improved since then.

- Hope you folks figure this thing out!

Narrator: Here, a grey parrot named Babs is learning how to dance.

[clicker clicks]

Benay: Good bird.

Narrator: The thing making that sound --

[clicker clicks]

is a clicker, a tool trainer Benay Karp uses to provide birds with instant feedback after they do something correctly. Benay teaches her parrots to be as quiet as possible on set so they don't step on other actors' lines, rewarding good behavior with treats like frozen strawberries.

Parrot: Thank you!

Narrator: Often, though, productions want parrots to look like they're talking in a scene. In that case, Benay will put a little peanut butter in the parrot's mouth. As the bird smacks on the peanut butter, it looks like delivering dialogue, so the production can put in voiceover later on.

Parrot: Enhanced voice recognition.

Narrator: One of the most common production requests for birds is a basic flight from point A to point B. Or, in the case of this penguin, a waddle.

Trainers: Hi, baby! Right here! Come on!

Narrator: But it can get even more complex for some actors. In preparation for a Kind bar commercial, this crow learned to fly a package about 12 feet to the porch, leave the package in a bowl, give a little jog, then fly back out to its crate.

For teaching this type of sequence of commands, Benay uses a concept called back-chaining. That means she'll teach the last behavior in a sequence first, so flying back from the porch, and then work backwards to get the first step, which is bringing the package to the porch.

This is Crystal, a capuchin monkey who's appeared in a long string of movies and shows after her breakout role in "George of the Jungle."

Her trainer, Tom Gunderson, estimates that she recognizes 60 different words in English, including complex commands like "hands on head," "open your mouth," "bare your teeth," and "stick out your tongue."

Director: Action.

Trainer: Touch. Open.

[Crystal squeaks]

Bang.

Narrator: In one of the biggest challenges of her career, Crystal even learned to pretend-puff a fake ceramic cigarette for "The Hangover Part II." The smoke was digitally added later on.

Despite this extensive training, Crystal still isn't potty-trained. Her character in "The Hangover" wore a costume, which conveniently hid the diaper she had on underneath. But when Crystal plays a wild monkey, like in "Failure to Launch" or "Night at the Museum," she can't wear diapers, which means things can get messier.

She actually pooped on Robin Williams when they were filming "Night at the Museum." Luckily, incidents like that haven't hurt Crystal's rep in the industry.

[snake hisses]

A movie like "Snakes on a Plane" required a snake wrangler as experienced as Jules Sylvester, who's handled reptiles for over 350 movies. Jules refers to what he does as "reptile management" rather than "training."

He says, "You can't make a snake do anything they don't want to do." What you can do is tap into the snake's innate behaviors.

Snakes generally like to move from warm to cool spaces and from light to dark, so wranglers can direct a snake's movement by manipulating the temperature and lighting. Plus, if you put any ground-running species, like a corn snake, on an elevated place, like an airplane seat, it will make its way down to the ground. Others, like rat snakes and pythons, like to climb, so they'll seek out higher surfaces.

Jules took advantage of these natural inclinations to create some chaotic shots in "Snakes on a Plane" where snakes are moving in different directions.

The trainers at Universal Animals in Atlanta can handle some nonvenomous snakes with their bare hands or with the help of a snake hook. That's what they're using to get some movement out of a bull snake named Victor for a recreated scene in the Discovery docuseries "Deadly Cults."

It's a different ball game dealing with venomous snakes, like this timber rattlesnake that's getting its venom milked for a scene in "MacGyver." Protective equipment usually includes shin guards, fang-proof gloves, and 3-foot-long snake tongs.

[squeaking]

To train a rat, you have to get to know it first. Just ask animal trainer Mark Harden, who prepared 300 rats for "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and 600 of them for "Willard."

Mark casts his rats by observing each one for its strengths and weaknesses. He then sorts and tags the rats into smaller training groups according to their specialty, whether it's running, jumping, climbing, or biting.

In "Willard," six rats played the character of Socrates, each one swapping in depending on the scene's needs. One of the six was particularly tame and stable, so Mark used that one in scenes where an actor had to handle Socrates. Another rat was a great runner, so Mark used it for scenes where Socrates was on the run. And for when Socrates had to bite objects, like this newspaper or these tires, Mark chose a rat that liked to chew. Then he he'd put food right by the target object -- typically his own special mixture of nut butter and food coloring, which creates an edible paste that can cover props.

One challenge of working with rats is that they're very tactile creatures who are sensitive to new smells and sounds. According to Mark, "The first smell that wafts through that they don't recognize, they shut down."

So trainers have to anticipate the conditions on set and recreate them as closely as possible at home. Trainer Melissa Millett and animal coordinator Kirk Jarrett have worked with all types of animals, but they say cats are the most difficult to train.

To prepare their cats to star in the remake of Stephen King's "Pet Sematary," Melissa and Kirk used a technique called targeting, where you teach a cat to touch its nose to an object by luring them with a treat. You then have the cat move to a mark on the ground, starting with a mark that's closer to the cat then little by little moving it further away.

Another technique they used is called free-shaping. Melissa describes this as more of a guessing game. You put a mark down on the floor and basically wait for the cat to figure out what to do. When the cat finds the mark, they get a treat.

This works nicely for cats in particular because, Melissa says, "They think they're training me."

[cat meows]

The most difficult thing to get a dog to do is nothing. That's according to Teresa Ann Miller, the dog trainer for "The Art of Racing in the Rain," a movie told entirely from a dog's point of view.

Dogs react to a lot of different stimuli, even things as small as lights or shadows moving on the surface of the floor. That's where a feed stick becomes handy. It's a stick with a treat attached and a bright green ball on it, which gives the dog a clear point to focus on. Of course, trainers sometimes have to teach dogs to be on their worst behavior. Digging, jumping up on people, knocking things over, you name it. Like you see this dog, Shelby, doing for her starring role in "A Dog's Way Home."

On set, the dog's trainer will often be just out of shot, giving verbal commands and holding up a feed stick or other reward as incentive.

In "John Wick 3," for example, when we see Keanu Reeves in the back of the cab with the dog, the dog's trainer was lying down on the floor of the car, overseeing the action.

But dogs aren't just in it for the food. They're receptive to rewards of all kinds, including general excitement, and, of course, pets and cuddles.

Benay: Dance.

[clicker clicks]

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