Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Walking With Dinosaurs Live

On the evening of January 3rd, I got to see Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience in Sacramento, courtesy of the folks at Insight Management.

I loved the show. It was just a whole lot of fun. Even after I had seen some preview videos, the smoothness of the animatronics was a pleasant surprise and the whole thing was pulled off with--no other word for it--panache.

Now, these dinosaurs are essentially big puppets. Really big, really smooth, really well-done puppets, but still puppets. You're not going to be completely fooled into believing that these things are real. But if you just go with it--just watch the show, just enjoy what's going on--you may find yourself suspending disbelief more than you thought you would. I found myself flip-flopping between being interested in what the animals were doing and being fascinated by how the technicians were pulling it off.

Fortunately, the technical achievements are impressive enough that in those moments when you are not swept away to the world of the Mesozoic, there is still plenty to admire and even wonder at. There are some excellent bits of stagecraft that I won't spoil for you, and the lighting and music work to enhance and punctuate what is transpiring on stage fairly seamlessly. And the robots and suits are very cool in themselves. They were light years beyond any other animatronic dinosaurs I've ever seen, and that includes the latest generation of standing robots, such as those featured in the Big Dinos Return exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science (I should know, I helped write the signage).

Scientifically, much of Walking With Dinosaurs Live was not just good, but surprisingly good. Early on there was a discussion of footprints and other trace fossils and why they are so important to paleontologists: because they give us glimpses of the living animals in a way that bones--no matter how well preserved--simply can't. And in the Early Cretaceous segment there was a great description of plant-insect coevolution and the rise of flowering plants, using those terms. (Lamentably, the frank, accurate, and un-mangled discussion of evolution shows that this was not an American production....) Most of the science was as good as or better than what you get in the average television documentary.

Most. Not all. Stegosaurus lived in the Late Jurassic, not the Middle. The dromaeosaurs were unfeathered, which is in keeping with the television series but absolutely at odds with everything that we now know about their appearance in real life. Regarding Stegosaurus plates, the narrator mentioned the hypotheses that they were for thermoregulation (now pretty much destroyed) or defense (now looking pretty good, thanks to some sweet fossils), before pooh-poohing both in favor of the unlikely, unsupported, WWD-only idea that they flushed red as a warning device.

There was also one outright howler, when the narrator stated that, "another group of dinosaurs has taken to the skies: pterosaurs." Now, pterosaurs are very close relatives of dinosaurs, but they are not dinosaurs. In fact, I think the first thing you learn about pterosaurs in any kid's dinosaur book is that they are not dinosaurs. Possibly the narrator meant to say "another group of animals has taken to the skies"--I'd like to think that--but it's not what came out of his mouth.

Although irksome, the scientific errors were few and they didn't ruin the show for me. It is mainly about watching life-size robot dinosaurs stomp around and roar, and on that front WWD:TLE is great fun. I loved it, my three-year-old loved it, and I wish I could see it again.

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Anonymous Louis B. said...

Getting the raptor suit is one of my goals in life. How can you not want that?

1:07 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Yeah, I could do some damage with one of those. And Christmas just passed. Damn.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

Damn. Sorry I missed it! I've often wondered if our language needs a new word for "big-ass extinct diapsid" to replace the attempt to use dinosaur sensu lato.

I can see "hellasaur" catching on with the kids. As in "that flying hellasaur just ganked my cave-bitch!"

2:35 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

"that flying hellasaur just ganked my cave-bitch!"

Best. Comment. Ever.

Because this is my blog, I reserve the right to gank that line for the title of a blog post someday (with attribution, of course).

2:38 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

Thanks for the very positive review. I particularly like your friendly attitude to the less than scientifically precise moments. Even with the best of intentions, you can't please all the paleontologists all the time.
I'll see how that "flying dinsaour" line snuck in. That's a howler, as you mentioned.
Meanwhile, we keep building dinosaurs. A dream job!
(Head of WWD Live Sculpting Dep't.)

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Louis B. said...

Philip, are you working on any other projects ATM?

1:53 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

G'day Louis, It's more dinosaurs in the workshop for the forseeable future, a happy situation while we see what else turns up.

5:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the tickets are pricey I went out looking for reviews and yours convinced me to invest in two of the reserved seats -- and my sister decided she'd buy a ticket as well.

Thanks for the honest review that resulted in one of the most memorable evenings we've ever had. Anyone who passes the opportunity to see a full size veggisaurus, not to mention a hacked off momma Rex is so fossilized themselves they should be in a boneyard someplace.

Ps. I want a raptor suit too...who wouldn't??

4:02 PM  

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