It always looked so realistic when Lassie communicated perfectly with little Timmy, Benji ran away with a string of sausages, or Old Yeller ... well ... fell upon some bad luck. What seems effortless onscreen, however, involves not only smart animals, but devoted trainers who know how to prepare animal actors for their moments in the spotlight. Jean Manino is among those who make such movie and stage magic seem effortless. Whether she's providing a cat to just ... do whatever cats do ... or a dog to accomplish feats as simple as sitting down or as complex as throwing trash into a bin, she's got her pulse on what entertainment and advertising professionals are looking for in a trained animal actor.
Manino -- who spent much of her trainer career in Meraux before moving to Covington following Hurricane Katrina -- has had her dog thespians featured in many commercials and movies.
She's worked with Walt Disney and Touchstone as an official "Animal Wrangler" and her four-footed actors have shown up over the years in everything from Hollywood films such as "Primary Colors" (starring John Travolta); to TV shows such as "The Imagination Movers" and "Morgus the Magnificent"; to nationwide commercials for companies including Southern Comfort, Scotch Tape, Labatt Beer, Blue Cross, and too many more to count.
In 2003, Manino was also owner and trainer of a national competition winner on the Animal Planet Network show, "Pet Star." It all started back in the late 1970s, when kind of on a lark, Manino and a friend took a class in the basics of dog training. Much to her surprise, she was instantly hooked.
"To be able to communicate and see how the dog's mind worked, it was just natural for me," she said. Film and TV didn't start out as a goal. In fact, even today, work with filmmakers and theaters is only a part of her business, which also includes obedience classes held on the North Shore as well as in Metairie and on the Westbank; training for service and therapy animals; and pet boarding.
Training animal stars just kinda fell into Manino's lap. There happened to be an audition for the stage musical "Annie," where a dog was being sought to portray Little Orphan Annie's sidekick, "Sandy."
Although Manino admitted she couldn't even recall which theater it was at, "out of at least a hundred people, we got picked." "There were a lot of people in the audience who did film and television," she explained, "so the phone started ringing."
One reason she couldn't recall which theater was first is because ... get this ... her dogs have been cast in local Annie productions a whopping 15 times (a few venues she mentioned were Tulane University, Rivertown in Kenner, and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society).
Manino said this takes tons of disciplined work behind the scenes, day in and day out. It might take just a few days to get a dog up to speed on a specific trick needed for a shoot, but what sets a true "canine actor" apart is the ability to go with the flow. To be versatile.
She said once on a shoot for Louisiana's own "The Imagination Movers," she'd been asked to train a dog to "put his paw on a walkie-talkie and hold it there." They worked on the trick for three days, but on set, it was decided something else was wanted. She said this is quite common, and is the biggest challenge of the business.
"But," she explained, "you absolutely expect things to not be the same, but you have to have a dog versatile enough to do this." "Because the dogs are trained to such a degree, we can improvise on the spot." She said there's zero time to waste while on set. There's little to no rehearsal time allowed. "They set up the shot," she said, "tell the actors what they need to do, then the dog has to do what he needs to do." Manino explained that of course, she leads the animal throughout a shoot. The actor has nothing to do with it. "It looks like he's responding to that person [the actor], but he's actually responding to me, and following hand signals."
She said this is true both for film and for stage. The only differences with stage work is that she's of course standing further away -- in the wings -- and that "on a live stage, you don't get a second chance."
As anyone who has watched late night shows and seen segments featuring live animal experts such as Jack Hanna or Joan Embery can attest, sometimes animals can do the unexpected. At times that unexpected is funny, and at other times, it's a real mess.
Manino said once when shooting a Southern Comfort commercial, a muscular, "well-built" male actor had to carry one of her miniature ponies on his back. Without warning, at that very moment, the animal released its bladder.
Such incidents are uncontrollable and rare, however, and Manino said the reason her animals are cast regularly is because most who try to get their pets "in the movies" don't understand that it's not a beauty contest. She said others bring dogs to auditions dressed in costumes.
"We're not saying 'hey, look how cute my dog is' ... we're saying, 'hey, look what we can do.'"
She said things have slowed a bit. Before Katrina, she said, "we were in something every week." She and her dogs, though, are still doing tricks and turning heads.
She and Rossy just recently did a law firm commercial in front of a chromakey green screen. Although many of Manino's dogs are golden retrievers such as Rossy, she also trains Jack Russell Terriers.
"The little terrier is highly prized right now," she said.
One of her Jack Russell Terriers, "Whiplash," recently had a "speaking part" in a film and "he does a breakdance that is hysterical." Manino wouldn't disclose the film's title.
"It's not out yet, so I can't mention it yet," she said. Even though her animals do "tricks," she contends there's no trick to what she does. It's all about devotion to her animals, and to guiding them with repetition and understanding.
"There's no playtime," she said, of her professional, four-legged thespians. "There's no gimmicks." "We just have a few dogs that are exquisitely trained," she said.
Entertainment contributor Kara Martinez Bachman may be reached at kara@KaraMartinezBachman.com or via Facebook.com/BachmanWrites. She welcomes your news tips and story ideas.