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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

Walking with Dinosaurs

Two weekends ago, I went to see Walking with Dinosaurs. For those who don’t know what it is, it’s this arena spectacular where you travel through time and see life-size dinosaurs walk, eat, fight and thrive in front of your eyes. It was done using gigantic puppets, and I became interested in it after seeing the documentary on PBS. So when the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry was putting together a group to see it, along with a tour backstage afterwards, I thought, “Of course!” and grabbed a ticket right away.

Here’s what happened that night:

I drove to Staples Center and was going to park in the venue’s parking structure, but there was something blocking the street. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I drove around a little more and eventually parked at a public parking lot (which is really private as we all know) right across Staples Center. For Los Angeles and being right across the street, 10 dollars was a pretty good price. The show was already about to start, though, so all few remaining spaces were open for a good reason: the two cars next to it were closer to the spot than desired. But oh well, I guess I got no choice. It was kinda fun to squeeze out of the door, as you can see in the picture.

I went in there and proceeded to find my seat. By the time I sat down, it was 6:58pm, so I was pretty much right on the dot for the 7pm show time. The show did not start right away, probably because they expected people to take longer to get seated with the number of kids in the crowd. I sat down and started talking to the person next to me. His name was David and he just flew in from Seattle the day before for the show and to see the old friends in the guild. Now that was commitment! And the lights came down and the show was starting. I told myself that I was going to be out of my mind.

The show began with the narrator introducing us to the baby dinosaurs getting out of their eggs. And then a bigger dinosaur came out to snatch it for food. This was a suit puppet. The movements were pretty fluid and dinosaur-like (as far as I can tell). The only thing that was a little odd was that the puppeteer’s knees bend forward while the dinosaur’s knees bend backward, so it looked like it has two sets of knees. Still, I was thinking “this was pretty cool puppetry”. And then the bigger puppets came out. These were radio controlled puppets that were big, but somehow moved impressively life-like as well.

I took this picture, and that’s when it occurred to me: “Wait, I am here to watch the show, not take pictures!” I didn’t pay for a seat on the lowest level to take pictures. I was there to soak up the whole experience and be out of my mind. Heck, there were probably way better pictures on Flickr anyway! So I put my camera away. And then what followed was an experience that I have had watching many puppet shows: I started out observing and noticing how the puppets work and how the puppeteering was done, but eventually I was too busy watching these characters come to life and do their stuff to actually pay attention to those things. These were not a bunch of mechanisms manipulated by puppeteers, these were just dinosaurs. That’s what good puppeteering was. You forgot about the puppeteer.

I think many audience members’ favorite bit was the part with the T. rexes. The baby T. rex was cornered by two big dinosaurs. Then Mama T. rex came to the rescue. And then mom roared to the audience while the baby did his best impression of it. Let’s just say that he got a long way to go. Some of the dinosaurs, like the Brachiosaurus, were so big that they came close to hitting the lights hanging from the ceiling. Many of the dinosaurs were several stories tall and I would not want to be chased by any of them.

The dinosaur puppets were quite sophisticated, but there were many things that were quite simple but effective as well. For example, I really liked the plants. They were essentially just gigantic balloons, but when they were inflated and deflated, it conveyed the growth and death of plants really well. I also liked the butterflies. They really did look like butterflies flying amongst the plants, even though on the objective level, I knew they were just pieces of paper being blown at by air from beneath. They were simple surprises that really brought the environment to life.

My words couldn’t really do this show justice, but let me just say this: I watched the whole thing with a silly grin on my face. I really enjoyed the show. Someone told me that the show was targeted at kids of age nine. Well, perfect. That was about my mental age and maturity level. 😀

After the show, there was something else to be excited about: the backstage tour. (Did I mention that the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry was really awesome? Yeah it is.) We first went backstage to see the dinosaurs. They were all plugged into the wall charging for the next show. We were allowed to touch the skin of the dinosaurs, as long as we stayed away from the movable mechanisms. They were made of spandex so they felt like… well, spandex. But it was cool that they painted them in such a way that they looked like skin. The radio controlled dinosaurs sat on chassis, and each had a driver inside driving the dinosaurs to different places on the stage. The walk cycle mechanism was also attached to the chassis. Many parts of the dinosaurs were essentially balloons to reduce weight. After the show, the air was let out so some of them looked like starving dinosaurs.

