FOR 200 million years they roamed the earth – now the dinosaurs are staging a comeback in a £10m show next summer.
Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular has been selling out at venues in Australia and the US.
More than two million people have seen the show, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg and rock legend Slash, of Guns N' Roses.
Based on the BBC TV series Walking With Dinosaurs, the lavish production will tour Britain next year and is due at the Trent FM Arena from July 15 to 19.
Using the latest technology, the 90-minute show features 15 life-size animatronic dinosaurs which walk, run, fight, roar and snarl just like the real thing.
"The BBC series was a brilliant blend of special effects, escapism, excitement and information," said Carmen Pavlovic, from the Creature Production Company, which is working with the Evening Post to bring the show here.
She added: "Our show brings together all of that, plus something extra – it's live!"
Six years in the making, the production features the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Stegosaurus and the Brachiosaurus, which is 56ft from nose to tail.
They are made from a combination of Latex, Spandex, steel and aluminium and they weigh up to 1.5 tons – similar to an average family car.
Director Scott Faris said: "We take the audience on a journey back in time and show them how the dinosaurs might have actually looked in their prime – huge, sometimes frightening, sometimes comical monsters, which fought for survival every day of their lives.
"Our dinosaurs move exactly as if they were real. The realism is mind-blowing."
BEHIND THE SCENES
IT wasn't just the kids who were mouth agape when a 36ft tall Brachiosaurus leaned into the audience for a closer look.
From the opening moments of Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular, adults were giving each other's ribs some damage. The consensus was clearly: "How the heck do they do that!?"
A select few journalists from the UK had been invited to New York to watch the show that started out in Australia two years ago and has since been roaming the cities of the United States.
A press release and a few pictures would normally do. But there was a good reason the producers wanted us to witness it first hand.
"Everyone has a hard time trying to describe what the show is," says director Scott Faris. "Maybe you see the video and think 'oh yeah that looks cool' but it's not until you see the show that you understand how amazing it is."
In the simplest terms, it is the live equivalent of the BBC's hit documentary series of the same name – 200m years of history, featuring ten species of dinosaur, condensed into a 90-minute show.
Fifteen life-size dinosaurs move around an arena floor, they interact with each other and the crowd, playing and running, roaring and fighting.
Only one man dares to walk among them, the paleontologist Huxley, who narrates their story.
Each weighs up to 1.5 tons. The largest is 56ft nose to tail.
Apart from the Liliensternus, Baby T-Rex and Utahraptors which are all essentially a man in an elaborate suit, each is operated by a team of three people. But only one of the three is actually inside (or rather below) the dinosaur. It's complicated and all will be explained in the Post on Wednesday.
For now, just know that when it comes to the Trent FM Arena for a week next July, you will want to see it.
"When we first got to America there was an elderly lady, she was 79, and she said it was the best show she'd ever seen," says production director Jake Berry.
"When you're appealing to people from ages two to 79 you know you've nailed it."
Berry is the only Brit among the largely Australian crew of 66. From Devon, he is more used to dealing rock dinosaurs, as producer of tours by the likes of the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Motley Crue. He's also worked with Cher, U2, Metallic, Tina Turner and was in charge of the Bob The Builder tour which came to Nottingham's Arena. He knows the venue well.
"The arena is right in the middle of the city so we may be unloading dinosaurs on to the street," he laughs. "It'll certainly be a challenge."
There will 26 trucks rolling into Nottingham next summer, ten of which are solely for the dinosaurs.
"Of course my current clients are better behaved – they're quiet aren't they?," he laughs, nodding at the lifeless beasts towering over us backstage after the show.
Six years in the making, Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular came to life in Sydney in January, 2007.
"Obviously there were hundreds of species of dinosaur," says resident director Cameron Wenn.
"We based our collection on the BBC series, those dinosaurs that were kind of key to the periods that we discuss."
They were designed and built by Sonny Tilders from The Creature Production Company, using a combination of steel and aluminium, Latex and Spandex.
