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Lassie go home. You’ve been replaced by a digital dog

Is Lassie a dying breed in the film world?

Every dog has its day – but not so much in the film world any more, according to a University of Sussex film studies lecturer.

Advances in computer generated imagery (CGI) for the cinema are making the real animals redundant, writes Dr Michael Lawrence in the latest edition of the academic journal Screen.

While audiences have lapped up the highly trained antics of Lassie, Marley, Toto and a host of real-dog characters,  Dr Lawrence points out that directors are more readily turning to digital animation to create performances that are “more effective dramatically”.

He references films such as Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Marmaduke, in which digital visual effects are used to animate the various dog actors’ faces and bodies to support the narrative.

Canine performances produced with CGI are “less time-consuming and therefore less expensive because [they are] no longer determined by the unpredictable or intractable volition of real animals, however well-trained,” says Dr Lawrence.

Such visual effects routinely provide the “comic spectacle” of dogs moving and talking like canine characters – feats completely unachievable by real fur and bone.

Dr Lawrence says: “The technological mediation of dog actors’ performances by digital effects allows contemporary film-makers to overcome such problems and present – should they so wish – dogs flying and talking at the same time.”

But he thinks it’s unlikely that animals will be replaced entirely. “Films about pets are very likely to continue using real animals for the very reason we love pets - the affection we feel very easily towards individual animals in our care - and we simply don't feel the same way when we know CGI has been used.”

In fact, Dr Lawrence points out, the transformation of dogs for the film world echoes the manipulation of the species over a much longer period of time by dog breeders according to aesthetic criteria established by clubs.

“The animating of pet dogs in such films in this way should remind us that domestic dogs have always been designed and redesigned to suit our tastes - in the 19th century breeders altered the shapes of dogs in dramatic ways and created fashionable breeds - just as today’s animators manipulate the bodies of dogs for our popular entertainment.”

Posted on behalf of: Department of Media and Film
Last updated: Tuesday, 24 March 2015


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