THE CALL OF THE WILD
Prior to its publication as a short novel in 1903, Jack London's
adventure-saga about a dog named Buck was
serialized in The Saturday Evening Post magazine. Translated into 47 languages,
it has never been out of print
since, an enduring example of classic American literature.
For screenwriter Michael Green, "It's not for nothing that 'The Call of the
Wild' became part of the great American
canon. It speaks to people on many different levels. It's a great
travel-adventure story in the tradition of Robert
Louis Stevenson. It told people about places in North America that they'd heard
of but had only seen pictures
of. There had been a mania in America about the Klondike Gold Rush. Newspapers
couldn't print enough stories
about it. People weren't even aware that it was built on the back of dogs.
"It's the story of a teenage dog coming of age, becoming a grown man. There's
a time in every dog's life where
they have to protect themselves, where they have to protect their pack, protect
their human. And there's a wolf
instinct inside them that some dogs have greater access to, but pushed in the
right direction they all find. Then
you have a dog like Buck, who has to go through some terrible and hard
experiences to find that within himself."
Producer Erwin Stoff's father first introduced him to "The Call of the Wild,"
reading it to him as a young boy in Romania. "Flash forward many decades and
thousands of miles away to Los Angeles, and one weekend I was on the phone with
Michael Green discussing what movie he'd like to write next. He said he wanted
to write something very cinematic that had a lot of visual elements and wasn't
dependent on 'quippy' dialogue. He
actually sent me a graphic novel about wolves, and I said if that's the world
we're going to be in, we should think
about 'The Call of the Wild.'"
"I think the reason this story has endured for over a hundred years is that,
like all great literature, it has some
universal elements," explains Stoff. "It's about loss, the curing of loss, home
and being ripped away from home
and, perhaps most of all, finding a better and stronger version of yourself.
"Emotionally and thematically, it is this notion of-how the most innocent of
creatures who never lets himself
be affected by anything negative brings out the very best in all of us. And how
that improves everybody's life.
Everyone whose life Buck touches is better for it, and I think that's an
incredibly powerful emotional trigger.
"Michael was able to change and accentuate enough to make it cinematic," says
What attracted Michael Green to this film was the fact that the story had
been told in different versions through
the years, but never the entire book from beginning to end and always from the
point of view of the humans
rather than the protagonist, Buck.
Green recalls, "I sat down with Erwin and said wouldn't it be amazing to tell
a story that's largely about knowing
exactly what a character is about and what he's up to without relying on
"We wanted to see if we could tell Buck's story visually. We didn't need him
to talk; we didn't need to have a
voiceover. Rather, we needed to be clear about what Buck was after at any given
moment. As long as we knew
what Buck was trying to accomplish in each scene, from moment to moment, we knew
you could follow the
story. Although he would come across wonderful humans played by incredible
actors, they were going to be an
enhancement to Buck's story."
Says Chris Sanders, who makes his live-action directorial debut, "'The Call
of the Wild' is all about a character
that has unexpected things thrown at him, things that you and I would probably
recognize as just the sort of
stuff life does. Unexpected challenges can either defeat you or make you
stronger, and that's what happens
to Buck. Rather than being defeated at these different turns, Buck keeps going
and eventually finds a place
where he belongs. Buck doesn't just survive, he prevails, and he does so with
his gentle character intact. It so
closely relates to what we are going to all go through in life. We're always
going to be traveling in uncertainty,
unexpected turns and stuff like that.
"Even though it's a childhood classic," says Sanders, "it's not a fairy tale.
It's a gritty story of survival and
perseverance, and whether you're young or old I think you either have or will
experienced these sorts of things.
You sense that there's a truth inside this story that you might be living
yourself. And I think that's why this story
endures. It's a story of a character uncovering strengths that he didn't know he
In this 21st-century screen version of "The Call of the Wild," Buck would
carry the emotional arc of the entire
movie. To bring him to life, Stoff and Sanders early on hired acclaimed visual
effects producer Ryan Stafford,
also an executive producer on the film, and visual effects supervisor Erik Nash,
a three-time Academy Award
Initially planning to have the film be mostly CGI-driven, the filmmakers
decided instead on more of a hybrid
approach incorporating more actual photography to blend with digitally-created
dogs and other animals.
