14th March 2023

The Academy Awards are always marked by glitz, glamour, festivities, and controversies, as well as comment and scrutiny about what the nominees and winners say about the nature of modern cinema. 2023 has been no exception, with a wide range of stories represented by artful scriptwriting, inspired cinematography, and mind-blowing visual effects. This year, Freedom for Animals is taking a closer look at what the films being celebrated this year mean for an often overlooked part of the cinematic experience: the animals used on-screen.

Scooping multiple awards on Sunday night* was All Quiet on the Western Front: an incredible piece of cinema from which the audience takes home a clear message: that war is hell. It is senseless, relentless pain and suffering that claims lives indiscriminately. Not only does it claim human lives but those of the animals exploited on battlefields as well. You see this clearly as bullets slam into the side of a downed horse as the French and German troops scramble to claim land. The special effects team on the film expertly created models to use to represent the corpses of both humans and animals in and around the trenches, yet live animals were still used for other scenes. When the cast and crew discuss the working conditions on set it really comes across that they managed to skillfully recreate the misery of the First World War, and all of the contributors deserve their nominations and awards for working in such a brutal environment. But what of the animals on set? What of those who did not choose this project, did not choose a life in filmmaking, and had no way of understanding that the conditions they were being exposed to were simulated and temporary?

“No Animals Were Harmed®” is a familiar phrase that productions proudly inscribe on their closing titles. It’s an initiative of the American Humane Association, who monitor film sets and award a full, modified, or no certification based on what they find. A modified certification is offered when circumstances result in the American Humane Association being unable to attend and monitor all of the animal action. The scheme is voluntary for filmmakers to engage with but many do so in order to justify their use of animals and reassure viewers that no harm has come to the animals on screen. Largely, this means no physical harm or profound distress, however, with all performing animals there is a degree of discomfort that can be expected from travelling, waiting around between takes, and enduring busy or noisy environments on set. There is also a limitation to the monitoring in that only the on-set conditions are observed: they cannot attest that the methods used to condition performing animals to perform and to endure the film set environment were not distressing or harmful.

The American Humane Association publishes detailed and comprehensive guidelines for productions to follow in order to obtain the No Animals Were Harmed® accreditation. In the more than 80 years of operating this scheme they have changed the world for animals on screen. In 1939 a horse was deliberately driven over a cliff to its death for the classic Western, Jesse James, prompting The American Humane Association to begin its monitoring and accreditation scheme. Today, thanks to their intervention, causing deliberate harm to animals for filmmaking is a rare and rightfully admonished thing. The world of filmmaking has changed a lot under their guidance, and today, with the incredible advancements in computer graphics and digital rendering, as well as hyper-realistic model-making, Freedom for Animals encourages the film and television industries to do even better for animals, and not use them on productions at all.

One Best Picture nominee, The Fabelmans, received widespread criticism from the animal protection community upon its release for using a live monkey in production. In the film, set in the 1950s, the monkey is a pet, and this portrayal does nothing to address the real harm caused by the exotic pet trade which continues to this day. This has the potential to boost the primate trade, and therefore filmmakers have a responsibility to avoid the use of live animals in this way so as not to stimulate such a cruel market. Notably, this film is not listed on The American Humane Association’s No Animals Were Harmed® register (though it is unknown whether that is because the film did not attempt to achieve accreditation). It is a particularly disappointing decision as it comes from Steven Spielberg, a director who created the most memorable creatures of many people’s childhoods using animatronics in ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Jaws. The monkey used could have been created digitally, animatronically, or simply been left out of the film altogether as it was not an integral element of the story. The choice to film using a live monkey is indicative of a film industry that still treats living, feeling animals as props, and an industry so powerful should lead by example to not only end this exploitation in their own arena, but to show the world that animals are individuals, not commodities, and stand against the world primate pet trade in which monkeys are abused and killed every day.

There is a better way. 2023’s Visual Effects nominees need only glance across the room to their colleagues nominated for animated feature film to see a wealth of talented individuals who have used artistic techniques to create realistic and engaging animal characters without the need to subject an animal to a lifetime of training and performance that they did not choose. Stop-frame animation has been integrated into live action with stunning results since the 1940s when Ray Harryhausen (famed for Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts) pioneered his ‘Dynamation’ technique. Sunday night’s Animated Feature Film winner was a triumph in stop-motion, proving that if Guillermo Del Toro can use these techniques alongside digital rendering to make us believe in a little wooden boy named Pinocchio, then live action filmmakers can use the same techniques to create horses, dogs, birds, and all manner of animals.

In 2028 The Academy Awards will hold its 100th ceremony. Freedom for Animals hopes by then to see the nominations filled with films that opted to use computer graphics, animation, and modelling to bring scenes to life, without confining and exploiting animal life itself.

*Winner: Cinematography, International Feature Film, Music (Original Score), Production Design; Nominee: Visual Effects, Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Make-Up and Hairstyling, Sound, Best Picture

- 14th March 2023