SLED DOGS STAR IN TALE OF ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE
The only thing against us was that these were huskies, dogs who don’t instinctively appreciate the notion of moving slowly. Still, the animal trainers were confident. The call for “Action” echoed across the snow-swept, barren prairie, above treeline - high above the pretty little town of Smithers, British Columbia. The filming for Walt Disney’s $45 million action-adventure film “Eight Below” had begun. It started well. The dogs were released, and the head trainers coaxed them along. The elegant, beautiful huskies paid little attention to the commotion around them, but made their way at a relaxed pace towards their end-mark, while listening to the rhythmic banter of their own particular trainer. There would be some measure of debate afterwards over which dog was the culprit, but it was generally agreed that it was the maverick, white, blue-eyed Jasper, playing the character Shorty, who broke rank first. Perhaps he had spied the crew snack wagon, for that is where he headed, grabbing a tasty butter tart during a fly-by. When one dog had decided that running was much more fun then walking, seven others had to agree. Utter chaos ensued. Dogs romped, frolicked, growled, and played. They ran north and south, east and west, dashing across the set. They visited the on-lookers, sniffed cameras, and lifted their legs on snow chunks and scaffolds. Producer looked at Director, Director looked at Assistant Director, and the Assistant Director glared at the head animal trainer. All had the same look of pure horror - their expression begged the question - “What did we get ourselves into?”After that initial scene, things did get better - in a hurry. The dogs settled in and accomplished some amazing things. Their personalities and natural grace capture the film. They are photogenically brilliant, with their expressive, alert faces, distinct masks, and proud dispositions. Their slightly more casual demeanor, combined with their friendliness, is why the film-makers chose the well-appointed Siberians and Malamutes over the more accurate Eskimo breed. They possess a little less of that edge, are seldom feisty, have more of the movie-star good looks, and a slightly higher level of train-ability in the trickery department - or so the theory goes. In all, 36 dogs were used to portray the six huskies and two malamutes who play the leads. In a short space of time, they learned to act, to walk in sync, to let go of their territorial urge and instinctive behavior, to avoid eye contact with their trainers, and to make their on-screen moves seem as natural as possible. Well, Jasper, as Shorty, continued to have his moments, and hurriedly gained a reputation with the crew. In an interview Director Frank Marshall referred to him as his nemesis. “While he is very loveable, he simply refused to read the script.” Working with eight eager huskies in each scene was definitely a challenge. Besides being asked to do the come easy - they are asked to hit a mark, stay, speak, look camera left, and then trot off camera right. They are buried in the snow, and made to stay hidden. They were asked to crawl on their bellies, to open latches, chase and catch fake birds suspended from high wires. But I mustn’t divulge trade secrets. Suffice it to say that if even one dog messed up a scene, it had to be re-shot. They were also asked to be hard-working sled dogs. “Easy,” you say - natural for these northern breeds. Well, they were asked to learn the fan hitch, something quite foreign to all of them, and, while in this formation, to run a precise route to a special end-mark through unmarked powder. In the end they excelled, and according to early reviews, it was the dogs who stole the show. Said one critic, “It’s lucky for human actors that canines can’t win Academy Awards, because, if they could, the dogs in “Eight Below” would sweep next year’s Oscars.” He obviously didn’t see the first day of filming, but it was true, the end-work of these huskies was simply amazing. Inspired by a true story, “Eight Below” is about loyalty and the bonds of friendship set in the extreme wilderness of Antarctica. The film is based on a 1957 Japanese Antarctic expedition, which was dramatized in the 1983 blockbuster Japanese film, “Nankyoku Monogatari,” (Antarctica). That film set a box office record in Japan that stood for 15 years - despite being black listed by the American Humane Society for its treatment of the dogs. “Eight Below” sets the story in 1993 (the year that the Antarctica dogs were pulled out of the Antarctic for good). An American scientific mission is forced to abandon its beloved sled dogs when an accident and perilous weather intervene. For six months the dogs had to fend for themselves in this, one of the harshest of climates, until a rescue operation could be mounted. When it came time to cast the project, some high-profile actors turned down the role of hero Jerry Shepard, refusing to play second fiddle to a group of dogs. Paul Walker opted for some-thing quite different than his usual tough guy fare, because the script reminded him of his childhood favorite, “Old Yeller.” Veteran Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood was chosen to play the geologist Davis, Jason Biggs added a comic element as Shepard’s friend Cooper, and newcomer