An old man and a dog sit on the moss-covered roof of a log cabin in the Canadian wilderness. It is a warm summer’s night – a river gurgles nearby. The man, named Thornton, and the dog, named Buck, have been on a long journey to reach this bucolic splendor, a journey that is now coming to an end. Buck has met a pack of wolves in the forest and is overcome by a primal urge to rejoin his ancestors. Thornton is despondent at the prospect of losing his friend. So, in one final act of submission, Buck nestles into Thornton’s lap, before he turns his back on domestication and returns to his own kind.
This is a scene in the recent cinematic remake of Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild, which tracks the journey of Buck, a highborn St Bernard collie cross. There have been several attempts at reimagining this tale in film: in 1935, a hulking St Bernard starred alongside Clark Gable in the first movie version of the novel. In 1972, Charlton Heston shared the screen with Buck the leonberger.
In the most recent iteration of The Call of the Wild, directed by Chris Sanders, Harrison Ford takes the role of Thornton – but no dog appears on the film credits. In fact, if you were on set during shooting for the scene at the log cabin, you would see Ford, looking forlorn and rugged, and there, nestling in his lap, a fully grown man named Terry wearing a mo-cap suit.
This is because the role of Buck has been outsourced to CGI. Of course, this animation technique has been used in Hollywood for a long time to animate, with striking realism, creatures that otherwise belong only in fiction. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The super intelligent primates in the Planet of the Apes.
In this movie, however, computer graphics are used to replace a figure that has played an outsized, though often unacknowledged, role in film history – the dog actor. At what cost?
The history of dogs in cinema is as old as cinema itself. In the Lumière brothers’ pioneering 1895 film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon, a joyful mastiff bounds into frame 20 seconds through the 46-second-long reel, completely oblivious to having become part of movie history. This unexpected performance signals the uncontrolled, chaotic conditions under which directors first produced films, which is again demonstrated in the Lumière brothers’ 1897 Le Faux cul-de-jatte, in which a stray dog wonders on to the set, lifts his leg and urinates at the film’s pinnacle moment.
As the movie industry was consolidated in Hollywood studios in the first decades of 20th century, dogs continued to appear in film, no longer as unplanned distractions, but as actors with headlining roles. Throughout the 1920s, in fact, one of the most famous actors in America was a German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin. He starred in 23 films that were so profitable they saved Warner Bros from bankruptcy more than once.
Part of what made Rin Tin Tin successful is that he was working during the silent film era and critics were taken by his physical prowess. In a review for the Chicago Daily News, the poet Carl Sandberg wrote: “He has the power of expression in his every move that makes him one the leading pantomimists of the screen.”
As with other celebrities, the public was also fascinated with Rin Tin Tin’s private life. During the first world war, he was rescued from a bombed-out trench by Lee Duncan, an American soldier who then dedicated his life to training the dog. In Los Angeles, Duncan would sometimes bring Rinty, as he was known, out on stage after the movie credits to demonstrate the range of his skills.
While no other dog actor has since ascended Rinty’s heights, they have continued to play major roles in cinema. It was Toto, after all, who unveiled the Wizard of Oz. And Doc Taylor’s pet sheepdog, Einstein, was the very first creature to be blasted forward in time in the DeLorean.
But if the dog’s presence onscreen delights, it also introduces an element of unpredictability in production. Dog training is a complex, time-consuming art. Not only does the dog actor have to learn bespoke behaviors for scenes, they have to bond with their fellow human actors and feel comfortable on set. And even then, the best-trained dog on the most professional set will occasionally give into some primal desire. Rin Tin Tin, for instance, once attacked a porcupine while shooting in the High Sierras, delaying production until the pock marks in his face healed.
Since the 1940s, there have also been strict guidelines setting out appropriate behavior for animals on set, which is now codified in the American Humane Association’s 127-page long Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Film Media. Animals rights groups like Peta closely monitor the industry to make sure producers comply, amplifying any hint of mistreatment to the public. When video surfaced of a distressed German shepherd struggling to keep its head above water on the set of A Dog’s Purpose in 2017, outcry was so intense that executives at Universal canceled the film’s premiere.
Perhaps to bypass these uncertainties, the director Chris Sanders opted for a computer-generated dog to play the leading role in The Call of the Wild, which premiered on 21 February this year. Sanders, who co-directed Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, designed Buck based off scanned images of a St Bernard collie cross that he and his wife adopted from a shelter in Kansas. The dog’s on-screen movements were then performed by a renowned “creature actor” named Terry Notary, who has been the invisible agent behind a number of CGI animals, including a murderous primate in Planet of the Apes.
On the set of The Call of the Wild, Notary donned a mo-cap suit and acted out Buck’s role, mimicking dog-like movements. The graphics team then replaced his form with a computer-generated version of the dog during the editing stage. The output is a beautifully rendered though somewhat disorienting figure on screen.
In scenes where Buck is shot from a distance – chasing rabbits through fields or hauling a sled through over the Alaskan tundra – he looks like a convincing, if intensely oversized, dog. But then, in more intimate moments when Buck is interacting with Thornton, his expressions and behaviors are bizarrely anthropomorphized. For example, the dog somehow understands that Thornton has a drinking problem and gazes at him disapprovingly as he sips his evening whiskey.
One of the joys of London’s original novel is that it offers a dog’s-eye view of the world, a story where the action was motivated by animal desire. No doubt, Buck’s overdramatically humanlike expressions were an attempt to translate this into film. But for me it had the opposite effect. CGI Buck sits in an uncanny valley between dog-like human and human-like dog. He is visually compelling, but I felt no emotional draw to him as a character, as I have in the past with dogs on screen. (The Adventures of Milo and Otis is the very first movie I cried in.)
Watching the film, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s recent critique of the CGI-laden Marvel franchise. They are theme parks, he said, not movies. They provide “audio visual entertainment” with no friction, no mystery, no emotional resonance. This, he went on, signifies a larger trend in the movie industry, where films are optimized to distract, entertain and generate maximum revenue, leaving little room for movies that “confront the unexpected on the screen”, which, for Scorsese, is the function of cinema.
Since it first bounded on to the screen in the 19th century, the dog actor has been a medium for precisely this unexpected aesthetic experience. They perform unselfconsciously, with a heightened sense of immediacy. CGI Buck, a strange cyborg composite whose animal instincts are contrived by humans, fails to preserve this legacy. Indeed, he appears to represent precisely what Scorsese laments: the technological domestication of cinema.