How cats are trained for TV and movies

  • The 2019 remake of Stephen King’sPet Sematary” stars two different rescue cats that play the character of Church.
  • These cats had never acted before, and it took a lot of work to get them to do what the director wanted on set.
  • We spoke with the animal trainer and animal coordinator for the film, Melissa Millett and Kirk Jarrett, to find out what it takes to train a cat for TV and film.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: If you have a cat or have ever been around one, you know that they tend to have a mind of their own. But what do you do when you need them to behave in a certain way? Like in a movie, for instance.

Well, you train them.

Melissa Millett: He likes it up on shoulders.

Kirk Jarrett: Yeah.

Melissa: Here you go, bud.

Kirk: So he’ll sit up there, and then in turn then you do your eyelines to the lens, and then all of a sudden now he… now you got that one-on-one.

Narrator: Animal trainer Melissa Millett and animal coordinator Kirk Jarrett are two of Hollywood’s go-tos when a movie calls for an animal’s performance. They have worked with dogs, birds, skunks, and even buffalo, but they say cats are the most difficult to train for the silver screen.

Melissa and Kirk worked together on the 2019 remake of Stephen King’s classic “Pet Sematary”…

Jud: There are places in this world that bring things back.

Narrator: Where one particular cat character named Church plays a starring role. Training cats is a step-by-step process, and the main tools are something called a clicker and, of course, treats.

First, Melissa would teach the cat to touch their nose to an object, luring them with the treats, a process called targeting. She would then progress to having them move to a marker on the ground.

Melissa: Cat hits the mark, click, get a treat.

Narrator: She would start with the marker really close to the cat and then slowly move it further and further away.

She also used a training technique called “freeshaping,” which doesn’t involve luring the cats. Basically, Melissa puts a mark down and just waits for the cat to figure out what to do.

Melissa: It’s a hot-cold guessing game. It allows them an opportunity to problem-solve and be in control. I put a mark down, if they get on it, they get a treat, so they think that they’re training me.

Narrator: When it comes time for the cats to actually give their performances, that’s where Kirk comes in. As the animal coordinator, his job is to make sure all the animals are comfortable on set.

Kirk: Cats are sensitive to their environment, so acclimation is key.

Narrator: Everything from the air temperature to chatter from the cast and crew had to be taken into account. The cats stayed with the trainers across from the set in Montreal, so they didn’t have to travel very far and so they could get used to the environment.

Melissa: There was leashed walks for the cats in the woods after, the cats had “catios” and patios, and really, they had cat wheels, they had it all.

Narrator: The cats also needed to get comfortable being around dogs.

Melissa: I bonded them to dogs, and I brought them out one at a time with the dogs so that they could look at the dogs and say, “Oh, these guys are having fun, this is cool.”

Narrator: And having fun is one of the biggest secrets to successful cat training.

Melissa: Knowing how to build their confidence so they enjoyed the work, and making it fun so they will, you know, play my silly games and enjoy.

Narrator: For “Pet Sematary,” Melissa and Kirk had an unconventional casting process. They rescued five cats to play the role of Church but ended up predominately using just two different cats throughout the movie. The other three filled in for a few scenes that didn’t require close-ups.

Now, a bit of a spoiler here if you haven’t seen the movie. Tonic, a 10-month-old, was selected to play the living version of the cat because he was more active and outgoing…

Melissa: He still had a cute kitten-y face, so he couldn’t play the evil guy.

Narrator: And 4-year-old Leo was picked to play the undead version.

Kirk: He’s a calm cat, and he sits, he stays, he looks, and that is what you see in the poster, that’s what you see on the trailers.

Narrator: Both cats had never been in a movie before, and a lot of work went into prepping them for their acting debuts. That included a healthy dose of makeup to give Leo a bloody and gory look.

Kirk: We had to ruffle him up, we had to do some texture with blood, and we had to make him look like if he had been run over by a truck.

Narrator: And since Tonic had to look exactly like Leo, they added some brown-coloured, pet-safe dye to his chest. The makeup was American Humane Society-approved and actually served as a treat for the cats as well.

Melissa: There was edibles and food that we put on the cats so that when they licked themselves, it became a meal.

Narrator: And because of all that hair and makeup, they also needed a daily bath, which required training all its own. They first had to be OK with water. They used a technique called counterconditioning, which took about two months.

Melissa: We had catnip parties in the bathtub to make the bathtub a nice place, and then the next we would have the most delicious treats that we would find, and we would put two drops of water on them, and then four, and then a little bit of a sprinkle.

Narrator: In “Pet Sematary,” Church also has to hiss a lot, so how do you get a cat to do this on command? They rewarded him whenever he did this behaviour on his own, naturally. Sometimes a snake toy was used to elicit the response.

And Leo, based on his personality, was a natural at being the undead Church, hissing and swaying.

Kirk: Leo has a personality that was… positive towards the hiss. He is kind of like a growly kitty. He has that motion. He has that tail wag. That’s who he is. That’s his character.

Narrator: The production team used very little CGI since the cats were so good at their job, and each cat had their own strengths and weaknesses based on their characters.

Melissa: You know, it was difficult to get Tonic to sit still, and it was difficult to get Leo to move.

Narrator: Throughout the entire filming process, a representative from the Humane Society was on set as part of the animal team to make sure the cats were also safe and happy. And after wrapping production, Tonic seemed to have caught the acting bug.

Melissa: When the movie was done, he was leaping through the house trying to coax me to play with him, and he rode my big-screen TV right to the ground.

So I think Tonic wants to be a movie star again, he likes the attention.

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