Performing cats

Working in the international film industry with cats

by Alida Delport,
Cherie-Finesse Cattery, Cape Town

How it all started

When Marianne Myburgh, animal handler of South Africa, phoned me in July 2003 to ask me if I would like to go to Milan with my cats, I thought she was joking. But she was dead serious. She submitted a cast of Cherie-Finesse Chinchilla Longhairs to Mercurio studios in Milan for the 2003 Nestle Europe Gourmet TV Commercial. I really did not expect that we would get the deal. Well, how wrong I was, and what profound influence this would have on my life!

Nestle's choice For many decades, Nestle branded their cat food product ranges using the longer nose Chinchillas with the broad chins and open, “smiling faces”. Maintaining consistent branding is important, and therefore they were willing to fly us all the way from Cape Town to Europe! It is interesting to note that, although Nestle USA and Nestle Europe have independent advertising campaigns, they currently both use descendants from the “Non-Persian”-looking Dearheart line! 

Early work: Stills

Before I tell the story of my international travels with my cats, I must first tell a bit about our cattery. Stella Slabber, who died at the age of 84, established her Cherie cattery during the the late 1970's with Dearheart Chinchillas imported from the late Jeanne Ramsdale. In 1980 Stella's Supreme Champion Cherie Alexander won the SA Cat Of the Year award and Stella's cats became famous throughout the country. These cats have super temperaments, are highly intelligent and easy to handle in front of cameras. It was not surprising that they were soon “discovered” by the local advertising industry to be casted in a diverse range of advertisements for cat food, fashion and life style.

Star: the "Pamper Cat"

One cat in particular, known as “Star”, became famous in South Africa as the “Pamper” cat. ”Pamper” is a local cat food brand in South Africa, and is currently owned by Nestle South Africa. Star's sweet face appeared on the “Pamper” tins for more than a decade! Cat shows sponsored by Pamper were adorned by huge blow-up posters of Star. She appeared on the front cover of magazines, in full page advertisements, on other branding items like mouse pads and product glossies. Star was the most photographed South African cat model of the twentieth century!

The cat on the tins: Gr Ch Denchin's Stardust

First TV work in South Africa

We did our first TV commercial for the Pamper brand for Nestle South Africa in 1999. The the script required a cat that weaved around the legs of a human actress. Star, who was predominantly a stills model and used to passive modeling, refused to perform the weaving act. So it was cattery-mate Cherie Dear Shani that grabbed the limelight and pioneered our cattery's debut into TV work with superb acting! At the end of the shoot, Shani received a standing applause from the filming crew! The advertisement was a huge success and was well accepted by the local TV public. In a subsequent TV commercial the next year, Star joined Shani on the TV screen in a follow-up shoot for Nestle. Star also performed in TV for Volkswagen Germany, together with a cast of three of her cattery mates.

Casting animals for a TV script

The “acting” capability of an animal is closely linked to a combination of the natural tendencies of the breed and the personality of the individual animal. For example, Chinchillas have a natural tendency to carry their tails at an angle when they walk, due the heavy weight of the hair. In contrast, a walking Siamese tends to carry its slender tail upright. Script writers often are not aware of these subtle breed differences, and invariably require acting that is difficult to accomplish in a breed, like a Chinchilla walking slowly with its tail upright.

To prepare an animal for TV or movie work, the trainer must know both the animal's capabilities and the script requirements very well. One of the key factors for successes in filming a script with animals, is continuity. Continuity is easier to achieve with a number of animals that look alike. A look-alike cast of animals with different capabilities can collectively be used to render the script sequence, without the viewer spotting that different animals were performing.

International work

Cape Town became a very popular place to be used for filming since 2000. Right from our first shoot for TV, Marianne, my cats and I became a good team.

  •  Marianne has many years of experience in the filming industry as animal handler. 
  •  I breed cats that look so similar that an untrained eye cannot tell the difference. 
  •  On set, Marianne works with the director, and I work as groomer and handler's assistant. 
  •  Off set, Marianne handles the contracts, and I handle the technical aspects of cast presentation and the Internet.

Soon we found that international work started to flow into Cape Town in which my Chinchillas were casted: Audi, Volkswagen Germany, Orange and Whiskas, to name a few.

Finesse Thomas O'Malley

Apart from work done by me and Marianne, one cat that I bred needs special mentioning for his TV ad modeling career, namely Supreme Premier Finesse Thomas O'Malley, owned by Marieta Zinn. Thomas, the “kissing cat”, is a huge favorite with the public at cat shows in Cape Town. His first TV commercial was for the Toyota Run-X, where he had to perform on an outside location in a scene where a real helicopter was hovering over the car. Contrary to the fears of the crew, Thomas was not disturbed at all by the noise. 