Moon Bloodgood as Kate played the required romantic interest. The dogs? Disney wanted eight distinctive looks and personalities, so the audience could relate to each of the eight dogs as an individual character. Maya, the grey, was to be the depen-dable leader of the pack, and co-leader of the team alongside the patch-work Old Jack. In Point was Max, the blue-eyed, black and white up and comer, and Shorty, the white maverick. The red brothers, Truman and Dewey - Dewey with a distinguished scar above his eye - would run together in Swing, and, in Wheel, the two Malamutes, Buck the red and Shadow the black and white. One of the most prestigious animal talent agencies in the industry, Gary Gero’s Birds and Animals Ltd of LA, was brought on board and put in charge of gathering and training the dogs for the production. Birds and Animals has a reputation for not only its high quality work and top-rate trainers, but also for their standard of care and safety afforded to the animals. The finest trainers from California, Florida, Texas, and Canada were brought together. Head Trainer, Mike Alexander, of the Harry Potter movies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Homeward Bound, was put in charge of assembling a group of dogs. The continent-wide quest for talented canines found some pets, some working dogs, and a good many neglected, unloved and unwanted huskies from animal shelters and rescues, who worked their own rags to riches magic. Eight number one character dogs were chosen, and then identical seconds and thirds were added. A look-alike sledding team was trained to provide the muscle. A head trainer and an assistant were put in charge of a “character” group of dogs. The dogs spent two months training at the Birds and Animal’s ranch in warm California, before getting shipped north to the Antarctic-like climate of Smithers BC, where initial January temperatures were in the minus thirties. While the southern trainers were not impressed, the Siberians and Malamutes were in their element. An animal hair-coloring specialist flew in from LA, and set up her doggie salon. Even the heartiest of sled dogs was bathed, colored, groomed, and dried - to become identical twins with the main character profiles. Some biscuits became redheads, whites became patchwork, and black and whites had masks reworked until even the trainers had trouble distinguishing amongst their own charges. Then it was back to school. The trainers used a steady diet of praise and payouts, patience and repetition. The dogs were taught the basics - to sit, lie down, stay, speak, crawl, and get back on their feet. They learned to stand on marks. They did “A” to “B’s” and “Come Easies.” The non-sledders became sled dogs - they were taught to pull in tandem, and then in the fan hitch. They were taught to catch and retrieve stuffed birds. They were buried in snow drifts and made to stay. They were exposed to helicopters, both on the ground and in the air, and to giant fans set up to blow snow and simulate a blizzard. Over-seeing everything, first during prep, and then for the filming, is a member of the American Humane Society. They are there, not only to make sure the animals are treated well, but to rebuff any criticism that might come later from a film viewer. They document everything, proof that the dogs are well cared for and are not at any time put into danger. This is what separates animal movies today from the way in which they used to be shot, as in the original “Antarctica.” When a dog had to fall down an embankment, he was thrown off - when a dog had to fall in the frigid waters, he was tossed in. Now, through special effects every situation is safe and controlled. In “Eight Below,” when the group of huskies break through the polar ice, the scene is shot indoors in a warmed pool covered with wax. Lifeguards are at the ready. The only thing the dogs don’t do is join the dunked actor afterwards in the warming hot tub outside the studio. During filming, the dogs are housed on a Smithers ranch, in indoor chain link kennels. Large outdoor runs and locally hired walkers keep the dogs exercised when they are not required on set. They are transported to location in kennel trucks, and specially constructed trailers which are pulled by snow cats. Other times, they join their trainers in the Ranger helicopters for a thrilling flight to more remote locations. They are treated like stars, and rightfully so - for in a movie like “Eight Below,” it is the husky’s work that makes the film a winner. We just weren’t sure, after that fateful first day of filming. Jamie Ross is a freelance outdoor, travel, and adventure writer, and a dog sledder, whose film portfolio includes the features “Kevin of the North,” “Snow Dogs,” and “Eight Below,” and Mountain Dew, Land Rover, and Subaru commercials. He works and trains Siberian Huskies and has worked in the film industry as a dog sled consultant, animal trainer, sled dog provider, photo double, and sledding stunt man. He is featured on the Eight Below DVD extras speaking about sled dogs and the Siberian Husky breed. Editors Note: Fairbanks custom outdoor apparel shop: Apocalypse Designs created 25 of their specialty Expedition Parkas for the crew and actors in the movie. These standard Expedition Parkas were fitted with a real fur ruff, and were tailor fitted for each recipient.