In Michael Sarnoski’s 2021 film Pig, the eponymous star, the truffling companion of a grieving chef who has retreated into the wilderness of Oregon, appears for only a brief period before she is brutally torn away in the middle of the night. In Viktor Kosakovskiy’s 2020 documentary Gunda, the titular pig’s litter of piglets also appears only briefly before they, too, are whisked away. And in Andrea Arnold’s upcoming quasi documentary Cow, the heroine’s calf soon disappears too.
We are well past the old vaudeville joke attributed to W.C. Fields—“Never work with animals or children”—a sentiment that was passed on from the stage to the screen, which relegated animals for an extended period in Hollywood to kids’ movies and slapstick comedies (with only the odd waft of prestige provided by Academy Award nominees like 1995 dramedy Babe). The aura of frivolity around that which was not human meant that, for a long time, any Hollywood actor who shared the screen with an animal was probably not doing very well. (See: Jason Alexander in Dunston Checks In, Jerry O’Connell in Kangaroo Jack, or Chevy Chase in Karate Dog.) But now Channing Tatum, one of the biggest stars in the world, has chosen a story about a man and his dog for his directorial debut. Out Friday, Dog is a comedy—an ex–Army Ranger is paired with an ex–Army dog on a road trip to a soldier’s funeral—but the film is pulled to earth by the Belgian Malinois’s character sharing a name, Lulu, with the late pet Tatum recently grieved. And after more than a century of animals being objectified on screen, Tatum isn’t the only one bringing the genre some gravitas: Dog bites at the heels of the Tom Hanks vehicle Finch, a postapocalyptic film about a dying engineer attempting to build a robot companion for his dog—a rare story in which the animal comes before the man. All of this follows last year’s Academy Award winner My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about a South African filmmaker’s relationship with a mollusk.
Animals are no longer seen as trespassing upon human territory, but instead as a part of a shared ecosystem. In the wake of climate change and the pandemic, attitudes toward animals have folded into a wider move toward sustainable living. Veganism is no longer a niche proposition, pets are to be adopted not bought, and we are encouraged to waste less in order to keep our communal planet from being further damaged. That deeper understanding is now reflected on screen by an increasing willingness to capture animals on their own terms. No longer are filmmakers dressing chimps in tuxedos; now, the interiority of each animal is being legitimately considered. “If we’re quiet, and observational, and especially if we’re not intrusive,” says Carrie P. Freeman, who cowrote the Animals and Media style guide, “then we’re getting more of a sense of who they are.”
All Andrea Arnold wanted out of Cow, which documents the last years of Luma the dairy cow, was for us to see Luma. According to producer Kat Mansoor, Arnold’s pitch was extremely simple: She wished to follow the life—“from eyes open to eyes shut”—of an ordinary animal. “She was very clear that she’s not trying to get us inside her head,” Mansoor says, “but just make us watch her and connect with her in other ways.” The producer didn’t quite understand how to do that until she saw director of photography Magda Kowalczyk at work. Mansoor noticed neither Arnold nor Kowalczyk were looking for specific shots—they were simply focusing on Luma’s face, from a respectful distance away, and just being with her. Kowalczyk, in particular, had “a quiet, insightful bonding ability to connect with the animal,” says Mansoor. Production lasted three and a half years and encompassed 100 days of shooting. While all of Arnold’s films are emotionally wrenching, Cow is particularly moving. Often, we see part of an animal’s life, not its daily grind, and here we are fully ensconced in the mechanization of Luma’s quotidian existence. Watching humans knowingly work her to her limits—until her udders are literally distended to the floor and she is barely able to walk—before abruptly disposing of her like a rusted jalopy is the stuff of existential crises. “It’s a film about society,” is how an unnamed famous filmmaker described it to Arnold and Mansoor, who adds: “It’s about all of us and how we live.”
Or, at least, some of us. The animals mentioned thus far—cows, pigs, dogs (minus the lone octopus)—are the ones that tend to occupy the screen. “Our field of vision is so narrow in so many ways that our preferences are so marked,” says Cynthia Chris, author of Watching Wildlife. “If you can eat it, great. If it’s beautiful or spectacular, like a tiger, that’s nice but, you know, just a few of them. Just enough that we can manage.” Freeman calls these preferred species “charismatic megafauna.” Because they look more like us, we feel more connected to them than, say, insects, which causes two polar opposite problems: Either we focus on how dangerous they are (from Jaws to Cujo) or we anthropomorphize them (from Flipper to Air Bud). Meanwhile, creatures like reptiles and amphibians, which form an inextricable part of our ecosystem, are ignored—out of sight, out of mind. Freeman thinks that the way diverse representation in human casting helps to reflect our reality on screen, it could also help us see animals more realistically. That means “trying to get past some of our own human biases against animals we like more, and recognizing that snakes and frogs and worms and fish are also important.”
