A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are animals really killed in movie and TV death scenes?

July 30, 1976

Dear Cecil:

This may seem like a silly question but it's important to me. I have always wondered if the animals used in movies and television are really killed in "death scenes," or whether they are trained. Also, when two animals are fighting on a television program, such as you used to see on Walt Disney, are they really fighting or is that also the result of training? How do you train a dog and a snake to fight but not kill each other--that is, to pretend viciousness? It's hard to believe it's all faked.

P.S.: How would you like to get together some time and talk about animal instincts?

Cecil replies:

Your library or mine?

Practically all American film and television producers cooperate with the American Humane Association's program to curb deliberate violence against animals. When any potentially dangerous scene is being filmed, a representative of the AHA is on the set to make sure nothing untoward happens.

Most animal fight scenes are the products of camera trickery. One of the most frequently used devices is what's known as a "matte shot," or split screen. If a dog is supposed to attack a snake, for example, the director will first make a shot of the dog "fighting" with its trainer. Then, without moving the camera, the scene will be shot again, this time with the snake and its handler occupying the opposite sides of the frame. The two shots are finally printed together--in a "matte"--with the appropriate areas blocked out. When the film is projected, the snake and the dog appear to be facing each other in a single image.

If a fight scene has to involve actual contact between the two animals, a different technique is used. For a fight between two dogs, let's say, the trainer will use two animals that know each other and allow them to fight for a few seconds while five or six cameras record the scene from different angles. When all of the footage is edited together, the fight seems to last much longer than it really did. Other shots of one dog wrestling a dummy--or his trainer dressed in a dog suit (no kidding)--may also be cut in. When a dead animal is needed, like the cat in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, filmmakers generally use these selfsame dummies.

Naturally, all these dog suits, dummies, and trick shots are expensive, and there are always producers willing to cut costs by going for the real thing. Thanks to the AHA, this seldom happens in the U.S. (one notable exception was a film called Born to Kill, which used genuine footage of cockfighting), but foreign productions are impossible to monitor. Producers, of course, are under no legal obligation to have an AHA representative on the set, and sometimes a film will get away from the watchdogs, as happened some years ago with Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks. For some reason, the producer refused to allow an AHA rep on the film's location in Billings, Montana--and the shooting left one horse dead from drowning, another crippled after being purposely tripped by wires (a practice specifically prohibited by an agreement between the AHA and the major studios), and several others injured in a stampede sequence. Consequently, The Missouri Breaks made it onto the AHA's "unacceptable" list, a continually updated index of offending films. For more information, write the AHA's California office, 15503 Ventura Boulevard, Encino, California 91436 or check out their Web page at .http://www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=pa_film.

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