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Walking With Dinosaurs: Reviving the prehistoric

As Walking with Dinosaurs prepares for a monster tour of the US, we talk to the Aussie studio that creates the prehistoric beasts.

David Scheinmann/©CTC

There are very few young minds that are not captivated by dinosaurs: giant, mysterious beasts who roamed the earth millions of years ago, leaving behind their bones and footprints as clues that, over the centuries, palaeontologists have pieced together to reconstruct what they were, what they looked like and how they lived.

We will (probably) never see a real, live T.rex... but Walking With Dinosaurs, the arena spectacular set to tour the US from July, is the next best thing. Life-sized dinos stomp, roar and fight in a show that's as close to how prehistoric life must have been as the show's creator's can make it -- and the stars of the show, the dino puppets, are created out of Melbourne, Australia studio Creature Technology Company, founded in 2006.

"It all started with Dinosaurs," Creature Technology creative director Sonny Tilders explained. "Back in 2006, a group of producers here in Melbourne convinced the BBC and one very important investor (Gerry Ryan, now my business partner), that making a live arena show based on the BBC TV series Walking With Dinosaurs, with 20 life-size walking dinosaurs, was not a harebrained idea! They had no experience in making the sort of puppets the show demanded and no one to make them. To add to the challenge, the deadline was a little over a year."

The dinosaurs that appeared in the initial BBC series were rarely created whole -- instead, it would be a head, or a foot, with the rest supplied by CGI -- and, even if they were, they would not have been life-sized. The arena show presented a whole new set of challenges -- particularly for a fledgling team. Tilders, who had a background in animatronic puppetry, having worked on Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Farscape, was brought on board, followed by mechanical engineer and fellow Farscape alumnus Trevor Tighe.

"When he signed on, I felt the monumental task had been halved," Tilders said. "The rest of the team had to fulfil the diverse requirements for making animatronic creatures -- mechanics, electronics, software development, sculpting, painting, sewing, model making, fitting and turning etc... Animatronics really is a renaissance mash up of arts, sciences and technologies, and we numbered over 50 people by mid build."

The dinosaurs themselves pose quite a mechanical challenge. Foam and fibreglass body parts conceal a steel frame and moving parts -- but the bulk of the electronics are actually hidden at the dinosaurs' feet.

"The challenge to develop genuine unsupported ambulatory (walking) locomotion is one that many technology organisations are working on around the world, and with 'walking' in the show title we knew we had to solve this well. We were, however, putting on a puppet show and the illusion of fluid and naturalistic walking was more important than actually solving it for real," Tilders said.

"We use what we call a 'T' chassis, a three wheeled cart that sits under the body, between the legs of each creature supporting its weight and guiding the legs as they walk back and forth. This chassis houses all the vital systems -- batteries, hydraulic pumps and electronics -- as well as a dinosaur driver. This is all concealed under a streamline, a fabric cover camouflaged to match the mottled show floor."

David Scheinmann/©CTC

This, he explained, can be initially jarring to audience members, but after a short time, they cease to see it -- so absorbed do they become in the dinosaurs' movements. The limbs, necks and tails are all controlled by hydraulic actuators, while servos control smaller movements, such as eyelids and claws. Each dinosaur has somewhere between 30 and 40 points of articulation, and is controlled by two puppeteers who operate it via "voodoo rigs" -- a facsimile of the puppet, whose movements are sent to the real thing via radio signals. Meanwhile, the on-board driver steers the puppet around the stage, while keeping an eye on vital systems such as oil pressures and battery levels.

Surprisingly, the biggest challenge is not trying to reimagine how a millennia-extinct species might have looked and moved -- dinosaur expert Philip Millar, working with palaeontologists, takes care of that aspect of things, using the vast array of research material available.

No, the biggest challenge, Tilders said, is that the dinosaurs, built to true life size, are, well, big.

"They're just bloody big, and that makes it challenging to engineer something to move nimbly and fluidly on stage. With size comes weight and with weight comes inertia, the enemy of dynamic movement. The key to keeping the weight down starts with the skin," he said. "As the element with the greatest surface area, a saving of a few grams in each square metre of skin mounts up. This in turn has an impact on the supporting structures which can all be lighter constructions and the hydraulic cylinders which can be smaller, to the pump and the batteries and so on. So one of the first things we spent time on was developing a skin that was going to stretch, look realistic, be durable and of course weigh as little as possible."

The skin and muscles are a system devised by Creature Technology Company, with muscle "bags" made of stretch netting and filled with styrene beads, shaped into muscle groups, stretching and contracting like real muscles do.


And, of course, the show is live -- so it isn't without its pitfalls.

"The first tour had a reasonably full log book of failures. These were prototypes, after all, and with so little time to build them, their testing ground was in front of audiences. The poor old support team spent the first few months shoring up the weak points and making them tour-tough. In the end, though, we had remarkably few noticeable moments," Tilders said.

"One day a Torosaur stopped dead mid-performance. After failed attempts to restart, the team scrambled out onstage to push him off -- the crowd cheered as it left, like some injured gladiator being carried off. It was a relief to see such a positive reaction, and I think in the end people understand that this is live performance, things are unpredictable -- this is one of the reasons we like live performance, I think."

And the audiences seem to love it, too. When the show first toured in 2010, it outsold every other arena show that year -- including U2 and Madonna. But that's not the moment that really stands out as the proudest to Tilders.

"We are all pretty proud of what the show has achieved, but we knew we had really made it into popular culture when we were parodied on an episode of The Simpsons with a story beginning with Homer and family visiting a performance of 'Sitting with Dinosaurs'," he said. "It was clear from the script the writers had seen the show and studied it well. Proud indeed!"

Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular kicks off its North American tour in Cleveland, Ohio, on 9 July, 2014. Visit the official website for show dates, venues and ticketing info.