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'Walking With Dinosaurs' re-creates prehistoric creatures with mechanical replicas

Forget musty museum fossils and computer-generated monsters in Hollywood action flicks. Dinosaurs are again roaming the land (well, stage) after 65 million years.

And they're looking at you.

These are not some cheesy, herky-jerky robots you're going to see in Walking With Dinosaurs — The Arena Spectacular, now at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. The tallest, a brachiosaurus, is 36 feet tall and 56 feet long. The star of the theatrical show is a 23-foot-tall tyrannosaurus rex with 6-inch teeth and a seriously seat-shaking roar.

And you'll think they're real. The life-sized animatronic creatures move fluidly around the arena. They blink their eyes. They even respond to the audience with attitude.

How do they do it? Here's a look inside the beasts:

They look real

Skin: Stretchy fabric is painted through a stencil for a pebbly look. The paint has a thickener that dries crusty like sandpaper, just as you'd imagine an old reptile's skin would be. The fabric is bunched to create a scalelike texture, quilted to foam and stuck to the body with Velcro. About 435 feet of foam, 970 square feet of fabric and 53 gallons of paint are used in each large dinosaur.

Muscle bags: Stretchy beanbags are pulled across moving points in the bodies. These contract and stretch much like muscle and fat do on real creatures.

Is he looking at me? For the eyes, the iris and cornea are hand-painted and then coated in a clear resin for a realistic look. And that's a key part of what makes the dinosaurs seem so alive. The ability to roll those eyes, cock their heads and react to the audience gives them huge personality.

, Walk the walk

The giants: Each of the 10 large dinos weighs in at 1.6 tons and springs to life with a crew of three. One person drives a camouflaged go-cart at the creature's feet, helping it skate along on Rollerblade wheels. A second person in a control booth off stage uses a "voodoo rig" — a mini version of the dinosaur synched with its life-sized counterpart — to feed remote-controlled movements to the body, head and tail. A third person transmits commands to manipulate the eyes, jaws and sound. Each creature has 20 custom screeches, roars and screams.

The little ones: The five smaller dinosaurs — still roughly 8 feet tall — are performers inside 90-pound suits. (There are also two baby dino puppets.)

The crew: It takes about 150 people to pull off the show, plus the power of 12 truck batteries per large beast. Then the dinosaurs, sets and equipment all collapse to fit into 27 semitrailer trucks for transport to the next stop on the tour.

n Setting the prehistoric scene

Your host: Think of "Huxley" (an actor, not a real paleontologist) as Indiana Jones lite, with corny dialogue and jokes about dino poop. His job is to teach basic facts and to be a human yardstick so you'll be appropriately awed at the size of the monsters.

Also on stage: Creators focused on the dinosaurs, not the boring plants. So inflatable vines, trees, flowers and insects, plus a center stage volcano, do duty to show the changing landscape. The lighting (below) is supposedly worthy of a Pink Floyd concert.

Edutainment

While you and your kid gape at the dinosaurs, you're supposed to learn a thing or two. The show acts out more than 160 million years of dinosaur history, from the Triassic period to the Jurassic to the end of the Cretaceous. You'll see how meat-eaters evolved to walk on two legs and how plant-eaters tried not to be lunch. Continents split, oceans form and volcanoes erupt, all leading up to the climatic demise of the giant lizards.

Behind the scenes

The $20 million production originated in Australia and is based on the popular BBC documentary about the lives and habits of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were "hatched" by Sonny Tilders, a veteran of animatronics for movies (most recently Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and the Chronicles of Narnia). It took 50 artists and technicians a year to build the show in a workshop big enough to park a 747.

How's the show?

Overall the reviews are pretty positive, with any quibbles clearly overshadowed by the thrill of the dinosaurs. A few things to note:

• There are a couple of factoid-heavy dead spots where kids can get restless. Just bring out the next dinosaur, please.

• The overly dramatic music "sounds like a John Williams goosing of the theme from the FBI TV series," according to the Orange County Register.

• The realistic illusion of the giant beasts is impressive, but not foolproof. You can see the go-carts at the feet of large dinosaurs, and the legs of the puppeteers inside the little guys are plainly visible.

Read a review: Look for John Fleming's review of the show at entertainment. tampabay.com or Etc, Page 2B, on Friday.

See video: The show's Web site at dinosaurlive.com has video and more details about the dinosaurs.

If you go

Show length: 96 minutes, including an intermission.

Too scary? There is no violence, but primal roars of the dinosaurs are very loud in many places and may startle small children — and some adults.

Photos: Photography is allowed, but no flash or video.

No touching: You cannot touch the dinosaurs during the show, but that means they can't touch you either.

Tickets: $17-$62. (813) 229-7827 or tbpac.org.

Show times: 7 tonight, 7 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (Note: The show is presented by the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, but can only be staged in a large arena.)

Compiled by Kelly Smith, Times staff writer. Sources: New York Times, Orange County (Calif.) Register, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, dinosaurlive.com.

Brachiosaurus (36 feet tall, 56 feet long): Used its peglike teeth to graze from treetops.

Tyrannosaurus rex
(23 feet tall, 42 feet long): Devastating meat-eater with a bone-crushing bite.

Stegosaurus (18 1/2 feet tall, 36 feet long): Plant-eater with a tiny brain but extremely dangerous, spiky tail. Distinctive kite-shaped plates on its back.

Allosaurus (14 1/2 feet tall, 43 feet long): Mean meat-eater that ran on two muscular, birdlike legs.

Torosaurus
(13 feet tall,
30 feet long): Like a dinosaur version of
a rhinoceros but with huge, formidable horns on its head. Could munch tough vegetation.

Ankylosaurus (12 feet tall, 34 feet long):
The largest of the tanklike armored dinos was
well-protected with bony, horn-covered plates.

Plateosaurus (10 feet tall, 31 feet long): Early plant-eater that could grasp things with small fingers and a clawed thumb.

Utahraptors (8 feet tall, 14 feet long): Big, swift lizards with ripping-sharp claws to kill and eat prey.

Liliensternus (7 1/2 feet tall,
16 feet long): A fast, active hunter with a long, graceful tail.

Ornithocheirus (38-foot wingspan): Strung from the ceiling for the show, it's one of the largest flying creatures ever.

'Walking With Dinosaurs' re-creates prehistoric creatures with mechanical replicas 10/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009 7:33am]

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