How CGI has taken animals out of the scene in Hollywood

See what two renowned animal trainers in the film industry think about the change from real to computer-generated animals.
André Aram
Hubert and Doree Wells taken some time in the 80s
Hubert and Doree Wells taken some time in the 80s

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Film animal trainers talk about how technology has affected their work and replaced real animals with digital images.

  • CGI has replaced animals in movies, but one animal trainer points out other reasons as well.

  • Industrial Light & Magic innovated digital special effects in films.

  • For veteran animal trainer Hubert Wells, CGI has spoiled the magic of cinema.

When Hubert Wells, 88, looks back at the past, he is proud of his long and renowned career. Not for nothing, he is considered one of the greatest animal trainers in Hollywood. For decades he owned Animal Actors of Hollywood, one of the most sought-after companies in the industry for providing animal actors to major productions. His name is credited on nine out of ten blockbusters released between 1980 and 2000, such as "Out of Africa" (1985), "Dracula" (1992), "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1994), "Babe: Pig in the City" (1998), and countless others.

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Now retired, the Hungarian-born trainer left the business in 1996 when he sold the company. In the early 2000s, fewer and fewer animals were being used. This was at a time when computer-generated images (CGI) were becoming more widely used in movies. CGI, which are generated using specialized software and techniques, can be used in many ways in films, from adding new elements to modifying an image using ‘green screen’ techniques. Landscapes and scenery can also be added through this technology. Until the mid-1990s, the use of live animals was common in movies; but the advances in computer graphics made it possible to replace not only live animals but also scenery – making it possible to create an entire scene on the computer without relocating to distant locations in other countries.

At times, the technology was used in conjunction with real animals, as Wells explains: “We did some amazing animal work before CGI [fully] entered the scene. Probably between "The Ghost and the Darkness" and "The Life of Pi." At first, the CGI animals were pretty unbelievable. They also sometimes shot with real animals on green screen and then applied CGI techniques. As time has gone on, CGI has gotten much better.”

CGI's origin

Although CGI is not a recent technology, it has been greatly improved over the years. Ivan Sutherland, one of the pioneers of the internet and computer graphics, published his thesis "Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System" in 1962, which established the basis for the Sketchpad software. Using Sketchpad, it became easier to create drawings or plans with many repeated or varied elements. It was an early version of computer-aided design (CAD) and a major advance in the graphical user interface – and it soon attracted the attention of companies in the aerospace and automotive sectors.

The use of computers in these segments enabled the improvement of CAD technology, widely used in the creation of structures and drawings up to today.

Hollywood discovered CGI in the 1970s; the first production to use this technique was "Westworld" (1973), which used digital computer animation to pixelate images to indicate the android’s point of view. Three years later, the sequel, "Futureworld," featured a computer-generated hand and face.

The use of CGI has also been a part of every Star Wars franchise, but the first, "A New Hope"(1977), was one of the pioneers in this category. At the time, the special effects George Lucas needed to pursue his vision of the film did not exist. In response, Lucas established Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) specifically to develop CGI techniques for the Star Wars film, including a new computer-controlled motion camera system. The camera allowed a model of a spacecraft to be filmed in front of a blue screen in a fixed position while the camera moved around it, creating the illusion of movement – a significant innovation for the time.

Making of Star Wars

Computer graphics were taking their first steps in the “seventh art” (a phrase coined in 1921 to describe the emergence of cinema as a legitimate art form). This was largely thanks to Industrial Light & Magic, which developed many of the initial techniques that enabled a digital revolution – whereas previously, effects were mechanical, often using mock-ups, puppets, wires, etc. 

In the following decade, "Tron" (1982) combined live action and CGI to create the digital world inside a computer – using groundbreaking visuals for the time. But it wasn't until "Young Sherlock Homes" (1985) that an entirely digitally animated character came to life on the screen. The stained glass knight in the film had his movements created by computer. The knight took about six months to create, even though he was only present for about 30 seconds of the film. Watching the scene today, the character's actions may seem unnatural, but it was an innovation at the time.

