Hubert Geza Wells' 'Lights, Camera, Lions' — The Truth About Animal Movies

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The pleasure, the pain, the love: One of the world’s most esteemed trainers takes you inside the making of beloved animal movies

animal movies hubert wells lights camera lions

I appreciate so many diverse types of movies these days that I can’t pick a favorite genre, but when I was young (a good dozen years ago…or so) there was only one type of film for me: Live action animal movies.

And it seemed like back then there were so many to see… I remember crying inconsolably over bittersweet animal movies like “Old Yeller,” “Where the Red Ferns Grow,” “The Incredible Journey,” “Ring of Bright Water,” “Born Free,” “Living Free,” the list goes on and on.

At one point I actually wanted to grow up to be an animal trainer. What kid didn’t? It was right up there with running away with the circus, as far as seven-year-old career plans went.

animal movies hubert wells lights camera lionsSo how could I, or anyone that shares my sentiments, resist picking up a book by someone who really did grow up to become an animal trainer, working and playing with lions and tigers and bears, along with various other animals “from aardvarks to zebras?”

In his book “Lights, Camera, Lions” famed Hungarian immigrant Hubert Geza Wells not only reveals what it’s like to work with those animals (herding cats is a breeze compared to herding tarantulas), but what it’s like to introduce them to the biggest cats in the human jungle: people like Jackie Kennedy, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. “Out of Africa?” yep, that was Wells and his world famous lions.

animal movies hubert wells lights camera lions

He also writes of his fascinating pre and post WWII upbringing in Hungary, his immigration to Western Europe and then to the U.S. and his work on more than 150 feature films, 200 TV shows and countless commercials. When you read his full list, it seems that almost every movie or TV show with animals both exotic and domestic that you can remember involved four-legged thespians under Wells’ steady, loving and fearless tutelage.

animal movies hubert wells lights camera lions

Find out how Wells taught this elephant to water ski for ‘Honkey Tonk Freeway.’

I naively asked Wells what advice he would give to the budding young animal trainer inspired to pursue a similar career path. He responded with one word: “Don’t.”

The days of using trained exotic animals in movies have just about passed, made almost impossible by the sheer number of permits, restrictions and regulations necessary to make animal movies, he explains. He notes that misguided animal rights activists have cast an unfair light on animal trainers. Wells asserts that those with integrity treated their animals with consummate love and respect, and he has the photos and footage to prove it.

animal movies hubert wells lights camera lions

People who insist that animals belong exclusively in the wild, and not in zoos or on sound stages, often fail to take into consideration the fact that humans have encroached on and obliterated many animals’ natural habitats, and that game hunters have made many remaining natural habitats unsafe, he adds.

Wells believes that he retired to write the book at just the right time. And he admits that while there have been many cheesy attempts to use CGI animals, as in the “Twilight” series, films like Disney’s recent “Jungle Book” are setting much higher and more realistic standards for realism.

lights camera lions animal movies hubert wells

For all his admonishments, after reading Wells’ book, there’s still a part of me that is enchanted and enamored with the whole idea of animals in the movies, and the trainers who love them. Guess the closest I’ll ever come to it is teaching Frankie Feldman new tricks, in hopes that one day, if called, he’ll be ready for his close-up.

And I’ll be ready to write the book: “Lights, Cameras, Doodles.”

The pleasure, the pain, the love: One of the world’s most esteemed trainers takes you inside the making of beloved animal movies

by Lisa Johnson Mandell

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Lisa Johnson Mandell

Lisa Johnson Mandell

Lisa Johnson Mandell is an award winning journalist, author and film/TV critic. She can be heard regularly on Cumulus radio stations throughout the US, and on BBC Radio.

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