Faking It: Confessions Of A Game Of Thrones Animal Trainer

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Welcome to Faking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.
Information is traveling at light speed on this season of Game of Thrones, where news that used to take weeks and months to get from King's Landing to Winterfell is now arriving in what seems like mere minutes. What, exactly, are they feeding the ravens?
Julie Tottman, an animal trainer for Gary Gero's Birds & Animals Unlimited, has worked on some of the show's most memorable episodes, including season 6's "The Battle of the Bastards," "The Winds of Winter," and season 7's epic scorcher, "The Spoils of War." Her other credits include several Harry Potter films, The Dark Knight, and 102 Dalmatians, which she describes as a "dream come true." "I had to play with puppies for six months," she added. "It was actually fantastic."
Now, about those ravens.
"Ravens [eat] meat mix or insect mix," she said. "It really just depends; some ravens get cat food." Usually, trainers will find out what any given animal's favorite treat is and train them with the runner-up, saving the real pièce de resistance for when the cameras start rolling.
So, how does one get this dream job? Tottman was actually considering a future as a dog dresser when a friend's father asked her to stop by the film set he was working on as an art director. She brought the dogs, and left a changed woman. "I just really loved it, and decided, 'Oh my gosh, this is a career,'" she said. We're lucky she did.
Close your eyes and picture Jon Snow without Ghost; Ramsay Bolton houndless; Harry Potter sans Hedwig. Not great, right? Take away their animal companions, and all you're left with is a bunch of man-boys trying real hard to look cool. And where would the Dothraki be without their horses?
Of course, training these animals to perform stunts that range from quizzically cocking their head to carrying a horde of screaming, leather-clad stuntmen across a battlefield, requires a tremendous amount of time, and effort. I asked Tottman how she makes the impossible happen.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Casting Call

Like any actor, animals have to go through casting before they even get near a set.

Tottman says that, usually, she'll get a script first, in which the director and producers may have imagined the kind of animal they want. Then, she'll read through, and suggest some breeds that fit the part "We'll take them for casting, and they'll say 'I like the look of that one. I like the look of that one,'" she explained.

If possible, the animals are pulled from rescue shelters. If Tottman can't find what she needs, she'll turn to breeders and individual owners.

Fun fact: Tottman says she always have about three animals trained for any one part, so that "if they get tired or bored or hot, they're not made to feel any shame."

Once the casting process is over, the training begins. I asked Tottman if animals have specific stage directions written for them in the script, as humans do. (I imagine something like: "Rabbit exits room in a huff.")

In fact, what we see on screen is a collaboration between the director, who has a vision for the part, and the trainer, who can advise on what is physically possible.

"The relationship between the trainer and the director is very important," she said. "We get a script and we train to that script. We come up with ideas [and the director might] think 'Oh, I didn't know a cat could do that,' or 'I didn't think a dog could do that.' It's a dual effort, really. [Sometimes,] the way some scenes are set up aren't always favorable to the animal."
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
The Real Story Behind Ramsay Bolton's Hounds

A typical day in the life of a Hollywood animal trailer starts early. Super early. You have to get the animals prepared, drive them to the set, make them extra comfy ("not too hot, not too cold"). Then, you have to discuss the shoot schedule for the day with the director.

But the bulk of training actually takes place well before that, in the weeks and months leading up to a shoot, so that the animals are prepped for whatever they'll be doing on camera.

It can take weeks to get an animal ready to perform a stunt. While working on Resident Evil, for example, it took Tottman four weeks to train a dog to jump through a sugar glass window. But often, it takes even longer than that.

"You go very, very slowly in the beginning just to make sure they feel confident," she said. "If they're not, you're not going to get any kind of performance from them. It takes quite a while to get them ready for the set. For a wolf, it could take a couple of years. A cat or dog, from when we get them from the rescue until they're ready on set, takes about four months.

Tricks range from the routine (running to the mark, barking on cue, lying down), to the more advanced, which includes things like jumping, or pretending to bite. On Game of Thrones, this was used a lot in the training of Ramsay Bolton's hounds, who you'll recall, liked to devour his victims, and eventually turned on their master. In reality, they were just competition dogs, trained to bite or bark on command. "They [had] to bite off someone's head, so we used a football, and they put the face on after so a dog's not really attacking someone's head," Tottman explained. "That's where I'd get help from the visual effects department."