At Stafford's suggestion, for the scenes involving Buck, instead of just using a
marker-usually a tennis ball-they
put a real person there who they would film and later replace with animation.
Terry Notary, who began as a
Cirque du Soleil performer and has become one of the premier motion specialists
and movement choreographers
in the movie industry, spent hours and hours studying dogs and learning their
mannerisms, practicing their
mannerisms and movement.
Producer Stoff was not at all convinced that this would work. "It was an odd
idea, and I didn't know how the cast
would react to it, because you've got a grown man who is on all fours, in a
funny gray suit with these prosthetic
front legs playing a dog. But it turned out to be a genius move because Terry
gives such a committed portrayal
that it improved every actor's performance."
"He brought the emotionality of Buck to the set," says Stafford.
Initially he and Nash thought they would simply be using Notary for the
facial, emotional performances: the look
in the eye, the sadness, happiness, etc., for the close-ups. It never occurred
to them that their man/dog would
be capable of fighting or jumping or doing all of Buck's larger-than-life
But when it got to the first big movement they needed Buck to do, Notary
said, "I can do that." From that point
on, he took over all of the action.
Stafford explains, "It worked out so terrifically because we're also looking
for timing and size and eye placement.
It gives the actors something to perform against. I've done a lot of
motion-capture movies, and you get high-quality performances out of actors when
they are acting with something, and the moment you take that away
and they're performing to nothing, it sacrifices the performance. It's really
hard to act to empty space, especially
in moments of high drama."
Says Nash, "In the beginning, I didn't even begin to appreciate how key and
how critical having Terry on set
playing Buck would be. It was absolutely indispensable for a couple of reasons.
One, it gave Chris a performer to
talk to and then coax a performance out of and begin building the foundation for
Buck's performance. Beyond
that, having Terry on set for the other actors to relate to and play off of and
interact with was hugely beneficial."
Director Sanders is equally effusive. "Terry was invaluable. Not only was he
doing a great job acting, but what
he was doing was also incredibly physically demanding. Dog timing is a very
specific thing. There's a certain
unpredictability to a dog's timing; they have these offbeat moments where
they'll tilt a head or blink an eye or
just momentarily glance away, and he was able to do all those kinds of things,
while at the same time overcome
his human physiology. There's certain moments where he's going to lie down or
he's going to stand up, and the
way that his head and shoulders work is very different than a dog. A dog will
have narrower shoulders than he
would have, and there's nothing he can do to change that. So he would work with
that to get the scene done if
there was a more narrow parameter that he had to fit into."
Stafford adds, "It gave Chris moments of inspiration to have Buck do
something that he may not have initially
intended before he saw the layout of the scene, before he saw what action the
human characters were going to
do. Terry was right there on set, able to respond to that."
Because Buck is the film's lead character, the filmmakers at first attempted
to build the dog-described by Jack
London as a St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix-from scratch. A Farm Collie, also known
as a Farm Shepherd, happens
to be a very old-fashioned breed. They built Buck as best they could, and gave
him Bernese Mountain Dog
coloration, as they felt the colors would read well on screen. They even had an
actual Bernese Mountain Dog on
set every day as a lighting reference. But as time went on, they noticed how
difficult it was to read the Bernese's
expressions, and his dark fur was hard to read clearly at night.
Several weeks into shooting, director Sanders' wife, Jessica, happened to be
perusing Petfinder and ran across
a dog listed as a St. Bernard/Shepherd mix. Not only was this the exact mix
described by London, but the dog's
name was listed as "Buckley." The coincidence was too strong not to investigate,
and Jess dropped everything
and drove to the Emporia, Kansas, shelter to meet Buckley. It was love at first
sight; Jess paid the $25 adoption
fee and made the two-day drive back to the movie set. Buckley was an instant hit
with the crew, and Stoff
suggested that they simply scan Buckley and make him the lead. And that's
exactly what they did.
