The director of the London production of "Chicago" and the Las Vegas spectacle "EFX," starring Michael Crawford had his doubts about the staging of "Walking With Dinosaurs." More interested in working on Broadway musicals, he balked at the initial offer to travel back to the Mesozoic Era. Continued lobbying prompted Faris to agree to fly to Melbourne to see what designer Sonny Tilders had lumbering in a workshop large enough to house a Boeing 747.
When he arrived, he saw a torosaurus, a bulldozer-size horned dinosaur, moving as if it has just returned from a 65 million-year hiatus.
"I was stunned," Faris says. "And I was instantly was hooked. I wanted to play with these big toys."
Faris joined a versatile team of specialists to help develop the $20 million "Walking With Dinosaurs" into a production that, like most plays, has a plot, a narrative and even an intermission. But rather than chorus lines or toothy chanteuses, the show features the likes of a 56-foot-long brachiosaurus and a replica of a mama tyrannosaurus with her trouble-seeking youngster in tow.
"Walking With Dinosaurs," brought from Australia by Immersion Edutainment, enlists a team of artists and technical whizzes to make it all happen. Tilders' animatronic puppetry was featured in "Star Wars III -- Revenge of the Sith" and "The Chronicles of Narnia." Composer James Brett was the assistant musical director for Metallica's collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. Scenic designer Peter Englund has worked on everything from Opera Australia sets to the closing ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
The stars of the show -- the 15 dinosaurs representing 10 species -- represent the latest in staging innovation. Through a computerized puppetry technique originally developed for special effects in film, the movements of these mechanical creatures appear surprisingly realistic.
The puppeteers manipulate the largest of these mammoth creations by operating miniatures of the dinosaurs. Their movements are interpreted by a computer, which transmits directions to the mechanized creatures. The large-scale replicas mimic the puppeteers' movements through hydraulic cylinders in their bodies. The five smaller dinosaurs in the show are operated by puppeteers inside the animals.
"Those guys have a script that they follow," Faris says, "but things change. They are not on a track, like a creature you see in a theme park. They are moving in space using their best judgment and interacting with all the other characters."
The 1999 BBC series, which earned six Emmy Awards after airing on the Discovery Channel, tapped into that universal interest in dinosaurs. The success of the stage version also speaks to that enduring fascination, says "Walking With Dinosaurs" resident director and fellow theater professional Cameron Wenn.
"Dinosaurs were so big," Wenn says. "They were monsters. We know that they were real monsters -- and we also know that they're not around today, so they're not going to eat us."
While "Walking With Dinosaurs" sports the theater world's latest technological innovations to make the creatures seem realistic, Faris attributes much of the show's success to something even more fundamental.
"It's very primal," he says. "I haven't met anybody yet who says, 'Oh, I hate dinosaurs.'"
Reach Mark de la Vina at email@example.com or 408-920-5914.
"Walking With Dinosaurs " by the numbers
-- Mark de la Vina
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