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Dr Dolittle Of The Filming World...

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Driving away from Beirut Airport in the dead of night to the sound of the distant gunshots was an unsettling experience. But what made this assignment surreal was the mission: we were in Lebanon to film a mouse race.
Trevor Smith, "the world’s most versatile animal wrangler" – as billed by Animal Planet when they premiered his TV series Wild Thing, prides himself on providing any creature for filming "from a house fly to a hippo."
The challenge in war-torn Beirut was working with untrained mice.
The client was an internet company and the storyboard was simple. The race track was a cross between a greyhound stadium and a motor racing circuit. The hero, dressed in a miniature racing jacket bearing the client’s corporate logo, was to be crowned "the fastest mouse on the internet".
When we arrived at the studio Trevor met the director of the TV commercial, the agency who had dreamed up the storyboard and the mice. But there was a small problem. The mice.
"These mice are much too small. They’re tiny lab mice and they’re only babies. They’re just not suitable for the shots you need and won’t be able to run round the track," said Trevor, who was duly informed there were no full-size mice in Lebanon.
The solution was to send a driver to neighbouring Syria where he collected some adult mice. Twenty four hours later, back in the studio, our animal expert began to work his magic when he selected a hero mouse and started to train him and his friends to run round the track.
It was one of those assignments that bore little resemblance to the actual storyboard, as more and more challenging elements were introduced – from dry ice to the removal of the lane dividers. But, as always, Trevor delivered the required shots and the much-acclaimed commercial that resulted was so hilarious it was featured by Chris Tarrant on his comedy show Tarrant on TV.
The fly-on-the-wall story of the making of the commercial was featured in one of the first ever episodes of Wild Thing, the series that has turned the Dr Dolittle of the filming world into arguably the most sought after animal wrangler in the business.
Trevor has been providing animals for commercials, feature films, pop promos and all types of filming requirements for nearly 40 years. The mouse race in Beirut was in the late nineties and 12 years on it was danger of a different kind when TV2 in Norway wanted a chromakey studio shoot with a lion.
The requirement was an adult male just like the iconic MGM lion with the long mane and that aura of power and danger. The action was one continuous shot walking to camera to include a quick look right, then left and ending with a snarl. The clients were amazed when the lion delivered exactly what they wanted on the first take.
"That was truly amazing," said Alexander Øksenberg, CEO & Partner of Gosu Design, who put their faith in Trevor and his team to turn their storyboard into a reality.
Casting and choreography is a big part of the role of an animal co-ordinator and on this occasion the success of the shoot depended on selecting the right lion in the right location and working with a production team who specialise in filming with animals.
It is such a specialist field that Trevor decided a few years ago to set up a business to do this kind of work and build an archive of chromakey animal stock shots.
"Filming on blue or green screen is a big part of what we do. As fewer animals will be available to do this type of work in years to come it is important that we film as many different species as we can before they disappear," explains our expert, who appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2010 seeking funding for stock footage website, a joint venture with independent production company VSI Enterprises.
"It’s not just a case of turning up with the animals and filming them, you have to know how to get the actions and that’s all down to experience and understanding animal psychology. You also need a licence to film with animals," explains Trevor, who is one of a rare breed of animal wranglers with all the right credentials.
He started out in the filming business at the age of 16, when his first assignment was to dress a nude model with snakes and cockroaches in the movie Satan’s Slaves. Grandson of the last gamekeeper of Chalfont St. Peter, Trevor later took a similar position at Windsor Safari Park where, among many other creatures, he had close contact with killer whales and dolphins.
But it was not long before he turned to working in the filming business full-time and over the years he has worked with many famous names and celebrities, including Jack Nicholson, when Trevor supplied bats for the Batman movie, and Tom Cruise, when Trevor wrangled the rats in that famous scene in the ventilation shaft in Mission Impossible.
Many of his animals have become stars in their own right, none more so than Kevin the fruit bat who shot to fame in the ads for Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles.
Trevor’s ability to overcome hopeless situations is amazing, such as the time when he was hired to take Egyptian cobras to Egypt to make a film with the legendary Omar Sharif.
Despite having all the correct paperwork, problems at customs meant the trained cobras were not allowed into the country. "It looked like we would be on the next plane home. But then we found some killer cobras that had been captured in the wild. It was a real mad situation because one bite from these snakes and you are dead in 20 minutes.
"The most important shot was getting one of the cobras to hood up and strike at the camera. I don’t think the cameraman realised the deadly snakes we were working with were extremely bad-tempered compared to the trained ones we were originally intending to work with. But as I like to say, it’s all in a day’s work."
Words: John Gubba
Image: Corinne Gubba
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