Dolphin Tale Director Charles Martin Smith on set

Making a movie is hard enough, but throw animals into the mix and the challenges are twofold — especially when your main mammal isn’t a trained actor. But director Charles Martin Smith wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m fascinated with both human and animal behavior, and I love being able to capture the interaction between the two on screen,” says Martin Smith, who honed his animal directing skills while working with a Golden Retriever on the set of Air Bud.

For his latest film, Dolphin Tale, Martin Smith did just that — told the story of the unexpected bond between a young boy named Sawyer and Winter, a severely injured animal whom Sawyer rescues following a run-in with a crab trap. The dolphin cast as Winter was a perfect match for the storyline: Winter actually plays herself in the movie. 

In 2005, a fisherman in Florida found a baby dolphin tangled in the netting of a crab trap, which was cutting off circulation to her tail. The dolphin was taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where a team of marine biologists and technicians worked around the clock to nurse her back to health — and ultimately outfitted Winter with a revolutionary prosthetic tail. Today, she calls the aquarium home, and visitors can see her there in person or watch her on a live webcam.

Director Charles Martin Smith on set

Supported by a stellar cast — Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman and Harry Connick Jr. star in the film — Winter not only exceeded expectations as a novice actor, but she also charmed everyone on set with her tender and often mischievous ways. “Winter was only about 4 months old when she was rescued, so she’s used to being around people,” Martin Smith says. “She’s extremely bright, but she also has a goofy, kid-like personality. When I first met her, I was moved by what I saw: Winter was in the water with a 5-year-old boy who’d lost his leg to cancer, and she was so gentle with him, almost as if she personally understood something about his injury.”

When it came time to film, Martin Smith admits some unique obstacles crept up — but his biggest impediment had nothing to do with Winter or her prosthetic tail. “When you work with animals, you need to understand that they are really the ones in charge, and you are shooting on their schedule,” Martin Smith says. Of course, the human actors can also throw production for a loop. To make sure that Winter and the boy who plays Sawyer were a good match, Martin Smith had them spend time together in the tank, testing out the waters, so to speak. “They got along great,” Martin Smith says. “But that’s when I learned that the actor wasn’t a very good swimmer, so we had to get him lessons fast!”

For Martin Smith, the movie is as much about overcoming physical adversity, human and animal alike, as it is about our place on the planet. “When people rescue creatures like Winter, it’s often because they’ve been hurt by man’s activity,” Martin Smith says. “I hope people come away and ask themselves, ‘What can we do to make the world a better one for animals?’ ”

Dolphin Tale opens in 2-D and 3-D at select theaters September 23. For a peek at a trailer from the movie, check out this Vetstreet link.