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The Making of “Cats & Dogs”

True to its catchphrase, the fur did indeed fly in the hit Warner Bros. movie, “Cats & Dogs,” which is available on VHS and DVD. People are streaming to rent the movie in which felines and canines lock wits and paws in an apocalyptic revival of the Cold War.

Fortunately, the fur flies only on screen. Behind the scenes, cat & dog never laid a claw on one another. They were never given the chance to practice any real antagonism. Every scene that was shot had dogs and cats segregated from one another. Many of the scenes involving multiple cats were likewise shot separately, to avoid issues of feline aggression.

Instead, a marvelous blend of computer graphics, puppets and real animals were used to, in the words of director Lawrence Guterman, “reinvent the idea of the Cold War spy thriller.” Even so, the movie involved thousands of hours of training, and patience, on the part of some very cooperative cats and dogs. Here’s a peak into how it was done.

Behind the Scenes of Cats & Dogs

In the movie, Butch, an Anatolian shepherd, and his canine agents stand in the way of a fluffy white Persian cat named Mr. Tinkles, who diabolically planned to conquer the world, enslave humanity and eliminate dogs. That’s a big job for a normally placid, affectionate lap cat like a Persian.

In fact, the character of Mr. Tinkles was one of more complicated to produce. To portray the maniacal genius realistically, two white Persians (Foster and Fritz) were used, along with a life-sized puppet (and six puppeteers, who hid under floorboards, inside an underground chamber and in stairs to operate the puppet). The puppet’s computer-controlled motors made Mr. Tinkles’ gestures, gesticulations, speeches, exhortations and actions appear “live.”

His sidekick, Calico, was played by two exotic shorthairs named Edison and Edgar. The conspirators were never actually together during the movie; they were filmed separately or with one of the puppets.

The main canine protagonists are Butch and his rookie agent Lou. Butch is played by three Anatolian shepherds, named Noah, Moses and Cain. Five pocket beagles, named Buddy, Confusion, Prada, Coco and C.J., portray Lou. The script originally called for a foxhound puppy to play the part of Lou. However, Guterman went with pocket beagles because they look young – in fact, the dogs were around 2 years old – and are more easily trained.

The animals, both cat and dog, largely came from rescue shelters. Training began about a year before filming. They were verbally cued to perform some of the more innocuous behaviors. For instance, open warfare breaks out when an orange tabby cat tries to steal a newspaper. The cat was trained to roll with the paper on cue.

Buddy is later filmed barking at the cat and chasing the feline antagonist up a tree. Neither was actually in the same area during shooting. This is because training can be trusted only so far – beagles have a natural hunting instinct, and cats usually panic and run when confronted with dogs they don’t know and love.

In all, 33 cats and 27 dogs were employed in the movie, along with more than a dozen different animatronic puppets and a legion of computer graphics to portray pitched battles, projectiles and chase scenes without endangering any animal. (The American Humane Association supervised the care and treatment of the animals, and gave the movie its blessing.)

In its report, the association describes how many of the more exciting and elaborate scenes were shot. Before shooting began, the animals’ image was scanned into a computer. Sensors placed on the animals recorded body dimensions, facial expressions and movement to allow designers to create an unlimited number of actions and expressions. Life-size puppets were created (by the famous multimedia production company, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), modeled after the animal actors’ musculature and skeleton.

Even the fur was painstakingly duplicated, which was a surprisingly difficult challenge. A lot of time was spent choosing the correct fake fur, and then simulating it on the computer. The task was daunting because live fur is dynamic – the computer had to make 14 million hairs move in unison and individually to simulate living hair.

Strategically placed treats led both dogs and cats to run from point A to point B, and toys were waved to get them to look at each other or side to side. Buddy was cued to run toward the tree, where a meat treat was placed. A puppet then simulated the action when he runs into the tree. The same puppet was used when Buddy runs into the window and slides down.

Ramps assisted the animals during scenes of leaping, with trainers ready at both ends with treats and praise. The scene that shows a cat running on top of Buddy to escape involved a cat on one such ramp. Later, the scene was made to appear that the cat had leaped on the back of the dog.

The challenge faced by Guterman (who directed the computer-graphic movie Antz) was to decide when to use a live animal, a puppet or computer graphics, and how to maintain the same “character” in all of them. Breeds that generally showed more gentle temperaments were chosen, such as the exotic shorthairs who played Calico and the British shorthair who played the Russian blue. (The shorthair breed was also chosen because the cat’s rounder face and larger eyes made it look more kitten-like.)

The crew took no chances putting dogs and cats together, however. A Russian blue assassin puppet was used to rub against Lou – to show disarming friendliness in front of the unwitting humans. As soon as they were alone, the Russian blue spit up a spiked hairball and sent it spinning toward our young hero.

The hairball was, of course, a product of computer graphics, along with other deadly flying objects. The Ninja cats, played by another friendly breed called the Devon Rex, were a mixture of animatronics.

In its review, the AHA praised the makers of the movie for the lengths taken to care for all the animals, given without favoritism toward the on-screen antagonists. The animals themselves were exemplary in their cooperation, the report notes:

“One of the trainers commented that in the case of Noah, an Anatolian shepherd who played Butch, ‘If he’s not needed yet, he’ll just lie down somewhere on the set and go to sleep, even with 60 or 70 people working all around him.'”

One of the producers joked that he was so impressed with the animals’ discipline that he fired his assistant, and replaced him with a mastiff.