Between Baby Yoda taking the country by storm and life-sized dinosaurs in the Jurassic World Live Tour coming to Tampa this weekend, puppets are having a moment.
So says James Shea, the creative director of Jurassic World Live, the new show coming to Amalie Arena this weekend. Shea, 32, has worked in performance and puppetry for both Disney and Ellenton-based Feld Entertainment, the circus artists who now make traveling live shows that star characters that range from Disney to Sesame Street and monster trucks.
For Jurassic World, their first task was to create life-sized dinosaurs at Feld’s sprawling Manatee County campus. They needed dinos that moved smoothly and appeared both dynamic and expressive because “we wanted these creatures to look cool and we also want you to feel something for them and have an emotional attachment,” Shea said. The subtlety of a head tilt or blink of an eye is layered on top of the physical movements with an array of remote operations.
The advantage of puppetry is played out in Baby Yoda, the breakout star of the Disney Plus series The Mandalorian.
“One of the things that is so brilliant about it was they invested in making Baby Yoda a puppet instead of CGI. There’s something about seeing the human actors and their reaction to it that makes it more real, and you can see that in our show as well,” Shea said. “Our human actors have tears well up when they look into the eyes of those dinos and have those intimate moments.”
He also found it hilarious that the actor who plays Alison, the science intern in the show, was “genuinely terrified” of the dinosaurs.
“In rehearsal she would be absolutely screaming and in genuine fear as she was being chased by these raptors,” Shea said. “She’d say, ‘I know the guy inside there but I am terrified right now.’ It’s a testament to the show that she feels the realism of it.”
It’s something that’s hard to get from a green screen and computer-generated imagery.
“You can’t get that level of realism unless you are experiencing it,” Shea said.
In the story, through a combination of projection and practical scenery, the arena transforms into the dense jungles of Isla Nublar. Real Gyrospheres, as seen in the movies, roll through the valley and scientists work to unravel a corrupt plan and save an all-new dinosaur from a terrible fate.
The trip to Isla Nublar takes a terrifying turn after the Indominus rex — the genetically engineered hybrid from the Jurassic films — escapes and causes chaos in the park. The cast includes Jurassic World’s most iconic dinosaurs, including Blue the raptor and the mighty T. rex.
Rexie, as fans have nicknamed her, stands 17 feet tall and 42 feet long. It takes one entire truck and two shipping containers to move her from venue to venue, Shea said, and she is remotely operated by a team that has separate tasks for emoting and movement. Meanwhile, other dinosaurs such as the velociraptor have an actor encased inside the 100-pound frame to enable quick, darting movements.
The raptor actor has to use tiny cameras and a monitor the size of a cellphone to see outside, Shea said. Two other “dinoteers” are operating from the outside to add the raptor’s expressions and movements from their computers, where they can add subtle head tilts and raise an eyebrow.
“One of our biggest objectives was scale and we looked at the range from triceratops to T. rex make sure we stayed true to the scale from the films,” he said.
He got a big endorsement recently from director and producer Frank Marshall, who is the producer of the latest entries in the Jurassic series of movies, Jurassic World and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. In an interview with Forbes, Marshall said he was impressed with the show.
“It’s about as close as you’re ever going to get to seeing a real dinosaur,” Marshall said.
The team showed the production to director Steven Spielberg, who finally got to look his film creation in the eye.
“He said when he made the first Jurassic Park movie he wanted to build a full size T. rex but they never needed to,” Shea said. “So he was excited we could build every inch of that T. rex and bring it to life.”
The show has 21 dinosaurs and features seven species: pteranodon, Indominus rex, triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus, velociraptor and the troodon, a species new to the Jurassic franchise. It was a birdlike dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous Period, about 76 million years ago, that had a large brain for its size. The show calls the troodon star Jeanie, short for genius. Her quest to find her eggs and raise her family make a tear-jerker portion of the story line.
There’s also a scene with stunt motorcycles. These are the people that brought us the circus, after all, so mayhem is a commodity.
Though the show was created and built largely close to home, it premiered in the Midwest this fall. So this will be the first time it will play in Tampa, and Shea said he’s looking forward to a reunion with the Ellenton crew.
If you go
Jurassic World Live Tour
The new arena show uses puppetry and high-tech tools to create life-sized dinosaurs to interact with the actors. The show is approximately one hour and 50 minutes, with a 15- to 20-minute intermission. $15 and up. 7 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 301-6500. amaliearena.com.