Puppetry of the Prehistoric

by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & on't those life-size, prowling, growling dinosaurs at Spokane Arena (July 18-22) scare the kiddies? "As much as the children want to be scared," laughs Australia's Sonny Tilders, creator of the animatronic dino extravaganza. Some kids have needed coaxing to come back after Act One, he says, "but we've also seen 3-year-olds standing up on their seats and trying to embrace the T. rex, which is absolutely fearsome. It walks right up to the audience and roars ... and gets the hairs standing up on your back. But the kids absolutely lap it up."

As "Walking With Dinosaurs -- The Live Experience" begins a projected two-year tour of the United States, Spokane is the second stop (after Tacoma). The show -- part documentary and part theater -- stars a cast of fully mobile, life-size animatronic dinosaurs that interact, roar and even fight.

"In this 90-minute show, 15 dinosaurs, snarling and sweaty, mesmerize the audience and are as terrifying as they were in life," writes director Scott Faris. "This is a show that could only fit in arenas, as the creatures are absolutely immense in size. It is the closest you'll ever get to experiencing what it was like when they walked and ruled the earth."

Based on the hugely popular BBC television series of the same name, the "Live Experience" show debuted in Sydney, Australia, playing for 10 weeks to sold-out audiences of more than 300,000 in five cities. It chronicles the 200-million-year evolution of the dinosaurs, culminating in their supposedly catastrophic extinction.

"Since the dinosaurs are what everyone has come to see," writes one reviewer for Variety, "it's a relief to report that they are stunning, life-size and faultlessly nimble." Tilders, their creator, is an expert in animatronic puppetry, having worked on such movies as Star Wars: Episode III, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and on the Farscape television series, among others. Tilders led a team of about 60 engineers and fabricators in the design and creation of the dinosaurs. With the monstrous Brachiosaurus measuring 45 feet tall and 75 feet in length, the project needed to be completed in an aircraft hanger large enough for a 747.

"Without a doubt, it's the biggest project I've done," Tilders says. Unlike TV and film production, he says, where high-tech puppetry is increasingly replaced by computer-generated imagery (CGI), "This show is all about the critters -- our stars that we've made. There's no editing anything out, and it's played every night in front of a live audience." He boasts that his team has "lifted the bar" on any previous display of mechanized dinosaurs. "These guys walk around the auditorium, totally independent of any cabling or grounding," he says, "and do an amazing job of convincing people, for a fleeting moment, that they're alive again."

Specialists operate some of the smaller dinosaurs from within, but the larger ones are hydraulically activated units operated by hand-held "voodoo rigs." These radio-control units do not physically look like dinosaurs, but replicate points of movement. "The beauty of the voodoo rig," Tilders says, "is that one person, by gripping one rig, can effectively operate about 20 different activities of movement." Previous technology would require a team of operators -- with controls much like hobbyists use with toy aircraft and cars -- working in concert, each responsible for a certain, limited range of movement. "It's become a very intuitive form of puppeteering," Tilders says. "Literally, by moving the miniature version in one direction, the big one does it. The technology makes puppeteering much, much easier, and the results are borne out in the show."

Tilders' research began with the BBC documentary, for which digital models of most of the cast were computed for the CGI element of the TV program -- "a visual essay of how they might look," Tilders says. The next step was sculpting miniatures at 1/10 scale and using technology similar to computer tomography (CT) scanning to analyze individual sections and blow them up into full-scale production. "Muscle bags" made from mesh fabric and filled with polystyrene balls are stretched over points of movement to replicate the look of muscle, fat and skin on real creatures. Sounds and roars emit from within the dinosaurs.

"If you're a rich man, you could have one," Tilders says, hedging around the question of how much his creatures are worth, "though you might not be able to afford the maintenance to keep them going." Cost estimates are also complicated by a large research and development budget for technologies specially developed for this show, he adds.

"Borrowing from the history of puppetry, we ask the audience to forgive a few things," Tilders says concerning the small, stabilizing sleds under the larger dinosaurs. "In [Japanese] Bunraku puppetry, you'll see a performer three or four times the size of the puppet on stage, dressed in black. The theory is that if you can get that puppet working as beautifully as possible you'll soon ignore the performer on stage and focus on the creatures."

Intended in part to be educational as well as entertaining, the show is narrated by a paleontologist in a safari suit, and nothing less than the history of the earth is played out, complete with continents splitting, volcanoes erupting and oceans forming. Set design and image projection is the work of Peter England, and the original music score is by James Brett. Tim Haines, creator and producer of the Emmy Award-winning TV series, served as project consultant throughout the development of the stage show.

"Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience" on Wednesday-Friday, July 18-20, at 7 pm; Saturday July 21, at 3 pm and 7 pm; and Sunday, July 22, at 1 pm. Tickets: $25-$100. Spokane Arena, Boone Ave. and Howard St. Call: 325-SEAT.

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Through Jan. 2, 2022, 5-9 p.m.
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