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The Heidi Chronicles: Should dog actors strike too?

December 29, 2008 |  8:33 am

Heidi This is Heidi. She was "discovered" this year in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman. And this is her “head shot”: That longing look was the result of seeing a biscuit just out of reach.

Last winter, during our daily walks in "Valleywood" -- that, is the studio zone that includes Studio City, Universal City and Burbank -- Heidi and I often encountered screenwriters walking the picket line during the bitter 100-day writers strike that finally wrapped on Feb. 13. Though not one to get involved in studio politics, Heidi would often show her solidarity by bouncing excitedly and pulling on the leash.  In Heidi's mind, idled writers merit at least as much attention as squirrels and cats.

Because she is an aspiring actor, Heidi is even more concerned about the looming threat of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild over many of the same issues, including receiving royalties from content distributed via new media. Although no one is yet striking, or picketing, a shepherd on the verge of a promising career has to wonder how an actors strike would affect the canine performing community.

In order to calm the dog, I consulted an expert: Trainer Mark Forbes of Birds & Animals Unlimited, trainer of the 22 dogs who portrayed Marley in the new film "Marley & Me."

Actually, Forbes says, dogs and other working animals can benefit from a work stoppage by either writers or human actors. "When there's a threat of strikes, they do more animal scripts, because there are fewer actors in them," he said. And, with all apologies to my writing brethren in Hollywood, a "speaking" part for Heidi does not exactly call for Norman Lear.

Greatest_american_dog_3_2 Both writers and actors in Hollywood often decry reality television -- or, as many producers call them, "unscripted shows" -- because the trend means less work for professionals.  Heidi's trainer, Sue DiSesso, observes the same "reality" trend in programming featuring non-pro animals in such shows as CBS' competition series "Greatest American Dog" (the photo is contestant "Laura" with Preston, her Pomeranian). She also disagrees with Forbes that an actors strike can help animals, because trainers are union workers and so should not cross a picket line.

But Forbes says Heidi and other animal actors have nothing to worry about when it comes to reality television -- the more dogs on the big and small screen, the better. Doggie reality TV , he says, has "sort of its own entity -- it hasn't really affected the trained animals that are mainly used in TV commercials." Forbes adds that whenever a popular dog movie comes out, it only spawns more of the genre.

Unlike human actors, dogs and other animals have been increasingly replaced by highly sophisticated, computer-generated images: "Each year, it gets better and better -- the lion in the 'Chronicles of Narnia' movies is incredibly close to a real lion," he said. He says that CGI has virtually replaced animatronics because it is extremely difficult to achieve realistic movement with an animatronic creature.

But, Forbes adds, having the ability to create fantastical CGI animals tends to inspire writers, directors and producers to create more animal stories that might offer employment to live animals as well. CGI, says Forbes, "allows them to tell stories that they couldn't tell before."

-- Diane Haithman 

Photo credit: Cliff Lipson / CBS

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