When a pig gets a gig

When a pig gets a gig

Trainer Jo Fenney and Sassy, a seven-year-old pig who had a starring role in Charlotte's Web.

Trainer Jo Fenney and Sassy, a seven-year-old pig who had a starring role in Charlotte's Web.


IT'S a whole lot easier to train a pig than it is to train a dog - just ask Jo Fenney, the head pig trainer on the classic Australian film, Babe.


IT'S a whole lot easier to train a pig than it is to train a dog - just ask Jo Fenney, the head pig trainer on the classic Australian film, Babe.

The reason is very simple: "they have so much more of a motivation for food".

Being pigs, that's what you would expect, so a food reward-based training program worked wonders on the film.

It shows in the end result of Babe which was regarded at the time as a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking in terms of live action animal work and also animatronics.

Jo came to be involved as an animal trainer on the film while studying animal science at the Hawkesbury campus of the University of Western Sydney.

"There was a notice up on a wall asking for people who had animal experience to work on a new Australian film," she said.

Jo had always loved working with animals, so she applied and went along to the Kennedy Miller studios in Potts Point, Sydney, to meet the head animal trainer on Babe, Karl Lewis Miller.

Karl was a well-regarded American animal trainer who had worked on a wide range of films since the 1970s, including family favourite Beethoven and its sequels, (about a friendly St. Bernard who eats a lot and drools to match), and others such as Cujo (about a not-so-friendly, rabid St. Bernard who decides to wreck havoc on a small New England town).

He had also worked on the popular German television series about the crime-fighting German Shepherd, Inspector Rex.

In those first few days, Karl taught Jo the basics of conditioned response training and positive reinforcement using their first batch of three piglets.

One method of this training was to place the piglets on a table, where there were fewer distractions and which prevented them from running away.

"The first step was to encourage them to show interest in an object, such as a brick, so they could be trained to look in a particular direction or at a person or animal. This was achieved through a reward system."

This initial training period with Karl in Sydney escalated when Jo was asked to step in as the head pig trainer on Babe.

"They had initially brought out a head of pig department from America, but the head of the dog department had to leave unexpectedly, so she had to step in to take care of that. So then they asked me to step in as the head pig trainer."

The new role took her on location to the Southern Highlands town of Robertson ? chosen for its rolling green hills and dry stone walls which could place the film's setting in a kind of fantasy England or America or anywhere ? and also to Fox Studios in Sydney, where they set up piglet training operations in the old sheep pavilion at Moore Park.

Throughout pre-production, filming, and post production, ultimately a two year period, Jo had to supervise and train more than 100 piglets and their own trainers.

"We would have six pigs in each group, and a new group would come through every three weeks," she said.

"We had to keep rotating them because they would get too big and fat and we couldn't let Babe become too big."

The pigs were all Large Whites, selected for their appearance, and came from a farm at Ariah Park.

"They were taught to do everything from sitting, lying down, standing on a mark, retrieving to hand or to a mark, retrieve and hold, follow and explore, and of course, work alongside other animals."

Jo's role as an animal trainer on Babe and other films has also required her to work closely with actors, including James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski (as Farmer and Mrs Hoggett) on Babe and Dakota Fanning on Charlotte's Web.

While the piglets' intelligence - and, it must be said, greed - were significant assets in the food reward-based training, that's not to say there weren't any challenges for Jo while working on Babe.

"It was always a challenge to understand exactly what was required of you on the film.

"The filmmakers wanted the animals to have human qualities, so it was always a challenge to try and elicit that.

"And also with the amount of food they had through rewards it was hard keeping all the pigs small."

Not only was the filming of Babe considered groundbreaking, but the training of the animals themselves was as well.

"A pig had never been trained to lie down before," she said.

"It took us about four or five days to eventually train a pig to lie down."

One of the most memorable moments from the film, when Babe sings a Christmas carol, actually came about by pure chance.

This particular pig started moving its mouth, as if trying to speak, which they will do when they are unsure about what they are required to do.

The filmmakers decided to literally put words into this pig's mouth, so Babe would sing "la la la" along to the tune of "Jingle Bells".

"That's the moment people remember from the film," she said.


From the front page

Sponsored by