Mark Waters decided early in pre-production that he didn't want to rely totally on CGI for his family film, "Mr. Popper's Penguins," opening June 17. Based on the 1938 book by Richard and Florence Atwater, "Popper's" stars Jim Carrey as a businessman who inherits six penguins.
"I thought there was a way to do this thing all CGI, where everything is kind of planned out," Waters said. "But you lose the indefinable thing that is adorable about penguins. I wanted to go the other way — let's do everything we can with live penguins and then challenge the visual effects artists when we are doing CGI stuff to capture that essence, make them match the reality."
That's where Larry Madrid of the Acton, Calif.-based Birds & Animals Unlimited stepped in as the lead trainer of the eight Gentoo penguins that were bought from the Montreal Biodome to play the six waddling costars in the movie.
The 26-inch penguins, Madrid said, were wild and not really friendly initially. For the six weeks prior to filming, Madrid and his trainers worked with the birds to get to know them and figure out what skills each could best perform.
And they had to give them a new home while on set — in this case, a walk-in freezer with a pool kept at 36 degrees. Their trainers were only slightly more comfortable. "The trainer freezer I had built next to it was incrementally increased up to 50 degrees," Madrid said, and the set itself was kept at a chilly 45 to 50 degrees.
By using tiny smelt as treats, they taught the penguins how to hit their marks and "get used to being on tables and chairs and eating fish off of plates."
And they had to instruct Carrey, who had more than his share of experience with animals in his "Ace Ventura" days. "He took to them really easily."
So, how does working with penguins compare? The "differences between penguins and other animals I have worked with are mostly political," Carrey joked in an email. "Due to the penguins' communal nature, they tend to lean to the left. There was a seventh penguin that I was really fond of. His name was Hammy and he was really over the top, but he got cut out because with me in the film that would be redundant."
When it came to feeding the penguins, Carrey said, "I didn't get any real lessons, but I learned quickly that to a penguin, there is little difference between a fish and a finger."