In 'Gettysburg' film, he provided a little horse sense

November 28, 1993|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,Contributing Writer

David R. Stair took a trip back in time when he went on the set of the movie "Gettysburg" during the summer of 1992.

As chief animal warden for the Carroll County Humane Society, he aided Edward Lish, an American Humane Association training officer, and a veterinarian in caring for about 100 horses used in the filming of the recently released Civil War movie.

"We've worked with the American Humane Association on other movies, and we were close to Gettysburg [Pa.]. Plus, considering the number of animals on the set, they asked us to work with them," Mr. Stair said.

His chief function was to oversee the proper care and use of the horses and work with the owners and wranglers, or trainers.

Mr. Stair also acted as mediator between trainers and wranglers and the movie company, Turner Network Television.

He started his job by going to Gettysburg with Nicky Ratliff, director of the Carroll County Humane Society, to examine facilities that had been set up for the horses.

"We found they had no accommodations for the horses, just some pens. The American Humane Association requires shelter and protection from the elements," Mr. Stair said.

He and Ms. Ratliff spoke to the first assistant director, and the movie company was able to find a barn with 40 stalls.

From then on until the Gettysburg-area filming was finished 10 weeks later, Mr. Stair went to the set whenever needed, sometimes for 12-hour days.

In addition to working with the head wrangler and his 40 horses, Mr. Stair also dealt with a re-enactment group that was brought in for the filming. Members of that group brought their own horses.

"We inspected the cavalry horses, we looked at the overall animal -- the flesh, legs, checked tender spots, the hoofs, and injury or damage to the horse," Mr. Stair said.

"One horse almost hit the ground, his back was so tender, so we pulled him off the set," he said.

All equipment and tack was checked to prevent injuries to the animals. Mr. Stair and Mr. Lish checked housing, food, water -- everything used in the care of the horses.

"Our goal was the protection of the horse," Mr. Stair said. "You didn't want the horse to be injured, or the people on the set."

The Gettysburg job was an education for Mr. Stair in how things get done on a movie set, especially when animals such as horses are involved.

What one sees on the big screen isn't necessarily what really happened during filming, although it may look real, he said.

"In movies such as 'Gettysburg,' there's a lot of gunfire, so the special- effects man showed us exactly how the scene would be done," Mr. Stair said.

For instance, when a shell hits in front of a horse and debris flies up, the horse falls over, and the rider goes with him.

Before filming takes place, "the special-effects expert measures the horse's head to see how far the debris has to go up, then these large steel boxes with light loads of gunpowder are planted in the ground at the right angle" to get the desired effect without injuring horse or rider, Mr. Stair explained.

"The steel boxes are covered with corkboard, then when that's detonated the cork flies up over the actor and the horse," he said.

The horse is trained to fall on command by a light tug on the reins.

The filmmakers "use only trained horses for those scenes, and the area where the horse falls is searched for safety factors -- it's swept clear of dangerous debris and softened," Mr. Stair said.

The horses' ears are packed with cotton to prevent injury, another job that Mr. Stair oversaw.

Filmmakers "use three or four cameras to shoot the scene at different angles, then splice together the shots they want," Mr. Stair said.

The same goes for scenes that involve caissons and wagons, which are designed to be taken apart.

Mr. Stair said he had little direct interaction with the actors on the movie set. But he did get to see actors Martin Sheen, who portrayed Robert E. Lee, and Tom Berenger, as Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, as they performed.

"Martin Sheen was really into the character he portrayed," Mr. Stair recalled. "He imitated his [General Lee's] mannerisms, speech, everything."

Ms. Ratliff remembers the day she went with her chief animal warden to Gettysburg.

"Lee and Longstreet were riding up on their horses and it was like being there. It was a time warp back there, it really was Lee and Longstreet," she said. "It gave you goose bumps."

On the long days that Mr. Stair was on the set, he would eat lunch and sometimes dinner with the cast and crew.

"Our working relationship was great. There were no real problems while I was there," Mr. Stair said. "The directors, wranglers -- everybody was very receptive to the guidelines we used from the American Humane Association because they don't want a bad rating."

The AHA rates movies that use animals according to the way the animals are treated and the care the production company takes with them, he said.

The guidelines are so stringent that even live insects cannot be injured on a movie set, he said.

As a representative of the AHA, Mr. Stair was required to write detailed reports on the animals, listing problems and information on the actual filming scenes in which animals were used.

"It was pretty neat to watch how they did things," Mr. Stair said. "I'm glad we could participate in it and make sure the scenes all went well."

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