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Star of stage and scream

Toothy 'Walking With Dinosaurs' does a cool stomp through state-of-the-art science
by:  L.E. BASKOW, Bruce Mactaggart’s Immersion Edutainment spent six years and $20 million designing the creatures that populate the “Walking With Dinosaurs” live show, including a realistically snaggle-toothed baby Tyrannosaurus rex, which takes a quiet moment with.

The 8-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex is only a baby, but he runs, snarls and stomps around the center of the Rose Garden Arena as if he were a fully grown king of all dinosaurs.

For five days next week, there will be a few new kings of center court. Fifteen of them, in fact.

When 'Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience,' a breathing and roaring version of the popular BBC television series, takes over the Rose Garden, the baby T. rex will be joined by 14 other dinosaurs, including his 40-foot-long mom and a 75-foot-long brachiosaur. The giant-size show brings to life the largest animals ever to walk the planet.

'Walking With Dinosaurs' promises to be more than a parade of the big beasts, though. Like the BBC series, the show is plotted, with the dinosaurs following story lines to reveal current (and contested) ideas about their behavior.

It's paced to encapsulate about 170 million years of Earth's animal, geomorphic and climatic history in a two-hour theatrical presentation using lights, top-notch music, and state-of-the-art animatronics and puppetry.

The larger dinosaurs, in fact, are controlled by computer operators high above the arena and puppeteers within the creatures.

During a preview in the Rose Garden in early November, the baby T. rex (operated by stuntman and puppeteer Harley Durst) gnashes at an onlooker's shiny black shoes (but doesn't bite them), sniffs a giggly woman's hair and leaps to the side of the arena (about where Brandon Roy might stretch before taking the court), then lets loose a giant growl, as if to say, 'Whose house is this, now?'

The Australian producers spent six years and $20 million designing the dinosaurs and developing the show. A traveling company of 150 technicians and operators makes the animals function and move through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Even though the baby is the smallest member of the prehistoric cast, up close the attention to detail is astonishing. Eyes glint and blink. The skin is rough and scaly. And the teeth, some jagged, look sharp as nails.

'Fossil science shows that every third tooth of a T. rex was serrated, not smooth,' says Bruce Mactaggart, executive director of Immersion Edutainment, the group behind the live show. 'We've done that with our T. rexes. It's something that the audience may never see, but it's something - a detail - we felt we had to do.'

You've come a long way, dino

The entertainment industry hasn't always lavished such attention to detail on dinosaurs, though. Some past attempts were prehistoric, to say the least.

Take movie producer Irwin Allen's 1960 remake of the original 'Lost World' (from 1925).

'They took a Nile monitor, stuck a rubber frill on the back of its head and a bunch of stegosaurus fins on its back, and had it fight an alligator with horns over its eyes,' recalls Portland-based dinosaur sculptor Bruce Bowman. 'Even kids who look at dinosaur coloring books knew that wasn't a dinosaur. That was pretty much the most embarrassing attempt at dinosaurs ever put on film.'

Bowman has been crafting his own dinosaurs in bronze and polyurethane since the early '90s. His velociraptors and sinosauropteryxes have been featured at model shows and galleries such as Yoshida's Fine Art Gallery, formerly in the Pearl District.

Bowman is a self-described 'dinosaur snob' when it comes to the science (or lack of it) informing the portrayals of dinosaurs in movies, books and television shows.

While he's fine with some of the creatures that appeared in the first 'Jurassic Park,' don't even get him started on 'Jurassic Park III':

'That spinosaurus was a Muppet! They might as well have painted it purple.'

'This is a man who cares a lot about accuracy,' his wife, Debbie Bowman, says at their in-home gallery in Southeast Portland, where brachiosaurs, spinosaurs and hadrosaurs stare from tabletops and bookshelves.

Mom was a real tyrant

Bruce Bowman admires the BBC series 'Walking With Dinosaurs.' 'It's the best thing out there,' he says.

But given Hollywood's history of dino-flubs, he's not convinced that Mactaggart and company have got the live version down.

His main beef is that the live show, like the series, will ennoble the animals with behavioral attributes that science hasn't yet proved.

' 'Walking With Dinosaurs' is beautiful, but still, the scenes with the mother caring for the baby (tyrannosaur) - it just goes into cartoon-land,' Bowman says, referring to a segment of the television series that has been reinterpreted for the live show. 'I'm sure that tyrannosaurs did care for their babies in one way or another, but it wasn't very maternal, and it certainly wasn't adorable.'

Bowman would rather see something less theatrical, minus the 'melodramatic' story lines and 'pro wrestling'-like fights and without any human interaction. He'd prefer seeing dinosaurs behaving as themselves, by themselves.

'I would love to be able to change somebody's mind-set,' he says, 'that dinosaurs weren't monsters, they weren't puppets, they weren't dragons, they were just animals.'

Even Debbie Bowman concedes, 'Atmospherically, with the sets and the sounds, its probably a wonderful show. And for kids, it's just going to blow their minds. It's going to be very, very cool.'

Cameron Wenn, resident director of 'Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience,' says the show mentions some of the hot topics currently debated in the dino-scientific community.

And unlike past Hollywood productions, he says, 'we're basing this a lot more on facts. We were supported by the BBC series, and the BBC was absolutely adamant that we stuck to the facts of the series.'

Wenn credits the show's teams of designers, 'who did an extensive amount of research in the fossil record and consulted paleontological experts for the look and movement of the dinosaurs.'

What makes the show different and believable, he says, is in part the audience, and the willingness it brings to suspend disbelief during a theatrical presentation.

'Theater is a live medium, and I think we get blasé about movies and computer animation,' Wenn says. 'You do get the feeling of being in the presence of these great animals if, in nothing else, than in sheer scale. I mean, they're huge! It's really the difference between seeing a documentary about elephants and seeing them right in front of your face.'

Back at the Rose Garden, cell phones fly up to snap shots of the junior T. rex as if it were a rock star. The baby towers over any player that's hit the court before. Then the 'tyrant lizard' resumes roaming and snapping its small but mighty jaws below the stands.

One thing seems sure: Show business has stomped into wondrous new ground where no scientist has yet to tread.

And 'Walking With Dinosaurs' is poised to make prehistory.


'Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience'

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 16; 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Jan. 17; 7 p.m. Jan. 18; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Jan. 19; 1 p.m. Jan. 20

Where: Rose Garden Arena, 1 Center Court, 1-877-789-7673

Cost: $32-$69.50