Buck is only one of a nine-dog sled team traversing the Yukon through snow,
sleet, rain or mud. To create the
other eight dogs, the production chose to cast real dogs and then scan them.
Once scanned, details could be
perfected and rigging added. They had a casting call and chose a variety of dogs
based on the personalities they
wanted for the team.
BUCK'S HUMAN CO-STARS
"As far as I'm concerned," says Erwin Stoff, "anybody that gets to work with
Harrison Ford is a lucky, lucky person.
He is the ultimate pro and one of the greatest actors working today."
Ford, best known for having created two of the most popular and iconic
big-screen heroes in motion picture
history, Han Solo of "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones of "Raiders of the Lost Ark,"
was attracted to the project for
several reasons. First, he liked the prospect of doing a film for younger
audiences. Second, he was intrigued by
how the filmmakers would be creating Buck and the other dogs by computer, and
how that necessitated his
having to act opposite a human dog stand-in. Says Ford, "One of the most
interesting details of shooting this film
is that there were no dogs to work with, there was a human stand-in for Buck, to
organize my eye line and to give
me someone to participate with emotionally. It was at first a bit challenging,
but then became quite good fun."
He adds, "I spent more time with Terry than I did with anyone else on this film.
We helped each other accomplish
what the other needed. I was acting for him as he was acting for me. We were
there for each other."
Director Sanders says, "Harrison really brought a ton to the party. In the
book, Thornton goes through certain
situations with Buck, but I don't think his character is super well defined. And
I think one of the wonderful things
that Harrison did throughout this whole process was he was able to find that
character, create that character. And
really define what it was going to be. From the very beginning, he and I would
have these very deep discussions
about his character."
From these conversations, Ford understood that his character's place in the
story was to redeem humanity in
the eyes of Buck, after his experience with an abusive owner. But for the actor,
who currently has three small
dogs and has had dogs all his life, what was especially appealing was that the
film was not only about Buck's
transformation but also his character John Thornton's, as a result of his
relationship with Buck.
Ford explains, "One of the things I am always looking for in a project is
what I call an emotional exercise for
the audience. A chance to participate in a story where they recognize themselves
and generate the power of
emotional understanding in the audience."
Describing his character, Ford says, "John Thornton is a man who became
uncomfortable in his life and in his
world. He was unable to bear the pain and the burden of his circumstances. So he
fled from his home down south
to the Yukon, where he can find gold and strike it rich, and for another
strongly emotional reason: his young son
had always wanted to explore the wilderness. But he goes there really to find
some peace and solitude."
He continues, "Then he meets Buck, and they become companions in this
journey, emotionally bonded, and
they face danger and adventure together. I was touched by that journey and the
relationship between these two
Says Stoff, "John Thornton is a character with a gruff exterior coupled with
incredible vulnerability, and in the
course of this story you understand that he is someone who has been really hurt
and abused by life. Harrison's
performance is incredibly moving."
"The relationship between Buck and Thornton is the core of the story for me,"
says Green. "They're two creatures
who find themselves in a place where neither of them belongs. Both came from
lives they loved and miss but
can't have anymore. Buck is thriving and becoming the best version of himself,
but Thornton is a broken man.
When he meets Buck, so inherently lovable and so full of love and life, Thornton
can't help himself, and the
Ford says, "Like John Thornton, I've always had a real curiosity about places
where I haven't been. And moved
by the power and the majesty of nature."
To portray Perrault, the wise and kindly master of Buck's dogsled delivery
team, the filmmakers chose Omar Sy,
the French actor who rose to fame with his role in the 2011 international hit
"The Intouchables" and has since
appeared in "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Jurassic World."
