Backed by the BBC, dinosaurs stomp through town

click to enlarge With $20 million to spend, Sonny Tilders and Bruce - Mactaggart packed some serious bite into their dinos.
  • With $20 million to spend, Sonny Tilders and Bruce Mactaggart packed some serious bite into their dinos.

A baby Tyrannosaurus Rex flirts with a small audience of local press, snapping his jaws at a cell phone about to take its picture. The dinosaur stands over 6 feet tall, and moves with reptilian precision.

He was introduced to the crowd by a World Arena press agent and, now, as he prowls about, the legs of the actor inside of the suit are barely visible. Still, the crowd retreats some even shriek as the dinosaur lunges, bares its teeth and roars.

This was just a press event in November at the World Arena. The actual show, Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience, which comes to the World Arena this week, features that same baby T-Rex and 14 dino buddies.

They were created by Sonny Tilders, kind of a big deal in animatronics, with movies like The Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan to his name.

The show he's now created is a big deal, too, and in the most literal sense: The mama T-Rex stands over 20 feet tall, and the Brachiosaurus over 30 feet.

The result: a theater production based on the creatures, in which a narrator donning faux-safari garb introduces the dinosaurs and provides facts about each animal. But with 15 life-size dinos roaming about the arena floor, who cares about plot?

The creation

Bruce Mactaggart doesn't. Well, not really. He heads Immersion Edutainment, the company touring the show. He says his main aim is to fill an entire arena and provide educational entertainment for both children and adults. And he got inspired by the BBC series, also titled Walking with Dinosaurs.

"I'd seen the BBC documentary and thought the appeal of dinosaurs was universal," Mactaggart says over the phone from his home in Melbourne, Australia.

He knew that getting life-size dinosaurs was key. The BBC agreed to support him but only if the dinosaurs could look as authentic as they had on the series.

Now, what works on the big screen doesn't necessarily translate to live theater. The BBC series, after all, used state-of-the-art CGI technology, which doesn't translate in three-dimensional theater space. Other forms of three-dimensional movie dinosaurs couldn't work, either.

"If you look at a movie like Jurassic Park," Mactaggart says, "for every couple of minutes of action on screen, it takes six to eight hours of filming."

Worse: Those Jurassic Park dinos were animatronics models moved on tracks, like trains not exactly life-like.

Without dinosaur DNA preserved in amber, Mactaggart would have to come up with a new way. His answer came when he found Tilders, then the lead animatronics engineer on Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith.

Aside from his film experience, Tilders also had some serious stage cred to his name. He'd made the puppets for the stage performances of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit. Mactaggart is quick to praise Tilders for bringing his vision to life.

click to enlarge b1f3_stagebreak-26329.jpeg

"Our dinosaurs move freely around the arena floor and are able to act," Mactaggart says, "in a similar manner to a human actor."

Then, there was life

But working on a theatrical performance of this scale proved a challenge even for the man who helped bring back the Wookiees.

"We only had nine or 10 months," Tilders says. "These are things no one had ever made before. There was a lot of head-scratching and crying."

Getting the dinosaurs to move realistically took a sort of voodoo specifically, Voodoo rigs. Each life-size dinosaur is actually a large puppet, manipulated via radio remote-control link. Instead of a small joystick, as on a remote-control car, each operator controls a dino's movement by manipulating a miniature version of the dinosaur.

And he's not alone; that main operator is joined by a second Voodoo operator, who controls the dinosaur's sounds as well as finer motor skills (like eyes blinking, nostrils flaring and mouth gaping). Add a driver, too, who sits in a small chassis below each of the nine larger dinos, and you've got a three-person operation moving each of the bigger beasts.

The smaller ones are controlled entirely by a puppeteer/actor inside the costume, just like the baby T-Rex at the November press conference.

Tilders downplays any amazement at the technology.

"Voodoo rigs have been around for quite a while," he says. "That's not revolutionary. [But] it's never been used in a theatrical context before."

A storied history

While big movies like Star Wars might look good on a rsum, Tilders says he gained most of his experience from the Jim Henson/Sci-Fi Channel co-production Farscape. On that show, he headed a team of puppet wizards and engineers to create voice-activated creatures with distinct facial expressions.

Thanks to CGI, those skills are becoming obsolete. In fact, while working on Star Wars, Tilders saw many of his creations end up on the cutting-room floor.

"[Filmmaking] is an industry," he says, "where it's easy to get jaded."

While Walking with Dinosaurs isn't quite a film, the production doesn't fall short on budget, exposure or scope. The project, which has traveled North America for two years now, has cost $20 million and uses 27 semi tractor trailers in an effort to cover 200 million years of dinosaur evolution.

Mactaggart and Tilders swear that their Walking with Dinosaurs show is worth every penny spent and drop of sweat lost.

"We're dealing in three dimensions," Tilders says. "It's a tactile experience. It's really refreshing to see something as bold as this done for the stage."


Walking with Dinosaurs:
The Live Experience

World Arena, 3185 Venetucci Blvd.
Wednesday-Friday, Jan. 23-25, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 26,
11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.;
Sunday, Jan. 27, 1 and 5 p.m.
Tickets: $32-$65; visit
ticketswest.com or call 576-2626.

  • Sonny Tilders has created a big show, and in the most literal sense.



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