Interview with Mark Dumas, Animal Trainer for the Movies

 |  May 31st 2008  |   5 Contributions


So many times we watch animal actors in the movies or other media and we forget that there are very dedicated people behind the scenes making sure those animal actors "hit their marks." Mark Dumas, one of the best animal trainers around worked with the recent movie, " Ace of Hearts." He was kind enough to answer some questions for us about his life as one of the most in-demand animal trainers in Hollywood.

Here is just a partial list of Dumas' movie credits:

Best in Show
Dreamcatcher
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem
The 13th Warrior
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Wild America

Thanks to Mark for sharing a little bit of his life behind the camera with us!

Joy: How did you get into animal training for the movies?

Mark: I started training animals at an African Lion ranch in Los Angeles in 1970. I then left the lion ranch and when the manager of the ranch started his own business I went to work with him.

Youve worked on many excellent movies. Which movie or movies were your favorite training experiences and why? Which training experiences were your biggest challenges and why?

My favorite movies to work on were The Bear and Alaska. One of the most challenging was The Amazing Panda Adventure. This was because of location (China) and I could not have the pandas miss a meal so I had to work them for something other than food. I also was working without a second trainer. When you train animals it is always easier to have someone you trust working with you - lots of times they can see things which are happening that you are not aware of.

The two dogs you work with on Ace of Hearts have a lot of stunts. What challenges did you have working on Ace of Hearts that you havent faced in your lengthy career?

The two dogs for Ace of Hearts were already obedience trained and aggression trained. The biggest challenge on Ace of Hearts was keeping the dogs fresh. After 6 or more takes they get bored and tired.

Are there any animals that you wont work with? Why?

I do not work with horses because I am not a wrangler. I also try not to work with venomous snakes. I do not like working with them and prefer to leave that to a person who does. I also dont work with rodents - personal preference. There are people who are very good with them and I use their services.

Are there any animal species you would like to work with but havent had the chance yet? Why this animal or these animals?

There are no animals on my dream list that I have not been able to work with. The last animal on my hope and desire list was a polar bear, and I now own one.

You obviously spend a lot of time training animals and teaching them what you want them to know. What have you learned from working so closely with dogs and other animals?

All animals have their own unique personality. Even related animals have two totally different personalities.

Do you have any personal pets?

I have 2 cats and 2 dogs which live with us in our home. The dogs travel with us on location all the time- in fact they both went to France with us last year.

How do the dogs and other animals that you train for performances live? Do they live as your personal pets or do they live with other people?

The dogs usually live with their trainers, in the house and a fenced yard. Wild animals live in large cages with a large exercise yard attached where they are let into for most of the day.

What do you look for when youre looking for a dog for a part? What qualities are you looking for?

First of all, when looking for a dog for a project I look for character strength. I do this before considering looks, unless a specific look is required. Character strength is important in how the dog will respond on set.

What is the average day like for a dog or other animal when theyre part of shooting a movie? Do dogs and cats need different kinds of handling when theyre working? If so, whats different between how these two breeds are handled on the set?

The time changes depending on the movie. You do the shot, you put the animal way, and then sometimes they go up for animal close-ups. In the process youre putting them away, bringing them out, etc They might be there for a 10-12 hour day, but we dont want to work them all the time. Dogs are more social. Cats need to be in a quieter area. When getting them to do tricks- you make the cat believe that its pleasing itself; dogs you train because they want to please you.

Are there any novels, stories or novellas you would like to be part of bringing to film? In other words, are there any novels, novellas or stories involving dogs or other animals that you think would make good movies and that you would like to be the head wrangler? If so, what is it about these source materials that would make them something you would want to work on and be part of?

There is a script called Journey of the White Bear I would love to make into a movie. Its a tender story about a polar bear raised by a man up north. The man passes away and the polar bear gets stuck on an ice and floats down South. Its sort of like Free Willy but with a polar bear. I love dealing with polar bears and the script calls to do things with polar bears that havent been done before. I truly believe there should be more family-friendly animal films that are not animated.

There has recently been some concern over the treatment of dogs while shooting movies. What do you do to make sure that your dog actors get the best treatment?

We always have the American Humane Association on set (even in Canada). The other trainers and me are 100% responsible for care of animals - we never do anything that will hurt (mentally or physically) the animals.

Have you ever turned down a movie training job because you objected to the subject matter or how animals were dealt with or pictured in the screenplay?

I havent ever turned anything down- but I have changed what has happened in the screen shot. In other words, some movies or other materials have distinct ways of showing animals that are less than humane or healthy.

Are you active in any animal welfare organizations? If so, why are you involved with these groups?

I actually am not a huge fan of PETA- I feel like theyve lost their purpose and become too corporate. I really support American Humane Association which makes sure that animals are protected on-set.

Lots of kids and adults think about following in your footsteps and becoming an animal trainer or wrangler. What advice would you give them?

Unfortunately this isnt good news a lot of films are going the computer route and not using live animals anymore therefore this is becoming a dying industry. For those that are willing to give it a go though, I would say have a tough emotional stature because most animals have much shorter life-spans than humans and it can be hard to become so emotionally invested in animals only to lose them ten years later.

What do you see is the future of cinematic animal trainling? Are there factors that you feel may change the profession? For example, will we see more digitized animals in films instead of live animals?

There will always be a director that wants to do the real animal thing in movies. However, a lot of films are going the digital route. This is because scripts are requiring things of wild animals that are impractical and impossible for a live animal to do.

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