Animal Savvy owner and trainer Sarah Clifford suspected that celebrity canine Uggie had just the right star quality for a supporting role in Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film, The Artist. Judging from the response he garnered from the critics, she was right.
Uggie received the prestigious Palm Dog award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and fans are calling for more. Movieline film critic S. T. VanAirsdale has begun a “Consider Uggie” Facebook campaign to get Uggie on this year’s Best Supporting Actor ticket, and Lou Lumenick of the New York Post tweeted his disappointment when the New York Film Critics Circle failed to recognize the eight-year-old Jack Russell Terrier as a shining star.
Uggie, known most recently for his role in Water for Elephants, stars alongside Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman in this film set in Hollywood in the late ’20s, a period when the “talkies” were changing film—and the lives of entertainers along with it—forever.
The Bark chatted with Sarah about working with an animal actor, and the technique it takes to have Uggie rescue a fellow actor on film.
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Bark: How did Uggie get his start as a performer?
Sarah Clifford: Uggie was around a year old when he was rescued by my talented friend and fellow animal trainer, Omar Von Muller. His original family found him to be too high-strung, and they were going to take him to the shelter. They called Omar (who did regular dog obedience at the time). Omar and his family quickly fell in love with him, and within about a year, Uggie was performing in print shoots, commercials and films. He has been working steadily for the past eight years.
B: What sorts of training techniques did you use with Uggie in this film?
SC: Uggie was fresh off Water for Elephants when we started our prep training for The Artist, so he was already pretty warmed up. We use basic movie behaviors: going to marks, staying with an actor at all times (called a “go with”), sit-stays, down-stays, speak, go to, on your side and head down. Of course, we brushed up on the bang (play-dead) trick.
Months before filming began, I went over the script carefully and did a breakdown of all the behaviors he would have to learn and rehearse.
Fortunately, Uggie already knew many of the things that were in the script. Omar and I focused on establishing Uggie’s relationship with Jean and getting Jean comfortable with giving Uggie cues. When an actor is comfortable giving a dog direction, the looks are going to be more natural on camera. Jean was a very willing participant and really worked hard to learn all of Uggie’s verbal cues (in English).
In our prep training, we zeroed in on perfecting two specific things: the “go with” cue in very busy environments — through crowds, with loud noises, across streets—and the bang trick in many different forms (sitting up, standing up and then falling backwards in a variety of places).
One of the most challenging scenes in the film was the sequence in which Uggie comes out onto a live theater stage packed with film extras. As a trainer, I had to be far away, tucked back behind the curtain. Jean had to work Uggie on his own while acting and hitting his own marks. It’s a long scene to have a dog do multiple times and land on the same mark from multiple angles, but Uggie almost always nailed it, because we practiced the heck out of that scene. Dogs need to rehearse (we call it prep) scenes, just as actors need to memorize their lines.
B: What’s the secret to getting a dog to be a good actor?
SC: Great animal trainers. They make or break an animal actor’s performance because they are the animal’s “director.” Every cue the dog responds to, and every emotion the dog expresses, comes through the trainers. Omar and I have been friends for eight years, and I believe he is one of the most naturally gifted animal trainers I’ve ever worked with. I have learned so much from him.
It also takes the right dog, a dog who exudes confidence and fearlessness, and is not reactive to distractions. Uggie truly fears nothing! It is, of course, a collaborative effort — a director should be able to offer the animal trainer a clear vision. The actors also need to be willing to help create that relationship so it looks genuine on camera. I have worked with some actors who refused to even hand a dog a treat, which is the dog’s paycheck!
Jean did whatever it took. He was always willing to stuff his pockets with hot dogs and chicken so he could “pay” Uggie after each take.
B: Jack Russell Terriers are typically very vocal dogs. Did working on a (nearly) silent film change the dynamic for Uggie as an actor?
SC: Indeed they are a vocal breed, and Uggie is especially vocal! Getting him to “speak” is just about as easy as getting him to eat. Because it was a silent film, Uggie could bark a lot more than what would normally be appropriate if we were rolling sound. Being able to work on a silent film and talking the dog through scenes was fantastic. We had many good laughs about that ... how we’d miss being able to talk to the dog throughout a take.
B: Can you describe how you and Uggie prepared for the scene in which Uggie rescues Valentin from a burning house?
SC: We shot the fire scene over many days in a few different locations. I worked all the exterior scenes because Omar was out of the country during that time. To get Uggie to go to the cop and really evoke that frantic energy, I had to be super exuberant and really keep my energy at a 10 at all times. We shot the pant-leg part and the play-dead part in a few pieces, and each time, I would pattern him.
When he ran into the smoky house, I was inside calling him as loud as I could and squeezing squeaky toys. I grabbed him just before the cop came charging through because the smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see either. It was challenging.
I hid hot dog pieces all over Jean and told Uggie to go with him. As Jean is laid down on the lawn, Uggie, sniffing all around him and seeming concerned for his master, is really searching for the hot dog bits. Now I am giving away all my secrets.