Walking With Dinosaurs, LIVE!

WWD Rexes

A mother Tyrannosaurus rex and her offspring at the end of the WWD live show.

Robotic dinosaurs have long been a thorn in the side of students of paleontology; the rigid, roaring robots of the “DinoMotion” craze of the 1990’s did little more than get more people into museums without providing them with any actual information about the extinct animals. Stephen Jay Gould laments this theme park treatment of dinosaurs in his essay “Dinomania” (compiled in Dinosaur in a Haystack);

As a symbol of our dilemma, consider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell a plethora of scientifically worthless and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products by the bushel in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admission charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but (so far as I have ever been able to judge) teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. (Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects [the two aspects of dinosaurs that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation].)

As Gould notes in the majority of the rest of this essay, “Dinomania” has much to do with the commercialization of dinosaurs (who were just as toothy, gigantic, and extinct in years in which they were unpopular), the dumbed-down film adaptation of Jurassic Park making dinosaurs “real” for many theater-goers. Indeed, previously relegated to stop-motion animation effects and puppetry, CGI and advanced robotics (paired with a new view of dinosaurs stemming from the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970’s) made extinct, seemingly improbable creatures more realistic than any effort before. While the movies were all about entertainment, they also had another effect; documentaries could no longer get away with stop-motion animation techniques and had to “up the ante” with CGI dinosaurs of their own. This has been attempted with varying success, but the most notable of these attempts was the spin-off producing Walking With Dinosaurs series. CGI dinosaurs can only exist on a screen, however, and in order to bring dinosaurs to “life” in a new way a heroic project was undertaken using the latest in robotics and puppetry; the Walking With Dinosaurs Live Experience.

While the Jurassic Park puppets and robotics were impressive, they had their limits; many of the puppets that appear on screen are only parts of the animal, be it the legs, front half of the body, head, or other body part. Coordinated camera work and the ability to do multiple takes makes this a minor problem, but if you’re going to try to show people dinosaurs in a live show you can’t get away with trotting out a pair of legs of just the front half of a Tyrannosaurus; you either have to “go big” and show the whole animal or not do it at all. As the video below from the WWD Workshop shows, the puppeteers proved to be very inventive in recreating the dinosaurs, some of the dinosaurs being suits worn by actors and others being massive beasts on wheels that allowed them to move on their own throughout the arena;

Technical wizardry alone isn’t enough to make a good show, though, and so I headed off to the New Jersey Meadowlands last month to have a look at the show for myself. As would be expected, the majority of the audience were children and their parents, each child wanting to see their favorite dinosaurs get their time in the limelight (it was also heartening to see more people come out to see the dinosaurs than had shown up to see Queen the last time that I had visited the Continental Airlines Arena). Still, despite the excited atmosphere leading up to the show, I was a little bit worried; was this just going to be DinoMotion writ large?

Allosaurus and Brachiosaurus

An Allosaurus is chased away from a juvenile Brachiosaurus by an adult.

I won’t go into the “plot” of the show in extreme detail, but I was very much impressed by various aspects of the show. Most importantly, the show attempted to integrated concepts of how paleontology is done, continental drift, deep time, and even (*gasp*) evolution into the program, a ringmaster-like host telling the audience about the dinosaurs and their changing world. I don’t know how much new knowledge most of the audience came away with, but the show at least made a solid attempt at education rather than just sending out one dinosaur after another. What everyone really came to see, however, were the dinosaurs themselves, and the creators of the show did an impressive job. Most notable of all the puppets were the large herbivores; the juvenile and adult Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, and a battling pair of Torosaurus. Perhaps it was due to the large size and the “four on the floor” posture of these animals, but they were the most realistic and impressive of the robotic bestiary. The theropods were also well done, but the theropods in the WWD series never looked quite right to me. Maybe it’s because Jurassic Park spoiled me in terms of what the predatory dinosaurs should look like, but overall I think the creative team did a good job with some difficult subjects (it’s much harder to make a large, balanced, biped than something like Torosaurus).

I should also make note of the inventive change in scenery that took place over the course of the show. When the lights first go up, we’re greeted by a barren, bleak Triassic landscape, and while the Triassic was hardly devoid of vegetation, it operates as a contrast to the later Jurassic and Cretaceous portions of the show. Indeed, all around the ring of the arena plants lit by blacklight shot up, a rock formation in the middle of it all breaking up and drifting apart to represent the breakup of Pangea and continental drift. Such “minor” touches really helped to make the show more interesting, and I didn’t expect the various floral changes that took place over the course of the show.

The only major criticism I have of the show was that it seemed to center around the “classic” predator vs prey scenarios, as in each period we are introduced to a herbivore and then a predatory dinosaur, the two chasing each other around the arena until the carnivore is driven off. This verges a little on the absurd in the last section when an Ankylosaurus and a Torosaurus corner the baby Tyrannosaurus in the corner of the ring like schoolyard bullies until “Big Mama” shows up to save the day. Such scenarios are what puts butts in the seats, of course, but as Gould notes in his own earlier essay on Dinomania such vignettes hearken back to earlier representations of dinosaurs like in some of the paintings of Charles R. Knight, when dinosaurs were often seen to be nearly constantly at each others throats.

As with any representation of dinosaurs, there’s various points that I could nit-pick about in terms of the WWD live show, but this would be missing the point of who the show was for. Yes, some aspects of it were more speculative or had more to do with showmanship than science, but the show was designed for people already familiar with the details of the animals in the show. If I knew nothing about dinosaurs (or even only knew what they looked like), I would have been introduced to various new ideas about how they lived and died, being portrayed as active and dynamic creatures rather than stupid monstrosities wallowing in a swamp. In the end, the WWD Live Experience team was able to put together an excellent live show that far surpasses any robotic museum installation, and if you are interested in seeing it yourself it’ll continue to tour for some time to come.

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