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These Little Piggies Take a Big Market

Australian 'Babe' director weighs in on the summer's sleeper

AUSTRALIAN film director Chris Noonan knows a thing or two about pigs.

''I know for sure they're intelligent enough to know what they don't want to do,'' he says in an interview.

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His porkbuster, ''Babe,'' is the surprise hit of Hollywood's summer season. He directed 48 porcine thespians who took turns playing the hero, a brave yet innocent pig who defies the barnyard order of things by trying to be a sheep dog.

''It's easy to get a pig to walk across the room and sit,'' Noonan says. ''But to walk across, sit, and look questioningly - that's a lot.''

Hollywood had doubts about bankrolling a film with dozens of pigs and a farmful of other ''talking'' animals. But Universal Studios backed the $25 million production, which has grossed $44 million just over a month into its American release.

''Most of the studios we approached liked the idea but thought there were just too many ways the film could get off the rails. Everyone knows how dangerous a film can be that gets out of control,'' he says.

In addition to unpredictable animal actors, ''Babe'' filmmakers used computer graphics and animatronics, or puppet doubles, to enhance the illusion of speech. ''I had to work out how to meld these different techniques together,'' Noonan says. ''Until we had raised the money, we didn't know it would work. Many other films had tried this and failed.

''If you use a full minute [of animatronics], an audience can tell it isn't real. But we thought that if you used five seconds of dialogue, worked into film footage, the eye might be deceived into believing it was a real animal,'' he says.

''We're counting on the audience to forgive our less-than-perfect moments, but felt our story was so compelling that people would want to,'' he adds.

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Noonan has been working on ''Babe'' since 1988, with a nine-month break to make another film. Australian producer George ''Mad Max'' Miller discovered British author Dick King-Smith's book ''The Sheep Pig'' on a trip to Britain and spent a year co-writing the script with Noonan.

The story is simple: A pig offered as a prize at a country fair is won by a taciturn farmer and then educated in the ways of the farm by a sheep dog. ''His ambition, naturally, becomes to be a sheep dog,'' Noonan says.

''Babe'' was shot in Australia over a period of five months. But before the first take, it took years to work out formidable technical problems and a training regime for the animals: ''No one had ever tried to bring all these ingredients together before,'' he says.

Piglets posed problems of their own. While black stallions and collies could be counted on to last through the whole shoot and even into a few promotional appearances afterward, pigs are bred to put on weight quickly. Hence, today's darling piglet is tomorrow's lumbering hog.

The solution: teams of look-alike piglets were trained from birth and phased into production as soon as they were old enough to take direction but still at a ''reasonably cute'' size. ''They were trained like Olympic athletes for their six weeks of glory,'' Noonan says.

The key to animal shots was finding a piece of body action that was right for each line of dialogue. The pigs worked in teams of six because the production needed a range of skills within each group. ''Pigs are all individual and have individual talents,'' Noonan says. ''There was always one pig in each group who really took to sitting. Others could hold a pose for five seconds. Still, the number of takes needed for many shots was enormous.

''I now believe that whatever you want to show on screen, you can,'' he adds. ''It was belief, faith that it could be done that drove us on. I just tried to keep thinking ahead for possible problems.''

The success of ''Babe'' is already changing Noonan's life. He has just returned from a trip to the US and now has to decide what to do with his almost-seaside home in the Sydney suburb of Coogee.

While being interviewed, Noonan receives a special delivery package at the back door. Inside is something unusual for the young director: a box of scripts from a major Hollywood studio.

''Until Babe, no one sent me scripts,'' says Noonan, as he hauls the box into the sunny kitchen. The cork bulletin board along one side of the kitchen wall is covered with pig mementos - notes and gifts from new fans.

Association with an American studio has given Noonan access to much larger budgets and markets than can be afforded in Australia, a country with a population of 17 million. But the Australian filmmaker has deep ties to his own country and serious reservations about a move to Hollywood.

''In making this film, we came under some pressure to make the voices acceptable to an American market. They wanted this to feel like an American film, but I don't think it quite does. It slips under their guard,'' he says.

''It's always a danger when a very powerful nation becomes insular,'' he adds. ''I have a sense that Hollywood is not working to expose itself to non-American influences. I have to ask myself, 'Can I remain in touch with what I believe in?' ''

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