- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

History, technology and performance all come together in “Walking With Dinosaurs — The Live Experience,” a stage production based on the popular BBC television series that effects designer Sonny Tilders guarantees is “the biggest animatronics puppet show on Earth.”

The 90-minute journey into the past, which stops by the Verizon Center Wednesday through Saturday, promises to take audiences back 200 million years to when mighty dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Mr. Tilders, an 18-year veteran of the movie industry who is known as a creature creator on such films as “Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith,” has brought to life full-scale versions of 15 prehistoric beasts for the event, touring the U.S.

A phone call asking Mr. Tilders how he would fit life-size dinosaurs into the smallest backstage area possible eventually led to his landing the project. He relished the challenge, which gave him the chance to combine many techniques he uses in film within a theatrical context.

In a workshop space the size of a 747 hangar, a 60-member team made up of electrical and mechanical engineers, scenic painters, costume makers and sculptors went to work on designing prehistoric life.

“At first, people were pretty skeptical and thought it was too outrageous of an idea,” Mr. Tilders says from his offices in Melbourne, Australia.

According to him, the key to making believable animatronics — whether a dinosaur or fantasy creature — is combining observation with technology.

Source material, because dinosaurs are not around these days, comprised not only the computer-generated cast used in the BBC series but also Mr. Tilders’ collection of documentaries and books, visits to the local zoo (primarily to watch elephants for skin movements) and a stop by his local museums to get paleontologists’ latest perspectives.

The creative weapons of choice led down a path that forked partly into technology and partly into the history of puppeteering rather than simply — and expensively — trying to create independently walking robotic dinosaurs.

The large animals, such as a 1.6 ton torosaurus, use an internal structure composed of a larger hydraulic system with cylinders (seen in front-end loaders) controlled mainly offstage by technicians. Smaller dinosaurs such as the utahraptor are traditional costumed actors.

Mr. Tilders recalls his rationale for the latter method: “If we can astound the audience with how fluidly they move, they would forgive us for having some of the performer techniques onstage.”

Two major obstacles were overcome in the development process to make an audience ultimately believe the likes of a 45-foot tall, 75-foot long brachiosaurus was actually in an arena.

First, Mr. Tilders’ team refined the Voodoo Rig — a system frequently used in Hollywood with animatronics — to offer 25 points of articulation on every creature. The wireless remote system is a small version of the dinosaur that mimics its larger, onstage equivalent and allows the handler to execute movements in the head, tail and all the joints between. A second handler controls the eyes and vocalizations, while a third, onboard the dinosaur and concealed in an underchassis, drives it around.

Next, the team developed the “absolutely critical” skin to cover muscle bags (mesh sacks filled with polystyrene balls or plastic beads) and the skeletal hydraulics. It had to be weighty, durable and stretchy enough to do the job, and the team ended up with a substance Mr. Tilders believes was never used in film or theater.

“If the skin was too heavy, it would have an enormous negative impact on the inner structure,” he explains. “We spent a lot of time developing the technique, and I am very proud of what my crew accomplished.”

Overall, it took a full year to create the startling vision of life that is being seen on stages around the world.

WHAT: “Walking With Dinosaurs — The Live Experience”

WHERE: Verizon Center, 601 F St. NW

WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday; 7 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday.

TICKETS: $30.50 to $82.50

PHONE: 202/628-3200

WEB SITE: www.verizoncenter.com and www.dinosaurlive.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide