How Birds Of Prey Brought Harley Quinn's Pet Hyena To Life

2016's "Suicide Squad" may have been a massive failure (at least in terms of reaction; it made money at the box office), but it did introduce the world to Margot Robbie's brilliant interpretation of Harley Quinn. The fan-favorite character debuted in "Batman: The Animated Series" in 1992. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (and voiced by the amazing Arlene Sorkin), she has since become a fixture of DC Comics. Not only has Harley headlined her own fantastic comic series several times over, but she has also appeared twice more in live-action in "Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)" and "The Suicide Squad." She even has an animated series on HBO Max. Harleen Quinzel, who has been known to break the fourth wall, would obviously be quite pleased with these developments.

Harley Quinn is defined by many things and thankfully, these days, her former paramour Mr. J isn't one of them. When she starred in "Birds of Prey," it was important to make Harley a fully formed character in her own right, which this highly underrated DC entry certainly did. One of the most memorable aspects of Harley Quinn is definitely her pet hyenas, Bud and Lou. While only one hyena appeared in "Birds of Prey" and his name was Bruce, this was still a great way to incorporate Harley's pets into the film, while also giving a not-so-subtle nod to Bruce Wayne.

Whenever an animal is featured in a film, there is always the question of whether or not to use an animal actor or CGI. After all, computer-generated creatures now look more real than ever before and hyenas aren't exactly easy to train. So, how did "Birds of Prey" bring Bruce to life?

How do you train a hyena?

When talking to GQ, "Birds of Prey" director Cathy Yan explained the process of creating Bruce. She said:

"We had very much considered working with a real hyena because so much of the movie was practical effects and that was something I really wanted to try to focus on. But we ended up meeting a hyena in the Valley named Fonzi. And while he was lovely, we soon found out that hyenas are probably the worst animals to try to actually bring onto a set. They're practically untrainable. What we wanted out of Bruce, the hyena in the movie, would've been pretty much impossible with a practical hyena. We ended up having a German shepherd named Clark — who was adorable — on set, and he was trained to do everything that Bruce did. Then we were able to map on a digital hyena on top of him. In the Twizzlers scene, for example, that's actually Margot sharing a Twizzler with a German shepherd. We have to thank our amazing VFX supervisor, Greg Steele and WETA Digital for that."

The instinct to want to use a real hyena is understandable, especially for a film so intent on using practical effects whenever possible. Of course, in this case, it made the most sense to give Harley her pet digitally. Robbie also discussed meeting with animal trainers in a "Birds of Prey" DVD special feature (via SYFY), explaining that she learned, "If this hyena touches anything, it considers it to be his. So we're like, 'Ok can he sit on a couch?' and they're like 'Yes, but then it's his couch. He will eat it and if someone tries to take him away from it, then he'll eat you.'"

Transforming a cuddly dog into a cuddly hyena

Making a German Shepherd look like a hyena is no easy task and Thrain Shadbolt, Weta Digital VFX supervisor told Art of VFX that the most crucial components of his job were making Bruce look like a real hyena, and having it seem as though he was actually interacting with Robbie. They used the German Shepherd as their starting point. He explained:

"At Weta Digital, we have made many furry creatures over the years, so most of the techniques we used on Bruce are well established. We were able to draw on previous quadruped set ups for topology and rigging to get us off to a quick start. For Bruce specific details, we based him largely on photography of a real hyena provided to us by the production. We also mixed in some aspects of other hyenas we saw in wildlife references. The biggest challenge in the asset creation proved to be the fur 'groom'. Bruce had a thick shaggy coat and mane that was quite unique. It took some iterations to get this right, but it gave him a distinctive, attractive look quite different from the typical scrawny hyenas we often see in films, and was a big hit with [director] Cathy [Yan]."

Giving Robbie a partner to act opposite rather than a prop was an excellent choice for far more than just VFX purposes. You can see the clear joy on the performer's face when she interacts with the dog, which made the scenes between her and Bruce all the more believable. Shadbolt also talked about the difficulties of making it look like Harley was actually petting Bruce, as well as finding ways to have the hyena occupy the significantly smaller space taken up by the German Shepherd.

Bruce lives!

Listen, I love animals. Bring me to a party and the first creature you'll see me interact with is the dog — hopefully, there's a dog (or cat, ferret, etc.). Not sure what this says about me as a person, but I can watch human beings get disemboweled or decapitated or whatever in film and television with no problem, but show me a CGI dragon getting killed and I'm instantly sobbing. Forget about any plot point in which real animals meet a terrible fate. I'm always looking for movies where the dog actually lives! Honestly, that explosion at Doc's in "Birds of Prey" rocked me to my core, because it really seemed like Bruce was done for. Thankfully, this wasn't that kind of movie and Bruce survived.

It's not just about what happens onscreen though. The sad truth is, as much as I enjoy seeing my furry friends on screens both large and small, it's not always a safe place for them to be. Hollywood doesn't have a great track record of being kind to animals on set and sadly, some of these incidents aren't nearly as far in the past as you might imagine. Either way, there's obviously also a huge difference between working with a dog, as opposed to trying to train a hyena. It's definitely for the best that the movie used a stand-in. That dog probably had a blast sharing Twizzlers with Margot Robbie!