Animatronics Trump CGI on a prehistoric Punch and Judy Show
Interviewing Sonny Tilders, creature creator for Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience, it is tempting to ask what the dinosaurs eat and where they sleep when they are on the road. From the knees up, the creatures are eerily lifelike; they blink and appear to look at the audience, and the muscles slide under the skin as they move around the arena.
The touring show, based on the BBC series, Walking With Dinosaurs, features a cast of 15 giant beasts representing 10 species and a human “paleontologist” who leads the audience through several evolutionary eras of dinosaurs, describing the changes taking place on Earth.
Some of the larger dinosaurs, such as the brachiosaurs and T-Rex, move around the stage on tiny electric vehicles powered by 20 12V car batteries and driven by a team of three puppeteers. Smaller dinosaurs, like the liliensternus and baby T-Rex, are “suit” dinosaurs, with a puppeteer wearing the dinosaur on a harness based around a Steadicam system, and operating the head, eyes, and sounds from the inside.
Tilders, founder and creative director of The Creature Technology Company in Melbourne, Australia, is a veteran of such movies as Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith, Peter Pan, and TV shows including Farscape. He finds the main difference between creating creatures for film and for a live audience is that theatre requires them to look real from every angle, and during every action, rather than just for a specific camera angle. The approach is the same, whether it's an alien or a dinosaur, he says. You have to use your observational skills to see what looks natural and how it should perform.
The creatures' movements are partly based on the dinosaurs in the BBC TV series and partly on Tilder's and his design team's observations of live elephants at the Melbourne Zoo. Although the team studied the most recent dinosaur research, the authenticity they are striving for is that of any multi-ton animal, because as Tim Haines, one of the BBC producers, suggested, they could have put tutus on the beasts, and no one could prove them wrong.
The dinosaurs began life as 1/20-scale maquettes made by key sculptor Belinda Villani. When the designers were happy with how they looked, they were scanned with a 3D scanner to get a virtual model. “We had to rationalize them into about 25 axes of motion,” says Tilders. For example, neck and tail sections have vertebrae in sections to give them motion but fewer than a real animal would have. Although the creatures are designed to be as light as possible, the steel skeleton and hydraulic motors add up, making the largest dinosaurs weigh in between one-and-a-half and two tons. To balance the creatures, the tallest of which is around 45,' the vehicles moving them rest on a T-shaped counterbalance. Large joint movements are driven by hydraulics, while smaller movements, such as head tilts, are driven by servos, such as those found in remote control toys. An air compressor powered by the car batteries pressurizes the oil distributed to the cylinders in the hydraulic system, and the cylinders move at the command of the dinosaurs' brains, hidden in their stomachs.
To avoid the jerkiness of the industrial machines that more commonly use this technology, chief engineer Trevor Tighe — working with the head of the engineering department Peter Luscombe — developed a “sogginess” in the valves that lets the dinosaurs move more fluidly. The brain is radio-controlled from the front-of-house voodoo rig using software developed by the Creature Technology Company and AMATI Technology in Sydney. The customized circuit board onboard the dinosaur was designed not only to receive signals, but to recognize false ones and return signals to show that the message got through. “We don't want a two-ton creature doing its own thing,” says Tilders. So far, the creatures haven't started responding to air traffic control or cell phones, and the stage and puppet crews have had no problems using Motorola radios.
On the other side of the AMATI Technology User Interface is the voodoo rig, a miniature version of the dinosaur, but without skin or external features. Matthew McCoy, director of puppetry and another Farscape alum, calls it an organic performance system. “It's how puppets should operate: move the little head to move the big head. All the axes on the voodoo rig correspond with the dinosaur,” he says. The lead puppeteer manipulates the head and tail with each hand and uses a forearm sling to control the body. A secondary puppeteer operates the eyes that blink and move, the jaw, and a keyboard with sounds created specifically for each creature. The walk motion of the creatures is preprogrammed and depends on the speed of the vehicle supporting it. Currently, the dinosaurs walk about one-and-a-half meters per second, although the Creature Technology Company is working to speed them up. McCoy says, “If you go too slow, they look like they are doing the moonwalk,” but if they go too fast and stop abruptly, the kinetic energy has to go somewhere, and the creature risks being damaged.
To create the look of muscles, Tilders and his team used bags made out of netting and filled with polystyrene beads attached along limbs so they stretch and contract like muscles do, moving the skin above them. The skin preparation is a trade secret, but Tilders says it is handmade, and part of the process involves painting stretched Lycra®. Rainbow Sweeny is the head of skins for the production, and Philip Millar is head of sculptural fabrication. David Barker worked as head of the electronics department, and technical manager Graham Colley brought extensive theatre experience to the production.
Before coming to the US, the production toured Australia and had its share of teething problems. McCoy says, “It seems like every time we opened a shipping container, there was another broken dinosaur.” To avoid the damaging vibrations of a train, the creatures now travel in 26 specially adapted trucks, and because even extinct animals need a little tune up now and then, all their components are off-the-shelf and easily replaceable.
Overall, about 60 people worked on developing and building the dinosaurs, and the whole process, from the initial call to Tilders through to dress rehearsals, took 10 months, about the same as the gestation period of an elephant.
