If you were a kid in the 2000s, you might remember a movie by the name of MVP 2: Most Vertical Primate. In the film, the lovable chimpanzee Jack becomes a skateboarder and somehow after a wild series of events gets sponsored by Bob Burnquist’s fictional brand by the end.
Throughout the movie, Jack seems to have a pretty good handle on skating and is shown carving bowls, dropping in on makeshift ramps, and even hitting a full blown vert ramp. We were curious how he got so comfortable on the board, so we started digging around on IMDb and came across the name of Dan “The Animal Man”.
Dan was part of the official animal training team called Going Ape that worked on the film. We quickly found his personal website and he was just an email away, and we were able to get him on the phone and learn about how he got onto this niche track of training animals for “extreme films.”
Before you go digging for yourself and scrutinizing, we did discover that Dan is a creationist and big on God, and even though we don’t endorse that, we didn’t let it hinder us from having a conversation about his work on these films. Turns out Jesus freaks can do some cool stuff, too, sometimes.
When did you first start getting into animal training?
I grew up in a farm community, so I was around a lot of animals my whole life. When I got into college, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but then I had an epiphany. I didn’t want to be in an office or inside a building all the time surrounded by a bunch of sick-dying animals. It takes a special person to be able to be a nurse or a doctor and that’s not me.
I found out about an exotic animal college out in Southern California. [Laughs] Imagine that. I grew up 100 miles south of Chicago. I moved out to California and went to that school, and that’s what prepared me for a career in the animal industry.
I bet you got a lot of chicks back in the day from having so many animals.
What?! How can you say that next to my wife? [Laughs]
Have you ever run into any seedy encounters, kind of like Tiger King activity, from being in the animal training world?
No. For that very reason, I have always kept my circles very, very small. The thing about it is Tiger King-style people are few and far between. It’s going to the extreme crusty level. I’ve had a guy come up to me after a birthday party show I did and he was like, “So you’re like that Tiger King guy, right?” It took all I could do to not freaking cold clock him right in the jaw. But then I’m like, “What do you do?” And he’s like, “I’m a financial advisor.” And I’m like, “Oh, so you’re like that Bernie Madoff guy?”
You know, it’s like freaking critical thinking is dead. There are bad seeds in every industry. If there is a right way to do something, there is always a wrong way to do something. The problem with doing things wrong in the animal industry is you are going to get somebody hurt, maimed, killed, or an animal injured or euthanized for no reason.
I always go back to the lady up in Connecticut who was on Oprah who got her face ripped off by her pet chimp. Chimps are not pets. No chimp should ever be somebody’s pet. It’s not a pet animal. It is an animal that’s very dangerous and powerful.
Are monkeys the easiest animal to train for films?
Well, I wouldn’t say easy. I would say that, anatomically, the chimp is the one animal that lends itself to be more anthropomorphized. We have a tendency to associate human emotion, behavior, and characteristics with animals. We all do that with our pet cat or pet dog. We treat them like they’re people. They’re not people. They’re animals, and they think and act and process things very differently than we do.
Chimpanzees, when you want to look at movies and television and compare people and animals, are the go-to animal. They’re very athletic. They are very strong and powerful, and if you can accurately convey the behavior you desire, the training is magic.
So, for the movie MVP, how many monkeys were trained?
There were six, and let me say this to you—and don’t take this the wrong way—but I am a wildlife educator. Although they do call it a monkey all the time in the movie, a monkey and an ape are very different. If Jack was here and he heard you call him a monkey, he would be really pissed.
Right, sorry. Can you give me a rundown of the difference?
Well, the easiest way to differentiate is the lack of a tail and the fact that there are only four types of apes. There’s the gorilla, the orangutan, the chimpanzee, and the gibbon. The rest of the primates are either monkeys or what they call lesser monkeys. The most famous lesser monkey of all, Zoboomafoo, is a lemur.
What was the process of teaching the monkeys to skate?
The cool thing about chimpanzees is that not only are they naturally the most competent athletes, but they really like the sport. We’re already ahead of the game because it’s not something that we have to really convince them to do. We didn’t have to really coax them into these movies.
They’re extraordinarily powerful and they love speed and loud noises. Skateboarding has both. We just had to figure out how to show them the process of the behavior we were desiring. All they’re doing is working and they want to be paid, but they’re not getting paid in Benjamins. They’re getting paid in their favorite foods or snacks or whatever. And just so you know, we’re not holding food back from them in order to get the drive to do the behavior. It’s just a reinforcement method.
We had to convey staying on the skateboard and actually moving. We have to get them to not just want to sit on it and bang on it and push themselves like a cart. That’s when we figured out the whole concept of cutting an Etnies open. That’s how you say it right, Etnies? They were a sponsor. We cut the bottom of a shoe out and made it into a sleeve so they could skate better.
Yeah, I saw the feet were kind of poking out at the bottom.
Using a cut shoe for the forward-facing foot on the skateboard was key because it allowed him to stay with the board and helped us convey that he needed to stay with the board. It made it more natural. He could pull his foot out of the board at any time. That’s the thing about chimpanzees, they don’t like to be fully restrained.
In non-action scenes, he wore just a regular pair, and they don’t really care for that, but they’ll deal with it. Their foot is not a foot, it’s a hand. They have four hands, they don’t have feet. He would wear them because it’s not that big of a deal. You can’t make him do something he doesn’t want to. I mean, he’s seven times our strength, pound for pound.
Were you guys sponsored by multiple companies or where were you getting the boards?
