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Filming With Polar Bears

Written on October 21, 2017

Polar Bears

Polar bears are found in the Arctic Circle and adjacent land masses including Alaska and the Canadian provinces of Nunavut, Northwest Territories, as well as the northern areas of Yukon, Manitoba, Quebec, Labrador. The closest town in North America to see wild polar bears is Churchill, Manitoba, which is known as the polar bear capital of the world. You can also find wild polar bears in Greenland, Norway and Russia. Agee is the only trained polar bear in the world. Agee and her trainer Mark Dumas are based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Agee, a sow (adult female), is 22 years old, stands at 7ft tall and weighs in at 900lbs. In the wild, a boar weighs around 350–700 kg (772–1,543 lb), while a sow is about half that size.

A polar bear can run up to 25 miles per hour (40km per hour). Polar bears can swim at speeds of 6 miles per hour (10km per hour). To give you a sense of how fast that is, Michael Phelps swam that speed at his peak. Polar bears front feet are large, flat and oar-like, making them excellent swimmers. They have been known to swim up to 400 miles without resting, and can hold their breathe underwater for up to 5 mins. Polar bears have large furry feet and short, sharp, stocky claws which also give them good traction on ice.

Interesting fact about polar bears, their skin colour is black and their fur is not white, but transparent. It only appears white because the hair structure reflects visible light.

Wild polar bears are extremely unpredictable and have no fear of people. When attacking, they are strong enough to tear off a car door. Filming polar bears in the wild must be done at a safe distance, usually shooting from above or from the water.

Polar bears are carnivores. In the wild polar bears eat seals, walruses and whales. They are known to travel very long distances to find food. Agee has a more diverse palette. Her favorite foods are chocolate, spicy Thai food, pasta, sausage, and steak.

The polar bear has an extremely well developed sense of smell, being able to detect seals nearly 1.6 km (1 mi) away. Its hearing is about as acute as that of a human, and its vision is also good at long distances.

Polar Bears can be safely transported for filming. Agee has travelled for work from Vancouver to as far away as Ontario and France.

Unlike other bears, polar bears no not hibernate, so Agee is able to work at the same pace, all year round.

Polar bears are smart animals. Agee can be trained to learn new tricks usually in only a few days. Food treats are used as a reward for performance.

A polar bear can be trained to bare their teeth. After that, post production adds growl and roar sound effects. You do not want to hear a bear growl or roar on set.

When on set, Agee is penned inside an electric fence. If the shot requires her to swim, then an electric fence will need to be set up in the water or around the perimeter. When not on set, she is housed in a trailer.

Noises distract polar bears. Film crews are noisey. Keep the size of your film crew to the bare minimum, and remind those working to be conscious of staying quiet. Lights, noise and movement from camera, grip and lighting equipment generally does not bother a polar bear.

Running, sudden movements or anything else likely to startle the bear are not permitted on set.

Some creative briefs require the hero to ride a polar bear. Although it may look good in the imagination, riding a polar bear actually looks quite ugly as the only place to sit is on its hindquarters.

Eating is prohibited on set. Polar bears have an excellent sense of smell so food smells are distracting.

Agee is a contact bear, which means she can safely interact with Mark, and will even wrestle and swim with him. It is too dangerous for talent to interact with Agee in this way. For scripts that require the hero fighting with a polar bear, hitting a polar bear, as well as being cruel, will also enrage it, so you need to find a work around.

The trainer will know when a bear is starting to tire. You never work a polar bear until they cannot perform anymore.

Heat will affect the amount Agee is able to work. Ice floors and air conditioning are two ways of helping prevent her from overheating.

Agee works on a flat fee. Buyouts do not apply. Productions must have a minimum of $3 million liability insurance.

Contact Mark Dumas for any questions regarding working with Agee.


Production Service Producer & Shooting Crew

It always helps to have experienced crews when working with animals. Contact us if you are looking to hire a service producer, director, DoP, or photographer who have experience in with working polar bears.

Photos and notes courtesy of Mark Dumas.