The production is touring arenas but is a theatrical experience rather than a monster truck rally. The dinosaurs walk around a set that can be bathed in color surrounded by flowers or harsh and barren with an ominously smoking volcano. Scenic and projection designer Peter England was tasked with evoking the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, millions of years apart. He says, “It was important to achieve a sense of growth and changing times,” and to do this, he used inflatables. Watching prehistoric forests of ferns and flowers grow up evokes the time-lapse photography familiar to all fans of nature programs and also makes huge scenic elements relatively easy to bring on stage and store away.
The designer has a degree in landscape architecture so had a solid base to work on creating appropriate foliage for the era, but he did additional research at London's Natural History Museum. “At the museum, there are horsetail ferns that look exactly like ours, but for some of the flowers, the nature of air expanding in the inflatables predicates a shape, so that informed the final look of some of the plants,” he says. Referencing the natural world was important to keep the dinosaurs in context, but the designer says, “I wanted the vegetation to offer a bit of fantasy to keep the whole thing theatrical for the kids so it wasn't too scary.” The giant flowers and ferns in eye-popping colors were made at the dinosaur workshop by Felipe Reynolds, and England put small groups of the inflatables on different dimmers so they would appear to grow spontaneously at different growth rates.
Most of the scenic elements were made in Australia. The dinosaurs enter the arena under a proscenium of giant teeth, built by Inflatable Event, set in gums built by Plumb, and they emerge from a black curtain made by Adelaide Festival Workshop that irises out for large creatures like the brachiosaurus and down into a small aperture for medium-sized ones like the utahraptors.
England filmed scenes projected behind a flying ornithocheirus from a helicopter flying over the rugged coastline of south Australia early one morning. One of the most beautiful scenes in the show, it shows a deserted Pangea. England says, “We shot in high def at 33 frames per second, a little bit slower than 24, because the bird is so big, and if it had the movement of the helicopter, it would have been a bit speedy. The increased framing rounds out the movement which fits in with the 36' wingspan.” The images were edited using Wings Platinum software by David McKinnon at CVP Events in Richmond, Australia, and the production uses three Christie Roadster S 20kW projectors.
Other scenic projections of Pangea and its vivid flora include original paintings by England, scanned into Adobe Photoshop and then printed out and repainted. England says, “They are not so abstract that no one knows what they are, but they have exaggerated colors and layering.”
England adds that, early on, there was some discussion about using the video screens for text giving scientific information about the dinosaurs and timelines, but he says, “We decided it was much more about creating the atmosphere of the whole show.”
The stage surface had to accommodate the weight of the dinosaurs and be reliably flat enough not to trip up the electric go-carts they ride. After running into problems with roll up surfaces, England turned to Tait Towers of Lititz, PA to provide heavy-duty interlocking vinyl sheets.
Lighting for the show was designed by John Rayment, a veteran of large-scale productions like the opening and closing ceremonies for the Sydney Olympic Games. Because the script had not been finalized when rehearsals began, Rayment was forced to start the design process without the creatures. “Initially, I was lighting the music score, as there was no stage action to respond to,” he says. The dinosaurs require large, empty, flat surfaces to move around in, and for Rayment, this meant he had to create a plausible scenography in light for a show that covered hundreds of millions of years, wildly differing climatic conditions, and a rather full emotional range, including a torosaurus battle and a mother T-Rex searching for her baby.
Rayment uses 119 Martin MAC 2000 Profiles, 31 Martin MAC 2000 Performance units, 72 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spots, and 32 High End Systems Turbo Cyberlight fixtures to create layers of light. “I had to light the entire volume of the performance and not just the surface, as our tallest creature is 45' high,” he says. To help layer the light, Rayment has fixtures in a vertically tiered arrangement in main truss pods, and he adds, “The extensive use of overlaid gobos with the focus varying constantly across fixture groups made for a dynamic stage volume.”
The rest of the equipment is distributed across perimeter trusses, a transverse truss, two cross vertical trusses on either side of the projection screen/entrance, and the scenic trucks. All truss is from Tomcat and TriLite, and all motors are CM. 5 Points Productions is the rigging company with Todd Mauger as head rigger working with rigger Robert Slepicka. Additional lighting for these areas includes 12 Vari-Lite VL1000 AS units, 74 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spots, 14 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® units, 45 Altman Lighting Zip Strips, four Altman Q-Lites, 16 ETC Source Four PARs, 24 Martin Atomic 3000 strobes, five Hungaroflash Quasar 15kW strobes, and four Lycian 1272 followspots.
The height of the creatures was one of the main challenges. The designer notes, “It is difficult to light the head of a moving creature when it is maybe only 6' below the bottom lens.” Rayment placed fixtures around the stage fascia among the inflatables in order to gain another angle. The Zip Strip uplighting around the floor perimeter assisted when the creatures looked over the audience, but there was a trade-off in lighting the roof and parts of the rig. Vibrant colors compliment those periods of evolution with lots of vegetation, and the designer used starker, harsher looks for static drying periods of the earth.
Rayment's design associate on the production is Jason Morphett, and the lighting director on the tour is Jonny Tosarello. Rayment chose an MA Lighting grandMA console. “It's flexible, fast, reliable, and if the LD wants to grab a large number of fixtures live and do something you can't really program, he can,” he says. Lighting equipment is provided by Upstaging, Inc, and the crew chief for the production is George Reeves. Crew members are Richard Allison, Mike Kennedy, and Steve Richards.