With the Disney+ reality series Pick of the Litter, Dana Nachman followed six adorable dogs on their journey to become guide dogs for the blind, aiming to spotlight the vital role these pups play in so many human lives, the rigorous process they must go through to fulfill their purpose, as well as the experience of the visually impaired.
Developing the series with her longtime creative partner Don Hardy, Nachman had been exploring the stories of guide dogs for over 10 years, prior to making it—first, as a Bay Area journalist for NBC. “[Don and I] had done several stories on guide dogs. We had been to one of their graduations, which is always super emotional and amazing,” the director/EP says, “and then we had one time talked about, around Christmas time, people getting puppies to raise, and just did numerous feature stories on guide dogs.”
Around the same time, Nachman’s mother—a journalist for the Gannett newspapers in New York—had incidentally done her own series of stories on a guide dog organization, following a litter of puppies from birth through their professional placement. “It was such an amazing series that she had done, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a great newspaper series, but it would be a much, much better film, with all the cuteness and amazing parts of raising guide dogs,’” Nachman recalls. “So, that was always in the back of our minds.”
Subsequently, Nachman garnered critical acclaim with the film Batkid Begins, telling the story of a five-year-old cancer patient who took the world by storm—and after making “three very difficult films about chemicals that were killing us, and terrorism, and wrongful conviction,” the director was looking for a continued change of pace. “I realized it was so much more fun, beginning to end, to work on something that a whole family could watch,” she says, “that was uplifting and inspiring, and focused on resiliency in people.”
This revelation led to Pick of the Litter, the critically acclaimed 2018 documentary on which her subsequent TV series was based. While developing the film, Nachman and Hardy reached out to four or five different guide dog organizations based in Northern California, in search of a focal point for the story, landing ultimately on Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California. The pair followed this organization’s aspiring guide dogs for two years—and it was this same organization that would prove essential to the making of the series.
In her initial conception of Pick of the Litter, Nachman felt the material at hand could make for an interesting series. “But given that we had never done a series before, and this was our fifth feature film, we thought, ‘Let’s just stick with what we know,’” the director says. “And then, as the film was about to come out through IFC and Hulu, we got a call.”
The call in question came from the team behind Disney+, who were interested in developing the series version of Nachman and Hardy’s film. And while Disney+ couldn’t be a more perfect platform for the kind of storytelling at hand, certain logistical challenges immediately presented themselves, as the project took off. “The trick of this was, when we started talking to Disney+, they said, ‘We’re really excited about this, but we need to have the [series] done for July.’ It took us two years to film the film, from birth until they got matched, so that’s a 20 to 24 month process,” the filmmaker shares. “So, we’re like, ‘That’s great, but we can’t do it that way.’”
In putting the series together, then, Nachman and Hardy had to come up with a different kind of concept. To complete it within a more compressed time frame, the pair elected to hone in on a particularly dramatic chapter of the guide dog hopefuls’ journeys, rather than following them from birth. “The focus of the series was more their training, which is like a two-ish month process,” Nachman notes, “and that made it much more doable for us.”
In making both versions of Pick of the Litter, one critical concern presented itself to the filmmakers, that being the essential unpredictability of animals. On the film, “[Guide Dogs for the Blind] told us early on, ‘You could think this dog is the best dog in the world, and they’re not going to make it. They’re going to get cut one day very quickly, for a reason you couldn’t ever foresee,’” Nachman explains. “So, I think that’s kind of what makes this interesting, whether it be a film or a series, is that you just don’t know what’s going to happen, and it could turn on a dime for a faulty elbow, or a cataract, or some random thing.”
While making the film, the question for Nachman was, “What if none of these dogs make it? What if they all flame out?” she shares. “That film isn’t going to be very good, right?” Then, in production on the series, Nachman and Hardy almost had the opposite problem. “We’re like, ‘Don’t give us every A+ student dog,’” she says. “We need to have some diversity in the dogs that we get.”
