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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 22, 2006

'Eight Below' finds class act in 4-legged cast

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Director Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked that all actors should be treated like cattle.

If he really knew what he was talking about, he would have asked for dogs.

"Dogs," said veteran producer and director Frank Marshall, "are really smart."

Marshall should know. He spent much of the past year in Smithers, British Columbia, working with some 32 canine actors and stunt doubles for the new Disney film "Eight Below."

The film, playing nationwide, is loosely based on a 1957 incident in which a Japanese expeditionary team in Antarctica was forced to abandon its sled dogs during a fierce storm. Two of the nine dogs managed to survive six months in the deadly winter conditions before they were rescued.

The story was retold in the 1983 Japanese film "Nankyoku Monogatari," which Marshall credits with inspiring his film.

"The inspiration came from there, but ours is pure fiction," Marshall said.

In "Eight Below," the amazing survival story is transposed to 1993 and features eight dogs and an American team. Paul Walker plays the guide. As might be expected of a Disney film, the dogs' survival rate is considerably higher than in reality.

From the very beginning, the dogs played a key role in the development of the film. Marshall spent six months with the dogs and their handlers, trying to get a grasp on what they were capable of and what they could bring to the film.

"I felt this was a compelling adventure story," Marshall said. "The question was how to make it work with the dogs."

Marshall said he carefully screened about 50 dogs for their appearance and personalities before finally arriving at his eight principal actors.

Each canine character was portrayed by two acting dogs and two stunt dogs, and each dog came with one or two trainers. That made for an occasionally chaotic set.

"There were times when we had 16 trainers all yelling commands to their dogs at the same time," Marshall said. "But we didn't want to cheat. I didn't want any artificial winking or smiling. I wanted real dog behavior."

The dogs were sent to the location three months before production began so they could grow their hair and acclimate to the freezing conditions.

Marshall spent the first four weeks of the production working solely with the dogs. The human actors joined in for the final two months of shooting.

Marshall said he had the dogs run through scenes over and over again until they could perform them without prompting from their trainers.

"They tend to twitch when their trainer gives them a command," he explained. "By making them do it repeatedly, it became learned behavior. It was all ad libbing after that."

Because of the extensive preparation needed to set up each scene involving the dogs, Marshall had little room to improvise. Still, he was awed at the dogs' ability to carry the storyline.

"We had one scene where they were passing birds between each other and it was kind of amazing," he said. "The camera was not cutting; they were doing it all themselves."

And while they worked like, well, dogs, the canine actors were treated royally, Marshall said. The production team rigged a special sled to haul them from site to site, and they spent their down time playing in the snow or relaxing in a "doggy condo" built just for them.

There were, of course, other considerations to account for.

"You forget that they poop and pee all the time," Marshall said. "Someone had to clean the yellow snow."

Marshall's career as a producer spans more than 30 years and includes some of the most popular and influential films of that period, including "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Poltergeist," "Back to the Future," "The Color Purple," "The Sixth Sense," "Seabiscuit" and "The Bourne Identity." He's working on seven new projects in various stages of development, including "Indiana Jones 4," "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Jurassic Park IV."

"Eight Below" is Marshall's first directorial film work since "Congo" nearly a decade ago.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.