Bathed in an icy purple fluorescent light, 300 journalists, culture vultures, and lucky local pupils stood entranced inside London's mammoth 02 Arena – the venue formerly known as the Millennium Dome – yesterday morning, as if awaiting the landing of a spaceship.
They had come on the promise of a "unique marriage of science and art", interactive "voodoo puppetry" that would "redefine theatre" and, most alluring of all, state-of-the-art "animatronics". A curtain peeled away and a deafening roar boomed across the audience, announcing the arrival of a 23ft high, 42ft long, heaving hulk of musculature, scaled skin and giant teeth.
It had only taken a mere 65 million years but finally, incredibly, the dinosaurs were back.
In an exhibition that has already smashed box-office records in both America and Australia, life-sized, terrifying creatures are limbering up to pound their way into the national imagination this summer.
"Walking With Dinosaurs", which is based on the BBC series of the same name, is a 96-minute, £10m show featuring 15 creatures that will take audiences on a 200-million-year journey from the beasts' evolution to their extinction. The cachet of the BBC documentary, which, first aired a decade ago and went on to be awarded three Baftas and six Emmys, is indisputable. Seen by 770 million viewers worldwide and costing £2m a minute, it is comfortably the most watched and expensive documentary in television history – facts advanced in the latest edition of Guinness World Records.
With exceptional audacity, the live show aims to bring those documentaries to life. There are 10 species of creatures that were prominent in the BBC series. From the 18.5ft tall and 36ft long Stegosaurus, with its distinctive tail spikes, to the giant Brachiosaurus (36ft by 56ft), the models are designed to be an accurate reflection of the most recent scientific research. The terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex (23ft by 42ft) even breathes out a colourless, odourless gas, and has fiery red eyes that swivel and wink. The 10 larger exhibits are manipulated by a team of master puppeteers using radio controls. Suited puppeteer specialists are inside five smaller creatures.
More than 50 engineers, animatronics experts, artists, robot designers and mechanics spent six years in a hangar in the Melbourne Docklands in Australia putting the show together. Many of them worked on blockbuster Hollywood films. Sonny Tilders, the Australian engineer who is head of creature design, told the audience yesterday: "This is part musical, part documentary, but above all entertainment.
"To make it appear that these creatures are flesh and blood weighing six, eight, or even 20 tons, we use a system called muscle bags. These contract and stretch in the same manner that muscle, fat, and skin does on real creatures."
The show, which opened in in July 2007, has played 500 times in 68 venues across North America and Australia, grossing $110m (£79m). A UK tour will begin on 1 July in Glasgow and conclude in Wembley at the end of August.
Tickets, ranging from £20 to £45, aren't cheap, but organisers trust the family appeal – the creatures are strictly prohibited from fighting each other – will help extend the show's phenomenal success.
As one awestruck child put it: "It's better than a film because you can actually touch them. And it's better than a museum where everything's dead."Reuse content