A lion takes part in a shoot for GreenScreen Animals.

When director David Fincher needed footage of a deer and a raccoon for the opening montage of his recent hit movie, Gone Girl, he didn’t bring animals onto the bustling movie set.

Instead, they were filmed in a more low-key environment by GreenScreen Animals and later digitally placed in the right setting.

With the pressure of producing a big-budget movie, sets can be stressful places for even the most well-trained animal actors. Now, a growing number of animals are being filmed in front of a green-colored screen that allows an editor to replace the background with whatever he would like. Green screens have historically been used during television weather forecasts, allowing a meteorologist to appear to be standing in front of a large map. But they are now commonly used for high-tech special effects as well. GreenScreen Animals, co-owned by Mark Shockley and Westley Koenen, is one of the Los Angeles-based production companies that specializes in this option for filming animals.

Featured Work Reel from GreenScreen Animals on Vimeo.

While the shoot for Gone Girl was a custom production, most of the company’s work involves creating stock video of a wide assortment of animals that directors can consider and adapt to their storylines.

A Lower-Pressure Environment?

GreenScreen Animals has been in business since 2008, and its work has appeared in the trailer for the movie We Bought a Zoo; on shows such as The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live; and in music videos, including Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

“For the user who buys the clip, it’s quicker, it’s easier, it’s cheaper,” than hiring an animal trainer and bringing animals on set, Shockley says. It can also be safer for the animals, he believes, and it helps take the pressure off of them. “Generally speaking, I feel like the industry folks are pretty responsible and aware [of the stress that can be put on an animal],” he says. "But animals are extremely unpredictable, and sometimes they’re just not feeling it.”

Of course, working with green screens does not always fit the bill. "There are certain things that we can’t do that trainers can do, so I don’t want to step on their toes,” Shockley says. “All the stuff that we do, the animals aren’t interacting [with people].”

GreenScreen Animals works closely with the American Humane Association, which is the film and television industry’s officially sanctioned animal-monitoring program and grantor of the  “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer. American Humane representatives work on sets to ensure animal safety.

“If people aren’t accustomed to working with animals, I don’t think they know the limitations,” explains Karen Rosa, a senior adviser in American Humane’s film and television unit. “Although [most filmmakers are] well-meaning, they don’t understand that the trainers make it look so easy. We have to tell the people, ‘No, this is a dog; this is not a human actor.’ ”

For example, trainers might work for weeks getting a dog ready for a certain scene, which means the dog can’t adapt quickly to last-minute changes — something filmmakers aren’t always aware of — and that can cause stress for the animal. If GreenScreen is shooting several animals on a sound stage in Los Angeles for stock footage and an animal is having an off day, they might just put the animal back in his crate for a while. A filmmaker may feel more pressure to get the shot and stick to the schedule.

Issues Around Filming Exotics

Shockley says his company selects top trainers who are mostly within two hours of Los Angeles and films the stunts the animals are trained to do. This includes some of the large and exotic animals that star in some of GreenScreen’s more popular footage. With green screens, “what you can do is have an animal walking very safely on a sound stage, and then you can make it look like he’s walking on the edge of a cliff — and he’s not — and that’s great,” Rosa says.

“We’re living in an era where there’s a lot of controversy," Rosa explains about the use of exotic animals such as chimps, tigers and lions in films. Many animal rights groups argue that wild animals shouldn’t be used in productions at all, aren’t treated properly by their trainers, don’t get the enrichment they deserve and should live in the wild.

The controversy surrounding filming exotic animals has had an effect on the number of animal trainers working in the field, says veteran Hollywood trainer Steve Martin. He says his company, Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife, has been impacted by complaints from animal rights organizations; the dwindling number of exotic animal breeders; and the increasing use of computer-generated images for animals. Currently he has more than 100 animals, including bears, big cats, primates, forest animals and dogs, and his credits include Dancing With Wolves and Blade Runner, among many others. “All these animals are hand-raised and start going on sets from a very young age,” he says of conventional on-set filming. “We get hired and get a paycheck, and theirs is a meat reward.”

But the pressure is on, Martin says. There are often animal rights protesters nearby when he’s working on a conventional film set, and the producers receive letters from organizations, including PETA and The Humane Society of the United States, about his treatment of the animals. Recently, PETA voiced concerns about the treatment of chimps used in a video for the music group One Direction, but Martin disagrees with their concerns. He says he uses positive reinforcement to train the animals, and they have plenty of indoor and outdoor space to use whenever they want to. He also notes that he provides them with a range of enrichment toys, including puzzles and tires, to play with.

“[Our animals] get lots of mental time spent with them. We work with them, take them for walks. We have a 5-acre back area where we can turn them loose and they run around. Every single bit of what we do is positive reinforcement — everything we do.” Martin says he has invited PETA and other critics to visit his facility, but they haven’t responded.

The Limitations of Green Screens

Although filming animals using green screens is popular and useful for certain types of footage, traditional on-set filming of animals is likely to continue at least for the foreseeable future. That is largely because there are some limitations to using green screens. “Stock [footage] by its nature is kind of generic, so it’s not for everybody, and we might not have the shot a director needs,” Shockley says.

The use of the green screen can be visually noticeable in some cases, which can be an issue. “I think you can tell [when something’s filmed in front of a green screen],"  trainer Martin says, "but in some respects, it doesn’t matter.”

American Humane’s Rosa also sees the benefit of having a well-trained animal work on a safe set, with American Humane reps and reputable trainers. She notes that by using a green screen, some of the improvisational aspects and natural charm that an animal might have in a certain situation could be lost in a more generic shoot.

Concerns Vs. Benefits

Advances in technology often bring new considerations as well. Rosa voices concerns about the kinds of scenarios and visuals that could be created using green screens and computer-generated imagery. “The downside is that it gives the ability to create images that are far more disturbing than you could with a real animal,” she explains.

Rosa believes that it is especially important for her organization to be involved in this kind of filming because they are able to evaluate what actually happens on set and what is created through technology. "We really can understand where the live action ends and the computer begins," she notes. And, therefore, the group cannot confirm that animals weren’t actually involved in dangerous scenes depicted as real in a film. 

But ultimately Rosa is happy with “anything that will ensure greater safety. We often say that in today’s world, with the technology that we have, there is no need to put animals at risk.”