Gregg Kilday
August 08, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Screen Actors Guild could be facing a new threat to its membership: Thanks to computer-generated tricks, four-legged actors — from the chatty barnyard crew in Babe to the dyspeptic pug in Men in Black — are routinely upstaging their two-legged competition. One of the biggest scene-stealers is Tai, a 27-year-old, female Indian elephant, whose credits include Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Operation Dumbo Drop, and Larger Than Life. In the current George of the Jungle, the live-action comedy based on the old Jay Ward cartoon, Tai gives her most challenging performance yet — as Shep, George’s pet pachyderm, who bounds like a dog, scratches fleas, and even munches on a giant Milk-Bone.

”Tai is an incredible animal, unbelievably calm and responsive,” says director Sam Weisman. ”She could literally hit a mark.” But she couldn’t impersonate a canine without the help of the digital artists at Dream Quest Images. According to Paul Jordan, who headed the movie’s 3-D visual-effects team: ”We had to figure out how to combine the physical limitations of an elephant with the spirit of a dog. Tai could get down into an amazing range of poses, but she does it slowly.”

To help pull off the script’s stupid pet tricks, the F/X team studied elephants and real dogs (Labradors proved the most expressive). For some shots, a houndish panting tongue, perky ears, and large expressive eyes were digitally grafted onto Tai’s mug. For more extensive physical stunts, such as when Shep skids to a stop, the tech whizzes created a completely computer-generated 3-D elephant. Now, if only there were a way to make some human actors seem more than one-dimensional…

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