We speak to the people who make dinosaurs come alive in this arena spectacular
By Jedd Jong
Dinosaurs, titans of a bygone age, have always captured the imagination. Movies, TV shows and exhibitions at museums and theme parks have attempted to bring them back to life but Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Spectacular is probably the closest one can get to actually breathing the same air as these magnificent creatures.
Walking With Dinosaurs Live is a theatrical presentation featuring 18 life-sized dinosaurs that move around a stage, fighting, eating and interacting much as they would millions of years ago. The show is based on the 1999 BBC documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs, which was shot on location around the world and used Jurassic Park-style computer-generated imagery and animatronics to create a nature documentary. This arena show premiered in 2007 and has since toured Australia, Europe, North America and Asia.
The dinosaurs are created by Global Creatures which is headed by Sonny Tilders, who recently won a Tony award for creating the titular giant ape in the King Kong musical. A blend of engineering and artistry has gone into creating dinosaurs with realistic appearance and movement.
There are two main types of dinosaurs seen in the show: the Utahraptors, Liliensternus and baby T. Rex are puppeteered by performers in suits, while the larger dinosaurs like the Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and adult T. rex are akin to high-tech parade floats. For the latter variety, there is a chassis which conceals a driver, while puppeteers remotely control the movements of the body and the head and jaw with telemetry devices. Each large dinosaur weighs 2100 kg, around the same as a medium-sized family car. The show travels in 28 sea containers that are 12 metres long each.
“It was a pioneer at its time. There was nothing like it and there still really isn’t anything like it,” said the show’s resident director, Ian Waller. Waller’s background is in musical theatre: he’s been the resident director of touring productions of Annie and Chicago and has been the resident choreographer of Billy Elliot and West Side Story.
While Walking With Dinosaurs Live is not a musical, it is very much in Waller’s wheelhouse. “It’s still a theatrical piece. It’s all done with music, on a music base, then there’s a story, so it’s not too far away from what I’m used to doing in theatre,” he shared. The show’s original director Scott Faris also has a background in musical theatre, having helmed over 20 productions of Chicago, and has since selected resident directors who also have experience in musical theatre.
The musical score by James Brett helps bring the presentation together in a cinematic way. “It’s the music that sets the theme, even subliminally. If there’s danger, the music changes,” Waller said. He compared Brett’s use of different leitmotifs assigned to each dinosaur as reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Waller spoke about Sonny Tilders’ vision in creating the creatures. “He wanted it to be so far away from any exhibition that was repetitive and robotic. He said, ‘There’s no point in doing this unless we can make them real.’ He’s incredibly protective over these [dinosaurs]. Even now, ten, 11, 12 years later, these are still his babies,” Waller said, adding that he must send weekly reports on the show back to Tilders’ team in Australia.
There is a sole human character who functions as our guide through the Mesozoic era: the palaeontologist Huxley, named for Thomas Huxley, considered one of the fathers of modern palaeontology. “He’s a crucial part of our show, to link our stories, to link the eras. If you didn’t have him, you’d just have a bunch of dinosaurs walking around the stage,” Waller said. Huxley also helps sell the sheer scale of the creatures.
We spoke to Andrew Lewis, one of two actors who shares the role of Huxley in this production (The other being Dominic Rickhards). “When I first started to do it, I developed a personal relationship with the dinosaurs myself, so that when they come onto the stage, I have a response to them,” Lewis said. “Therefore, the audience are journeying with me, through me, to the time I travel back to.”
The time-travelling Huxley is a proxy for the audience, functioning both as a narrator and as a part of the story. “I have to capture that awe and wonder of what these huge magnificent beasts would have been like,” Lewis said, adding “The fact that they are genuine size obviously helps.”
While Huxley is the only human being who’s physically visible in the show, Lewis is cognisant of the sheer amount of cooperation it takes the keep the show running “We are a unit, we work as one body, as with any theatre piece,” he commented. “Whoever’s seen onstage and whoever’s offstage are all an immense part of the whole spectacle you’re going to see, and that’s the same in this, and you respect their input.”
One such unseen performer is Neal Holmes, who puts on a suit to play either the Baby T. rex, one of the Utahraptors or the Liliensternus, depending on the performance. The suits weigh between 30 and 45 kg. “At the beginning, when I first started doing this job, it was extremely difficult and a little bit stressful and taxing, but over time, with lots and lots of practice, like anything, it becomes like second nature,” Holmes, who has a background in acrobatics, parkour and other sports. “The more you do something, the easier it is.”
The Baby T. rex is a boisterous, mischievous character, who gets into trouble and needs to be saved by his mother during the big finale of the show. “You know you’ve done a good job when you do the kiss after the Baby T. gets rescued by the mum and you get a round of applause or an ‘aww’ or a reaction,” Holmes said.
“A good rule of thumb is less is more,” Holmes pointed out, adding that “the suit looks amazing just standing still.” Holmes has made several publicity appearances as the Baby T. rex interacting with people in public. “Some parents forget the kids are crying and they’ll just hold the kids up. I try to avoid them,” he said, quipping “sometimes the parents are more scared than the kids.”
Why should audiences go to see Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Experience? “You’re gonna see 18 life-sized dinosaurs walking around the stage telling you the story of the dinosaurs from the Triassic to the Cretaceous,” Waller said, adding “It’s as close as you’re going to get in a theatrical environment to seeing real-life dinosaurs.”
Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Experience runs from 20 August to 8 September at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Tickets start from $78 (discounts available). Visit http://www.sportshubtix.sg for tickets.