There's a mil-and-a-half of hand made 'skin' covering the frames, all hand-stencilled and hand-painted.
Others in the production team have worked on Star Wars, Peter Pan and Narnia movies.
Faris, who directed shows for Bette Midler and Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas, at first turned down the offer to work on the show.
"I was working my way back to Broadway," he said, "but they convinced me to go to Australia to see it and I was hooked.
"When I worked with Siegfried & Roy they had tigers in their show. When you see a tiger out of a cage standing 15ft away and it's staring at you like you're food with these cold, dead eyes, it's terrifying. I can only use that experience to imagine what it would have been like to have walked with dinosaurs."
He adds: "It's also a learning experience. There are lessons about the world and the toxicity of the atmosphere. These fantastic huge creatures lived for millions of years and they became extinct so we shouldn't get too cocky about what we do on this planet."
MEET THE STARS OF THE SHOW
AS he lurches forward, his giant head lunging over the railings and into the crowd, he unleashes a mighty roar. It isn't just the kids sinking back in to their seats.
Tyrannosaurus Rex, the six tonne Tyrant Lizard, is a nasty piece of work.
And yet he is still the favourite among the two million people to have seen Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular since its opening in Sydney at the beginning of last year.
Backstage at the Izod Centre in East Rutherford, just a 20-minute drive from the centre of New York, T Rex is no less of an imposing figure.
Immobile and mute he may be but he towers above us 23 feet tall. And he's the heaviest of the stars at 1.5 tonnes.
As his head is lowered for closer inspection you can stick your head into his metre-wide mouth, a mouth armed with long, sharp, serrated teeth, each stained muddy red to show for the years of tearing flesh and crushing bones.
"The guys tend to like T Rex because he's manly and mean," says production director Jake Berry.
"The girls like the Brachs because they're kind of cute."
Unlike Rex, the two Brachiosaurus in the show don't rattle your teeth with their power and aggression. These gentle giants are herbivores, who move gracefully despite their unparalleled size – 56 feet from tail to head. The head is atop a long, slim neck and designed for treetop dining.
"All the dinosaurs are life size but Mama Brach could grow bigger by another 15-20 feet," says resident director Cameron Wenn.
"But that would limit our ability to play arenas so let's say she is a young mum."
There are 15 dinosaurs lined up backstage, ten species representing the 200 million years they roamed the earth.
"There were hundreds of species of dinosaur but we based our show on the BBC series," says Wenn. "Those that were kind of key to the periods that we discuss."
The history of the world is played out during their story, but during the show we're only half-listening to the narrative delivered by the paleontologist Huxley – more interested in the next beast to emerge through the curtain.
Most of the crew also favour the T Rex but Berry prefers the Ankylosaurus.
"He's the only one with a brain denser than mine," he quips. "And he's easy to pack up and get in a truck."
It takes up to an hour to assemble them and 30 minutes to take them down again.
Voodoo captain Graeme Haddon, a man in charge of the puppeteers operating the largest dinosaurs, is a fan of the two Torosaurus.
"I like the scene where they are fighting each other. The drums and lights are going... it's quite a spectacle."
Says Wenn: "Generally the dinosaurs are well behaved but occasionally the technology can go wrong."
As suit captain Justin Terry, the man inside the baby T Rex, knows only too well.
"I've fallen over twice," he laughs.
"There was a bolt on the ground that I stepped on when I was running and I fell on to my side. In that suit you can't get up so I just wallowed around and cried until the Raptor Recovery Team picked me up. I hissed at them and the audience applauded because when things go wrong in theatre they love that."
He adds: "Sometimes the jaw will break and you look really surprised for the whole show."
On other occasions heads have fallen off and a dinosaur has caught fire.
"We had an Allosaurus where the motor blew up and set alight," says head dinosaur driver Michael Hamilton.
Some audiences have been so enthusiastic about their favourites they've approached the crew to buy them."
