Are Those Adorable Pets Actually Animatronics? The Shocking Truth About Cats and Dogs


From Lassie to Garfield, animal characters have captured the hearts of audiences for decades in film and television. But when it comes to bringing these beloved characters to life on screen, how often are real animals used compared to computer-generated imagery (CGI)? This article will examine whether the animals we see in movies and TV shows are live animals or CGI creations.

Early Animal Actors

The use of trained animal actors in film dates back to the early days of Hollywood. One of the first major animal stars was Rin Tin Tin, a German Shepherd dog discovered by an American soldier during World War I. Rin Tin Tin went on to star in 27 Hollywood films in the 1920s and helped establish the practice of using trained dogs in film (DevianArt, 2022). Other early animal actors included the horse Tom Mix and canine actor Strongheart.

In the early days of film, the use of live animals was commonplace since the technology did not exist yet to create realistic animated or computer-generated animals. Silent films and early talkies relied heavily on live animal actors to play major roles and populate the stories. For example, the 1925 silent film Balto dramatized the real-life sled dog who became famous for delivering medicine to Nome, Alaska during a diphtheria outbreak. The real Balto was cast in a few of Alaska’s silent films, making him one of the first animal actors in film history (IMDb, 2022).

Rise of CGI Animals

The use of CGI (computer-generated imagery) to create realistic animal characters in films became more common starting in the 1990s and 2000s. Milestone films like Jurassic Park (1993) demonstrated how CGI could be used to convincingly bring dinosaurs and other creatures to life on screen ( Whereas traditionally animal actors were real trained animals or animatronic puppets, CGI allowed filmmakers to create digital animals that were easier to work with.

Some key benefits of using CGI for animal characters include:
– Easier and more humane training: CGI animals don’t need to be trained using time-consuming or potentially harmful methods. Their movements can simply be animated by computer.
– Increased safety: With CGI, there is no risk of real animals harming their trainers or other cast members on set. Stunts and action sequences can be animated without putting living creatures in danger.
– Flexibility and control: CGI allows for more fantastic or customized animal behavior that would be difficult to train real animals to perform repeatedly. Every aspect of the animal’s appearance, movement, and actions can be meticulously animated (

Major CGI milestones include the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the talking animals of Babe (1995), the titular dragon in Dragonheart (1996), and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). By the 2000s, CGI animals had become commonplace in big-budget films.

Use of Live Animals Today

Despite the increasing use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), live animals are still commonly used in films and television today. Many dogs have become famous actors in their own right, such as the Jack Russell Terrier named Cosmo that starred in the 2008 comedy Marley & Me. The film tells the true story of John Grogan and his mischievous yet lovable dog Marley, who was played by 22 different dogs in order to portray the character at various ages. Using real dogs allowed the filmmakers to capture authentic canine behaviors and personalities that can be difficult to recreate using only CGI.

Other live animals continue to land major acting roles as well. The 2015 film Max featured Carlos, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois who played the military service dog Max. Carlos underwent extensive training for the complex action and emotional scenes depicted in the film. His realistic performance added to the emotional impact of the story. While CGI provides enormous creative possibilities, studios still look to live animal actors to bring an added dose of naturalism and heart to animal-centric films.

Ethical Concerns

The use of animals in film and television productions has led to ethical concerns around animal welfare and treatment. Organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the Humane Society of the United States have guidelines calling for the humane and ethical treatment of animals on set. (

The Humane Society of the United States provides guidelines for safe, humane, and responsible animal action ( The Guidelines include regulating times of work, housing conditions, transportation, and other factors that contribute to humane treatment. The organization stresses that producers and trainers should only subject animals to mild distress, and that action sequences cannot be altered without permission from the trainer.

In the past, some productions have come under controversy for lack of oversight on animal safety and welfare. An investigation into the making of the film A Dog’s Purpose in 2017 revealed footage of a terrified dog being forced into churning water. Public outcry eventually led to new safety measures on set. ( The American Humane Association, which oversees animal welfare on sets, said its guidelines were not followed, and implemented stricter rules in response. This demonstrated the ongoing need for vigilance around humane treatment of animal actors.

Benefits of Live Animals

Using live animals in films can result in more natural, authentic performances. Unlike CGI animals, live animals interact with human actors in real time, allowing for more organic scenes. Directors note that live animals often behave unpredictably, capturing candid moments and reactions from their human co-stars. This can heighten the sense of realism in a film. Additionally, living and working closely with animal actors allows human performers to build strong relationships and rapport. According to animal trainers, this bond is evident on-screen and translates into more believable performances. For example, the dog who played Marley in Marley & Me formed a close connection with actor Owen Wilson during filming. Their friendship brought an extra layer of genuineness and depth to their scenes together.