After that, we headed to the voodoo lounge where the puppeteers controlled the dinosaurs. Each radio controlled dinosaur had two puppeteers in addition to the driver. The lead puppeteer would twist and turn this neck-like device, appropriately called the voodoo rig, and the dinosaur on stage would move their bodies accordingly. The auxiliary puppeteer had a joystick that controlled the smaller movements like eyes and mouth. They also got a keyboard that controlled the sounds. The puppeteer Ed told us that the T.rex’s final dramatic roar was right next to the fart sound and no mistake had been made so far.

While much of this information could be found in documentaries and interviews, the people giving the tour went into a lot more details on which button did what, which parts were hydraulics, how the puppets were balanced, and the unique quirks in puppeteering. For example, since the puppets could be facing toward or away from the puppeteers, sometimes the left and right was reversed, but sometimes not. That took some getting used to. It was an informative tour cuz there were no dumbing down for this audience.

It was quite a fun night. Once again, thanks to the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry for putting this outing together. The North American tour is over now, so if you want to see it, you can still catch it in Europe and Asia! Actually, you never know. Maybe that tour company will come back to North America, or head to Australia. If you want to learn more about the behind the scenes details, check out these articles. I definitely recommend the show if you have a chance to see it!

A Happy Birthday

It was my birthday four weeks ago. And I am writing about it just now because I am a procrastinator. But that is actually quite fitting because I was also quite a procrastinator regarding my birthday.

When I was a kid, my dad would get go get a cake for my birthday and my family would eat it together. My birthday was during summer vacation so I’ve always associated celebrating it with family, rather than friends. As an adult, I never really felt like celebrating it all that much. After all, what’s there to celebrate? I didn’t actually do much to make it happen. It was all my parents efforts, aside from that I was born one day after my dad’s birthday and my parents’ theory was that I smelled my dad’s birthday cake and decided to come out.

So, I don’t really have the habit of celebrating it. Sure, sometimes I would take the day off but usually that was about it. It was just another day. However, every few years, I would decide to celebrate it on a whim. In 2006, I sent out an invitation asking people to “come by and have cake” just 22 hours beforehand. This year, I upgraded the event to “Play with puppets! Eat cake!” Look, a doubling of the planned activities! Wow! And I sent out the invitation three days in advance. That was triple the notice! Wow!

It was really more as an excuse to have a gathering because I wanted to see some friends, which I stated in the invitation and was true. I also said that I didn’t want presents but just friends’ presence, which was also true. Since my birthday was on a Tuesday this year, I also said I wouldn’t be drinking. I was never into drinking anyway. (But the side effect of that was that since I said no presents and not drinking, several of them decided to bring me non-alcoholic drinks so my fridge had a ridiculous amount of drinks afterwards.)

So in the beginning, we were just sitting there chatting. After a while, I decided that it was time to break out the puppets. So I brought them out and had a little bit of a show-and-tell. People asked questions about puppeteering and puppet-making and I showed them some of the fun stuff I learned. And then I said I wanted to see everyone to put on a puppet and start talking to one another, which everyone did and goofy conversations ensued. That kind of silliness was what I liked. I would rather have that than drunken debauchery any day. Then everybody decided to sing happy birthday to me with the puppets, which was pretty awesome. Then we had (coffee ice cream) cake.

It was a great night for me. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday. (Actually I probably could have asked for a better one, and not actually get it.) I would like to thank everyone (Rex, Rick, Crisman, Anisha, Beckie, Tru, Jarrett, Jerry, Raymond) for coming, and many others for wishing me a happy birthday on Facebook and on the phone.

In retrospect, everything actually turned out just right, number-wise. I had twelve puppets, twelve slices of cake and a not-so-big apartment. If there were too many people, the place would probably be too packed and I probably wouldn’t have the chance to really talk to everyone. If there were very few people, it would probably be a little sad. And the people that showed up were not casual acquaintances (not that I invited any) but some of my favorite people in the whole wide world. So yeah, it turned out pretty good. I am glad I did this. Who knows, maybe we’ll do it again in a few years. 😀

PS. No, don’t go wishing me happy birthday now cuz it was over long ago. I just wanted to write it down. That’s all.