Real pigs steal the scene in ''Babe'' -- Movies trying to use actual animals over animatronics

A mid a summer-movie menagerie that includes starring roles for elephants (Operation Dumbo Drop), gorillas (Congo), whales (Free Willy 2), and pandas (The Amazing Panda Adventure), a baby porker named Babe has just stolen the spotlight.

The 47 Babes, that is.

Babe — which recently opened across the country to ecstatic reviews and an impressive $8.7 million first weekend — is a sort of Animal Farm-the-way-it-oughta-be comic fable in which an unprejudiced piglet brings together all the previously species-centric animals on the surreally storybook Hoggett farm and wins a chance to become a sheepdog. In contrast to the more obviously thrilling animal adventures on display this summer, the on-screen derring-do in Babe involves the eponymous swine’s theft of an alarm clock — with a duck as an accomplice — and a pig beating out all the canines in the climactic sheepdog competition.

The real feats surrounding the $25 million film had more to do with almost a year and a half of intense preproduction work, which required, well, a lot of reproduction work. Says George Miller, the Australian doctor who directed the Mad Max/Road Warrior trilogy and who produced Babe and cowrote the screenplay with his handpicked novice feature director, Chris Noonan: ”We thought up the worst-case scenarios and doubled them. So I think we were prepared.”

Because pigs are bred to grow very large very rapidly, the production team could use each Large White Yorkshire (a purebred was necessary because its physical attributes could be predicted) only during a three-week window for actual shooting. So every three weeks, 6 pigs were bred — resulting in 48 pigs, 46 of which saw at least a few seconds of screen time. All of them had to be rigorously indoctrinated by animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller (no relation) during the five-month shoot.

”There was,” Miller admits reluctantly, ”one animatronic pig”; it was used for shots in which 15 to 20 feet extended around the pig in all directions, leaving no place for the trainer to hide, and for reverse shots, in which you see the pig talking to another animal and the point of view is over the pig’s shoulder. When possible, the actual movement of the pigs’ mouths was computer enhanced; at other times, the animatronic pig was manipulated to mouth words.

Although the movie keeps Babe’s gender deliberately unspecified, because of all the ground-level, from-behind shooting that needed to be done, only female pigs were used. (The private parts of the male pigs proved to be a little too, well, visible.) Pigs were filmed when they were between 16 and 18 weeks of age and 18 inches tall.

When Karl Miller was approached by the Babe team, he happened to be in possession of some hot porcine footage taken from videos shot in the mid-’80s during pig-training sessions; he convinced the producers that with enough time and effort, nature could more often than not produce screen-worthy results. Miller and his 59 assistants trained 970 animals (pigs, dogs, cats, sheep, horses, cows, goats, ducks, mice, and pigeons), of which 500 eventually appeared on screen. Many of the smaller critters were hand raised from infancy, especially the pigs. ”I don’t know if I’d call the pigs affectionate, but in some ways, they are a quicker study than dogs,” he says. ”Pigs do everything in a very mechanical way — there’s not much emotion behind it. But they do like to be scratched behind the ear or on their bellies.” A helping of commercial-brand dog food was the pigs’ reward.