High-Flying Dragons Bring Live Visuals to New Heights

in Production Profile

How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular photo by Lisa TomasettiNot wanting to rest on their laurels, Global Creatures, the masterminds behind one of the highest-grossing tours of 2010, Walking with Dinosaurs, are once again amazing audiences and pushing the entertainment technology envelope. Having teamed up with DreamWorks Animation, they are now sending dragons soaring through arena skies and immersing audiences in the mythical Viking world of DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular.

Based upon DreamWorks’ Academy Award-nominated film, How to Train Your Dragon, the production has the largest number of animatronics ever to tour the globe, including the beloved dragon Toothless, who weighs over 7,500 pounds and flies over 1.2 miles during a performance. That is equivalent to having a Range Rover SUV soaring through the arena.

How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular photo by Todd KaplanAn Elaborate Show

Four years in the making, the show maximizes every inch of performance space as dragons soar overhead and effects encompass the arena including large-scale cinematic projections. To engage the audience, director Nigel Jamieson and the design team have carefully balanced the amazing creature technology with production values of equally impressive scope to let the dragons inhabit a believable world. Sonny Tilders, the creative director, and his team at the Creature Technology Company, the animatronics arm of Global Creatures, produced 23 dragons representing 12 different species, some with wingspans of up to 46 feet.

Because of the turning radius needed by the dragons, the entire arena floor is utilized, which has pushed all the technology in terms of quantity, placement and coverage. In order to create a suitable stage environment for creatures of such scale, production designer Peter England, projection and costume designer Dan Potra, LD Philip Lethlean and sound designer Peter Hylenski have designed richly-integrated production elements on an unprecedented scope.

One scene that really exemplifies the beautiful integration of the various parts is when the dragons and actors dive underwater. “Everyone talks about the underwater scene,” notes production manager David Wright. “From the production end, it is one of those scenes that is very satisfying in how the audience experiences it; it is the magic at work. Nigel [Jamieson] and the designers are talented illusionists; the way the lighting and the video work makes that magic happen. In the underwater scene there is fantastic lighting, amazing video and sound effects, and then we have eight bubble machines around the perimeter of the show floor. Bubbles filled with helium rise up to the ceiling. It is a wonderful moment in the show; an absolutely lovely scene.”

How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular photo by Jeff BusbyEmphasis on Teamwork

Integration on Dragons really was literally a top-down endeavor, explains Wright. “It is hard to take one department and look at their individual challenges; everyone had to really embrace the fact that it is an integrated show. When we trim AV, it has a cascade effect. Everyone has to trim with the tracks; all choices were determined by consideration of all the departments. That was an important part of the process in planning the show down in Sydney. It was definitely a big benefit to have one company, PRG, supplying all the production packages. As I said, the integration factor for this show is key to its success. The fact that they had an overview of all the departments alleviated a lot of concern that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Everyone working together has made it so much easier, especially as changes or adjustments needed to be made.”

There are two rigging systems on Dragons. For the animatronic dragons themselves, there’s the first-ever touring flight track system, which weighs over 28 tons. The other rig is a static conventional truss system with stage right and stage left truss that extends the entire length of the show floor, with a cross run of truss at mid-arena that runs between them. “The rigging required a lot of focus at the start,” says Wright. “PRG’s first task was the rigging and they delivered a system that has really worked for all the departments; it is the building block for the whole show. They then integrated all the lights, sound, video, and special effects packages.”

Paring the Weight

The primary challenge for the entire team — designers, puppeteers, and technicians — was figuring out how to stay within the roof weight limits. “That was something that all the departments really had to address, and it took a lot of work to get it down to weight and keep the integrity of the show,” describes Wright. “When we originally put the show together in Sydney, we were at 98 tons (196,000 lbs.), then we got down to 84 tons (168,000 lbs.), which was still too much for the arenas in North America, so we had to cut back again to make it fit. Everyone was constantly coming up with ideas of how to combine stuff so that we had less weight; in projection alone they cut three tons for us by changing the hanging method.”

How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular photo by Todd KaplanProjection is Key

Cutting down weight and fitting into the crowded rigging meant that the projection — a central aspect of the Dragons show — would need to be carefully laid out. Projection is the primary scenic element, and it’s at the heart of both transforming the arena and transporting the audience to the Viking world. The projection spans more than 20,000 square feet throughout the entire arena with an upstage center projection wall; custom built out of a perforated sheet metal that is equivalent to nine movie screens combined. The wings on either side of the center wall are built up over the seats. The production also covers the full arena floor with its own flooring and ground rows to create an enormous projection surface. PRG Nocturne provided the video playback system and the projection system. The show has 20 active Barco FLM R22+ 20K projectors and an additional four spare projectors. Playback is handled on three PRG Mbox EXtreme media servers providing content — two main and one backup.

