Arts & Entertainment

Katie Brock makes them sit up and beg

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ON the new family adventure film "Nim's Island," which opens in theaters Friday, animal trainer Katie Brock's co-workers included two Australian sea lions, three Australian central bearded dragons, two Australian pelicans, an assortment of lace monitors, Shingleback lizards, camels, goats, dogs and spiders. But since most of these animals were already seasoned film actors, her real job was training 11-year-old actress Abigail Breslin to work with this exotic menagerie.

"Abigail was great when it came to taking direction about learning how to train the animals," Brock says. "She was very good and clear with what she wanted when she worked with the animals, so they were quite connected to her because they knew that she was a good source of food, and they also respected her."

Brock was roughly Breslin's age when she first realized that she wanted to work with marine mammals. Raised in Studio City and Newport Beach, she used to take family vacations to Australia to visit a friend who owned a marine park, where she first volunteered when she was 19. "I'm sure most people that have any sort of work with animal training have started doing the things that most people don't want to do when they're working with animals," Brock says. "I started doing things like scrubbing buckets and cleaning out areas."

Before long, Brock landed a job as a dolphin trainer at Sea World of Australia, where she met her husband, John Medland, who spent much of his time in a dive tank teeming with sharks. Today, they live in the town of Labrador on Australia's Gold Coast and own their own business training animals for films, including "Babe: Pig in the City," "Peter Pan" and "Fool's Gold."

The sea lions' share: Just as human actors have specialties in terms of the kinds of roles they're best suited to play, animal actors often find themselves being typecast. "You take the animal's natural character and do your best to use it in that fashion because there's no point trying to start a battle that's uphill when you have a limited amount of time to train animals," Brock says. "Friday and Spud were the sea lions. Friday relished in the long scenes. . . . It was quite interesting to see this sea lion just sort of thinking, 'Yeah, this is me. I should be here all the time on set.' He's a very curious animal, so everything going on around him was enough to keep him stimulated. Spud liked the scenes where we did some quick behaviors and got it done quickly."

Water world: Although the sea lions could tolerate the freshwater filming tank for short periods of time, a carefully regulated saltwater environment is critical to their health. "As soon as we finished a scene, we'd always put them into a saltwater holding tank," Brock says. "And then certainly as soon as we could, we'd take them back to their area behind the soundstages, which was specifically built for the animals. Sea World shipped water out, 20,000 liters we'd get twice a week. . . ."

Dragon tales: Reptiles are among the most trainable animals because they are so food-driven. "There are shots where the bearded dragons are sitting on Abigail's shoulder," says Brock. "And there are shots where they're running across the desk and looking through a microscope, so they've got a fair bit of work, actually. And we had three of them playing the same character. [Because they're cold-blooded,] certain times on the set when it was winter and it was a night shoot, we'd have to keep them nice and warm. The last day of Abigail's shooting, the female laid a clutch of eggs. That wasn't meant to happen, but I've seen her in one of the scenes, and she looks rather large!"

Spidey sense: While Brock focused on what she calls the "cute and cuddly" animals such as the 400-pound sea lions, her husband wrangled several of the less appealing species, including the spiders. "I was sitting on the floor underneath Jodie Foster's legs because if a spider jumped off, I had to collect it," recalls Brock. "He was making sure it ran across the Apple [logo on a computer on set] so product placement could be effective. I was thinking, 'Isn't this ironic? All his life, he scared the wits out of his mother and his sister with spiders and rats. Now he's making a career out of it!' "

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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