This tug of war between education and amusement has been present from the first reel. “Both science and entertainment required that only the most spectacular and private aspects of animal life were recorded,” writes Gregg Mitman in Reel Nature. “The distillation of the natural world into a series of dramatic moments on film created an expectation of nature among lay audiences that was rarely, if ever, realized in the field.” Since 1910’s Roosevelt in Africa, the ever-present question has been whether the drama on screen was authentically caught in the wild or staged for the public, the answer almost always being the latter. It was a moral question— because this wasn’t just the natural world being filmed, it was a window into the world before civilization had corrupted it.
As time wore on and the middle class swelled and moved to the suburbs and acquired pets and a desire for leisure, Hollywood brought the wildlife to them. On screen, animals were named and given personalities so they would be easier to identify with, and along with that came comedy and titillation. King Kong blew it all up in 1933 and exotic violent spectacle surpassed science in the cinema, followed by Disney pulling it right back into the familiar (and supposedly educational) with its True-Life Adventures series, spanning from 1948’s Seal Island to 1960’s Jungle Cat. On television, animal behavior on NBC’s Zoo Parade and CBS’s Adventure reflected all the qualities of the traditional nuclear family, from stereotypical gender roles to a lack of explicit sex; a condensed if artificial dose of nature, accessible to all.
The tug of war has now turned more toward conservatism versus consumerism. And while the encroaching hazards of climate change have rendered the former more enticing than ever, the familiar comforts of instant gratification have kept us wed to the latter. Chris notes the limited effects of even a hit commercial film like Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s $50 million action-adventure about a girl saving her super pig from the slaughter industry. A friend of hers claimed Okja was the last straw and that they were going vegan for good … before abandoning the plan months later. (Joon-ho himself reportedly had a similar experience.) “That’s typical— singular strong experiences have short-term consequences,” Chris says. “You need a long, sustained, well-supported counter narrative for people to make long-term deep changes in their own consumer and consumption habits.”
Despite the one-two punch of the award-winning 2005 sensation March of the Penguins, about emperors’ annual breeding journey from hell, followed a year later by Al Gore’s climate change alarm, An Inconvenient Truth, Chris doesn’t see the resurgence in environmental films as having much changed the historically “uneven” narrative with regards to animals. There remains the less expensive but much more sensational programming like Shark Week, and even more prestigious fare like David Attenborough’s Planet Earth has its drawbacks. The beautiful cinematography and lack of editorializing in Planet Earth allows the audience to, according to Chris, “make some common-sense deductions.” But despite that restraint, the score always instructs the viewer how to feel, which can serve as an excuse to lament the end of the world without actually doing anything about it. (“I’ll take something rather than nothing,” Chris ultimately concedes.)
The big change is not in representation but in distribution. The sudden access in the past decade to a wider array of new and historical animal narratives provided by online streaming services allows for the broad proliferation of even niche productions, which allows for more exposure to diverse animal representation, including the calmer, more contemplative kind we are currently seeing move into mainstream. “It’s not a new style of representing animals,” Chris says. “It’s just one that doesn’t get a lot of airplay.” Her personal favorite is a previously hard to find but now streamable Swedish documentary from 1998 called Kestrel’s Eye, in which director Mikael Kristersson spends 89 minutes observing a family of falcons living in a church tower in a small Swedish town. Films like this, though, are a harder sell for an audience weaned on pageantry—no matter how true to life they may be. “A real film about lions would look like Andy Warhol’s film of John Giorno sleeping for eight hours or whatever,” Chris says. “Like, nothing would happen.”
Society’s improved understanding of animals’ lived experiences appears to be translating into growing consideration of their needs on set, sometimes even ahead of those of their human costars. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow follows two scrappy entrepreneurs in 1820 Oregon—hence the first cow of the title, who belongs to a rich trader in town and arrives by way of a wooden dock across a river. The director considers the film a heist movie because the two main characters regularly steal milk from the unattended cow in the middle of the night in order to bake their sought-after donuts. But this isn’t a smash-and-grab type situation: Cookie (John Magaro) is respectful, greeting the cow each time, acknowledging the death of her calf and her mate, and softly squeezing milk out as he whispers, “What a good, sweet girl you are.” Later, when she is standing near him in front of the trader, who is unknowingly introducing them, she sniffs and licks him affectionately—they have a bond that the cow and the trader do not.