Dan Stevens, whose role as heartthrob Matthew Crawley in the first three
seasons of the worldwide phenomenon
"Downton Abbey" shot him to stardom, which he followed with another romantic
lead in Disney's spectacular
live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast," is here cast against type as the
villainous Hal, the cruel, well-born
leader of a group of three would-be prospectors who acquire Buck and are
woefully unprepared and ill-equipped
for life in the Canadian Yukon.
Hal's spoiled and selfish sister Mercedes is played by Karen Gillan, the
Scottish-born actress who appeared for
three seasons on the U.K.'s long-running series "Doctor Who" and has gone on to
roles in "Guardians of the
Galaxy" and its sequel, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," "The Big Short,"
"Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers:
Endgame," and "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" and its recent sequel, "The Next
Judge Miller, who raised Buck from a puppy, providing him with a loving and
pampered domestic life until he is
taken and transplanted to the wilderness, is portrayed by two-time Emmy winner
Bradley Whitford, star of such hit
television series as "The Handmaid's Tale," "Transparent" and "The West Wing,"
as well as Jordan Peele's critically
acclaimed box-office hit "Get Out." Jean Louisa Kelly ("Malignant," "Top Gun:
Maverick") plays his wife, Katie.
THE LOOK OF THE FILM
"We were incredibly lucky to have Academy Award-winning cinematographer
Janusz Kaminski join us on this
adventure," says Stoff.
Executive producer Diana Pokorny says, "We all really wanted to work with
Janusz. His look is very classical and
"Janusz is very much a storyteller, " she continues. "He worked really hard
to figure out the best way to have the
camera tell the story. He isn't one to want to do a fancy shot just because it's
cool. He's only interested if it helps
tell the story or something emotionally about the character."
The filmmakers weren't interested in making a historical document.
"We wanted to make a cinematic journey, and we wanted to base that around
Buck," says production designer
Dechant. "The combination of Janusz and a director who comes from animation
meant that we had a completely
woven tapestry telling Buck's story. Having Janusz brought everything up to a
new level-to his level."
"Sixty percent or two-thirds of the movie is more traditional plate-based
visual effects," reminds Nash. "One of
the biggest challenges was fusing the different modes of production into a
It was imperative that both the lighting designed by Kaminski and the virtual
section of the film be true to one
another. To that end, the virtual effects department kept careful track of what
the cinematographer's team was
Using Mesmerize, a dog that closely resembled the coloration of Buck, they
would do side-by-side comparisons of
a CGI-created dog and then photograph Mesmerize to check that the lighting
matched. That way, they could put
Buck and the rest of the dog team into that same lighting scenario and be
confident that their lighting was correct.
For the all-virtual scenes, without Kaminski's on-set lighting, it was trickier.
So in pre-production, Kaminski went
through the script and picked out a reference sky from the Skydome for each
scene in the film that would not
be represented by photography.
With the camera tracking every single shot of Kaminski's coverage, they were
able to create a 3D digital camera
they could then apply to virtual scenes so that it had the same camera movement,
the same bumps, technical
issues, racks of focus, etc. Once the animation was blocked, they would go to
the virtual camera stage with
a handheld camera or with a Steadicam and shoot the scene virtually using
essentially the same tools that
Kaminski and his camera operators used. The goal: a consistent and thematically
cohesive camera language that
was seamless across the virtual and the real.
Says Dechant, "There should be a verisimilitude that runs from the practical
sets into the digital world."
RECREATING 1890s YUKON
To recreate Dawson City, the base for miners during the Klondike Gold Rush,
the production constructed one
block of the city, even though in the film it runs seven more blocks in one
direction and two blocks in another. So
during the design process, they "built" the entire city in the computer, and
then stripped out what was actually
going to be physically erected.
Having the physical sets was an immeasurable help for the VFX team. Says
Nash, "If we didn't have this one-block
section to tie it to, we would be at a great disadvantage trying to create it
from photographs in books. Having
this built in three dimensions and color with all the detail and nuance gives us
a very high bar to clear in terms of
extending it and making the extension seamless so that what lies beyond the
physical set is just as detailed and
real and textured as the sets we've spent the last couple of months on."
