Disney’s, “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” has become a solid family favorite – it tells the story of three pets, two dogs and cat, “Shadow”, “Chance” and “Sassy,” who escape from a California ranch and travel together for miles over rough terrain in order to find their owners who had recently moved to San Francisco. Production started in 1992 and this feature shot most of its scenes at locations such as; Joseph, Eagle Cap, the Deschutes River, the Gorge, Portland and Central Oregon among others – all doing an admirable job standing in for the California Sierras and San Fransico. We caught up with Bruce Lawson (owner of BLT Productions, LLC, partner, Elite Camera Cars, and Key Grip on Homeward Bound) who reminisced about shooting this family classic-feature in some challenging but beautiful locations around Oregon.
Oregon Film: How did you get gear to some of the more remotely shot scenes for Homeward Bound?
Lawson: We used mules and horses from a packing company in Joseph, Oregon, for our time in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. A reduced crew of 25 made our way up to Six Mile Meadow and then spent the nights at Mirror Lake, directly below Eagle Cap. It was challenging coming up with a list of gear that we would need and that we could fit onto a pack mule or horse. Camera, Grip and Electric all came up with unique ways to pack lenses, cameras, magazines, extra film, and lights and that required overhead diffusions along with frames and stands. Most challenging were the c-stands, hi-walkers, and reflectors. We had to consider the weight and also the width of the load because the first three miles were in the trees and some spots were rather tight. Now imagine a pack animal with a cat carrier strapped to each side – then imagine this 4 times over +1 and in each “cat carrier” there is a Himalayan long hair who looks somewhat like “Sassy.” Nine cats in total. It’s true that only one of these cats looked much like the real Sassy, the rest were used for wide shots, fast running shots and water work. I think a couple of them were just there for moral support! At any rate, I was stuck behind the VERY vocal cats on the way up the trail – miles of howling Himalayans! These cats were NOT excited about the adventure at all. The dogs and trainers all walked in and would take breaks along the way for water and rest. Both “Shadow” and “Chance” had photo doubles and both doubles were female. Shadow’s real name was, Ben and his double, Molly. Chance was Chance, I don’t remember his double’s name. I do remember that Chance’s double had a stylist just there to “paint” her to match the markings on the animal actor.
OF: How did you find being on set with so many animals – did this make it easier or harder to set up and shoot?
Lawson: Animals and kids are always tricky. You need to remember “Homeward Bound” was shot on film and required a more disciplined set. There was no opportunity to continuously roll as we see practiced now with digital media. Everything needed to be set up, rehearsed and then the set needed to be absolutely quiet and locked down to prevent any distractions of our animal actors. The last thing you want to do is catch the attention of a hungry cougar who’s ready to sprint through the pines of Tollgate along Hwy 20. Things do not always go as planned. I recall in one scene, the cougar was in pursuit of our heroes. At one end of the run, there was one trainer set to release the big cat and another trainer at the other end of the run with a large chunk of meat as an incentive. The camera rolled, the cougar was released, the camera tracked this beautiful animal at a full sprint through the pines and when the big cat reached the end of the run instead of grabbing the meat treat he locked onto the trainer’s forearm. That’s right, his forearm! The trainer was very calm about the whole thing, he got the cat to release (with a bit of physical persuasion) and proceeded to pour an entire bottle of hydrogen peroxide into the 4-inch deep puncture wounds. These were wild animals at heart and that fact can never be forgotten. It was always, “heads up” on set.
OF: Where did the crew stay while filming on location?
Lawson: In Bend, many of us stayed at Mt. Bachelor Village in Bend, and various motels in Joseph (I think there were only 3 to choose from back then) and we camped in tents up in Eagle Cap for the reduced crew.
OF: Any good anecdotes about being Key Grip on this show?
Lawson: As a Key Grip I’m often asked to help find solutions to other departments’ needs. Many times it is unexpected and very much in-the-moment, so I typically work with what is available, I call it “Environmental Gripping.” Most every solution already exists in nature, you just need to keep your mind and eyes open and stay aware of your surroundings. This was the case in the scene where Chance chases a skunk into a hollow log. He was supposed to get his head buried deep into one end of the log at which point the skunk sprays him and Chance recoils with startling urgency. The trainer placed a treat in the log and told Chance to “mark.” Chance would go for the treat, no problem, but he was a puppy and a very large puppy at that. So, when he was called out he would happily look for his trainer and just sit there – not the reaction they were looking for. So, I asked if I could try something. I happened to have a 12x frame handy that was not being used and I took one piece of the square tube to the opposite end of the log from where the Chance was. While he was otherwise occupied I slipped the frame piece about 4 feet into the log and I was set. The camera rolled, Chance was sent to “mark” and once he was buried into his end of the log I blew into the frame piece like a trumpet which produced a noise that I’m sure Chance had never heard before and probably would never want to hear again. He quickly pulled back, cocked his head and took off in a flash to his trainer. Cut. PRINT.
