Superpower Dogs 3D, the latest IMAX film to arrive at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, may sound like nothing more than a cute kids’ movie. In truth, it's an uplifting documentary that will delight all ages.
Narrated by a dog named Henry, voiced by actor Chris Evans (of Captain America fame), it follows the stories of six different “superhero” dogs around the world. These pups’ super powers range from assisting a disaster response team with search and rescue in hurricane-torn Florida to tracking down poachers hunting endangered species in Africa.
Westword sat down with one of the film’s directors, Daniel Ferguson, to discuss his project.
Westword: So you’ve worked on several documentaries before as a writer, producer, and director, but most of your previous films have more solemn subject matters. What made you decide to do a movie like Superpower Dogs 3D?
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Daniel Ferguson: I think I just needed it, you know? I made it for my kids. I have made much more somber and solemn films, certainly. Each film is kind of a reaction to the previous film. It’s funny, because we made Jerusalem, and then Last of the Elephant Men, and they’re great, and they win awards, and they move people, and they’re maybe more my taste or aesthetic. But when you do something well in the film world, people just want you to do the same thing again. So people asked me to make a film about Rome, saying, “We saw you made Jerusalem, and Mecca, and we think you should make Rome. I thought, “That would be fun, but I don’t want to make the same movie again.”
My producer Dominic (Cunningham-Reid) has wanted to make a movie about dogs for ages. He kept pestering us about doing something with dogs and IMAX, and I was very skeptical. I said, “What’s the hook? How do we make it different from all the dog-related Internet content and TV?"
Then he took me on this amazing trip to convince me. We went to British Columbia and started with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, and then we went down to California to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. Then we went to Italy to work with the Italian School of Water Rescue Dogs and the Italian Coast Guard, and we finished in Kenya with the bloodhound trackers.
By the end I was completely seduced, and I said, “These dogs have superpowers.” I thought we could really have fun with this whole superhero obsession in our culture. We have so many movies about superheroes, and without denigrating any of them, I just think that it’s time to recognize that the real superheroes might be closer than we think.
Were you filming on the trip, or did that happen after?
The trip was purely research. I actually went several times to most of these locations. I wrote a script, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s a documentary, so you can’t control it. But I knew I wanted all these different dogs. I wanted an avalanche dog, and I wanted the Newfoundland in Italy, and I wanted the bloodhound trackers. I knew I wanted an emotional support dog as well.
So when I first structured the story, I didn’t want it to be episodic. I didn’t want it to be just a grab bag of cool dogs. I wanted it to have some narrative unity, so I had this idea to follow a puppy as it sort of discovers its superpowers. Like an origin story.
We heard about this woman named Cat, which seemed too good to be true, in Miami. Her story was very sad, because she had lost her dog at two and a half years old to kidney failure, right after she had certified this dog. She was in need of a new partner. In fact, her old task force couldn’t go out on a deployment unless they had enough dogs. So we’re talking about hundreds of people who are depending on this one dog.
It seemed like an amazing story, so we flew out to Michigan and we met her, and she picked Halo on camera, and it was incredibly moving. We all cried. There was a real magic in the air, and I just started to really fall in love with the subject matter and think, “We can do something bigger than just your average dog movie.”
So I take it you’re a dog person?
I am now. Funnily enough, I didn’t grow up with dogs. I always had cats. But I love animals. I’ve always been fascinated with animals, and my kids love animals. I think that your pet is probably your first window into the natural world as a kid, or at any age. I did want to maintain a certain distance, so that I wouldn’t just go gaga for the dogs. Which I certainly did. By the end of it, I thought, “Oh my God, I need a dog.” I became a converted dog nut. And my daughters are pestering me for a dog, so the pressure is on.
The dogs are obviously the heroes of this movie, but I have to say the people who train them are pretty amazing too, wouldn’t you agree?
Absolutely. I wanted this movie to work not just for dog people. Obviously, dog people will come, but in the same way that when we made Jerusalem we had a secular audience come, too, people will come who are just curious. It’s a goal of mine to try and find the humanity that’s universal. So I want people to relate to Cat and the other human characters. I was so impressed by the whole search-and-rescue community.