The one block of Dawson City included all the interactive, practical sets
including the Argonaut Saloon, mounted
police post, dog kennel and post office.
"About sixty to seventy percent of the sets are practical," explains Dechant.
"The digital is extending the practical
into the Yukon environment. Since we shot everything in California, you should
think of it as an old Technicolor
film-except instead of backings we're using digital technology."
He continues, "We didn't want to create the Yukon as it really was in 1898.
We wanted to create our own
mythological version of it, our own Pacific Northwestern environments and
He and Sanders used color to reflect Buck's experience, with warmer tones to
represent his original home in
Santa Clara, and a desaturated palette from the point when he is kidnapped. They
would bring color back into the
film at various points, like when Buck and Spitz have their fight and when the
action moved to the mining town.
Dechant says, "Coming into Dawson City, we wanted to introduce color but we
wanted to hold it back, so we discussed
hand-tinted photographs. The idea was that we would bring color in but we
wouldn't let it overtake everything."
Costume designer Kate Hawley notes, "The way Chris depicts Buck's decision at
the end of the film, with a
very clear choice between the wild, represented by the Northern Lights on one
side, and the Miller household,
represented by the orange sunset on the other side.
Hawley, who hails from New Zealand, explains that part of her research was
delving into folk tales of that era,
what she calls "the American myths of America."
She says, "I started looking at the world of Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan
as well as the First Nation world,
which was incredibly beautiful. We were very lucky that this particular period
has been very well documented
The designer was surprised to find pictures of many female prospectors on
their own or in pairs. They were
photographed wearing trousers, with a couple of dogs and their bags, waiting to
climb the trail.
Hawley explains that the color palette for the wardrobe was hugely influenced
by Sanders' love for the work of
American painter and illustrator Eyvind Earle, who is best known for his work
styling and painting the backgrounds
of Disney's animated films of the 1950s. She mentions a chart Sanders made of
the colors matched to the beats
of the emotional arc.
Hawley says, "There are a lot of pinks and reds that came through, and I
likened that to dead salmon against the
snow. Those colors emerged quite organically to give us a little heightened
"As we went along we tried to use pops of color here and there. It's very
much an emotional thing. When you
see the deconstruction of Hal, Mercedes and Charles as they head into the wild
with their totally inappropriate
wardrobe, it creates a certain atmosphere."
FINDING THE YUKON IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
The first few days of production were spent on practical locations. On
September 6, 2018, the company spent
a cold and rainy night filming at the Fillmore & Western Railway yard, standing
in for San Francisco, with a
frightened Buck jammed into a wooden crate, loaded onto a container car for the
start of his journey north.
The next few days were spent in Santa Paula, California, where the house serving
as Judge Miller's residence is
located. It is here that we first meet Buck as a tiny, energetic half Shepherd
and half St. Bernard pup. And it is
from here, in this loving home, that he is kidnapped to settle a debt and begins
the long and arduous journey to
The Chandler Stages in Van Nuys held the sets for the interior of the Narwhal
sailing ship that will bring Buck to
Dyea Beach. And it is here that he learns that life is not always golden sunny
days, and that there is a difference
between loving arms and the law of the club and the fang.
From September 20 until the end of production, the company worked at Sable
Ranch in Canyon Country.
Dechant says his biggest challenge was to create winter in the middle of a
Southern California summer, having to
match ice melting on different materials to stand in for deep winter snows, as
well as the scenes in spring when
it would turn to a combination of mud and snow.
He explains, "The winter look is a complete synthesis of practical and
physical. We used everything from paper,
Epsom salt, shaved ice and resins to display snow. We did all that we could to
create those environments so that
Janusz and the actors had something real to react to.
"Fortunately we had an incredible special effects team, who by the end of
production had used more than a
thousand tons of ice, which was pushed into what seemed like a giant wood
chipper. Through strong hoses, it
would blow out snow.
"The visual effects team has to sell it even further. We're using all of our
cards at the same time."
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