The cow in question is played by Eve, perhaps the most beautiful Jersey cow to have ever walked this earth, which is why around the film’s release a media cycle was devoted to her alone. She belongs to trainer Lauren Henry, who described her to me as “kind of the director” on First Cow. If Eve had to be milked for a scene, for instance, Magaro would have to do it on her schedule. Nothing she did was ever forced. “It was always going to be within her desired activity for that part of the day,” says Henry. That meant each of her shots went smoothly, including the one when she has to cross the river. Eve stood calmly, chewing her cud as it was the time of day when she would normally stand calmly and chew her cud.
“People who are really in tune with animals, and then have chosen to use that gift to train animals for film,” Henry says, “have that ability to see—kind of like a really good therapist would be able to see—whether or not the animal is having a good time.” She and her partner, Roland Sonnenburg, run Talented Animals in the Oregon wilderness, where they keep only a limited number of animals in order to maintain close relationships with them. Each animal is chosen based on personality, but all of them must have an affinity for performing, which means theirs is a “house full of extroverts.” “I have to, like, stuff my cats back in,” says Henry. “They want to be on set, they want to work, they want to be part of the center of attention, they want to be out there expressing themselves.” And just like actors, the modes of expression vary; some animals are more chill than others, allowing for the right fit for each project. Extensive training has made communication seamless between the trainers and their brood, which allows the animals to feel more control on set. “There’s a language there,” says Henry, “and there’s an understanding and there’s a trust.”
This kind of harmony is, historically, not a given. Guidelines for animal safety in film were established in 1940 after a horse was ridden off a cliff to its death on the set of Jesse James. (Because of the popularity of the Western genre and the historically close relationship humans have with horses, they tend to be the most exploited by Hollywood.) American Humane (AH) now provides supervision on a number of productions, its presence marked by the famed “no animals were harmed” note in the credits. But after the deaths of three horses on the set of HBO’s racing series Luck, questions arose around the effectiveness of AH. (They did not respond to several requests for interviews.) A year after the show’s 2012 cancellation, as the documentary Blackfish was causing a sea change in how captive animals were viewed by the public, an exposé on AH in The Hollywood Reporter found an “inherent conflict of interest present in Hollywood bankrolling its regulator.” PETA’s Lauren Thomasson, associate director of the Animals in Film and Television division, says another big problem lies in the fact that AH monitors only the set. That means living conditions off set, training in preproduction, and where animals go once production is over—several films have claimed they adopted animals for the shoot—are ignored, not to mention only a fraction of films are monitored.
Even a documentary as quiet as Cow can be hazardous. Mansoor says the biggest risk was the milking parlor where hundreds of cows pass through twice daily. But there was also some concern around Luma when she was calving, since, unsurprisingly, mother cows get protective after giving birth. At the most dangerous points, DP Kowalczyk had someone spotting her, but even then, she was so connected with both the camera and the cows, Mansoor says. While that intimacy allowed Kowalczyk (and, therefore, the viewer) to get close to the animals, it also scared her producer. “It was sort of terrifying watching her at times, like, ‘Magda, get out of the way,’” says Mansoor. “And we definitely lost a couple of lenses along the way.”
One of the reasons for AH’s recent criticisms is that the response to animal welfare in Hollywood has changed. “We hear from people like never before,” says PETA’s Thomasson. She has noticed the wider cultural concern for animals “trickle down though Hollywood, and therefore making its way onto the big screen.” Henry confirms that trainers have more of a voice now than they ever did. She says that new directors, in particular, are more collaborative. Arpad Halasz, a Hungarian trainer since the ’90s who has worked on everything from Spy Game to Midsommar, adds that now he is even asked his opinion during the script phase. And when a director demands something “very unrealistic” from him, he can simply refer to the new laws in place without providing a detailed explanation. (Halasz refers specifically to working hours for animals, as well as smoke and noise volumes.) Which is not to say the system is anywhere near flawless. One of the biggest recent controversies occurred around Lasse Hallström’s 2017 film A Dog’s Purpose, which is ironically about a dog discovering the meaning of his own existence through the humans around him. Before the film’s release, TMZ published a video from behind the scenes in which a German shepherd on the set is being forced into rushing water. According to Thomasson, the video “shook” the industry, and it resulted in the premiere being canceled and protests during the film’s run: “I know a lot of people in Hollywood found it very troubling.”
