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Plascon Advertisement: “Incredible Journey”

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in animals and “what makes them tick”. In 1986 I bought a puppy, and began to get really interested in the different training methodologies. My involvement with clicker training began in 1988 when I started exploring and teaching clicker training. This in turn led to giving workshops on clicker training, both around South Africa and in Namibia. As the clicker trainers mantra is “any animal can be taught anything it is physically and mentally capable of doing”, I started working with non-traditional animals to prove how successful the method is. A friends’ pot-bellied pig got taught to back up, spin, heel, target, kneel and come when called. I then trained a chicken to discriminate between colours, to do a mini agility course, go in to a dog crate etc. I have appeared in such programmes as 50/50, Carte Blanche and Pasela, to demonstrate and explain the use of operant conditioning, and have been involved in training animals for television since 2001.

When the opportunity arose to train the cats for the Plascon advertisement, I jumped at the chance. This was the first time I’d trained cats professionally. After interviewing several Burmese, I selected two for the Plascon ad. (it is usual for a “hero” and “back up” animal to be used, just in case one becomes ill on the day). With so much to teach them, we decided to allocate certain behaviours to each cat, so that one cat need not do all the work on the day.

There are various methodologies and training technologies available today, one of which is operant condition (colloquially known as clicker training). In a nutshell, clicker training puts the animal in control, thereby greatly lowering stress levels and increasing the rate of learning. Operant conditioning was documented as far back as the early 1950s by BF Skinner, and is a well recognised science used in both behavioural training and modification.

The cats used in the Plascon advertisement were clicker trained for many weeks before the filming days to ensure that they understood what was required of them, and that the new situations they were to be faced with would not be frightening in any way. (these were show cats well used to travelling and participating in cat shows). For instance, we had to familiarise them with walking down the middle of a tarred road, to run across grass and go through a cat flap in a door. Grateful thanks are due to Lucy Wagner, who kindly offered to let us use her house as neutral ground on which to train Zara and Zhannah. The cats had to get used to having a camera within inches of their face, as well has learn to concentrate when the room is crammed full of people (cameramen, gaffers, grips, pullers, director, producer, etc.). One of the shots required the cat to run across a railway line – so after teaching the cat to jump over low obstacles and run up and down stairs (which neither cat had encountered before), we went down to the main railway station in Newtown, Johannesburg to practise. In a fairly short time, the cats were both happy to run across the railway lines to where I crouched with their cat crate. The producers were extremely accommodating and not only gained permission for us to spend time practising on the railway line and the adjoining vacant lot, but also managed to get us permission to practise in the two houses where the various shots were to be filmed.

As the trainer I was present throughout the shoot, which ran over three days. Operant conditioning requires the use of an event marker (a plastic clicker in this case) immediately followed by a reward. In film work I always choose to use a food reward, as no animal will eat if it is stressed. During the entire shoot, the cats were offered food and never once refused it, indicating that their stress levels never rose to an unacceptable level. The cats were kept on a harness and lead throughout the shoot (these were painted out in post production, leaving just a collar visible), so no harm could come to them. I was always within a short distance of them and could have recalled them at any time should they appear stressed or confused about what was required of them.

It goes without saying that an Animal Anti-Cruelty member was present throughout the entire filming process, and Roelof and I conferred regularly as to when to call a break and let the cats rest. We had a large cat cage which we carried to each set, in which the cats were placed between shoots. Here they could use the litter box, or have a drink or bite to eat. During lunch break they usually had a well earned nap!! Many people have commented to me how impressed they are with the final product, their main question being “how did the cats respond during training to being bathed?”. I have to admit that this was initially a concern for me as well, but they actually did not need training for this, as both cats are show animals and are quite used to regular bathing. In fact I was amazed at how quickly they groom themselves dry!! Certainly being wetted down on set with warm water was not stressful for them in the least. (only one cat was used during this sequence – Zara, who attends cat shows more regularly and therefore was more accustomed to being bathed). The shot of the cat being splashed by the car was of course filmed separately and put together in post production (i.e. the cat was filmed walking down the pavement and then the car was filmed splashing through a puddle sans cat – the two shots being married at a later stage). There is no way I would have agreed to have the cat that close to a moving car, even though the cat was on a harness and lead. And of course this was not requested by the film makers.

In conclusion, I believe that Frieze Films (the people involved in the directing and producing of this advertisement) should be commended on having been concerned enough to request that a trainer come in (at greater cost to themselves) to train these cats before the commercial was shot in order to ensure that the stress caused to the animals was minimal. Furthermore, the final Chroma sequence that was scheduled to be a 3 hour concluding session was cancelled by the Director, Tony Baggott (although this expensive studio had already been booked and therefore had to be paid for in full), as he felt that sufficient footage had already been obtained and he didn’t feel it necessary to subject the cats to any further filming.

The cats were a pleasure to work with, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with them and their owner, Dina Freitas. Burmese have always been one of my favourite cat breeds, and the interaction that I had with them during this time has gone a long way to reinforce this belief. They are a charming, intelligent, willing and friendly cat.

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