Grizzly Bears and Green Screens, Montana 2nd Unit
So my producer sister, sweet Katie Carmichael calls me and says “we’ve got this scene in the movie and we need to get a real Grizzly Bear on film to match the blocking of the actors, can you shoot it?” And I reflectively answer in the positive, and then start thinking “a trained grizzly bear” is a perfect oxymoron. Fortunately there is a group up in Bozeman, MT called “Montana Grizzly Encounter”that is a super legit grizzly bear Rescue & Education Sanctuary run by Casey Anderson along with Ami Testa and her adoptive grizzly bear affectionately known as Brutus. They are a great team. Ami literally brought Brutus up in her home from age two weeks old. Both of the handlers were articulate, compassionate and safety conscious.
Nevertheless, when they trailed old Brutus up to our 12×20′ green screen tied down near the beautiful town of Livingston, MT, the set got very quite because Brutus at 900lbs was one bad ass looking bear. I made sure that we had detailed safety meeting as about 15 years ago I was shooting the “Exxon Tiger” and he seriously bit his long time trainer just missing his femoral artery. The point wasn’t lost on me, “trained” animals are never completely predictable. Also, I’ll never forget the size of Burtus’s head which was truly awe-inspiring. He is simply a magnificent beast. We knew he wouldn’t favorably take to a full GREEN Screen BG and floor environment as he evidently likes to shred most things he’s allowed to play with. So we put six feet of surface green out in front of our big green screen and then held our breaths as the door from the trailer was opened.
Just so you know, we had three strands of electrical fence between us and Brutus. We were told not to look him in the eye and during our safety meeting which we had TWICE, we saw that in addition to Ami and Casey who were IN the pin with Brutus they had two other handlers equipped with Pepper Spray as backups. Our Town and Country van was just behind the camera and my 2nd unit crew of AC Scott Dahard and gaffer/grip Chris Gerding along with the veteran producer Doug Bruce were planning on jumping into the empty van in case anything went sideways. We’d even bail on our fantastic Alexa camera suppled by “Acamera Rentals.”
So Brutus comes out of his cage and I’m doing my deep breathing exercise and keeping my eye in the viewfinder. It was a lot of bear but we were very relieved that he seemed content to explore the inside of his little corral of wires and didn’t pay much attention to the green fabric behind him or our lights. One thing we did know and that was the Brutus was capable of doing whatever he wanted should he go there. But Ami and Casey by means of food prompting kept his attention and got him to go easily though his various storyboarded scenes. The most complicated of which called from him to walk along the back set then turn his head dramatically to camera. And damn if he didn’t do all these maneuvers perfectly. We had a good plan that involved the camera height of the A unit camera and matching the lighting angles from the dialogue scenes. It was a very impressive, low key performance by Ami and Casey, who we instantly had faith in owing to their amazing relationship to this animal. We got our shots and yesterday got this email from Katie:
“We saw the movie last night at a private screening in Rome… I was holding my breath until I saw the bear scene which was REALLY great. Luca the editor came up to me afterwards and said that you all did an excellent job ….. Thanks so much for that! The movie opens in Rome on January 3rd…”Lost in America”
And so it goes.