High-Tech Dinosaurs, Coming to an Arena Near You

A traveling troupe of life-size dinosaurs tour the United States

PHOTO: Joan Marcus/Global Creatures

BABY STEPS

The show’s only human character, a paleontologist-cum-narrator, looks on as a mother T. rex protects her young in a scene from Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience.

As far as my two Jurassic Park fanatics are concerned, dinosaurs are a current fact. It’s just a matter of time until Coby, 6, pulls his own lab together to create his own raptor. Sam, 3, pleads for him to stick to ”plant eaters.”

So from the kid point of view, seeing 15 life-size dinosaurs fill New York City’s Madison Square Garden wasn’t very different from watching the New York Knicks come running out of the locker room. It was Mom whose breath was taken away by Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience , a show that began touring the United States this past spring and is slated to travel throughout North America for the rest of 2009.

Billed as the world’s largest puppet show, Walking With Dinosaurs is an electrical and mechanical engineering marvel. True, some of the smaller dinosaurs are powered by a puppeteer wearing his creature’s suit, and an Ornithocheirus with a wingspan of 12 meters flies overhead. But two brachiosaurs, an adult Tyrannosaurus rex , and seven other enormous creatures, as heavy as 1400 kilograms, are driven by car-size sleds. An essential sense of scale—the sole reminder of just how massive these creatures are (excuse me, were)—is provided by a lone human actor playing a paleontologist master of ceremonies.

A team of humans--some onstage, some off--control the largest dinosaurs. An engineer drives each sled and is also responsible for watching all dino systems, including a tangle of hydraulics run on 10- and 12-volt dc engines powered by up to 12 truck batteries. Once the dinosaurs are onstage, their legs are controlled by microprocessors that run preset walking sequences and also control how the dinosaurs bob up and down as they walk. Facial expressions and smaller movements are controlled remotely by puppeteers radio-linked to their characters from a platform set up in the audience. Unbeknownst to the audience, these dinosaurs, framed in steel and covered in latex, are also inflated by continuously running fans.

Even jaded New Yorkers collectively aww -ed when the daddy brachiosaur gave his baby a neck snuggle. We cheered when the mom T. rex saved her baby from a hungry group of raptors. And much to Sam’s relief (and Coby’s outright dismay), nobody actually got eaten.

This is mechanical life imitating computer life imitating biological life, says Tim Haines, producer of the television documentary Walking With Dinosaurs , which inspired the live show. Haines came from Australia, where the show originated in 2007, to Madison Square Garden with his wife and five children to gape and gasp with the rest of us. He says that Jurassic Park --the movie that convinced my kids that dinosaurs exist now--did indeed change the state of the art in dinosaur representations. Television, Haines says, had to follow, leading eventually to the ”live” dinosaurs that pounded the arena floor.

One mechanical decision in particular contributed to the sense that these creatures were indeed alive. Because large hydraulic mechanisms tend to bounce back with force when they are stopped—making evident the steel structures inside—the show’s designers let the uncontrollable be, well, uncontrolled. For example, a head may be turned to the right with an initial thrust, but then the head is left to drift in that direction. The final stopping point may be inexact, but there is no shake.

The entire show was designed and built in less than a year, in the process giving birth to the Creature Technology Company, in Melbourne. These dinosaurs were like nothing else its designers had ever built, says chief engineer Trevor Tighe. The state of the art in animatronics is usually focused on a few bits of an alien or monster for closeâ''ups. The rest is usually generated by computer. When a whole creature is built, it is rarely larger than your average dog.

Working on such a spectacular scale has led to a few spectacular failures. ”We had a T. rex head collapse in the first few weeks in Sydney,” Tighe says. Although there have been other embarrassing moments on stage, ”nobody asks for their money back,” he says.

To Probe Further

New performances are booked regularly; check http://www.dinosaurlive.com.

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