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posted: 8/4/2014 5:45 AM

Updated dinosaurs stalk America in arena show

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  • This lifelike dinosaur is part of the "Walking With Dinosaurs, the Arena Spectacular," which is currently touring the U.S. and Canada.

      This lifelike dinosaur is part of the "Walking With Dinosaurs, the Arena Spectacular," which is currently touring the U.S. and Canada.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS/BONEAU/BRYAN-BROWN

  • Sonny Tilders is the driving force behind the "Walking With Dinosaurs, the Arena Spectacular," which has returned for a North American tour with 20 updated lifelike dinosaurs.

      Sonny Tilders is the driving force behind the "Walking With Dinosaurs, the Arena Spectacular," which has returned for a North American tour with 20 updated lifelike dinosaurs.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
By Mark Kennedy
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- What does a man who spends his work days creating animatronic dinosaurs do on his day off? If you're Sonny Tilders, you go see the real thing in person.

Tilders, the creative director of The Creature Technology Co., couldn't resist recently stopping by the American Museum of Natural History while in New York to see some genuine fossils up close.

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"I wanted them to move. Just one of them," Tilders says, laughing.

In his day job, they do: Tilders is the driving force behind the "Walking With Dinosaurs, the Arena Spectacular," which has returned for a North American tour with 20 updated lifelike dinosaurs, including many sporting feathers, the ability to reach up and eat leaves, and three new babies.

The show, based on an award-winning BBC Television series, travels 200 million years from Triassic to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, and features 10 species of dinosaur. It is produced by Global Creatures, the Australian company behind the new musical "King Kong," the Tony Award-winning "War Horse" and "How To Train Your Dragon."

"Walking with Dinosaurs" next goes to Auburn Hills in Michigan before Canadian stops scheduled in Montreal and Ottawa for the rest of August. In September, it lumbers toward the California cities of Anaheim and Los Angeles and other stops are planned throughout the West and Midwest. The closest the show comes to Chicago is the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee on Oct. 15-19.

"There's real drama in what we've made," says Scott Faris, the director, whose work is backed by an 80-piece orchestra score. "Not only have we built dinosaurs to scale, we've also built a climax at the end of the first act with a big battle and then the second act tops that."

The largest dinosaur in the show is the 36-foot tall, 56-foot long Brachiosaurus, which weighs 1.6 tons, or the heft of a standard family car. One puppeteer guides it from underneath -- "like Scotty on 'Star Trek,"' says Tilders -- and two others manipulate it from a location high above the stage. Some dinosaurs are the size of a small dog and are radio controlled.

"While it's wonderful to see all these great shows on TV that use computer-generated imagery to create another world, I think they kind of miss something," says Tilders, a dinosaur fan as a kid.

"What's really nice about doing it live onstage is the greater sense of awe and wonder when you see something -- albeit made of fabric and steel -- that convinces you that it's alive."

Tilders, who trained under famed puppeteer Jim Henson, has worked on such films as "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," "Ghost Rider" and "The Chronicles of Narnia." He knew when he first started making dinosaurs that the effort would hinge on one key element.

"We knew that if we couldn't solve the skin, we would struggle to solve the whole creature," he says. The result is a lightweight Spandex-type fabric that's durable. The exact ingredients are a trade secret. "It has this thing that I can't tell you about. I'd have to kill you and your family," he jokes.

The dinosaurs also feature muscle bags that stretch and contact under the skin. "A bit like our own muscles change shape as we flex and extend them," says Tilders. They're filled with Styrofoam beans like you'd find in a bean bag. Other parts of the dinos are inflatable.

The Creature Technology Co. added feathers on many of the beasts after recent discoveries by paleontologists pointed to the possibility that a large number of non-avian dinosaurs had "dinofuzz" as part of their body covering. "We do have to wait until there's a certain level of conviction because it's a big investment," Tilders says.

The dinosaurs are just part of what Tilders' company can do. He and his team created the giant robotic bear that blew out the Olympic flame at Sochi, a giant talking Statue of Liberty puppet for Radio City Music Hall that will debut next year and a 21-foot King Kong with inflatable forearms and 45 axis of movement that is the centerpiece of a show itching to get to Broadway.

"We make this incredible, high-tech, bespoke creative technology and we think it's got outlets in more than just arena shows. It's an exciting period for us," Tilders said.

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