Readers reply: do animals in film and TV know that they’re acting?

I was watching a film recently with my partner and he said of a dog lying placidly on a couch: “That’s some great dog-acting.” It got me thinking: how much direction can animals in TV and film take? Do they have any idea what’s going on? Will Frye Shepard, Oxford

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Readers reply

I’d say yes and no. I think they’re aware that they’re being watched and directed and so perform accordingly. Their training and obedience and likely reward just makes them go along with it.

They obviously aren’t aware that they are in a scene, that they are a character, there is a cast, a plot, a script being followed, that cameras are rolling, the action has started, now it has stopped, a TV/film has been made.

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Presumably dogs and animals that are used in lots of productions become familiar with the environment, seeing cameras and lighting, and so then know that they’re in a situation where they will be following commands and therefore they “perform”. GatehouseAmi

Some animals definitely know they’re being looked at and respond very positively to that attention. Desert Orchid was a classic case, making many celebrity appearances in retirement and raising tens of thousands for charity. alisoncoweYes! “Dessie” was charismatic and knew it, showing off for crowds. Apparently, Red Rum was the same post-retirement. I worked with a theatre cat who was charming, but could spot a camera at 1,000 paces and began posing, doing cute shtick, and turned up the allure to 11. It worked. IvanTiger

To quote the great Babe: “Baa-ram-ewe.” jno50

How they got that piglet to learn lines still baffles me. Murdomania

I think the elephant in Blue Peter knew exactly what she was doing … Pampers

Dogs and other animals will absolutely take direction, but do they know they’re acting? Highly unlikely. They’re just doing the best job they can to make their handler(s) happy and we should celebrate them for that … CyKosis73

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Our guinea pig only gets a treat after giving a scene from Shakespeare. It’s just a question of motivation. jimlewis1

I have seen some things on TV where it’s not 100% clear if the humans know they’re acting. TonyBalloon

A dog won’t know what a film is, or what a camera does. But they can pretend, in a doggy instinctive way. My old border did a very “nerdy” growl when we used to play fight (he’s sadly not really up to it any more) to signify he didn’t really mean it. His real growl is very deep and menacing. I suppose that’s a rudimentary kind of acting. rcosmop

They can definitely think in the abstract. My border refused to play with a dolly we found, too much like a person. Other times, he objects to having his photo taken by giving an ugly face. Borders are a species apart. foxinwinter

I agree. It’s not just about obedience. Some consciously show off when they have an audience because they get more attention. If that’s not the very definition of acting … JiKangsMusingsIf you have ever shared your life with a golden retriever, you will know the answer to this. Goldens are hams and comedians. I have had three of them and, at times, they have had me in stitches. Never mind Benji or the singing dog in the Flash adverts; golden retrievers are the canine world’s natural actors. huskygirl

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Quite why I’ve remembered this after all the years is beyond me, but I read an article some time in the 1970s, when the Black Beauty series was being made, where a director said that there was one black horse in the show who always acted differently the moment they went for a take. As I recall, he said that the horse would behave normally until the cameras started rolling, at which point it would start doing what it had been told to do, but with more spirit and “showiness” – I guess it responded to the word “action”.

Whether it knew the cameras were on and that it was taking part in a TV programme is unknown, but the same article said that other horses they had hired didn’t have the same exuberance when the cameras were rolling, or behave any differently than when the cameras were off them. Pooshkah

I asked my dog, but he refused to discuss contracts until I spoke with his agent. HungarianFlashMy cat and my dog know how to play-act for attention. Greta Cat is an absolute master of emotional manipulation, and very cynical with it. I’ve had her since she was seven and a half weeks old; she’s now 13 and still my spoilt baby.

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Two years ago, we took on our now 11-year-old cockapoo rescue, Mimi Dog. Mimi is also very aware of what she is doing when she plays up the big, sad eyes, or begs for food doing little dances, or otherwise “performs”. In her case, all too sadly, it’s a learned behaviour based on what got her fed and fussed by people when she was abandoned and left to fend for herself on the streets on Romania for about three years. She still has a big attraction to builders in hi-vis gear – clearly, that’s a lot to do with who fed her at that time. (She was found on a building site by the rescue.)

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The amazing thing, after that ordeal, is how loving and unselfish she is – sure, she has abandonment anxiety, but otherwise nil problem behaviours. A big influence in choosing her – already having a cat – was her nature. When she was found, she still had milk. The shelter had a litter of abandoned kittens; she fed them and treated them as if they were her own. EdwardMarlowe

My cat can “act” hungry convincingly even if she has just eaten. martimart

In the long history of cinema, many great animal actors have been fully aware of what they’re doing. King Kong (1933) is a case in point.It took months of patient training to get Kong (real name Basil) to be able to climb the Empire State Building (they started with smaller skyscrapers downtown to build his confidence). The director knew the scene with Kong being shot by the biplanes was probably a one-take deal, so when Kong slipped and fell off accidentally, they had to carefully edit the scene in post-production to make it look as if he’d been killed. And the famous scene where Kong takes Fay Wray in his hand (filmed in Washington Square) has some hilarious bloopers. Wray was notoriously ticklish, and many takes were ruined because Kong was being too delicate. The director had a huge hissy fit and bawled out poor Basil, who was only doing his best.

basic obedience training

This has become known in the trade as “having a King Kong ding dong”. dylan37I think they know that they’re performing. Being someone who listens to director commentaries, I know that the directors of two of my favourite films – the amazing Hungarian film White God (2014), by Kornél Mundruczó, and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – both thought the dogs in them were great actors.Carpenter in particular talked about the moment when the dog-thing walks down the hallway and into the room where the helpless radio operator is. You see it from the end of the hallway. The dog comes towards you and then stops, looks right at the camera, looks into the room where you see the shadow of the man and then goes in to kill him (in the story, at least). Shivers right down my spine every time. Carpenter said the whole crew was impressed by the dog’s incredible acting in that moment.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: There are approximately 600 million dogs in the world. It is estimated that nearly 400M of those dogs are strays.

You can argue that the dog doesn’t know the wider story, but there are certainly plenty of actors who don’t have full context (or occasionally any context) for scenes, or who have great reaction moments that aren’t thought out. After all, we are animals, too. Thomas1178