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At a key point in "How to Train Your Dragon," the arena-sized spectacle full of fire-breathing animatronics that will descend into the First Niagara Center on Thursday for a four-day stay, a Viking boy named Hiccup and his pet dragon share a surprisingly human moment.
It comes as the two characters are just getting acquainted. The dragon, nicknamed Toothless, is attempting to coax something out of Hiccup and shoots the boy a kind of coy expression, fluttering his eyelids ever so slightly.
This little moment, which always gets big laughs in the production, might seem simple. But, like all of the thousands of large and small movements meticulously calculated and calibrated to wow arena audiences, it is the product of hundreds of well-oiled mechanical pieces, a complex remote-controlled puppetry system and a crew of dozens of tech-savvy puppeteers, engineers and actors.
That moment, in which a dragon tries to manipulate its master through pretend bashfulness, was lifted directly from the life of head puppeteer Gavin Sainsbury. The experienced puppeteer, who operates one of the show's five main dragons (there are 23 total) and oversees all of its various forms of puppetry, based the moment on interacting with his son.
"I was trying to get this thing that I used to see my son do," he said. "He'd look away from you and then all of a sudden he'd look back and he'd be going all cute, trying to get his piece of chocolate or whatever it was, and he'd batter his eyelids."
So Sainsbury, ensconced in a kind of "Avatar"-esque apparatus known as a "voodoo rig," experimented by pressing a trigger button with one of his left fingers, which closes the dragon's eyes, while at the same time moving a mini-joystick on his left thumb, which when manipulated the right way, causes the dragon's eyelids to flutter rapidly. The signal from Sainsbury's voodoo rig, one of five in the production, travels via an encrypted Wi-Fi signal to the dragon, which sits atop a modified Chevy truck manned by an experienced driver. The process is complex, but the effect is instantaneous and unmistakable: dragon cutesy eyes.
"Every night it gets a laugh," Sainsbury said.
This show, which is based on the popular 2010 film from DreamWorks Animation, is a new evolution of the arena-sized animatronic spectacle that began with the BBC's "Walking With Dinosaurs," which came to Buffalo in 2009. Like "Walking With Dinosaurs," it was launched in Australia and produced in collaboration with the Australian company Global Creatures. But unlike that show, which followed strict scientific specifications, its creators, puppeteers and actors had a great deal more liberty to infuse human emotions into their characters.
"Unlike the dinosaur production, where T-Rex had to look like T-Rex, our characters have to have 40-foot wingspans, some fly, some breathe smoke, some breathe fire. But they also had to have personalities," said Eric Stevens, head of live entertainment at DreamWorks, in July. "It's really a blend of technology and the arts in a way that's never been done before."
As opposed to other tech-driven shows where story takes a back seat to spectacle, Stevens said, "How To Train Your Dragon" focuses on the central relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.
"Without the story, really then it is a creature show and this is anything but that. The dragons are cast members, if you will, and they play a role in the story about a boy and his dragon... and his relationship with his father," he said. "It is pretty amazing that some of the most powerful moments in the show are literally the most innocent and simple ones."
The story is set on the mythical island of Berk, which has been fending off bloodthirsty dragons for as long as anyone can remember. Through a series of unexpected events, young Hiccup wounds a passing dragon and later befriends it, eventually uncovering a plot by the evil mega-dragon Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus. Hiccup and Toothless must band together to protect both the citizens of Berk and the innocent dragons who are merely doing their master's bidding. There are a lot of explosions and narrow escapes.
For Sainsbury, a longtime puppeteer who got his start at age 11 and worked his way up through the ranks in the Australian entertainment industry, the ability to manipulate such massive creatures was something he'd never imaged before working on "Walking With Dinosaurs." But, he suggested, the addition of genuine characters and storyline to the technological achievements of Global Creatures designers and engineers brings the show to a new level.
"To have a life-size, now-extinct prehistoric creature in my hands, bringing it to life, roaring and whipping its tail - it was just truly overwhelming and I swore that I'd never forget that feeling," he said. The characters in "How to Train Your Dragon" are often just as large and even more technically complex than the dinosaurs. Some of the dragons have upward of 20 facial expressions.
"There are all these creatures: big, bold, beautiful, bright, and they can do funny things," Sainsbury said. "They can make funny noises now, and they can be more expressive. So for us as puppeteers, it's the next step for us to actually be able to be a bit cheekier, have a bit more fun with the creatures."
DreamWorks is no stranger to theatrical adaptations - its successful musical version of "Shrek," based on the 2001 film, played at Shea's Performing Arts Center last year. But for "How to Train Your Dragon," DreamWorks' Stevens said, they had something even more ambitious in mind.
"As a studio, we always look at unique opportunities to tell our stories. As you looked at 'How to Train Your Dragon,' the question was posed: imagine if dragons could really fly, and what would that be like?" he said. "These stories can be brought to life in the theater and in different spaces and different venues. But something this big, of this scale, really could only be done in an arena."
With the help of Global Creatures and others, DreamWorks reimagined the typical arena setup.
"Instead of doing a concert at one end, we look at it as an empty soundstage and imagine: what else could you do in this space both across the floor and the back walls and the ceilings?"
The answer is an awful lot. With 23 dragons, 25 actors, a 20,000-foot "wall-to-floor immersive projection," dozens of puppeteers, support staff, costumers and crew and a mind-boggling amount of technology, the producers of "How to Train Your Dragon" have attempted to create the most ambitious animatronic arena show in history.
"We're really committed to the [arena] space," Stevens said. "Doing something like this on a new scale is really breathtaking."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com



By the numbers:
"How to Train Your Dragon" contains a huge number of working parts, both on the arena floor and behind the scenes. Here's a peek at what's involved in bringing the show to life:
Dragons: 23
Different dragon species: 12
Maximum wingspan: 46 feet
Maximum weight: 2.6 tons
Actors: 25
Operators for each dragon: 3 (4 for Toothless)
Load-in crew: 160
Specialized support staff: 20

Each dragon contains:
24 microprocessors
15 hydraulic rams
6 hydraulic motors