Real animals on the scene

In the 1980s, several movies were made with animals as the main characters; "Cujo" (1983), "Benji" (1987), "Project X" (1987), "Cheetah" (1988), and "Monkey Shines" (1988), just to name a few. Over his many years in the business, Wells and his team worked tirelessly on around 150 films, 200 television programs, and countless TV commercials, training the most exotic animals for the most surreal situations, such as lions climbing on car roofs, rhinos overturning vehicles, flamingo attacks, lions devouring people, and other scenes that left viewers captivated by how it was done.

How CGI has taken animals out of the scene in Hollywood
Wells and Doree waking their animals

Doree Sitterly also worked for 40 years as an animal trainer alongside her ex-husband, Wells. Both had been on sets with the animals and also with the most famous movie stars like Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helen Hunt, Gary Oldman, and many others. In the scene in "Out of Africa" where Meryl Streep scares the lions off her property in Kenya, it was Sitterly who faced the big cats. Before digital animals replaced real ones, trainers also often acted as stunt actors or stand-ins, and shoots in places such as the African continent were routine during an era when everything had to be real and on location.

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Wells traveled to five continents, including dozens of trips to Kenya, taking varied animal species with him. In 2017, he recalled his experiences in the book "Lights, Camera, Lions: Memoirs of a Real-Life Dr. Doolittle," in which he recounts how he began working with animals in the 1960s, as well as curious stories from behind the camera, such as enthusiastic talks with actor Val Kilmer in between shoots in South Africa, challenging locations, and demanding directors who wanted the impossible.

How CGI has taken animals out of the scene in Hollywood
"Lights, Camera, Lions"

Among the many productions mentioned in the book where his animals had stared, Wells has especially fond memories of "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" (1984). Although the film failed at the box office, the veteran trainer considers this to be one of his most exciting jobs. They flew a rhino, lions, horses, chimpanzees, leopards, flamingos, and even an elephant from the United States to Kenya. Sitterly, who was part of the team, recalls what it was like to train a rhino for crucial scenes in the film: “We brought the Rhino from an animal park in New Jersey to Kenya. It flew in a cargo/passenger plane and was transported in a truck with a ramp to the location; a corral was built to shoot in with a narrow shoot attached. It would enter the scene through the shoot to the set." However, despite its small size and strength, Sitterly claims that the domesticated housecat is among the most complicated animal to train.

A scene with the rhino and other animals in Sheena.

A road with no return?

Asked if there is still a future for animal trainers in films, Wells says there is still work, but mainly for dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, and horses, and makes a criticism of how sometimes technology can have a disastrous outcome in the end:

“They tried to CGI the lead dog on the recent "The Call of the Wild," and it ended up looking like "Scooby-Doo," he regrets. For Sitterly, it wasn't just the digital special effects that took the animals out of the picture; there was also pressure from entities that support the animal welfare cause: “CGI mainly replaced live animals due to the pressure of animal rights groups, and it is less dangerous," Sitterly stated.

Another point worth considering was whether the technology would be cheaper than training an animal, which, depending on the trick performed, can take a week or more to learn a specific command – on top of the many months it takes to train on the basics. On this point, Wells points out that CGI has indeed become less expensive over time: “At first it was more expensive to use CGI than to use live trained animals, but as technology improved, it has become more cost-effective." According to Sitterly, ideally, both elements (the animal department and the visual effects department) should work together. “The trainers do what they can with the live animals and then CGI takes over for the action too dangerous for the animals. A perfect example is the sled dog movie "Togo" I worked on in 2018”, she added. Sitterly currently works as a freelance studio animal trainer.

How CGI has taken animals out of the scene in Hollywood
Wells training a lion

Still, for Wells, who came to the United States in 1957, where he started working in animal parks until he was discovered by a Disney talent scout in 1964, CGI has spoiled the magic of cinema. “We never believe anything is real anymore, even when it is. In "The Clan of the Cave Bear," we worked a lion and a bear with a wire between them; now, they would never be in the same studio. In "Sheena," we worked with an elephant and a horse together. A lot of the skill of training has been lost."

According to Wells, in the 1980s, there were around ten exotic animal companies in the Los Angeles area; now, there are only two. His former ranch in Thousand Oaks, California, once housed members of the African fauna and also wolves and tigers that were not originally from Africa. Now that he is retired and lives in a smaller house, he has his favorite animals, lions, carved in stone in his garden instead. "CGI was the beginning of the end for the exotic/wild animal trainer."