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It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's ... A Dog Dangling From A Helicopter?!

Mar 27, 2019
Originally published on March 27, 2019 7:36 pm

A new IMAX movie opens with a rescue worker named Henry dangling from a helicopter, working to save a skier trapped in an avalanche.

Henry wears a vest and goggles and, oh, by the way, is a border collie.

"Henry is like the real-life James Bond of dogs," says Daniel Ferguson, director of Superpower Dogs.

The film follows six remarkable dogs who work in fields such as avalanche and water rescue, endangered species protection, and emotional support.

"I think casting makes a movie, and in this case it's no exception," Ferguson says. "The dogs are at the heart of this film."

Ferguson tells NPR about how a producer talked him into making a movie about dogs (even though he's more of a cat person) and how he attempted to re-create a dog's visual perspective on an IMAX screen.


Interview Highlights

Henry poses for a portrait for the film Superpower Dogs. "When he puts on those goggles, there's something that completes him," director Daniel Ferguson says. "He's ready to go and do his job. It's a signal to him that he's working."
Danny Wilcox Frazier VII / Cosmic Picture Limited

On Henry, who works with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association to save skiers in the backcountry

I saw him riding the snowmobile, and skiing down the mountain — and he was just exuding cool. He was so in his element and comfortable on a helicopter. ...

Henry has an incredible nose and his olfactory system is 10,[000] to 100,000 times better than ours. So he can find a glove or a ski pole and he can do it in the fraction of the time that it takes a team of people. ... And he's cute as can be.

On how his producer Dominic Cunningham-Reid persuaded him to do an IMAX movie about dogs

I was sort of skeptical. ... Dogs are ubiquitous; I mean, they're just all over. And he said: "Let me prove it to you." ... So he took me on this incredible whirlwind tour and we went to the [National Disaster] Search Dog Foundation out in California and we met these urban search and rescue dogs; [we] went to Italy to work with the Italian Coast Guard. And by the end of that trip, I said: "Dom, this is the real deal." I mean, these dogs have powers we can just dream of.

On delivering on "the promise" of the IMAX treatment

Every shot is curated for the giant screen. This is supposed to work in 3D — to be immersive and visceral — and you get to kind of be a dog in this movie. We actually built a camera rig that shows the world in 270 degrees, and we re-created the dog's visual color world of blues and yellows. ... We reproduced the visual acuity of dogs.

The most fun for me was actually translating their olfactory world into our visual one. ... Every minute of our lives ... we're shedding millions of scent molecules — we're like these floaty dandruffy things — and if we could see what dogs could smell — that bacteria and the sweat and the deodorants — whatever makes up our scent signatures, how cool could that be? So we got to do that on this huge, eight-story-high canvas in a way that's visceral and immersive.

Reef (in the water) is a Newfoundland who works with the Italian Coast Guard. She also works as an instructor, modeling behavior for rescue dogs in training.
Cosmic Picture Limited

On not having any control over how the story turned out

The main storyline of the movie follows Halo, this Dutch shepherd puppy. We meet her at about nine weeks and ... we follow Halo over three years as she's learning to become an urban search and rescue dog. ... Halo starts the movie as a bit of a hot mess. She's, like, going after sticks and she's running all over the backyard, and I love that — because we could not control this. This is a movie about dogs, it's a documentary — you don't know whether they're going to pass or fail.

On the dogs' sense of focus

When you say "search," or when you say "leap," or when you say whatever the magic word is ... that is for real. That dog is saving that person, whether it's a mock victim or not. ... For the dogs, it's the real deal when they're towing someone through the water, or they're following the scent of a poacher, or where they're searching for someone in a rubble pile. It's life and death.

On these dogs not being Hollywood dogs

[We shoot with] cameras that are like the size of a washing machine and they're really cumbersome, and you're working with 3D rigs, and helicopters, and boats, and everything. So we have to be malleable. We have to adapt ourselves to the dogs — because they're not hitting a mark. You know, they're not movie dogs. ...

We had puppies colliding with cameras and slobbering [on] the cameras all over the place, but we just kind of went with it. ... I'd be filming with Halo and she'd just run off and get a stick, or steal a sausage from the catering table. ... That's the fun of this. ... Take the bloodhounds [who help search for poachers in Kenya] — we wanted to introduce them as these ultimate heroes, and you know what? They are champion nappers. These dogs, they work hard, but man, they nap hard.

Tipper and Tony are bloodhounds who help protect endangered rhinos and elephants at the LEWA Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.
Cosmic Picture Limited

On his belief that "every dog has superpowers"

If you ask any pet owner they will tell you the way their dog makes them feel: valorized. ... Dogs lift our spirits and make us feel less lonely. ... They just know what our needs are and they can provide for that need and sometimes only our pets can do that. ...

I think most pet owners could say that our pets make our worlds a better place, and all we've done is we've put this very dramatic spin on it. ... [In the movie] you've got dogs who fight crime and save lives, but dogs are saving us every day.

