Animal Actors Being Replaced by CGI Being Replaced by Unemployment

For a long time, Hollywood has been a death trap for animal actors. It is said that up to 100 horses died on the set of the 1959 film Ben Hur. This egregious case led Congress to implement policy on animal abuse within the film industry. Guidelines were put in place to protect animal actors. Animal handlers and wranglers were properly trained and held to much higher standards. Things were looking up for animal actors and their caretakers.

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The cut where the horses died wasn’t put in the final film but did show up in an Iron Maiden music video.

Now, a different battle is being fought, this time between the animal wranglers and the digital effects business. Animal wranglers are a unionized group of laborers who have always had a steady line of jobs set up for them. Any movie that had animals needed at least one wrangler. However, more recently, jobs have become increasingly scarce. Why? Because the use of new media has made the business of live animal handling almost obsolete. The new Jungle Book and Planet of the Apes reboots have almost entirely “animal” casts and yet almost no actual animals were filmed. Pressures from both the VFX industry and animal rights advocates have put animal wranglers in a tough spot.

Animal training is an expensive and time-consuming job. Just feeding the animals can cost thousands in expenses. It can also be incredibly dangerous. Famous animal wrangler Randy Miller got bitten by a tiger on the set of Gladiator (2000) and attacked by a bear while filming Semi-Pro (2008). He even lost his cousin to one of his bears while they were training it. The recent loss of jobs is only making this career tougher and tougher to maintain. Animal wrangler Jim Brockett says that “last year the company [he runs] had 30 jobs in one month alone. But the orders aren’t as large as they used to be, and business is down as much as 40% from 15 years ago.” The union that represents animal wranglers, Teamsters Local 399, has seen almost a 50% drop in the number of animal wranglers over the last decade. In the last three years, around 20 trainers have retired or left the business entirely.

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But could a CGI goat be as hateful as Charlie clearly is?

One can see why it’s “easier” to use CGI than to work with real animals in some ways. CGI prevents both human and animal injuries. While filming The Witch (2015), animal actor Charlie, the enormous goat who played Black Phillip, actually landed his human co-actor in the hospital after ramming him in the ribs and dislodging a tendon. According to animal wranglers on set, more than 20 farm animals died due to dangerous living conditions on the set of The Hobbit franchise. Naturally, VFX can remedy these issues. However, the VFX industry is just as endangered by the modernizing world as animal wranglers are. Unlike animal wranglers, VFX workers can’t form a union due to the nature of their work. An article by The Verge explains that because VFX is digital work done after production, it can easily be outsourced to places that will subsidize it. Artists have to rely almost entirely on these subsidies and are constantly moving in order to stay afloat. Nowadays, most top firms are filing for bankruptcy with no real hope in sight. Strikes and protests have been organized to try to improve the state of the industry.

Both industries are struggling as Hollywood moves forward into the digital age. The digital is replacing the physical but the digital can’t seem to catch a break. It might be high time we look at our priorities. If VFX is slowly eroding the animal training industry (which might be a positive thing in the long run), why can’t the TV and motion picture industries provide stronger support for these workers? A unionized industry is being usurped by a guild-less one and it seems like Hollywood isn’t prepared or refuses to be prepared for this change.

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