Laughs Wenn: "I don't think they really understand what they're asking. I mean, where would you store one of those things?"
HOW DO THEY DO THAT?
THEY walk and run, tilt their heads and turn, roar and blink with such realism that within the first few minutes of seeing the dinosaurs in action you're trying to work out just how they do it.
The only clue is the oblong base underneath each one, painted a beige colour to match the arena floor...
And only on a backstage tour after the show at the Izod Centre, a short drive from the centre of New York, does it becomes clear how these life-size dinosaurs operate.
The base is where the driver sits, moving the dinosaurs around the arena on a carefully rehearsed route. map.
"They're basically like a go-kart," says resident director Cameron Wenn. "The driver is in liaison on headsets with two animatronic voodoo operators."
Voodoo? More of that later.
Behind the driver's back is a steel mast which holds together the steel and aluminum skeleton over which is a foam structure that is sculpted to make the body shape.
"The skin is spandex-treated with latex stencilling and then hand-painted.
"There's about a mile and a half of skin in the dinosaurs – and all of it was made by hand, stencilled by hand and painted by hand.
"And they have a series of muscle bags, like a stocking material filled with polystyrene balls, that gives the effect of muscle movement."
OK, so we know what they're made of ... but how do they stretch and turn and blink and roar?
Back to the 'voodoo' puppeteers who work from the back of the arena, out of sight.
"The puppeteers use voodoo rigs," says dinosaur designer Sonny Tilders, who worked on the movies Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Peter Pan, Ghost Rider and The Chronicles of Narnia.
The term comes from the similarity of the rigs – mini versions of the dinosaurs – to the voodoo doll, except instead of pins and magic they're using pads and radio waves.
"The rigs [have] the same joints and range of movement as their life-size counterparts. These actions are transmitted by radio waves to make the hydraulic cylinders in the actual dinosaur replicate the action."
A second puppeteer is in charge of the sounds each dinosaur makes and the intricacies of eye movements and facial expressions. Each dinosaur is capable of 30 actions.
"The technology has only been seen before in film," says Voodoo captain Graeme Haddon.
"And this is the first time that puppets this big have been operated by remote control."
Three teams of three are at work bringing the dinosaurs to life during any single show.
"After a while the three brains think as one," he adds.
The space where each driver has to sit looks tight, claustrophobic even: imagine a canoe converted in to a go-kart.
"They're actually pretty comfortable," says head driver Michael Hamilton.
"I have been known to fall asleep in there. Not during a show though," he quickly adds.
"It can get pretty heated in there once the motor gets going."
"It's like driving a lorry. You have to think a lot more about turning.
"The tails you can't actually see and T Rex almost takes out the audience in a few venues that we go to."
Do they have races? Hamilton laughs.
"We did initially back in Sydney during rehearsals. We got them up to about 10kph.
"We're all desperate to take them down the main street of New York but no-one will let us out."
Hamilton trained as an actor but fell into puppeteering, which led to his current job.
"If someone had asked me two years ago what I'd be doing now, it probably wouldn't have been 'Driving a dinosaur around the United States'.
"It's funniest when you go through customs and you fill out your occupation as Dinosaur Driver."
Of the 15 dinosaurs in the show, ten are operated by a three-man team. The flying Ornithocheirus is purely animatronic while the three Utahraptors and the Baby T Rex are men in 100lb suits.
Though it's a little more complicated than, say, Mr Blobby.
Justin Terry is the suit captain, in charge of a team of six and the Baby T-Rex in the show.
It's an odd career choice isn't it?
"My mates who I studied acting with are all off doing great theatre, like Othello and the like.... and I'm a Baby T Rex. But I've played to over a million people and not many people can say that."
THE NEW YORK REPORT
Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular - Izod, East Rutherford, NJ
IS that Keira Knightly? Those sunken cheeks look awfully familiar. With all the subtlety of a T Rex with a hangover the 12-strong table of UK journalists turn to stare at the passing waif.
Yep, that's her.
