Lifelike Animals Keep Filmdom Fed

Times Staff Writer

The family’s white rabbit drops a whisker on the rug as he hops toward a handful of alfalfa sprouts, and Debi Boulden is quick to snatch it up.

“Oh, a whisker,” she says, massaging a spot between Snowflake’s ears. “I always save whiskers. I can use them later.”

This is, after all, valuable raw material. The occasional rabbit whisker--plus mountains of synthetic fur, resins, wire frames, eyes from taxidermy shops and ersatz animal materials of every stripe are the bread and butter of Debi and Jim Boulden, a Ventura County couple who are among the premier suppliers of fabricated fauna for movies, television and advertising.


They share their three-bedroom Newbury Park home with their 6-year-old daughter, the rabbit, five cats and a Doberman, as well as a rack of fake crows here, a stack of artificial reptiles there--all the creatures they can produce to meet the demands of the trade.

Avid believers in animal rights, they spare real animals the rigors of life under the lights. Yet, paradoxically, their work makes it easier for film makers to portray the same animal violence that they detest.

Hideous Deaths

A Boulden boar “died” a hideous death in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator.” A Lhasa Apso dog was “freeze-dried” as evidence on “L.A. Law.” Another dog seemed to jump into an impossibly high waterfall in a 1986 remake of “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” A rat chomped into an actor’s leg in Walt Disney’s “Fuzzbucket,” but most Boulden animals end up maimed or murdered--an ironic penalty for being so lifelike.

“Most of their work looks so real, you can’t tell they’re fake,” said Mark Hollingsworth, a prop man at Disney Studios, which has purchased many of the Bouldens’ creations. “We had one movie where the dog was supposed to be drugged and lying on the floor with its tongue hanging out. It would have taken hours of training to get a dog to do that.”

It took years for the Bouldens to do it.

In 1980, Jim was flip-flopping between jobs. He opened a bartering business with partners in Ventura, but the company soon was failing. Meanwhile, his wife was working as a technical writer and editor and piddling with a hobby, making stuffed animals, which she sold to friends for extra cash.

Then a friend in the wholesale-gift industry gave Debi the break she desperately wanted, a chance to offer her goods to the public. She drove a van full of her lifelike stuffed creatures to the Los Angeles Convention Center’s gift show, sold them all and placed $10,000 in orders.

“We took every dime we got in and put it into buying inventory, like sewing machines, so Debi could do her work,” Jim said. For the next five years, Debi peddled her creatures in the wholesale market, mainly to gift boutiques, but made only marginal profits.

“We dreamed about getting into show business,” Jim said. “I would pace in the bedroom and tell her, ‘We’ve got to get into the movies.’ Debra Lynn thought I was nuts.

“We were practically starving to death,” he said. “Then came the call from Disney.”

Film makers at Walt Disney Studios were producing the television movie “Deacon Street Deer” and needed two deer to stand, seemingly paralyzed, before the lights of an oncoming car. The Humane Society, which monitors the use of animals on TV and movie sets, suggested that the producers call the Bouldens for some stuffed stand-ins.

At first, they made just two deer and two cats for Disney. Then, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Studios heard about the couple, as did Cannon Films and Universal Studios. In one year, the Bouldens made seven dogs or dog heads, a long-horned ram, two golden eagles, two birds of paradise, a clown, a goose, a rat and even a wild boar.

A dog for the Disney film “Robotic Dog” fetched $11,000, the Bouldens’ highest commission for a single work. Two other dogs and a remote-controlled bear for the 1988 film “Winter People” netted the Bouldens $30,000, and Disney once paid $1,500 for a parrot, destined for a role in “Bride of Boogedy.”

The Bouldens now devote all their time to their creations, and in the process, have transformed their home into a kind of odorless zoo.

Eight-foot-long algae-green alligators sit like canoes on a rack in the garage. Two monkeys perch on the living-room couch. A mountain ram rests on its side under a plastic tarp on a table in the attic. A gray koala is propped attentively in a chair in the den as two “beaten” dogs lie sprawled beneath the computer table. A Siamese cat lounges under the piano bench.