Thomas appeared in numerous South African stills. Like Star, Thomas has adorned full pages in glossy magazines. He was also the first cat bred by me to go beyond TV commercials by featuring on a music DVD for Massive Töne, a German hip-hop group. He also featured on “Top Billing”, an elite life style TV program on local SA TV. He played Jasmin's cat in the Canadian science fiction series “Charlie Jade”. In 2006, Thomas joined the Nestle Europe Gourmet cast.

 
Supreme Premier Thomas O'Malley in 2002.
Not only a movie star but also a top show winner and Regional and National qualifier on the SACC show circuit

First casting for Milan

Back to our overseas travels. Out of the casting we submitted for Mercurio in 2003, three cats were chosen to fly to Milan. Two of them are sisters of Thomas O'Malley, namely Supreme Champion Finesse Dear Crystal and Champion Cherie-Finesse Ms Daisie. The third cat and overall client's favorite was Crystal's daughter, Champion Cherie-Finesse Lady Lida.

Preparation for Milan 2003

Everything is not always that easy! I had very little time to get all the preparations done for Milan. When I learned that our casting was accepted, I already had two work commitments lined up for September, both outside of South Africa! The first assignment was from 29 August to 6 September in Lagos, Nigeria and the other was from 21 to 26 September in Windhoek, Namibia. As if pre-destined, the dates for Europe was 11 to 21 September: a tight squeeze to fit Milan in between! We used Animal Travel Services, a local pet transport company to help us with the arrangements with the cats. But still, imagine some of the crucial preparations required:
  • Visas to be arranged for both Nigeria and Italy before I leave for Lagos 
  • Inoculations for me to visit a Nigeria: yellow fever, tetanus, malaria. 
  • Special arrangements for grooming the cats for the period that I would be away in Nigeria. 
  • Micro-chipping and health certificates for the cats. 
  • Food and grooming plan – what to take with for the cats. 
  • Export permits for 3 cats from South Africa to Italy. 
  • Import permits for 3 cats into Italy from South Africa. 
  • Export permits for 3 cats from Italy to South Africa (so that they could come back with us!). 
  • Import permits for 3 cats into South Africa from Italy. 
  • Arranging pick-up of cats on Cape Town International Airport and replenishment of fresh clothes for me to do plane-hopping from Milan to Windhoek. There would be no time to go home before leaving for Namibia as I had to board for Windhoek immediately!

Milan, here we come!

The flight arrangements to Milan were as follows:
  • All of us (humans and cats) to board the same plane at Cape Town International. I had to book the cats in at Animal Travel Services well in advance of the flight. In 2003 the 3 cats were allowed to travel together in the same carrier, so at least they would share the comfort of their cattery mates. Recent laws restrict the number to two per carrier, and only on provision that the one animal is a parent of the other. 
  • The plane would land briefly at Johannesburg International to pick up some more passengers, then fly overnight directly to Amsterdam. 
  • Arriving in Amsterdam after breakfast, humans to fly immediately to Milan, while the cats were to stay behind to stretch legs in the Animal Hotel at Schiphol. The cats would fly later the day to Malpensa Airport, where we were to pick them up. 

Concerns

I recall how unreal it felt when Marianne and I finally sat down in the business class lounge at Cape Town International before boarding. It was exciting, but I was also worried about my cats. It would be 24 hours before I see them again. They would be handled by complete strangers along the way. Would they be alright?

Airport hopping

And so our “jet-set” trip began. We flew business class, which made the long trip tolerable. The air view over the Alps when we flew from Amsterdam to Milan were breathtakingly beautiful. Milan has two airports: Linate and Malpensa. We landed at Linate, where we were picked up by our Italian driver whose English were just-just understandable. Marianne brought her special wire cat cage along that she uses on set to safely contain animals during a shoot. It did not arrive with the rest of the luggage. We had to report it at the lost luggage counter. Fortunately, it arrived later the day, but we had to go back all the way from our hotel in central Milan to pick it up! We then drove from Linate airport all the way through to Malpensa airport to pick up the cats. I was told that one has to have nerves of steel to cope with Italian city traffic, but compared to Lagos, Milan traffic was a breeze.

Reunited: at last!

We arrived at Malpensa to pick up the cats at the time when the flight from Amsterdam landed. Nobody prepared us that the cats would only be released about three hours later! Formalities to go through were filling in forms, paying duties and waiting for vet clearance. Both cats and us were overjoyed when we finally saw each other eye to eye again through the travel cage's wire door! The cats immediately settled down in our hotel room and enjoyed a hearty meal before they crawled up for a long sleep on the bed next to mine for the night!

Alida reunited with cats, Malpensa Cargo