OF: Where did you primarily shoot?
Lawson: While in the Wallowas, we filmed on a farm in Joseph that stood in for “Kate’s ranch”, and the top of Mount Howard for the scene where the animal talent discovers there are many more mountains to cross. We were in an airplane hangar for the famous “batdog” scene as well as the “night driving” scenes with the family. The latter was one of the most involved and most effective of “poor man’s” processes I think I’ve ever been a part of – you have to remember this was a time before battery lights and wireless controls. Everything was practical and created manually. I know each member of the Grip and Electric crew had an assignment during those scenes and success depended on all of us hitting our marks. Dennis Petersen was our Gaffer and he was a master of light, for sure. Any aerial work was done with a full-size helicopter and a Tyler mount. There were no drones, ronins or GoPros. It was film. Everything was sizable. In the Gorge, we shot at Wahclella Falls (now designated as “wilderness”) it was the site for the discovery of “Molly” the “lost girl.” Other locations included Portland, Bend and other various Central Oregon locations.
OF: Working with animals is notoriously tricky – and adding the elements of water, the great outdoors, moving trains etc. to this must have been tough.
Lawson: The sequence of the river crossing that ends with Sassy taking a plunge over the falls was filmed in 3 different locations, miles apart. The river crossing was filmed at Paulina Lake near LaPine. It was a fairly calm creek augmented with air hoses set up to create the illusion of rushing water. The scenes with Sassy in the rapids were filmed on the Deschutes River near Benham Falls and the actual fall plunge was shot at Sahahlie Falls on the Mckenzie River near Clear Lake. No real cat ever went over the falls!
We had to try and shoot as many of the scenes with our 3 heroes and humans actors early in the schedule because Chance was growing SO rapidly. So, scenes with the kids were right up front in our schedule. For instance, the wedding scene and the final scene, where Chance, Sassy and finally Shadow are reunited with the return of the family at the end of the film, were both shot within the first week. The lovely home that was used for those scenes was located in the Reed College area in SE Portland.
We utilized several cat puppets at various points of the film and somehow I became in charge of those. Most notable was during the scene in the train yard when they are almost back home – Sassy is nearly hit by a train and we see a flash of fur that was just missed by the train wheel. That is a Sassy stand-in we named, “Stuffy.” Literally, a stuffed cat pelt on the end of some high test monofilament that I pulled through frame at just the right moment. If you go back and freeze-frame it, it’s actually pretty obvious. Funny stuff! The other moment of Sassy puppetry was also in the train yard when Shadow had fallen into the pit and the camera is over Sassy’s shoulder, looking down on to Shadow. There was no way that any of those cats were going to sit still for that shot. So I used a Sassy puppet and did my best impression. It worked out purrfectly.
Then we come to the cougar and the balancing rock scene. It was shot in two different locations. The actual field of “balancing rocks” is near the Metolius arm of Lake Billy Chinook and at the time was not on any maps in order to protect it. We were very lucky to be allowed to film there. The scene of the cougar being launched off the cliff and into the Deschutes was filmed on private land near Terrebonne. We actually filmed the animals on the edge of the cliff with a teeter-totter rock that was built by construction. The wide shots of the cougar taking the plunge required hiking three cameras below to the riverside. To make sure we were all on the same page, and so we could be clear on the path of the cougar, I built two practice dummies and since it was a Disney film I dressed them appropriately.
We rehearsed with the dummies to get all the kinks out. Once we were absolutely ready the stuffed cougar was thrown off the cliff by yours-truly. Both dummies and the stuffed cougar were retrieved from the rather calm Deschutes down below.
Memorialization of “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” (among many others) is in the works for two new Oregon Film Trail signs to be installed at Wallowa Lake and Joseph.
Thank you, Bruce, for sharing memories of working on this #OregonMade family classic.
If you have memories of working on a production in Oregon that you would like to share, please email us.