Benefits of CGI Animals

CGI animals provide several advantages over using live animals on set. According to Phil’s Animal Rentals (CGI vs Real Animals In Film), CGI eliminates the need for extensive animal training and behavior modification that is required for live animal actors. Complex or dangerous action sequences can be choreographed without putting live animals at risk. CGI animals are also more cost-efficient, as they do not require housing, feeding, insurance or specialized animal handlers on set. As Instinct for Film notes, “The benefits of using CGI animals are fairly obvious. It can be safer, cheaper, and easier than working with real animals” (CGI vs. Real Animals in Film). Overall, CGI provides filmmakers with greater creative freedom and control over animal behavior and movement, without many of the logistical challenges of live animals.

Director Perspectives

Many high profile directors have weighed in on their preferences for using live animals versus CGI animals in films. According to a 2016 interview, acclaimed director Martin Scorsese said “I don’t like the idea of CGI. If you look at the early films, the great movies from the ’30s through the ’50s and ’60s, and now, you see there’s a difference in the impact of CGI versus set design…the actors don’t feel like they’re there. They feel like they’re performing in some other space. It’s almost like animation when you see actors performing against blue walls, like in the Star Wars pictures. I tried to get that effect in my films way back in the ’70s, I remember trying to do that. But it’s not the same kind of delight, the way those scenes affected audiences in earlier pictures.”

In contrast, James Cameron has fully embraced CGI animals and special effects in films like Avatar. He stated in a 2009 interview that “I think CG and advanced prosthetics is the way to go” when it comes to creating realistic non-human characters. “We need to build bridges – bridges based on compassion, empathy and understanding – between animals and human beings.”

And Jon Favreau, who directed the live action Lion King remake, has talked extensively about the challenges of deciding whether to use live animals, CGI, or a mix. Ultimately he felt CGI was the best choice, saying “The irony is we make these nature documentaries and we say we want to get as close to nature as we can, but the minute we see nature start killing each other we say it’s too violent. Spider catching fly. Chimpanzee hunting. We don’t want to see the reality. We want it softened up for our sensibilities. Yet in order to get an emotional impact you need something relatable. So what that gets you into is anthropomorphizing animals which gets you into the uneasy balance of trying to find believable animal behavior in a human context.”

He cited a PETA blog post praising his choice to avoid using live animals on set.

Examples and Case Studies

There are many examples of major films that have used both live animals and CGI animals to bring their stories to life. Some of the most well-known examples include:

The Lion King (1994) featured live animals for reference footage, but ultimately used CGI to animate the animal characters. This allowed the animators to anthropomorphize the animals and have them talk and sing in a way that would not be possible with real animals. The photorealistic CGI integrated with the hand-drawn elements helped make The Lion King an enormous success.

Contrast this with a film like Marley & Me (2008) which relied extensively on live dog actors to portray the rambunctious Marley. The emotional connection formed between Marley and the audience would likely not have been possible with a CGI dog, despite advancements in technology. Having a real dog actor react and improvise in scenes gave it an authenticity that CGI would lack.

For Life of Pi (2012), a mix of real and CGI tigers were used. The live tiger served as a reference for the visual effects team when creating the CGI tiger. This allowed them to closely match the look and movements of a real tiger. However, the live tiger could not be used for many scenes due to safety concerns or limitations, which is why the CGI tiger was necessary.

In assessing live animals versus CGI, it depends on the specific context and needs of the production. For realistic animal behavior and emotional believability, live animals may still have the advantage in many scenarios. But CGI allows filmmakers to crafted highly stylized and customized animal characters that can interact with humans seamlessly. The ideal approach is likely a combination of live animal footage and carefully rendered CGI animals.


When it comes to deciding between real animals and CGI animals for film productions, there are merits to both options. Real animals often provide more authenticity and can be easier to work with for simple scenes or behaviors. Their natural unpredictability also allows for moments of spontaneity and realism that would be hard to recreate digitally. However, CGI animals have advanced greatly in recent years and allow for much more flexibility and creative control. They are especially useful for complex scenes, stunts, or fantasy depictions that would be impossible or unethical to attempt with a live animal.

Looking forward, it seems likely that both real animals and CGI animals will continue to coexist in films and television. Each offers unique benefits that allow directors, trainers and technical teams to choose the best approach for their specific needs and creative goals. The most important factors are ensuring the humane treatment of any live animals used and providing viewers with memorable stories and lifelike characters, whether real or imaginary.

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