“When you are projecting video over an entire arena floor plus the entire surface of the set and wings into the seats, it takes a lot time trying to find places that will work for the physicality of the image,” explains David Lemmink, PRG Nocturne general manager and director of engineering. “There was a lot of math involved to figure out all of the projector distances. Adding to the challenge was finding the positions in the crowded rig; we are literally within inches of other devices. We had to have enough throw distance, but not be obstructed by the rig or any of the objects that are flying through the area.” Both Wright and Lemmink noted that, obviously, there are times when the dragons do cross paths with the projection beam, but they quickly point out that if an actual dragon flew through the air, it would make a shadow, too.

The final positioning has the projectors shooting down onto the arena floor actually mounted straight down. Damian Walsh, operations manager at PRG Nocturne, notes, “We worked with a lot of people at Barco to make sure that this was a feasible possibility and to clear the mounting method with them. We knew that lamp flicker would be imminent to some extent, so we started with brand new lamps for everything. They are now running the show going on a six-lamp rotation; we rotate six lamps ever 200 hours to keep the overall brightness of the show at a good level. Having the support of Barco has been invaluable.”

How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular photo by Todd KaplanThe bulk of the projectors aimed toward the floor are hung on the stage right and stage left trusses. Another set of projectors hang mid-arena, about where the scoreboard would be; they project onto the front of the set itself. The projectors lighting up the side wings are positioned on the ends of the left and right trusses. “Every position has at least two projectors,” Lemmink notes. “For some areas, there are overlaps of up to four projectors. Everything is edge-blended so that it appears seamless between the quadrants on both the floor and on the set itself. Then there are two HD rasters — floor and set — that are played back by the Mboxes and are synchronized with the soundtrack and dialog. Obviously, to do a raster of the size of an entire arena floor, the projection distance becomes extremely critical, especially since we are projecting straight down. So we are limited by the size of the image that we can create, which essentially required us to break the floor raster into six specific regions that each overlapped. Each one of those uses the extreme spec of the FLM 22K projector. In other words, we are about at, worst-case, as wide as you can go with those projectors.”

Walsh describes the issues with selecting lenses. “We have three double-stacked projectors shooting straight down for a total of six projector stacks; three on each side. It took a couple of weeks of finding the correct math to get these images stacked correctly. The projector trims at 13 to 17 meters (42.65 to 55.77-feet) to the edge of the lens; the trim changes depending on the venue. We are using a fixed lens, which is the worst thing possible to actually have to be using, but with the trim height that we are playing at, we couldn’t go to the first zoom lens. Everything has to be digitally zoomed inside the machine, which, of course, can cause problems itself. But that’s why we have the genius of the amazing projectionists we have out there. We sent two of our best projectionists — Justin McLean and Drew Welker.

How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular photo by Todd Kaplan“The higher trim works better for everybody, because 17 meters falls into what the native throw of the lens is,” Walsh continues. “That’s why we used the 4:3 projectors instead of HD projectors — because it’s more of a square surface than a rectangular surface, 4:3 just made more sense.” The projectors for the floor are stacked conventionally. The upstage center screen employed four projectors, two each that are double-stacked to hit the center screen. Here the projectors are rigged one conventionally and one is upside-down to get the lenses as close together as possible.

For the upstage center screen, the projector lensing was also a consideration. “This was redesigned because the projectionists weren’t happy with the brightness of the image that they were getting to work with every day,” comments Walsh. “When we used a fixed lens, it was somewhat fish-eyed, and it’s got the biggest, widest aperture in the whole suite of lensing. So we ended up going to the shortest zoom lens that Barco makes for the FLM projector; the TLD Ultra 1,25-1.6.”

“We are all really proud here at PRG Nocturne to be part of this production,” Walsh concludes. “It was amazing to work with Global Creatures. They have a very clear vision of what they want to achieve, and it’s exciting to have a client with a great dream but one that is also realistic about attaining it. They were extremely flexible, willing to compromise, yet knew how to never compromise the show. The whole group was just phenomenal and I can’t say enough about David Wright — each different venue poses a whole new set of challenges, and I know he is the right man to handle them.”

After a hugely successful run in both Australia and New Zealand, the How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular is currently in the U.S. on the North American leg of the tour. The worldwide tour is produced by RZO Dragon Productions and exclusively promoted by S2BN Entertainment.

How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular

Creative Team:

Stage Adaptation & Director: Nigel Jamieson

Creative Director: Sonny Tilders

Production Designer: Peter England

Movement Director/Associate Director: Gavin Robins

Costume/Projection Designer: Dan Potra

Lighting Designer: Philip Lethlean

Sound Designer: Peter Hylenski