Shooting the series over the course of 100 or 120 days, Nachman and Hardy wound up with around 500 hours of footage, choosing to follow a few extra dogs, to account for the unpredictability of guide dog selection, and wind up with a satisfying viewer experience. “We started with eight dogs, just so we had a little wiggle room, in case they all made it,” Nachman says. “But we actually had to let go of two dogs, and focused only on the six.”
And while the “pins-and-needles” anxiety over canine unpredictability was certainly at top of mind throughout production, other challenges presented themselves, as well, with the recognition that the guide dogs featured were working toward “a much bigger purpose” than making good TV. “Obviously, they are providing people with this mobility that they otherwise wouldn’t have, the visually impaired and blind people. And that’s much more important than our show,” Nachman says. “So, it’s very important that we don’t get in the way of them training.”
To avoid creating too much distraction, Hardy asked all of his DPs to approach their camerawork in a particular way. “He taught all the cinematographers on the series how to use our little cameras on a gimbal, on a monopod where you could go high, you could go low, and you can get wide shots fluidly throughout, no matter where you were on the street,” Nachman shares. “We stayed across the street sometimes—more so in the series—because on the film, Don and I were the only two crew members.”
While this approach was certainly appreciated by the team at Guide Dogs for the Blind, what was interesting was that most any disturbance that was created by the camera team’s presence ultimately was in the best interest of the dogs, as they went about their training. “The way Guide Dogs positioned this was that these dogs have to be prepared for anything. If there’s a big, loud noise that goes on in the street, like a construction crew, or if their person is an actor, and has paparazzi around them all the time, they need to be unflappable, really. So, they just looked at us as another one of those distractions,” Nachman says. “They were pretty great about letting us get pretty close, but especially when they were testing, because the dogs really felt it when they were being tested, and sometimes they were nervous, I know it sounds silly, but we didn’t want to create any more stress about a situation. Because I think dogs feel what their handlers feel.
“So, if the trainers were stressed about this test, it went through to the dog,” the director/EP adds, “and then if we were worried about the test, meaning that we had to get those scenes, the dogs would also feel that.”
On Pick of the Litter, as with any of Nachman’s projects, the highlight for the filmmaker was the people she got to meet along the way. “To get to be close with the visually impaired people who ended up with the dogs was my favorite part, because a lot of the film was [prior to] that situation, right? It really feels like a privilege to know people like them, who I wouldn’t ordinarily know,” she says. “Hanging out with dogs every day is not bad either, but it’s the people that really drew me to it.”
For the filmmaker, there were a few key takeaways from making the series for Disney+. “Something that struck me pretty early on in making this, which hadn’t even occurred to me, was that when we see a blind person walking down the street, if they have a cane, you step way out of the way, right? Because you don’t want to be in their way. But [that’s very] isolating for them. There’s something about the cane and being blind that they’re isolated to some extent,” she says. “The fact that I got the opportunity to become friends with these people, because I was put in this position, I realized how much I was missing out on. So, I think it gave me this new appreciation for how hard we, as sighted people, have to work to get to know visually impaired people.”
When Nachman got the opportunity to go on a blindfolded walk with one of the dogs from the series—as trainers at Guide Dogs for the Blind themselves would do, during the testing process—she gained a new understanding, not only of the experience of the visually impaired, but also of the extent to which guide dogs can open up their world. “Oh my God, I hobbled down the street. You would not believe how slow I was walking. I might’ve been cheating a little bit by looking at my feet, through the blindfold, but I was so petrified, to put my trust in the dogs who I had now known for two years. It was my favorite dog in the film, and from then on, I really couldn’t get over how amazingly strong the people who use guide dogs are,” she says. “It’s this total collaborative team effort between them and [the dog] that they each are putting in—especially the person, putting their trust in this dog—and I think that’s something that I would have a very hard time doing.”
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