Arizona companies training animals for film productions as new incentives bring more productions to the state

Arizona's new film tax incentives are expected to attract many productions to the area, and that means more work opportunities are available for actors in the area.

By actors, we mean human actors, as well as animals.

Some may have heard of the saying don't work with kids or animals, but Arizona-based trainer Chris Rankin has ignored that call.

Rankin has spent her life working with animals.

"There's a certain percentage of us that have just gone above and beyond, and it has become a passion for us," said Rankin. "There's something about being able to connect with an animal and have this kind of lightbulb thing go off for them to understand it."

Rankin's dog, Cricket, is semi-retired at the age of 13. She and her doggie siblings have spent years in the limelight, landing roles in movies like ‘Better Call Saul,' as well as television shows ‘Teen Wolf' and ‘Killer Women.’

Nowadays, another one of Rankin's animals, a raccoon named Oliver, is taking center stage.

"We had Oliver the raccoon on a music video, on a green screen," said Rankin. "He had to wear a bunch of different outfits, which doesn't sound hard, but dressing a raccoon is hard."

For some pet actors, times are good in Arizona

Rankin owns a talent agency named A1 Animal Talent. She takes pet clients, in addition to her own animals, to shoots all over. Recently, Rankin has been busy prepping some furry stars for a lot of local work, as a result of new film initiatives in the Grand Canyon State.

"So, the film incentives do obviously affect our actors, but it also affect our small little niche of animal trainers," said Rankin. "We've got lots of dogs and cats that are very talented, that have been waiting on the opportunity to work on a film set."

The new incentives came as a result of a film and television tax credit bill that became law in July 2022. Due to the new law, productions shooting in Arizona will be eligible for a refundable tax credit that amounts to 15% to 20% of expenses, which means there will be plenty more local films, as well as and jobs for actors, humans or animals.

'So, the whole film community is gearing up for this, so on my end as an animal trainer and talent agent, what I've been doing is trying to increase my talent pool, basically," said Rankin.

Rankin has been partnering with dog trainers Debby Boehm and Amber Mercier of Precision Canine to get canine stars ready for their close-up.

"Working in film, that industry is a goal some people have with their dogs, and it's quite an achievement," said Boehm.

Here, dogs are acclimated to lights and cameras, so when the director yells ‘action,’ they are ready to go.

"Making sure that dog is really solid, so we don't have any unexpected events," said Boehm.

One animal, named Pebbles, knows how to retrieve keys from a mailbox, and rest her chin on cue. Another animal, Sketchy, can do paws up while looking back.

Koa, meanwhile, can turn on the lights, and can put his paws up on unstable surfaces, like a wagon or a chair that's moving or stay in place.

On a basic level, one of the most common things animal actors need to learn is a sit, stay, take it, and hold.

"Challenges with the wild animals are mostly that they're not doing something to please you. There has to be something in it for them, and most of the time, it's something yummy," said Rankin.

Oliver, a raccoon, spent time around sets as a baby, and for a raccoon, he is uncommonly friendly.

"He's been on Seth Rogen's head. He's been on American Horror Story," said Rankin.

Rankin trains Oliver using a clicker that clicks every time he does something right, and rewarding with a quick treat.

Meanwhile, buzzers are used during target training with foxes Smokey and Ashy. Like many other animals on the farm, Smokey is a rescue that went on to become a superstar.

Some pets are harder to train

Rankin says one of the harder animals to train are cats, as they can be a tad bit stubborn.

"People are, like, 'oh, you can't train a house cat,' and I'd say house cats are sometimes harder than working with a raccoon, a fox, 'cause they have days when they're just like, I don't feel like it," said Rankin.

The truth, however, is none of the animals, are ever full-proof, and training them to such a high level takes a lot of work.

In the end, whether they appear in one print ad, hang out on the tonight show, or star in a feature film, the bond between these handlers and their animals, is something special.

"It's just been magical," said Koa's owner, Richard Powell. "Learning new things with him, seeing him grow."

"I feel like I'm really lucky, in the respect that I was able to make a career I love so much," said Rankin. "There's just something about it that makes my heart happy."