Sam Gringlas and Mallory Yu produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. The IMAX film we're going to talk about next opens with a panorama of a snowy mountain range in British Columbia. Emerging over the icy peaks is a dog, dangling like a stuntman from a helicopter in a red harness and ski goggles - or doggles (ph), I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

CHANG: His name is Henry. Henry's a border collie, and his mission is to save people trapped under avalanches. He's just one of several real-life action stars in the new movie "Superpower Dogs," directed by Daniel Ferguson.

DANIEL FERGUSON: You know, when those goggles were put on, I just said, this could not get any better because, you know, part of the conceit here is that these dogs are the real-life superheroes. This is the Captain America of dogs.

CHANG: You know, there are so many movies about dogs and how amazing and dutiful and intuitive they are. What did you want to do with this movie that feels a little different?

FERGUSON: No, that's the key. Initially, when my producer Dominic came to me and he said, I want to do this IMAX movie about dogs, I was sort of skeptical. You know, dogs are ubiquitous. I mean, they're just all over. And he said, let me prove it to you. And we went to the Search Dog Foundation out in California. And we went to Italy to work with the Italian coast guard. And by the end of that trip, I said, this is the real deal. I mean, these dogs have powers we can just dream of. And it was a hook, actually, to take this and give it the IMAX treatment.

And the most fun for me was actually translating their olfactory world into our visual one. So you know, every minute of our lives, Ailsa, we're shedding millions of scent molecules. And, you know, if we could see what dogs could smell, how cool could that be? So we got to do that in a way that's visceral and immersive. So to me, that's what makes it really cinematic, along with all the stunt work and, you know, the boats and the helicopters and the cranes...

CHANG: Yes. Yes.

FERGUSON: ...And the sort of epic nature of this.

CHANG: OK, well, let's meet some of the other action-hero dogs. There's Halo...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

CHANG: ...Who's training to find people trapped in rubble. There's Reef...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG WHIMPERING)

CHANG: ...This huge, fluffy black Newfoundland who saves people from drowning. She could tow up to 40 times her weight. Did I get that right?

FERGUSON: Yeah, you did. I know. It's amazing.

CHANG: I have to say my favorite, though, were Tipper and Tony. These are twin bloodhound brothers who track down poachers in Kenya. We first see Tipper, I believe it was, with his head out of the window of this single-engine plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: His long ears are just flapping in the breeze. And they find what looks to be a boot print at a campsite of a potential poacher.

FERGUSON: Well, this is a re-creation of an actual bust that took place. And when we went out one morning to track them, there was actually a murder in the village. And the dogs were brought in, and they tracked for miles. And they went right to the apartment building, up to the seventh floor and found the suspect. It was unbelievable. You know, they can bottle a person's scent for up to two years. And these dogs can pick you out of a scent lineup with 98 percent accuracy.

And so Tipper and Tony - they're not only adorable. But, you know, I had kids come up to me and say, when I grow up, I want to be a dog handler like the Lewa Conservancy rangers. That's real heroism right there.

CHANG: These dogs, though - you know, they're not trained Hollywood dogs, of course. What was it like shooting this film when they're just trying to do their jobs and you're kind of in their way?

FERGUSON: That's true. I mean, Ailsa, you have to picture it. These are cameras that are, like, the size of a washing machine. And so we have to be malleable. We have to adapt ourselves to the dogs because they're not hitting a mark.

You know, they're not movie dogs, as you say. And when you say, search, that is for real. That dog is saving that person, whether it's a mock victim or not. You know, so, yes, it's not a deployment film, but for the dogs, it's the real deal.

CHANG: Was there a moment where you accidentally messed up a dog trying to do his job, but your camera crew or your equipment just got in his way?

FERGUSON: I hope not. If so, I apologize. I really do. There are all kinds of things where, yes, we had puppies colliding with cameras and slobbering the cameras, but we just kind of went with it.

CHANG: Yeah.

FERGUSON: At the beginning, we have a puppy run right into the camera, and it's kind of a signal to the audience that we're going to have fun with this movie.

CHANG: You know, as you watch these incredible dogs working with their handlers, what do you think people who are dog owners who don't own superhero dogs can learn from that master-dog interaction that was evident throughout this movie?

FERGUSON: Oh, gosh. I think that part of the message at the end is really that, you know, not every dog is going to - some dogs - they'll run and get a tennis ball. They might not run to find a human life. But every dog has superpowers. And I think if you ask any pet owner, they will tell you the way their dog makes them feel valorized and just the way dogs lift our spirits and make us feel less lonely...

CHANG: Yeah.

FERGUSON: ...You know, let alone things like medical detection and, you know, dogs who work with people who have juvenile diabetes or epilepsy, all kinds of things that dogs do on a daily basis. They truly are heroes, and they're great teachers as well.

CHANG: Daniel Ferguson is the director of the new movie "Superpower Dogs." Thank you so much for joining us.

FERGUSON: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF STELLA DONNELLY SONG, "TRICKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.