Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Walk (With Dinosaurs) To Remember

This is not, strictly speaking, movie-related, but what the heck. I just saw the Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular at the Singapore Indoor Stadium this afternoon. The live show is based on the acclaimed documentary series by the BBC, its roots can be traced back to Jurassic Park, except Walking With Dinosaurs was more of a natural history series.

There's your film connection!

Anyway, when I first heard about it, I was really excited. When I was 7-9 years old I was positively obsessed with dinosaurs. Since then, science has marched on, and old theories are debunked as often as new ones are created in the paleontology world. However, I thought to myself "this will never come to Singapore", but it did, and I cannot be more grateful.

I purchased the second least expensive seats. You know you're talking about something big when the "second least expensive seats" cost $68, excluding the $3 booking fee. The production originated in Australia and has sinced toured North America, Europe and Japan, and after its Singapore leg will move on to Hong Kong and China.

I have always liked practical effects, especially live theatre effects. Animatronics and good old-fashioned model work will always trump CGI for me, so imagine my excitement at watching life-sized animatronic dinosaurs plod about on stage. The thing I like about "spectacle"-based theatre is that unlike with films, there is no filter, no "post-production" stage where you can edit the footage or enhance it. What you see really is what you get.

The dinosaurs are gigantic animatronic puppets really. The bigger ones are mounted on a chassis that conceals a driver, and while they appear to walk, they are really moving via wheels under the chassis. The smaller ones are suits that a puppeteer wears. There's a bit of a design problem in that the legs of the performers are visible, because human knees and dinosaur knees don't bend at the same place.

Hats off to the puppeteers really, because a lot of effort was put into making the creatures appear lifelike in their behaviour and movement. The skin does look a little fabric-like, but on the whole they're really believeable. Creature designer Sonny Tilders had earlier worked on films like Peter Pan (2003) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

The scenic design was especially intriguing. The show is designed to tour and as such props and set pieces have to be relatively mobile. The central piece of the set were four rocks that could move apart and have conifer trees sprout from them. The inflatable plants were really clever, allowing to show a kind of "time-lapse" effect, and also allowing the plants to "die" and "grow" as and when required.

The plot of the show was that a paleontologist named Huxley (after the Victorian scientist Thomas Huxley) takes the audience back in time through the three main periods of the Mesozoic Era: the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. The actor playing Huxley did a good job; he had to hold his own against the massive creatures and command an enormous stage. He also had to exude enough charisma that we would buy into the conceit of the show and go along on the ride. And all these he did.

However, being so huge, most of the dinosaurs were very sluggish. Some interaction between the creatures was written in, but the scenes couldn't help but feel a tad clumsy. I think the best bit was at the end of the show, where a mother Tyrannosaurus and her baby interact just before the comet strike that heralded the end of the dinosaurs. It was a really sweet, slightly emotional scene, and it was moments like that that reminded the audience this was more than just a gimmick exhibit; this was a piece of live theatre.

There were several nice moments in the script that would fly over the heads of most of the children the audience. For example, Huxley explained "a Tyrannosaurus can eat 75 kilos of meat in one bite - that's the weight of two supermodels!"

It was wonderful to feel like a child again, and this truly was a magical experience, especially for a fan of big-budget "spectacle theatre" such as myself.  It was a lovely marriage of art, science and technology.

1 comment:

  1. oh man... that sounds so cool!! it sounds better than the lion king one at disneyland that i saw in hk XDD that was... interesting, but the music was terrible. haha but anything with science interests me! and i didn't know you were interested in dinosaurs O.o haha

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