Rex appeal

The Aussies bring dinosaurs back to life.

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Fall Preview 2007
A T. Rex and her charge

Photo courtesy of Walking with
Dinosaurs: the Live Experience

The closest most of us will get to Jurassic Park–style prehistoric wonders involves a visit to the American Museum of Natural History—and even then it’s just to gawk at the naked remains of some unfortunate leviathan from the Cretaceous period. Folks looking for a more Flintstones-like reality are in luck this fall, though, when Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience lumbers into Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena.

Based on the hugely popular BBC series of the same name, the ambitious animatronic show broke box office records when it premiered last year in Australia. And it’s clear why: This thing is part science exhibit, part Disney/MGM. The TV documentary’s dry, narrative voiceover has been replaced with Huxley, an Indiana Jones–esque character who introduces audiences to 15 stunningly realistic dinosaurs, including a 50-foot foliage-nibbling brachiosaur and a T. Rex that measures 75 feet from snout to tail. As the 90-minute drama unfolds—and you watch, confined to your seat (damn)—Huxley chronicles the dinos’ evolution and ultimate extinction.

According to Dinosaurs’ Melbourne-based creator Bruce Mactaggart, the biggest challenge facing his 50-person creative team was making the creatures lifelike. “We knew we had to solve certain issues if we wanted to pull this off,” says Mactaggart. “How do you get them to respond to stimuli? How do you make sure their movements appear fluid?”

The solution, he says, was to use three different operators to coordinate the motions of the largest dinosaurs. One person sits in a hidden carriage in the creature’s base, guiding its path around the arena floor, while two others control the animal’s major movements (walking, wagging) and fine articulation (blinking, roaring) from offstage. For that, they use a remote-control “voodoo rig,” a mechanical arm similar to a joystick. The smaller characters—including a carnivorous Utahraptor and baby T. Rex—are portrayed by puppeteers working inside giant, mobile armature. To land the part, performers underwent rigorous endurance tests to ensure they wouldn’t collapse under 75-pound costumes loaded with sensitive electronics.

Fall Preview 2007
A brachiosaur family

Photo courtesy of Walking with Dinosaurs: the Live Experience

Although the puppeteers are somewhat visible beneath their polymer shells—fashioned from six miles of hand-painted spandex skin—Dinosaurs director Scott Faris says the beauty and overall realism of the show outweighs any concerns about ruining the illusion. “There are certain techniques in puppetry where you do see the operator, but because the creatures are so compelling, you realize you’re not looking at the legs, you’re looking at the creature.”

For Faris, who has directed productions of Chicago, Les Misérables and Cats, the main creative challenge was translating a fact-driven documentary into an engaging live experience. “I’m from the theater; the entire design team is from the theater. The music is scored by a film composer,” he explains. “We wanted to build a show where the audience meets a cast of characters and is pulled along on their journey.”

But Mactaggart says the emphasis on theatricality hasn’t detracted from Dinosaurs’ scientific precision: “The sizes of the dinosaurs are absolutely accurate—based on paleontologists’ best estimates. They’re neither made bigger to be a spectacle, nor are they made smaller.”

Mactaggart says he was motivated by the notion that most live entertainment isn’t stimulating enough to tear kids away from their Xboxes (sorry, Disney on Ice), and by his observation that arenas rarely take advantage of their vast dimensions (Fergie can’t work a giant space quite like a 30-foot stegosaurus can). When it came time to choose a subject, it was the universal appeal of dinosaurs that inspired him to approach the BBC.

“There is not a country or a culture in the world where dinosaurs don’t fascinate people,” says Mactaggart. Faris echoes this sentiment, and thinks the beasts’ enduring appeal lies in their fantastic appearance. “They’re a little bit like dragons or monsters from some kind of fantasy or science fiction nightmare, and yet we know they lived,” he says. “The fact that something so amazing lived on this earth is awe-inspiring.”

Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience is at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, NJ, Oct 3–6. For more information, see dinosaurlive.com.

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