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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Dinos ready to roar into life

Alex Mollison, a dinosaur driver with
Alex Mollison, a dinosaur driver with "Walking with Dinosaurs –The Live Experience," prepares an Allosaurus on Tuesday. (Photos by DAN PELLE / The Spokesman-Review)

Dinosaurs may have roamed the earth for tens of millions of years, but assembling the land of the dinosaurs takes just two days.

At least that’s how long crews had to transform the Spokane Arena into a prehistoric stomping ground for 15 life-size beasts starring in “Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience,” which opens tonight.

Audiences may focus on the behavior of a towering, animatronic brachiosaurus or the horned head of a Torosaurus weighing as much as a family sedan. Creators of the $20 million show, however, rely on a mix of technology and stagecraft to help viewers suspend their disbelief as they watch dinosaurs move and duel.

Steel and lightweight materials, not bones, provide the skeletons of these dinosaurs. Mesh bags of polystyrene balls or plastic beads under the skin replicate fluid muscles and fat. And the dinosaurs’ movements require a bit of “voodoo” – the moniker for special rigs puppeteers use to remotely direct the creatures.

Transported from the opening show of their U.S. tour in Tacoma last week, the dinos arrived Monday inside 27 semitrucks. The show has a core crew of about 65, some of them retained from an initial Australian run, said David Thomas, general manager of Immersion Edutainment, the company behind the North American tour.

Tickets had sold out Tuesday evening for shows tonight and Saturday afternoon, said Kelsey Booth, marketing manager.

Dozens of workers scurried through the Arena Tuesday morning, hauling in dinosaurs, folding sheets of painted Lycra skin and hanging lights over a custom, speckled floor covering. Sparks shot out of the belly of a partially complete Allosaurus – the “lion of the Jurassic” – while headlamp-wearing technicians attached foam-lined, hydraulic legs and clawed forearms.

Thomas said show developers have “basically gone beyond state of the art,” inventing some of the processes necessary to make dinosaurs light enough to move swiftly but still look bulky.

“There’s a tremendous amount of system checks that has to go into each separate animal,” he said.

It takes three people to manipulate each large animatronic dinosaur, which weigh up to 2 tons each. A “dino driver” pilots a narrow vehicle reminiscent of a Formula 1 racecar that sits under each creature’s belly, attached to the dinosaur by a vertical shaft. An array of truck batteries powers the rig, which the driver controls with a joystick. The vehicles have a top speed of about 7 mph, and it takes a skilled driver to see through gauze that camouflages the chassis, said Australian Matthew McCoy, head of puppetry.

The rest of the crew works in full view of the audience from a scaffolding perched at one end of the stadium. A puppeteer performs basic movements using a rig that has the same joints and range of motion as the puppets. A computer interprets the motion, and a radio signal prompts the large dinosaurs to move.

A second operator uses a joystick for eyes and jaws and a keyboard for the sounds emanating from the beasts.

Computer systems can tell the puppets to move their legs as if walking, breathe and shift their weight, so that, “Even if you’re not performing it, it’s moving without any inputs; it’s still alive,” McCoy said.

The robotic dinosaurs borrow techniques from animatronic creatures used in movies and TV shows, but these are more refined and robust, said McCoy, who has worked on TV shows such as “Farscape.” They have to be, he said, because some are “munched aggressively” by other dinos during the show.

Five smaller dinosaurs, such as the crafty Utahraptors, are played by actors wearing suits weighing about 80 pounds, McCoy said. “Finding people that strong and fit that can perform and do anything else is actually really hard,” he said.

Show creators even concocted a special latex paint to replicate the raised skin of a reptile without deteriorating from light exposure.

“It takes everything to another level,” McCoy said.

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