The only way not to be hypocritical, according to PETA, is to use CGI, stock footage, or companion animals. (Bradley Cooper, for instance, cast his own labradoodle in A Star Is Born.) “That means that dog has a home and isn’t relegated to a cage and a training compound waiting for the next casting call,” says Thomasson. Investigations by law enforcement as well as PETA have shown animals at training facilities in bare intemperate cages, denied health care and starved to keep them hungry for tricks. “We’ve seen it all,” says Thomasson. “So we can’t ever endorse a commercial supplier.”
When it comes to wild animals, however, Hollywood is largely going with CGI. Though the first realistic CGI animal dates back to the ’80s (a digital owl appears in the opening credits of Labyrinth), the technological advances of motion capture around Avatar in 2009 led to photorealistic CGI in Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. Only nine years later, Greg Tresan, who runs Animal Casting Atlanta, told Marketplace that most of the high-budget movies now want to scan animals. That involves 180 cameras taking pictures of an animal so that every angle is digitized (some animals can also be interchanged—a horse served as a rhinoceros on Black Panther). While there is some concern around the loss of work for trainers with the advent of CGI, it seems that those who train farm or domestic animals are doing fine. Henry says she can in fact do more with her animals now. One scene in Andrew Haigh’s 2017 drama Lean on Pete had a car hitting a horse as it crosses the street, and while in the past horses would be injured from stunts like this (and presumably out of commission for a period of time), Henry’s just had to be fitted with digital tracking marks. That way, the CGI could absorb the impact.
The rising level of compassion for animals makes sense in a climate in which we are all facing our collective mortality together. The acknowledgment that we share an ecosystem that needs to be preserved has resulted in a move toward sustainability, which includes a more empathetic relationship with the animals who make up our environment. Off-screen animal rights have slowly seeped on screen, culminating in animals not only being represented more humanely, but being treated more humanely. While perhaps spectacle has only really been outweighed by the increasing access to an alternative type of slow meditative animal filmmaking—Hollywood can only really change for good by producing a sustained alternative narrative—on a certain level animals on screen are being met on their own terms more and more. And when those terms aren’t met, more than ever those human errors are being corrected. As it turns out, all we really needed was for human beings to be trained properly.
The most amazing feat of animal filmmaking ever appears in Kornel Mundruczo’s 2014 film White God. The scene accomplishes everything at once—it uses real animals and it is spectacular, but it also respects those animals and expresses the fact that we all share a community, one in which human beings are often the ones who need to be tamed. An immigration allegory, White God follows a 13-year-old girl named Lili who befriends Hagen, a dog of mixed heritage. But as the Hungarian government imposes a large fine on “mongrels,” her father abandons Hagen in the outskirts of the city. After a stint of dog fighting, Hagen escapes a dog pound and leads a 200-strong pack on an uprising through the city—the striking scene has more than 200 dogs running together through the mostly empty streets of Budapest. Lili eventually starts following the pack on her bike to her father’s slaughterhouse, where she pulls out her trumpet and begins to play Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” In response, the 200 dogs lie down together in front of her. In response to them, she lies down too and, dropping his weapon, her father joins her. It’s a magical moment—animals finally at peace together.
Halasz is the man responsible for this scene. He’s run one of Hungary’s largest dog schools since 1991, overseeing 40 trainers and programs of obedience and agility, where the dogs are socialized without a leash 80 percent of the time. One of his signatures—a program which loosely translates to “Loan Dog Course for Kids”—is socializing children with dogs trained for movies. “Children come to us to learn how to live with a dog, how to teach them, how to behave with them,” Halasz says via email. In a sense, he is training both humans and animals. And when Mundruczo was looking for trainers all over the world for White God and everyone told him what he wanted to do was impossible without CGI, Halasz’s name kept coming up. While Mundruczo was happy with featuring around 100 dogs, over the six months of preparation, Halasz thought, why not over 200? To do that, he sourced a large number of dogs from shelters, who were all adopted at the end of the shoot. Mundruczo was left in awe. “He has a very special method, to do with finding equality between humans and dogs,” the director told The Guardian. “It’s amazing how he could socialize 250 dogs together without any domination fights, and to be happy to work together with humans.”
If you ask Halasz, what he did wasn’t special—it’s just that trainers rarely level with animals. “The most important thing is to explain the rules for the dogs in their own language,” he tells me. That involves the trainer, as the pack leader, deciding how the dogs should behave with animals and humans alike, which removes the stress of decision-making from the dogs. While the rules are simple—no leash pulling, no jumping without permission, starting and finishing a game when the trainer says—it’s the trainer who is entirely in charge. “They learn these [rules] fast,” Halasz explains. “It is good to follow a good leader.”
Soraya Roberts is a culture writer and regular columnist for Defector and Pipe Wrench magazine, where she is also an editor-at-large.