Movie Magic

Lauren Henry

Picture this scene: A teacher is the last one to leave the school. It’s dark. The parking lot is empty, except for his car. The music is ominous. He gets in, turns the car on, hits ‘play’ on the cd player, and does a double take before he puts his foot on the gas.

That’s when he sees the first rat.

It squeaks as it scurries beneath his feet and under the seat. He glances into his rear view mirror. There are dozens of rats, poised on his rear dash. They rush him. He screams, but in a moment they’re on him. He panics, and accidentally locks himself in his car. 

The next morning all that’s left of him is some flesh, bones and a lingering rat or two, which the hapless school principal has the misfortune to discover. The scene, which opens an episode of the NBC show Grimm called, “Dance Macabre,” is not only eerie – it evokes a visceral response. It’s the rats. People fear rats.

Lauren Henry knows this. She’s the one who trained them.  She taught the rats how to bound toward their victim, how to hang from his hands as he struggled. She taught them to linger over his devoured corpse.

The scene itself is otherworldly, but helping to create it is Henry’s job – she’s made a career out of training animals for film. For more than a decade the OSU alum and her partner, Roland Sonnenburg, have owned and operated Talented Animals, an agency that supplies animals, trainers and coordinators for film. Henry and Sonnenburg have facilities in Oregon, west of Salem, and in California, north of Los Angeles. Their staff ranges from 2-20, but mostly they employ 3-5 people.

Henry’s line of work has brought her to the sets of movies like “Into the Wild.” It’s brought her to the set of “Portlandia,” where one of her cats was a member of an indie band named “Cat Nap.” One of her favorite films was “New Moon,” where one of her wolves appeared in a surreal dream sequence in which a forest was growing through the windows of a desolate, freezing bedroom. In 2010 her work brought her to a Corvallis warehouse, where she spent two weeks working with 12 dogs and a goat to create an acrobatic, one-take video for the band Ok Go’s song, “White Knuckles.”

“That was a dream this band had,” Henry says. “I was in charge of making their dream come true.”

Henry, who graduated from OSU with a degree in Animal Science and a minor in Chemistry in 1999, and completed post-bacc courses in Animal Nutrition and Immunology until 2005, has always loved animals. When she was 5, she’d head into her grandparents’ pasture in Virginia and play with their stallions, observing how the creatures behaved and interacted with each other and the world. When she was 6, she and her grandfather nursed an injured robin back to health. They raised the bird until it was able to fly again. Apparently it was grateful. Each spring it would return to Henry’s yard and perch on her finger. The image evokes Snow White.

“That was a wonderful experience,” she says. “It was the beginning of my love for the veterinary medicine side of things and the rehab side of things as well.”

Her grandfather certainly took notice of Henry’s affinity for animals. “My grandfather had this prophetic saying, ‘You’re going to train animals for film,’” Henry says. “At the time I was 6 or 7 years old, and putting on shows with my dogs for the neighbors.”

After a childhood of immersing herself in animal training and books about animals, Oregon State seemed like a natural choice for Henry, who went to high school in The Dalles. “The animal science and pre-vet departments were among the best,” she says. “I had a fabulous experience at OSU. I was born with an innate gift to train. And I have my schooling background, and classes and seminars to give me an educational framework for what comes naturally. OSU has played a big part in that.”

Henry got her first break when she was still in school, for a TV movie called “Silver Wolf.” The film called for a dog who looked like a wolf, could pull someone on skis, and demonstrate a variety of other behaviors. One of Lauren’s dogs was a perfect match. Silver Wolf’s on-set animal trainer was impressed. “He hired me to work on another show right after the movie,” she says. “I worked with him for several shows, and realized my true calling had just arrived.”

For Henry, training an animal for film is about understanding and communication. She and Sonnenburg spend a lot of time getting to know an animal and understanding its needs. She researches the animal’s social structure and instinctual behavior. She learns what the animal likes, what it loves to do, what kinds of games it loves to play.

“The underlying principles for training are similar across different species,” she says. “What we have to do with each animal is find its motivations, its wants and desires. A wolf may have a strong desire to chase a moving object, while a crow may find that same object frightening but find a small shiny item irresistible.”

Henry often turns the behaviors directors want from animals into a game. If she wants a skunk to cross the road, and the skunk is motivated by food, she’ll train it to go to a sound to receive a treat. Once the skunk is used to following the sound for food, it’s easy to get it to cross a road when the beeper is on the other side. “With training any of our animals, the absolute key is that they are comfortable with people, and the environment and love what it is we are asking them to do. It has to be their choice.”

Henry’s favorite projects are the ones that feel like summer camp – where she gets to spend time on the set getting to know the cast and crew. “I love when we can really sink our teeth into a character and spend a lot of time prepping. We can really show what the animal can do,” she says. “Everyone’s doing their thing to the best of their ability. We’re doing our thing to the best of our ability. It all comes together to create this amazing piece. That’s my favorite.”

Henry and Sonnenburg share their home with many of the animals with whom they work. It’s easy to imagine the animals happy there – they have acres of Oregon Coast Range forest in which to play. They have dogs, goats, a ringtailed lemur, an anteater, a pied crow, a raccoon, a skunk, wolves. The animals are their family. For them, there’s no one better to work with.

“Who we have in our house is who we want to live with,” Henry says.  “When we wake up in the morning, it’s who we want to run down and play with, or maybe even who we wake up next to in a lot of the cases. That’s our primary reason for doing what we do. We want to spend every minute with our animals.”