Illinois Veterinarian Provides Horses to Hollywood
For nearly 40 years, an Illinois company has provided equine props and rentals for numerous film projects, from major motion pictures to documentaries and television miniseries productions.
In fact, if you know where to look, you can find Central Illinois veterinarian Dr. Karl Luthin driving a horse-drawn carriage in the movie “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day Lewis. His company, KEL Equine Productions, provided all of the rolling stock, or wheeled vehicles, for the production, including supply wagons and artillery, as well as the drivers for carriages with teams of horses.
“The sequence where Daniel Day Lewis rides the horse through the battlefield toward the end of the movie is one of our horses,” Luthin says.
The business began in 1979 when Luthin ran a very large Civil War re-enactment group. The knowledge of appropriate uniforms and equipment for the time period made the group a natural fit to provide cavalry for movies that featured scenes from the Civil War. From the 1980 Columbia Pictures miniseries “The Blue and The Gray” to big-budget productions such as “North and South (Parts 1 and 2)” and “Far and Away,” the company grew and continued to make contacts in the industry.
“The standard line in Hollywood – the standard line in Illinois – is ‘production doesn’t know what it wants until you show it to them,’ ” says Luthin. “They have a general idea, but when you are looking for a project in a specific time period, you have to have very specific equipment and props. We are involved in the technical aspects of that.”
Luthin says they also changed the way of doing business in the props world, offering set dresses and equipment, as well as props and even people, from one provider. Prior to that time, movie wranglers rented wagons, carriages and buggies from several different entities, and wrote separate checks for each. His company also offered a buyout option in which producers can pay a flat fee to use props and equipment during the run of the show, eliminating the need to inventory items and their use each day.
The burgeoning business took off in 1996 when a major movie wrangler went out of business and KEL Equine Productions acquired a number of its props. While Luthin does make occasional movie appearances, he spends a fair amount of time as a technical advisor behind the camera.
The company has contributed to nearly 150 productions, and Luthin has worked on about 60 of them personally. The notable list includes “Rambo III” (1988), “Glory” (1989), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1991), “Cold Mountain” (2002), “The Last Samurai” (2002) and “The Alamo” (2003), in which Billy Bob Thornton appeared as Davy Crockett.
“He was Davy Crockett, and of course, we were basically the bad guys. But somebody’s got to be the bad guys,” Luthin says. “You can’t have the good guys if you don’t have the bad guys. So we do all of that.”
KEL Equine Productions also worked on several popular miniseries, such as TNT’s “Gettysburg (Killer Angels”) (1992), TNT’s “Rough Riders” miniseries (1996) and HBO’s “John Adams” (2007). Today, KEL Equine Productions has established itself as a leading provider for any movie depicting cavalry from the Napoleonic Wars through World War II.
“They will call up and say, ‘Karl, we are doing 1868 Comanche Wars. Send us the correct horse equipment for 1868.’ And we’ll send them the correct stuff for the time period,” Luthin says.
More recent productions include the filming of the fourth season of “Turn: Washington’s Spies” on AMC and “Mercy Street” on PBS, which Luthin describes as a “Civil War version of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The company also worked on three sequences in “Batman v Superman” and contributed to “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
Luthin celebrates his 50th year in full-time veterinary practice in 2018. He says these days he can spend more time with the prop business because his daughter, Kate Luthin, runs the vet clinic. While she has encouraged her father to begin scaling back his practice and limiting his veterinary calls, Luthin intends to keep working.
“Most of my colleagues retired years ago, and I tell them, ‘I like what I’m doing, I like my clientele. I will continue probably to practice until I die,’ ” he says. “It’s a workable system and a good part of it is because she is in practice with me.”