Hotel for Dogs

The special effects coordinator on the movie talks about all the innovative machines that were built for the film

Michael Lantieri has been in the special effects biz for nearly three decades, with a resume that includes such blockbuster films as Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, Jurassic Park(and both sequels), Minority Report and Beowulf, just to name a few. His latest film, Hotel for Dogs, which hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on April 28, doesn't feature the CGI wizardry of previous films, but features Lantieri's handiwork in the several devices and gadgets that the actors used to care for the plethora of pooches. I had the chance to talk to Lantieri over the phone about the film, and here's what he had to say.

First of all, I was curious about how you came on board this project, and were familiar with the book before coming on?

Michael Lantieri: I was not familiar with the book before coming on. When they took it in and started sorting it out, DreamWorks called me and asked if I would mind taking a look at this, so that's how I came to be a part of it. I met (director) Thor (Freudenthal) and we got along, so we started going.

The film you did before this was Get Smart, and this film doesn't seem like an "effects film" per se. Was this maybe an easier film to work on, than say a big-budget film like Get Smart or any of the other ones you've worked on?

Michael Lantieri: Well, truthfully, when you throw in the influence of working with animals and having to train them with the gadgets that you make, and making changes to keep them comfortable and safe, it presented a few challenges. It wasn't a cake-walk. There was a scene in the film and they're blowing things up and it's all a big challenge and it's all a part of telling that story and we were pretty busy. We had quite a few demands from the art department.

The original novel was published in the 70s, so was there anything from the book that you guys took from, or was it all done from scratch?

Michael Lantieri: I think they were influenced by a lot from the book. We made them a little more user-friendly, so we went through lots and lots to keep the theme and the tone of the picture as much as Thor wanted to keep it and still make it somewhat practical for when we were doing our locations and sets.

I read that the ball-throwing machine was one of the more difficult ones for you, so what made that one so difficult to get working?

Michael Lantieri: Well, certainly early on when we were making exteriors, electric motors or cellunoids, things like that, they really missed it completely. You start it and you realize that it's alarming the dogs. There's a buzzing sound or a whirring that you would normally take for granted, so we really had to change our technology, and for each dog, because they have their own personality as well. Some dogs would only like certain things, other dogs would like other things. For instance, the ball-throwing, the fetching machine, we had started out with an electric motor and we ended up with an air cylinder. Those are challenges that you don't even think of, in a way.

So was there a favorite or a least favorite machine that you had to work on for the whole production?

Michael Lantieri: I'll tell you honestly. My favorite gag in the whole movie is the simplest one, and the one that I can almost get no credit for, is the car door with the wind. Most dogs, mine included, for some reason, want to stick their head out the window and they love the wind in their face. As simple as that was, every time I saw it, I laughed, so I would say that's my favorite, even though I did the least amount of work on it.

It seemed that there was some CGI, but it was very minimal, so can you tell me what kinds of things were CGI'd and why it was done like that?

Michael Lantieri: Well, we did some CGI. The stampede down the hallway, I can't remember which dog it was that ducks and goes under the dogs, there's a little piece in that that has CGI. The poop chute is a good example. Those seats with the lids up, I actually built stairs for the dogs to actually rest their rears on while they go up on the platform and get into place. There's a little stand there that you don't see that they removed from the movie, so we kept the dogs comfortable and it looked safe, but they were kind of right in the place they were supposed to be, so we had the ability to kind of hold them and guide them, if you will, and they removed all that. Nowadays, it's as much of removing from films, out of the frames of film, than anything. The trick is to get the mix right, so people honestly don't know.

Can you talk about just working with the dogs in general? I've seen some of the behind the scenes on Marley & Meand it seems they can be quite a handful, so can you just talk about that whole element of working on this?

Michael Lantieri: Sure. One of the things that we found out right away is that we had to work on a bit of an accelerated and fractured schedule to get time to rehearse with the dogs. So we were going to be building them a little bit quicker, a little bit earlier and certainly in time to rehearse with the animals, so that everything is happening and we're not killing a lot of time. So we had a little dog boot camp, which was fun, and it was fun because we did each gag and each dog that would perform each gag. I'm sure Marley & Me did the same thing. We got to know each dog and it was great. We had a fun time with the whole thing.

Thor Freudenthal is a first-time director, so how closely did you work with him through this whole thing, and how would you compare him to other director's that you've worked with?

Michael Lantieri: It's always tough to step up and run a movie as a first-time director, but he really had a vision and he really knew what he was looking for. As with anybody, I stand right by the director in any effects sequences and we go through them together. Even someone like Steven Spielberg will look at me and say something like, 'Can we make it better?' We get a lot of input and it really is a collaborative thing, but, ultimately, Thor knew what he was doing.

These gadgets have to actually be built by children, so was that something that you took into consideration, that these machines had to be built by kids?

Michael Lantieri: Oh, absolutely. That was a big thing with production design in the movie. We had my normal crew who had worked on Minority Report or Get Smart. I think the ultimate challenge was to behave like an 11-year-old and make the type of thing that would look like an 11-year-old would make. If it didn't work out, I guess we'll bring in 11-year-olds (Laughs). It was kind of an ongoing joke. Even if you have to get as technical as you need to get something to work, we try to cover it up and we tried to make it honestly as though it was made out of existing parts that could've been found at the hotel, so that's a huge thing. It was a big production challenge as well.

I saw you also created the explosion for the Bartman Ball.

Michael Lantieri: (Laughs) Oh man, I did.

How often do your techniques get used in the sports world?

Michael Lantieri: (Laughs) Well, it was just some little fluke. They tried to do it and finally, I think it was through an agent, that they contacted me. My father was raised in Chicago, so I went and it was more of a thing for him. We figured it out and every year I still go out there. Hopefully they can end the curse sometime. We'll see. They seem to be getting better.

Yeah. They seem to be improving, so we'll see.

Michael Lantieri: Yeah, I hope so, I hope so. I made a promise to go to the World Series if they go.

Oh, nice. Well you kind of helped break the curse, so you kind of have to go.

Michael Lantieri: I hope so, I hope so.

So, you're working on some pretty big upcoming films, like Disney's A Christmas Carol and Alice in Wonderland in post-production. So are you working on both of them right now, and is there anything you can say about either of those?

Michael Lantieri: My part of Alice in Wonderland is done and also Disney's A Christmas Carol is done. I've seen little bits and pieces and, you know what, it's another level of filmmaking altogether, both of those. They're two different, very different filmmakers, Robert Zemeckis and Tim Burton. They're both looking really, really good, from what I've seen. They're great.

So, finally, the film comes out on DVD soon, so what would you like to say to those who might not have caught the film in theaters, to get them to pick this up on DVD?

Michael Lantieri: Oh, I don't know what to add. Just to pay close attention to the dogs' performances. Honestly, it was something I never thought was going to be able to happen, when we set up the first meeting, that these dogs could do this. I'm shaking my head and laughing, thinking it would be the last movie I had ever worked on. They did it absolutely as he said, you know. I'll trade the dogs for people anytime.

Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you. Thanks a lot for your time, Michael, and best of luck with your new films.

Michael Lantieri: Thank you.

You can check out all of Lantieri's gags and gadgetry when Hotel for Dogs hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on April 28.