Yeah, multiple companies. Monké Skateboards was one of them and World Industries. There’s lots of advertisements in there.
Until the filming of this movie, my experience in the skateboarding world was simply my kids. My kids were really into hockey, so they were more interested in the hockey part of the movies than skateboarding, but when they heard that I worked with Bob Burnquist and Alex Chalmers and Rob “Sluggo” Boyce, they were like, “Whoa, whoa.”
Do you have any stories with any of those guys?
Gosh, you know, only that they were really cool guys and really down-to-earth and approachable.
They really loved the chimps. They had a lot of respect for the chimps because you have to. Not everybody always does. It sometimes makes our job very difficult. The chimps, in the movies, seem like they’re so sweet and all that, but it’s a very tough job.
I’m curious to hear more about your training facilities.
During the prep, the production company paid for us to have VIP access to this indoor skateboard park outside of Sacramento. We would go there in the morning and we had it exclusively for us. We would go there twice a day, early in the morning when nobody was around, and then we would go after they would close. We would do that five days a week for a couple of months.
We started with teaching the chimp how to stay with the board and skate. When we started doing ramps, we would have to hold his hands up because chimpanzees tend to put their hands down. That’s how they walk. One of the biggest training hurdles that we had to get over is their constant need to bend over and put their knuckles down. That’s where the old saying, “You’re just a knuckle-dragger!” comes from.
When we trained him to do a kick turn, we had to hold onto his hands and actually go up the ramp with him and kind of turn it. We did a process called successive approximation. The ramp would be very small, with a very small incline, and then up, turn, around, up, turn, around, up, turn, and around, and I would hold onto his hands. Eventually, we got bigger and bigger.
The biggest part of the work was dropping them in when we started training them on the pipes. We had to have a special drop-in ramp built, which was really cool. If you watch the movie, when Ben and Jack are at the closed-down swimming pool, it’s the first time you see that box. It looks basically like a two-foot by two-foot box and then part of the platform goes down past the box itself to make it kind of like a lip.
Did the apes start to learn how to skate better on their own or understand the different maneuvers?
No, not really because again, they’re pretty simple-minded creatures, right? They’re geared for the wild and surviving in the wild, not for athletics. All the skating that you see, that’s pieced together.
I can’t tell him, “Okay, I’m gonna drop you in, and then I want you to go down and do a kickflip and a quadruple flippy dippy doo.” I can drop him in and he’ll drop in, he’ll skate up, he’ll do a turnaround, whatever you call it, and then come back, but that’s it. In order to get something else, we have to do it some other way.
When you see him skateboarding in the alleys, we’re dropping them in from a ramp on top of a bunch of pallets that sends him over a dumpster and then somewhere else. So you’re seeing real stuff but through the magic of cuts, paste, and editing.
Their minds don’t work like mine and yours. Skateboarding is not what their brain was wired for. Even though they were trained to do that, if I gave them a brand new skateboard right now, they would break it in half, pull the wheels off, and break the bearings. They wouldn’t need a hammer or a wrench. They would tear the thing apart. They might sit on it and scoot around a little bit before they destroy it, but they’re not going to be like, “Hey, where’s Sluggo? He was cool. Let’s go PARTY!”
How do the monkeys slam on the skateboards?
They don’t. They never did. Even in the swimming pool scene where you see Bernie supposedly wipe out, he didn’t wipe out. I mean, we had to do that in several takes to make it look like he wiped out then he goes rolling and lays there next to the board. They don’t wipe out. They don’t slam.
Do they just have really good balance or what?
Oh yeah. You hear us throw out these numbers, but there’s no real way to give it a number. Just for the sake of conversation and giving you an idea, we say chimps are five to seven times the strength of a grown man. They have five to seven times the coordination, dexterity, and agility than a man. I think it’s 10 times ours, if not more.
Have you seen Planet of the Apes? Do you think that could ever happen?
No, no, no. Not at all.
A lot of people will try to drive you towards these ideas like, “Oh yeah, they could do that!” No. And why do people say that? “Oh, well, chimps, they use tools, they make tools.” Yeah, they do. They take a vine or a stick off of a tree and they take the leaves and branches off and they put it down into a termite mound and they pull it out and eat the ants off of it.
Here’s the thing, man. The chimps, they don’t ponder on the past, and they don’t worry about the future. They live in the moment, like we’re supposed to. If you ponder in the past too much, it’ll eat you alive. If you worry about the future too much, it’ll eat you alive. Animals enjoy the time they have in the moment.
Are they smart creatures? Yeah, but you have to define smart first. When you define smart and apply it to an animal like an orangutan, a gorilla, or a chimpanzee, we are miles and miles apart from apes. No ape will ever do what you’ll do in your life. No ape will ever read a book.
So how do you gain an ape’s trust?
Like anything, you have a rapport with them. You have to have a deep, consistent relationship with them. Otherwise, you will never ever be able to do the things that we’re able to do.
That’s why it makes me laugh. The whole anti-animal facet out there that wants to shut down every zoo and shut down people like us doesn’t get that these animals are better off than most people, let alone most animals in the world. They want to let them all go back out in the wild. Well, guess what? The wild sucks. The wild is not an easy place to live.
We do a lot of educational programs at schools and when I’m doing my presentations at schools, I say, “These animals, they don’t belong here. They really belong out in the wild, but that would take a perfect world. We’re far from a perfect world. If it was a perfect world, it wouldn’t be called the wild. It would be called paradise. And it would be five o’clock all the time.”
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