Yes, we’re all aware that I’m a big fan of the dinosaur fossils at Fernbank and Tellus, but I’m not geeking out when I say it’s even cooler to see those creatures moving without getting all “Jurassic Park” on our mammalian selves.
I saw them wandering around Gwinnett Arena this week, when “Walking with Dinosaurs” opened there. You might remember this show from when it played Philips Arena in 2007; I didn’t see it, but I’m told it hasn’t changed much. It’s based on the BBC television dinosaur series, but as a live piece, it’s like a monster truck show for curious minds and Discovery Channel addicts. It’s oversized, loud, dramatic and incredibly well-choreographed. Bones and textbooks are handy, but they don’t walk, spit or roar.
For an explanation of how the show works, I turned to Raymond Carr, a 28-year-old Decatur resident and longtime Center for Puppetry Arts performer who joined the “Dinosaurs” tour in November.
He has a background in puppet performance, although nothing can really prepare a guy for arena-sized carnivores. Carr’s parents were career clowns, and as a kid, he toured the country with them, performing puppet shows with his brother. When the family moved to Atlanta, the Center for Puppetry Arts drew him in as a volunteer, then as a performer and director. He has worked on TV, movies and live performance, forming his own multimedia performance company, and he was the first American puppeteer to join the “Dinosaurs” tour, which is booked well into 2011.
Carr’s title: head of voodoo puppetry, named for how they control objects from a distance.
The space from where he and the other professional puppeteers work: the voodoo lounge.
The job: make dinosaurs come alive.
The morning before the show opened at Gwinnett Arena, he and other puppeteers put each dino through a kind of prehistoric calisthenic workout. (Check back later for video of dino yoga.) They wiggled each moving part, checked their skins for wear and cracked them open to get a better look at the mechanic guts inside. A particularly flirtatious Ankylosaurus mugged for my camera, imitating whatever wave or shake I threw at him.
Behind the curtain, the puppets are deflated and inanimate. Show producers are pretty sensitive about their dinos being photographed in such a state, but the creatures puff up to full size in about 30 seconds.
During performance, smaller dinosaurs like the baby Tyrannosaurus rex and Utahraptorsare are controlled by performers wearing the 100-pound suits. The biggies — Ankylosaurus and mama T-rex, for instance — need the power of three humans.
One drives the dino on stage in a small, camouflaged cart. A voodoo puppeteer behind the audience controls its upper body movement, bending its head and neck with perfectly calibrated remote controls that looks like a mechanical arm. A third puppeteer controls sound effects with a mini-keyboard and smaller motions like blinking with a joystick. All three are in constant communication.
There are 18 dinosaurs in the show, from the little hatchlings, known to performers as Cedric and Nigel, on up to raptors, a Stegosaurus, dueling Torosaurus males, mama and kiddo Brachiosaurus and the one everybody wants to see, Tyrannosaurus Rex. There’s no blood, but there is some battling, some biting, some winners and losers.
“It’s so tightly choreographed, they’re never in contact for more than a few seconds,” Carr said.
Still, things can go wrong — a software bug, a mechanical botch, a tear in the unique, hand-painted skin on any of the million-dollar puppets roaming the stage. There’s an “army,” Carr explains, to tend to each issue. The show travels with about 70 people, plus 25 trucks worth of equipment.
If anything went wrong Wednesday night, nobody noticed. Kids were screaming, parents were clapping; it gets intense, but I didn’t see anybody leaving or wishing they’d just gone to “Sesame Street Live” instead. Audiences loved when a mom swooped in to stand up for her kid, and it’s hard not to coo over a little T-rex who echos the parental roar with a simpering baby belch.
What’s amazing, of course, is that they’re out there moving at all. Carr said the puppeteers try to keep each dino moving every 3 or 4 seconds, even if it’s just a breath or a blink. On such a large scale, little things can add up to a lot. Still, you’ll see similar goals for a production like the Center for Puppetry Arts’ (smaller, but also cool) “Dinosaurs” show.
“It’s all about capturing the illusion of life,” Carr said. “If you put a paper cup in front of me, I can bring some life to it.”
I believe it. After all, the guy brought life to long-extinct creatures. They’re fascinating, well-researched, but still a mystery.
Want to go? “Walking with Dinosaurs,” 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. $24.50-$64.50. Gwinnett Arena, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 404-249-6400, www.gwinnettarena.com.