Like with the ravens, trainers use a variety of treats as incentives, and each animal has their favorite. According to Tottman, most dogs like sausages and chicken, others like cheese (Claire Foy, star The Crown, told me that trainers fed the corgis cheddar cheese on set to keep them going.); cats go for white fish or tuna, although, weirdly, some cats prefer ham; owls, for their part, have to earn their dinner of mice and ticks.

Speaking of owls — since she has worked on both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, Tottman is the prime candidate to settle a major debate: Who is the more skilled mail animal, owls or ravens? (If there are any major Hedwig fans reading this, I recommend you skip this part.)

"Ravens are super smart," she said, much to my surprise. (Who knew?) "Ravens are like dogs. They're absolutely incredible, whereas owls not so much. There's the saying 'the wise owl.' We're not quite sure where that came from. What you would teach a raven in two weeks, it takes two months to teach an owl." Ouch.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Emma Watson's Favorite Harry Potter Pet

If you've ever sat in a movie theater waiting for a Marvel post-credits teaser, you may have noticed a message scrolling down the end credits. Usually, it reads something like: "No animals were harmed in the making of this movie." Turns out, that's a label films have to earn.

The American Humane Association (AHA) is responsible for overseeing "the use of animal actors in American-produced film and television productions." That means making sure that the animals used on sets are treated well, and not overworked. When a leaked video claiming to show a dog being abused on the set of A Dog's Purpose caused major controversy back in January, the AHA was the one sent in to investigate.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) strongly condemns the use of "animal actors" in entertainment on their website, urging Hollywood to turn to the "highly advanced technologies that are available today—including animatronics, animation, computer-generated imagery, and more."

For Tottman, the well-being of her animals always comes first, so it's nice when actors feel the same way. Movies like Harry Potter, in which actors have to be in frequent contact with the animals on set, require extensive one-on-one work. Emma Watson, a huge cat fan, made Tottman's job easy. "Even when she should've been off tutoring, she'd always find a way to sneak down to where we were to help with the trainer, or just play with the cat and bond with the cat," she said.

And even Robbie Coltrane, otherwise known as Hagrid, became extremely fond of the scary-looking mastiffs playing Fang. "At first, [these] are these big, slobbering dogs and, by the end of it, [he] thought they were hilarious," Tottman recalled. "It's the work that we put in with the actor up front that makes the dogs – and when they're really into the animal, like Emma Watson was, it does help."

That's not to say that actors can just do whatever they want. The directions still come from the trainer, who directs the animals even as they're performing. And there are basic rules for interacting with the animals on set:

1) No yelling.

2) No touching unless specifically told to by the trainer.

3) No outside food.

Once in a while, she comes across an actor who is scared of the animal they're meant to work with. "If they're terrified, quite often we have to work with them upfront just to get them to trust and bond with the animal," she explained.

According to Tottman, it took a couple of months for Daniel Radcliffe to get comfortable around the owls playing Hedwig. "With time they can generally get through it and they can conquer the emotions," she said.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
How To Make A Direwolf, 101

When you're dealing with fantasy projects like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, animal training goes hand in hand with visual effects. I hate to break it to you, but there aren't actually dragons roaming the dark corners of our planet. (Or are there? Westeros thought they had seen the last of the dragons, and see where that got them...)

Take direwolves, for example. According to Tottman, they tried to used Northern Inuits as stand-ins for the Stark children's best furry friends, but it didn't look quite right. (Maybe because they were too damn cute!) So, instead, they brought real wolves into a studio to play the part, and the visual effects crew enhanced them in post-production to look more like the kind of animal who could take down a band of wildlings.

"Most of them are real animals, but they are enhanced with CGI," Tottman said. "With all the training in the world, there are certain behaviors you can't teach animals to do. That's exactly them. They can't look comical or quizzical or whatever. So, then CGI will help raise an eyebrow or open a beak or something like that. It's a combination of the two."

Buckbeak the Hippogriff, first seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was based on a real eagle and horse, whose movements were then combined in computer imaging, resulting in the fantastic creaure from J.K. Rowling's mind.

But while CGI can enhance the work done by animal wranglers, it could also be the profession's demise. There's been a lot published recently about the slow disappearance of the animal trainer from movie sets, as computer-generated effects become more and more realistic. Tottman, however, says that hasn't been her experience. "I'm sure it will," she said, "but at the moment, I've got more work than I've had for years and years. It seems people are favoring using real animals above CGI animals."