We're in an upmarket (we're not paying) eaterie in midtown Manhattan. It's so swanky that the toilets have an attendant to turn on the taps for the, one assumes, physically challenged clientele.
Not one of us can summon the effort to leave our plates of superior nosh to try for that exclusive for our editors. For starters she's sealed away in a private room. Her party includes some handy looking dudes in pork pie hats. And, to be honest, none of us are particularly enamoured by her talents on screen.
Besides, we're talking dinosaurs. That morning we'd seen Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular, after which we were led backstage to meet the "cast" and crew behind this £10 million show that has been seen by more than two million people so far.
Every single one of us loved it.
Yes, the pampering helped. A free weekend in New York? A free show? Oh, go on, then. And the hotel was opposite Madison Square Garden where Madonna was booked in for the week. The tattooed fellas lugging their suitcases around the hotel lobby turned out to be her roadies (no, Madge wasn't in residence).
In the morning we'd sidled in to two stretch limousines to be driven over the Hudson River to the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey, home to the New York Giants and New York Jets' shared stadium as well as the Izod Center, where Madonna opened her US tour just last month.
Next week it'll host AC/DC but we were there to see some very different dinosaurs.
We'd arrived early so had time to kill watching dozens of drivers pull up to ask the car park attendant: "Hey, is this where the dinosaurs are?" Which was oddly amusing.
In the foyer, the merchandise stalls were setting up; dinosaur slippers, $30; WWD bag, $20; cuddly dinosaur, $25, plastic dinosaur, $20... there's even a dinosaur "tail" you can wear if you want to look completely ridiculous.
The dollars being handed over suggest this show is their biggest comeback since Jurassic Park. Tickets sales alone have generated £50m.
There's a distant boom. An indication to those taking their seats that the dinosaurs are on their way.
It's a nice touch.
But nothing prepares you for the show itself.
The arena floor is empty but for two large rocks. It's worryingly bland. But the stars of the show are all the spectacle you need.
Annoyingly there's a human being – just the one – involved, the paleontologist Huxley who narrates their 200-million-year story, condensed for us into 90 minutes.
On a large screen we see computer-generated (obviously) footage of how the Earth changed, from the splitting continents, the transition from the deserts of the Triassic period to the lush green prairies of the Jurassic. Oceans form, volcanoes erupt and a forest catches fire. This is how some of the species died out, we're told. Of course, 65 million years ago, it was a meteor that wiped them all out (damn, spoilt the ending).
These changes are further illustrated by trees and plants that rise and fall from around the circumference of the arena floor.
But they're just flourishes. None of it matches the sight of these life-size animatronic dinosaurs that emerge from a curtain at the rear of the arena.
Our first glimpse is the hatching of the eggs which attracts the Utahraptors. As these three seven-foot scavengers draw closer you can see each is essentially a man in a suit. How their heads tilt and eyes blink as they battle over the newly hatched baby dinos isn't so clear.
But they're just the warm-up act.
What follows had our party wide-eyed and laughing like children in a mixture of bafflement and joy.
It isn't just how they move; these huge creations, up to 36 ft tall, walking and running, twisting and turning, fighting and eating. The noises are both comical and teeth-chattering. The way they look, the reptilian skin, the way the muscles roll is as believable as anything you've seen on the BBC series.
Stars of the show are the ferocious T Rex and her mischievous offspring dubbed Baby T.
Will the show scare the kids?
Well, if they were running scared of the static T Rex at the Natural History Museum then most probably.
But as one of the crew told me: "Know your kids. We've had seven-year-old boys clamouring to escape and two-year-old girls who love it."
If you don't think they will enjoy it then get a babysitter booked -- you won't want to miss it.
Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular comes to the Trent FM Arena from Wednesday July 15 to Sunday July 19 2009. Performances at 7pm, with additional shows on Saturday and Sunday at 11am and 3pm. Tickets are £20-£35 on 0844 875 90 00.
Walking With Dinosaurs