Its five live counterparts pad over counters and tables and leap for the drapes. Animal-life encyclopedias and other references lie open amid bottles of glue, balls of string and the odd piece of burlap.

Greetings From a Burro

Their current endeavor, an animated burro’s head, greets visitors from a pole mounted on a plywood dolly in the living room.

The disorder of the workshop-menagerie-home-sweet-home is worth it, the couple say.

“We’ll never work for someone as full-time employees again,” Jim Boulden says, “either one of us. We just want to be artists working at home.”

From time to time, however, they take their work to the sets of TV shows like “L.A. Law,” “McGyver” and “The Wizard.” They also have coordinated animal-stunt work for the films “Predator” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

For an episode of TV’s “thirty-something,” producers demanded 40 crows in a week’s time for a dream-like adaptation of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Working night and day, Jim crafted the crow mold and Debi did the fine sculpting and feathering of the silently cawing beasts. “I thought what they did was great,” said Pat Wright, the prop master for “thirtysomething.” “Whenever you can use the real thing, you do. If not, you go to professionals like Jim and Debi.” Other producers also are effusive.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Marsha Williams, co-producer of “The Golden Girls,” said of a replica of a 500-pound pig that the Bouldens made for a fall episode of the Saturday night sitcom.

“I was embarrassed to ask for it. It was within a week’s time that I said, ‘I need a 500-pound pig.’ Jim said, ‘Sure.’ I was extraordinarily impressed with this guy.”

The stand-in pig was needed for a scene with Rose, played by Betty White. Rose inherits the pig from her uncle, and it comes to live at the Golden Girls’ home, but becomes ill. Rose decides to put it to bed--her bed--and tucks it in under the blankets.

“According to the animal trainers, a real pig would have had to be sedated. We decided to just fake it,” Posner said. “It turns out the pig wasn’t really sick--it was just homesick. But, hey, that’s show biz.”

The plush porker would have developed a case of homesickness itself, if it could have. After the filming, White appeared to be so fond of the “beautiful pink pig” that Boulden asked if she would like to keep it, which White did for two weeks before producers of “The Hollywood Squares” found more work for the porcine look-alike.

“I enjoyed having him come and sleep over at my house,” White said. “Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay. Show business is in his blood.”

Whether blood must be in show business is another question--one the Bouldens find profoundly disturbing.

“They use a lot of our stuff depicting violence to animals,” Jim said. “They have never done anything with our animals in a favorable light.”

For one film, “Devil’s Odds,” the Bouldens had to create a cat in a grotesque position, as if it were being stabbed through its chest and stapled to the wall with a dagger.

Debi, an animal-rights activist since she was 19, says she cannot sit through some of the movies starring her creatures.

‘I Don’t Watch’

“I don’t watch most of what we’ve done,” she says. “It’s hard to believe I can’t even watch a Disney movie. I must be a real pansy.”

Nevertheless, the Bouldens will continue filling requests that flow in until they are financially secure enough to develop their own project, one that has nothing to do with violence. It has been on Jim’s mental drawing board for years.

“We want to do better,” Jim says. “We want to have our own show, with animals talking--a kind of animal farm. In the productions we do, animals will be brought into a human light.”

And their barnyard creatures will not be hunted, maimed, beaten or battered like their ill-fated movie-star animals. “We’d rather not support that kind of media,” he says. “We’d rather support media that shows animals as feeling organisms, not objects to be hit with baseball bats.”

Depicted violence toward animals only encourages people whose ideas are easily shaped, he says, “if you go with the basis that media shapes people--which I think is true.”

Even now, Boulden is debating whether to do work for a couple of “real Satanic” shows.

“If the devil’s work is involved,” he said, “we’re not interested.”

But, until their own project pans out, the Bouldens acknowledge that they’ll be plagued by ambivalence about the show-business niche they’re so successfully filling.

“We expect to have to do this for a couple years. We have to pay the bills. That’s the situation many people are in,” Jim says. “They sell those guns because they have to feed the kids.”