To be honest, people who devote their lives to making the world a better place through dogs are the real superheroes. You pair the right human with the right dog, and that’s what makes them superheroes. At the beginning of this movie, I thought, “Dogs are the real superheroes. That’s a great hook,” but it became much more profound than that. We have superpowers, too, and so do our dogs, so when you pair us together, we can do amazing things.
In 2013 you wrote and directed Jerusalem, which was also filmed in 3D for IMAX cinemas. Why did you decide to shoot Superpower Dogs 3D in IMAX 3D?
It was always part of the plan. Although, we shot probably half of this movie in 2D. I didn’t do any 3D work when it came to water and snow, because we use this giant mirror rig with two cameras, and if you get water on the mirror it just takes forever. By the time you have the alignment of the cameras right, the dog has kind of given up on you.
How did you get Chris Evans to voice Superpower Dogs 3D’s canine narrator, Henry?
I knew I wanted someone who had played a superhero, and someone who loved dogs. I wanted them to be able to kind of riff off that and play with some of the superhero clichés, so Chris was at the top of the list. He’s very outspoken about his love for dogs and often posts about his dog Dodger. I was actually so confident that we might be able to get him that I had them build this set to open the movie with all these Marvel characters, and one of the first that you see is Captain America.
Our executive producer Greg Foster just called Chris’s agent and said, “We have this movie going. It’s an IMAX movie, and it’s about dogs. Are you interested?” And he said yes. He actually brought Henry, the avalanche dog that he voices, into the studio with him. It was the best thing we could’ve done, because not only did we get great footage of Chris and Henry hanging out, but it put Chris in such a good mood. He was so generous and receptive and into it.
The last thing you want is a celebrity narrator who comes in and says, “Oh God, what did my agent get me into?” You want someone who is really engaged in the subject matter, who’s going to tweet about it, who’s going to be passionate.
You’ve collaborated with this film’s producers, Taran Davies and George Duffield, before. What was it like working with them again?
I love working with those guys. We’re really a good team, because we have a healthy mutual respect, and Dominic, as well. It was his idea, so we just had to make good on it. Making films is so hard as it is that you just want a good human experience, because it shows in the final product. We wanted to make a film about joy and other emotions that dogs give us, so we tested it a lot with our families and other kids just to get it right, and to make sure the audience is along for the ride. We needed to make sure we had the right amount of information, that it stayed visual, fun, engaging and surprising. So I love working with this team, and I’d do a million more films with them if I could.
Do you see yourself doing more movies like Superpower Dogs 3D in the future?
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We would like to continue to work in the documentary space, but we are also all lovers of fiction and have made fiction before. My dream is to actually use the IMAX format in a way that, say, Christopher Nolan does, or Brad Bird, or other filmmakers, and work with IMAX to create the right story that is perfectly curated so that some sequences are designed for that immersive, visceral spectacle of IMAX. I’d like to do some longer-format films. I love cinema, and my favorite films were always 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia, those kind of giant experiences. I think cinema needs to be larger than life. It needs to remain sacred and special, so the IMAX format and the whole experience of that giant screen and how you can use that as a filmmaker is something I want to continue to explore, whether it’s a documentary or fiction. Just to find the right story that belongs on that giant screen.
What do you hope audiences take away from this movie?
I want audiences of all ages to look at their pets in a totally different way. That’s the one thing that I think IMAX films can do best, is change your perspective on something you thought you knew. It certainly changed my perspective on dogs. But I want people to come out surprised and do more research. This idea that dogs are always communicating with us and that we just have to listen is really important to me. I think that dogs are exceptional teachers, and through this movie I think we get a taste of how much we don’t yet know about our best friends. That’s really intriguing to me.
Superpower Dogs 3D plays at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s IMAX theater through the end of 2019. Ferguson will speak about the film at 7 p.m. Monday, May 6, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Boulevard. Tickets to screenings start at $6 plus museum admission. Find more information and tickets here.