Dinosaurs that mess you up

Arena show brings large lizards out of imagination and into the flesh

In the venn diagram that explains our world dinosaurs exist in the space where magic and science overlap. As rational adults we’ve come to accept fossil records and other evidence that prove the existence of dinosaurs. Yet there’s some part of our brain (the section that governs finger painting and spinning endlessly on a tire swing) that thinks dinosaurs were too big to have ever roamed the Earth. They seem more like dreams manifesting themselves as doodles in the margins of multiplication tables and book reports. Plesiosaur and Ceratosaraus are more like incantations whispered by firelight than names.

Within its first opening moments Walking With Dinosaurs evokes all those feelings. This is an arena spectacle that does the impossible by giving these shadowy creatures heft and gravity in three dimensions. Despite working with these dinosaurs on a near daily basis despite having peeked at the cutting edge animatronic technology underneath the realistic skin Nellie Beavers the assistant tour manager of the show says her feelings of awe and fear haven’t gone away. “There’s no problem keeping the magic alive” she says. “Once these dinosaurs are put into character mode and the puppeteers do their work they look life-like even three or four years later.”

Unlike the 1999 BBC documentary series that shares its name the live show can’t rely on CGI trickery or Kenneth Branagh. Instead puppeteers manually bring 17 different dinosaurs to life including a Pterodactyl that flies and a 36-foot-tall Brachiosaraus. Each dinosaur is built to scale and demonstrates an astonishing level of detail — skin flexes and bends over what looks like actual musculature and the dinosaurs can snort and exhale vapour.

The bigger dinosaurs the marquee names such as Tyrannosaraus Rex Torosaraus and the aforementioned Brachiosaraus require three-person teams to operate. One person sits within the dinosaur controlling the way it walks while two other puppeteers control the face head neck and tail movements from a control booth hidden amongst the audience.

“When the Brachiasaraus comes out from the moment his head pokes out you can literally hear the audience gasp” says Beaver. “The people with top level seating are almost eye level with him. And when the T-Rex comes out we’ve definitely have had some runners.”

Within those moments a delicate ballet of technology craft and art convinces the lizard parts of our brains to convulse in terror. In the back of our minds though we wonder what happens when all this goes out of control when the robotic dinosaurs free themselves from their AI restraints. Paranoid nerds and children need not worry Walking with Dinosaurs is careful in how it calibrates its mixture of magic and science to never break that illusion of childhood wonder.

“We don’t attempt to interact with the audience” says Beavers about the dinosaurs in the show. “Sometimes a tail will swing out but we’re very careful about covering the seats in the way of the tail. This is not a frightfest there’s not ever a moment where a dinosaur might eat you.”