Volume 2, Number 23 - September 5, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
by Leslie David
What would you do if your phone rang and the caller said, "We need you to make a pig chase a car, lay down in a mud puddle, roll over and then sit up." No big deal? What if you had a week to do it? Well, Robin Wiltshire from Dubois can get it done with time to spare and the craziest thing is, it is all in a day's work.
For most Americans with office jobs in a big city, the type of work many of us have out West seems refreshing and unique. But Wiltshire's profession takes the cake; his job is training animals for the movie and commercial industries. When his wife Kate suggested the Quarter Circle Five Ranch just outside Daniel as a location for a Chevrolet commercial, the Examiner was there to see him work his magic with the cameras rolling.
Wiltshire is acclaimed in the industry for his ability to train animals quickly and get remarkable performances out of them. His amazing skills are behind the heart-warming and memorable Budweiser commercial which commemorates our nation's September 11th tragedy. It aired during Superbowl 2002, one of the most visible placements a television commercial can have. In it the famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses kneel before the World Trade Center as if to honor the lives lost that day. Although the spot ran briefly, it got a tremendous audience response.
Probably as well known is another commercial Wiltshire did for Budweiser in 1995. In it were two entire football teams of Clydesdales, 11 on each side, heading toward each other. Suddenly they stopped on an imaginary 50-yard line. The plays are so well done, you suspect it is computer generated. But no, it was Wiltshire generated and that spot won him a Golden Lion Award, which is the best recognition you can get in the commercial industry. That commercial really got the ball rolling, so to speak, for Wiltshire professionally.
Since coming to Wyoming in 1983 from his home in Australia, Wiltshire been asked to train all manner of animals to do the oddest things. His career started when he came to America for a few seasons on the Pro Rodeo Cowboy circuit riding saddle broncs and bulldogging. He ended up working at the Jackson Hole Rodeo as their stock contractor. Although he's comfortable on either side of the camera, his ability with training kept coming in handy. At the rodeo he became an in-house source of half-time entertainment. Pretty soon Robin was tearing around the arena, driving four head of horses with a wagon in flames careening behind them. The crowd loved it.
Today, the majority of Wiltshire's work is for television commercials. Most of the training occurs at his place in Dubois, called Turtle Ranch. But the performances he painstakingly creates with the help of his livestock and the creative folk that he works with have become some of the best-known commercials on television today.
Wiltshire's most recent commercial is for Chevrolet and was shot with the backdrop of the old Dressler barn on the Quarter Circle Five Ranch just outside of Daniel. It is promoting the new Silverado front and rear four wheel drive pickups using longhorn cattle.
The project started with a call from a creative director in Los Angeles saying something like, "What I'm thinking Robin ... I would like to have horses running ... and they turn their heads and see the Silverado ..."
"They dilly dally around (with the horse idea) and then it's a cow shoot," Wiltshire explains. "Then I'd have to ask is it a cow or steer? Does it have horns or not have horns? Is it Angus, red, black, crossbred? 'Just an every day cow' they'd say."
After over 40 photos and conversations back and forth, their idea of an "every-day cow" ends up being a longhorn crossbred steer with horns that aren't too long, have just the right curl but don't have a Texas flavor. Finally, when the actors have been chosen, the training can begin. Wiltshire prepares not just the selected animals or "heroes" but also a few back-ups in case disaster strikes.
"I start with the halter breaking, gentle them down and grain them," explains Wiltshire. "When I'm training a horse, I'll go to the same spot every day. So once he's got the routine, then I can start taking him to different spots around the ranch."
It is a slow and methodical process, adding small elements day by day.
For anyone who has had to house-break a dog or train a horse, the idea of training under a tight deadline is mind-boggling. Wiltshire explains what he went through on the Pinedale shoot: "We only had, to train the steers, fourteen days. It was crazy. I was really worried because then they'd say, 'We've got to have those mouths open up and have them do this and that.' Then they're screaming to get the photographs and saying when they see them, 'Oh, they're way too wide!' They'd scrutinize over the photos and then two days before the shoot they'd say, 'First his mouth wasn't wide enough and now it's too wide!" Wiltshire remembers.
"You try and explain to them that once you have them on location," Robin says with a chuckle, "these animals are trained to do specifically what you've asked for; to look around, lower their heads up and down ... you can't de-program them or throw them suddenly in the herd. These guys are the heroes, you can't change them. But they'll say, "Why can't we do that?" It is clear that Wiltshire is very patient, and not just with his animals.
The director seems to always throw in something unplanned on the shoot and Wiltshire tries to anticipate that. In Pinedale, the "heroes", or steers, starring in the commercial had to pick up their heads as if they were watching the truck go by and then open their mouths as if in awe of the new vehicle. So they asked Wiltshire to have the steers pick up their heads and look to the right.
"They say camera right but I know when I get to the location it could be camera left so you do both sides because they lie," he teases.
The process is slow and methodical: "I'll take the longhorns and put them in a round corral and teach them to come to me. Then I'll start the hobbles, put the hobbles on his front legs and have him just stand there. Then I'll just cue him to follow me, not to move, but to follow me with the head backwards and forwards and I reward him with the grain," explains Wiltshire. In a while, he'll have them turning their heads left and right on cue.
But how does he get them to open their mouths with a hand signal? "If you touch a horse just above the cheekbone, he'll lift his lip quickly and actually a steer will do the same thing. So you're touching his mouth and rewarding him for moving his mouth," Wiltshire explains. Eventually, the longhorn learns to open his mouth on cue.
Over the years, Wiltshire has had a million things go wrong, like a sudden snow or so much noise that his whistle is inaudible. He's learned to train more than one hero in case the animal gets sick or isn't learning well. He tries to anticipate what the director might suddenly ask for. Sometimes he's just short of time. In those cases he's up every couple hours working with his stars until they have their parts down pat. "When he's (the steer) training, I'll get up at two in the morning and if I can get to the stables, I'll start training again until we get it right," says Wiltshire.
Meanwhile, at Quarter Circle Five Ranch, Wiltshire describes the scene, "The director's going, 'how come he's not looking at the camera? Look at the camera!" Of course, the steer wasn't taught to look at the camera. The photos of the heroes in action are being reviewed and discussed. How is his expression? Is his mouth open enough? Is he looking the right way? What if we change angles?
Wiltshire is protective of his animals and sometimes is forced to remind the director that they do have limits. Wiltshire says that someone representing the Humane Society is usually on the set and that comes in handy when he has to convince the director that he is asking for too much.
Finally every angle has been shot, and the steers and horses have done their jobs well. It is time for Wiltshire to load them up and take them back to Turtle Ranch and give them a good meal. When he gets home, Wiltshire can expect messages on the answering machine explaining more preposterous ideas for him to bring to the viewers at home.
If you're interested in seeing the finished Chevrolet commercial, it will be airing in September ... and Wiltshire's website is turtleranch.net, if you'd like to learn more.
Photo credits: Leslie David
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