Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's a Wild, Wild Life

Cris Rankin, with Banjo. (C) 2012, Miachelle DePiano

Cris Rankin is not your typical mom. She skateboards. She climbs trees. She does not care for cooking, but she is handy with tools and can fix about anything around the house, and then some.

And for twelve plus years, she has been part of A1 Animal Talent, providing animals of all types for film and photography needs.

As a young woman, she trained dogs out of a purely personal interest in animals.

"When you’re an ‘animal person,’ it’s what you are, no matter the animal,” Rankin said. “I’m the only weirdo in the family.”

A friend, working at a hotel, talked her up to a couple working for Friskies who were putting on a promotion using a tiger. Rankin was invited to the hotel to meet the couple; after talking to her for some time, they invited her to LA. Upon her arrival, the couple unexpectedly handed Rankin the keys to the business, and literally told her “sink or swim” as they took off to Texas for three months to work on a film.

Swimming was the only option. When the couple returned to LA, they found their business was still thriving, and offered Rankin a permanent position in their business. She worked with them for several years, and eventually it was time for her to come back to Arizona. To this day she is still good friends with the couple, on a personal and professional level.

After arriving back in Arizona, Rankin met Gerry Kline and Nancy Winton while she was auditioning a dog for their agency, A1 Animal Talent. While Kline and Winton had experience with domestic animals, Rankin had something they didn’t have in their repertoire: experience with exotic animals (“exotics”) and connections.

Rankin worked for kline and Winton following her dog audition, until Winton decided to move to Texas. At that time, Rankin bought out Winton’s share of the business and became Kline’s partner.

Kline, a self-proclaimed “crusty old broad,” continued to be Rankin’s partner. Meanwhile, history seemed to repeat itself; Kathleen Holland auditioned a dog for A1 Animal Talent, and scored herself a position with the company as an assistant. Eventually, Holland came on as a third partner, and upon Kline’s death, became Rankin’s sole partner.

Rankin’s house is filled with an array of animals:  five cats, four dogs, two skunks (one of which is a spotted skunk, rarely seen by humans), horses, two coyotes, a ferret, a snake, a raccoon, and a desert tortoise. One of the cats, actually a kitten, is already riding a skateboard.

Rankin’s experiences and filmography are impressive and varied. Her most recent big name films include Cowboys and Aliens, Book of Eli, The Kingdom, and Furry Vengeance. The most dangerous animals that she’s worked with are a grizzly bear, and big cats. Her role with the grizzly bear was “bear bait girl.”

“For animals like that, you have to have the relationship with that animal as a trainer. So for the bear, I was the ‘bear bait girl,’ meaning it was my job to give him his treat. And when you are working with animals like that, you have to build up the treats, to raise the anti. You start with small treats, and work your way up to the bigger treats.”

She’s also fulfilled roles as simple as crowd control on projects while trainers work with the animals. On the more domestic side, her dogs Banjo and Buster have appeared in corporate ads, such as for Pet Smart.

While there are few animal talent agencies in Arizona, there is also a small amount of work, so the competition is still quite existent. A1 Animal Talent has a good reputation and established contacts throughout the US, so even in Arizona’s toughest season (summer), they still get work on film sets outside of the state.

It is not as glitzy as it may seem. Rankin works hard to find animals to train, and sometimes it goes well, and other times in spite of the training and effort, animals may still not measure up to the challenge of being in front of camera equipment.

“Once they hear that “pop” of the shutter and the lights, they may totally freeze, no matter how much you work with them,” Rankin explains. “You can’t duplicate that sound, and once they hear it, they may just always react negatively to it.”

The animal talent business provides plenty of surprises, and the return on investment is unpredictable. 

“I bought two "wild looking" bunny rabbits for $16 for a movie, from a breeder who bred them purely for snake food. The project was supposed to last four days, and ended up lasting two weeks because of lighting and weather issues. That project ended up netting me a nice salary. Who knew a $16 investment was going to turn out that way?”

Other investments, such as her two coyotes, result in project difficulties. In spite of her steadfast, constant training, the camera equipment was too intimidating. Soon they will have a new home at Bearizona, up in Williams.

“You have to start with coyotes when they are two days old, and their eyes are still closed. Otherwise, you’ll never have a chance. Even then, it’s a roll of the dice.”

Other animals, such as her raccoon Boomer, are a phenomenal success.

“Boomer comes from a line of raccoons that have been bred in captivity, probably about 30 generations,” Rankin said as she hugged Boomer quite affectionately. “I can do things with him that you’d never see with another raccoon. He was the only “wild” animal allowed near Brendan Frasier in Furry Vengeance. But I wouldn’t let someone else do what I do with him.”

It is apparent Rankin loves what she does, a rare thing in today’s obligation-driven world.

“It’s nice working here in Arizona. I know everyone, film crews, caterers, and projects are just very personal and intimate.”

Ultimately, what does Rankin want?

“I want to be doing this until I’m a crusty old broad.”


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