BIG BEAR GRIZZLY ARTICLE
Teaching a bear new tricks is like watching a child move to the next grade. Except most school children don’t weigh several hundred pounds and can’t pick up a person with their teeth.
Randy Miller is an award-winning animal trainer who has worked on movies such as “Gladiator.” Miller’s life is anything but normal. He lives near the top of Onyx Summit and while most people’s pets are dogs and cats, Miller’s pets are bears and exotic cats.
“I love animals,” he said. Miller’s career allows him his love for animals and to still earn a paycheck.
Miller’s latest project was preparing his bear, Rocky, for the movie “Semi-Pro,” starring Will Ferrell. Ferrell is a basketball player matched up against a bear in a wrestling match as a stunt to promote his team.
The key to the scene is making it look believable,” Miller said. Bears naturally love to play and wrestle. To add to the scene, Miller taught Rocky to fight on his hind legs and lunge forward with a big snarl, he said.
The camera angles made Ferrell appear to look closer than he was during the shoot, Miller said. During the close shots, Miller stepped in as a stunt double for Ferrell. He donned an Afro wig that Ferrell’s character sported during the movie. Natural instincts are key for an animal performing in a movie, Miller said. Miller said young animals are easier to train, but most important is that the animal is stable. If the animal is too shy, it won’t perform, he said.
The confrontation with Rocky went smooth—almost. “There was a point where the bear got really into it and I almost lost control. He grabbed the wig in his mouth and shook it really hard. It looked good,” Miller said.
Safety is always a concern with a full-size bear on set, Miller said. An electrified wire separates Rocky from the crew. But Miller said the real key to safety is keeping the animal focused on the task. “When the bear isn’t working, we put him in his holding pen,” Miller said.
Rocky’s mind works like a child’s. His attention drifts and he is susceptible to distractions. “Animals are most dangerous when they become possessive,” Miller said. For instance Rocky might want to take someone’s jacket. The difference is when he wants something and you don’t give it to him, Rocky will kill you for it, Miller said.
Bears take to training well, Miller said. The animals are very smart. Rocky is a pretty young bear and has a very large appetite, and that’s crucial to training, he said. Miller trains animals with food as a reward. A hungry animal is easy to train because it responds to being rewarded.
Like actors, Rocky learns marks. Unlike human actors Rocky doesn’t get paid scale, but by the pound—pounds of meat. Miller baits the bear from one mark to the next. “As he gets closer to a mark, I reward him,” he said. This type of bridging continues until Rocky completes a trick.
Randy Miller practices a fight scene with his bear Rocky. Miller assures everyone that Rocky won’t hurt him. (Photo courtesy of Predators in Action)
When it all comes together like it did on “Semi-Pro,” Miller is proud of Rocky's work. “You feel like a proud parent,” he said.
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Natural instincts are key for an animal performing in a movie, Miller said. Miller said young animals are easier to train, but most important is that the animal is stable. If the animal is too shy, it won’t perform, he said.