By Steven Zeitchik
This post has been updated. See below for details.
10:16 AM CST, November 19, 2012
With a computer-generated tiger at the center of the upcoming "Life of Pi," a controversy over live animals is brewing on a different holiday release.
Wranglers in New Zealand have complained that as many as 27 animals have died as a result of conditions on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," according to the Associated Press.The wranglers said that a series of sinkholes and other perils on farms made the conditions a “death trap” for the animals.
A spokesman for director Peter Jackson has confirmed an unspecified number of deaths related to conditions on a Wellington farm. Horses, goats and sheep were among the casualties, he told the AP. He said that when production supervisors learned of the conditions they quickly moved to fix them.
Still, the animal-rights group PETA said that as a result of the news it will protest several premieres of the film, produced by New Line and released by Warner Bros. around the world.
Though the American Humane Assn. gave the “Hobbit” production a clean bill of health, it generally monitors only on-set activities, not the living quarters of animals used in filming.
[Updated, Nov. 19, 12:07 p.m.: Filmmakers are denying any responsibility for the animals’ deaths, according to a statement appearing in Variety and elsewhere.
"The producers completely reject the accusations that 27 animals died due to mistreatment during the making of the films," read the statement in part. "Extraordinary measures were taken to make sure that animals were not used during action sequences or any other sequence that might create undue stress for the animals involved.
“Over 55% of all shots using animals in The Hobbit are in fact computer generated; this includes horses, ponies, rabbits, hedgehogs, birds, deer, elk, mice, wild boars, and wolves," it continued. Though it noted the American Humane Assn. monitored production, the statement did not address the wranglers’ main allegations that the animals had died as a result of their off-set living conditions.
It was also unclear which producers had signed the statement; a New Line spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a request seeking clarification. “Hobbit” is being produced by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Carolynne Cunningham.]
The news comes just ahead of the film's December opening, when it is expected to do blockbuster business. Two more “Hobbit” films have been shot as part of the same overall production.
The Peter Jackson franchise, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's bestselling book, uses a large number of special effects but also integrated real animals into some scenes.
Activists have in the past year sought to call more attention to poor conditions for animals at the Hollywood productions of “Water for Elephants,” “The Zookeeper” and “Dolphin Tale.” Earlier in the year HBO decided to halt production on its horse racing show “Luck” in part because three horses had died during production.
Matt Rossell, campaign director for the U.S. branch of the nonprofit animal-rights group ADI, told The Times last year that he was startled to find that so many live animals continued to be used on Hollywood productions. "I think it's very disturbing, the trend that we're seeing of more and more animals appearing in movies, and I think we should be moving in the other direction with the technology we have. We're calling on these studios to really take a good, hard look" at their use of animals in fictional entertainment, he said.
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