Nov. 13, 2014
How to Build a Dinosaur
by Julie Leibach
The Brachiosaurus lowers its long neck, creased with wrinkles, and briefly surveys the human crowd staring back at it.
“That thing looks so realistic,” says a young voice from the audience.
The dinosaur settles back on its massive haunches and lets out a low bellow, as if saying, “I sure do.”
This dino is a high-tech puppet and one of the stars of Walking With Dinosaurs, a live production that grew out of a BBC television series by the same name and that’s currently on a six-month North American tour.
In the show, the only human character—based on the British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley—time travels through prehistory, starting with the Triassic period. Over the course of two hours, or the theatrical equivalent of 165 million years of evolution, 10 types of dinosaurs make appearances, from the herbivorous Plateosaurus, to the armored Ankylosaurus, to the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex. (See them in action in the SciFri video.)
“We wanted to find some emblematical, representative creatures in each of the three major periods of dinosaur evolution,” says Sonny Tilders, creative director of The Creature Technology Company, which designed and constructed the puppets.
Totaling 20 dinosaurs in all, the creatures are approximately life-size. While the larger ones are motorized, such as the Allosaurus, suit performers embody the smaller ones, including Utahraptors.
Admittedly, this writer’s mouth dropped a little when a curious Liliensternus stepped out on stage early during a show at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York. Granted, no one’s seen a live dinosaur (unless you count birds), but these puppets evoke a convincing “dino-ness.”
“I’ve worked with gators, crocodiles—all manner of beasties,” says Phil Manning, a professor of natural history at the University of Manchester who was invited to see the show in Northern Ireland about a year ago, where he got up close and personal with one of the T-rexes, “and [the puppet] installed the same fear as an 800-pound gator did in me in Florida a few years ago.”
For inspiration, The Creature Technology Company team pored through scientific and popular science literature to understand, generally, what various dinosaurs might have looked like. They also observed the way large, living animals, such as elephants and giraffes, move.
Constructing the puppets required working “from the inside out,” as Tilders puts it. Autopsy one of the behemoths, and you’ll find architecture somewhat similar to a real animal’s. For starters, the larger puppets have a skeleton made of steel, complete with points of articulation that allow their bodies to move in a way that seems natural.
The dino’s bulk consists of a system of custom-made muscle bags, constructed from netting and filled with styrene beads. “They stretch and contract like real muscles would,” says Tilders, “so you get all this subtle movement that transfers through the creature.”
On top of their bulging muscles, the puppets wear a special skin made of lycra, “but with a trick that I can’t tell you about,” adds Tilders. Hand painting lends a prehistoric veneer.
But for these dinosaurs to really convince audiences, they’ve got to walk like they’re flesh and blood. Indeed, the puppets’ lifelike natures are based largely on the success of a critical illusion: a sense of hefty mass. Many of the dinosaurs we know and love weighed tons, so “every puppet has to look balanced and grounded,” says Tilders, otherwise “we would lose that sense of mass.”
In fact, while the dinosaurs appear to plod, their limbs don’t actually bear weight. Rather, in the case of the larger puppets, a sturdy rod anchors each body to a motorized chassis, shaped like a ship’s anchor and painted to match the floor, and a driver inside steers the creature around the stage. The puppets’ steps are preprogrammed to coincide with the speed and direction of the vehicles’ speed and direction.
The drivers communicate via radio with so-called “voodoo puppeteers,” who stand out of sight in a balcony, using several devices to control multiple aspects of dino dynamism (see the video above). For instance, a puppeteer wearing a robotic arm-like instrument can operate up to 25 axes of mobility, while a colleague manipulating a joystick controls finer movements, such as eye blinking or teeth gnashing, as well as sounds. (Meanwhile, the suit performers control their puppets’ movements and sounds and provide the legwork.)
A system of passive hydraulics lends fluidity to the larger puppets’ movements. “You can actually go up to one of our creatures and grab his nose and push [it] out of the way, and [it’ll] slowly come back to position,” says Tilders. In other words, these aren’t your typical amusement park animatronics that shudder and shake. “That’s probably one of the things that I’m proudest of,” says Tilders.
Paleontological nitpickers might quibble with certain dino details. For instance, the puppets roar, growl, and grunt. But scientists can’t definitively say what sounds real dinosaurs made—if they uttered any at all, according to Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences who was hired by the show to promote its educational merits. Birds—which Zanno refers to as living dinosaurs—have a “really sophisticated vocalization system,” she says, “but we don’t know how far down the tree that goes.” But, she adds, “how could they not [make sounds] in a show?”
“You will be able to find a pile of paleontologists who I am sure will give you a list as long as your arm on what is ‘wrong’ with the [puppet] reconstructions,” wrote Manning in a separate email. “However, they would generate equally long lists when comparing their very own ‘scientific’ reconstructions with each other.”
Consensus in the paleontological community did inspire an updated look for some of the puppets for their North American tour—feathers. A combination of real and manmade flair, plumes adorn the T-rexes (there are two), the Liliensternus, and the Utahraptors.
While the new ’dos may look a bit kitschy, they’re a nod to our ever-evolving picture of dinosaurs, based on more than 150 years of research.
Perhaps a few audience members will grow up to add their own discoveries. “I always say dinosaurs are the gateway drug to science,” says Manning. “We need more shows out there that inspire kids about science, evolution, and life on earth.”
*This article was updated on November 13, 2014, to reflect the following corrections: An earlier version stated that the human character in the show depicts an Australian archaeologist. The character is actually based on the British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. The article also stated that the live show covers 180 million years of evolution. It actually covers 165 million years if birds, which make an appearance at the end, aren’t counted. If they are, then it covers 230 million years, according to paleontologist Lindsay Zanno.