Robotic monsters soar, roar in Albany (with video)

Formidable monsters will show up in the city tonight — with mystical flames, majestic smoke and myth
Young Vikings Hiccup (Riley Miner) and Astrid (Gemma Nguyen) take a colorful ride on Toothless, one of the dragon aerialists in “How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular.†The show features huge, realistic dragons and
Young Vikings Hiccup (Riley Miner) and Astrid (Gemma Nguyen) take a colorful ride on Toothless, one of the dragon aerialists in “How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular.†The show features huge, realistic dragons and

Monster trucks visit Albany on a regular basis and bring traditional fire, fumes and noise.

More formidable monsters will show up in the city tonight — with mystical flames, majestic smoke and mythical roars. And unlike the models from Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford, these guys have personality.

“How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular” begins its four-day, seven-show engagement at the Times Union Center with a 7 p.m. performance.

The show, inspired by the 2010 DreamWorks animated film that starred dragons and Vikings, features 23 robotic dragons on the floor and in the air. Norse warriors, circus artists and acrobats are also in the mix, so there will be plenty to watch.

Australians Gavin Sainsbury and Nigel Hodgson will be watching every move made by characters like Toothless, Monstrous Nightmare and Red Death. As head puppeteer and head of creature controls, respectively, the two make sure the dragons belch, blink and bellow on cue.

For decades, dragons have been popular choices for characters in movies, comic books, video games and role-playing games. They generally have menacing looks, with colorful names to match their fiery spirits — such as Vermithrax Pejorative, Saphira, Draco, Smaug and Fin Fang Foom.

‘How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular’

WHERE: Times Union Center, 51 South Pearl Center, Albany

WHEN: 7 p.m. tonight and Friday; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $122.50-$22.50


“I think it’s a nice world for everybody to slip into once in a while and escape reality,” said Hodgson, speaking from the recent “Train Your Dragon” stop in Buffalo. “We know dragons aren’t real.”

Sainsbury hopes people will suspend belief during the two-hour-and-20-minute shows. The dragons were created by Australia’s Creature Technology Company, which designed the prehistoric giants of “Walking With Dinosaurs — the Arena Spectacular,” a show based on the popular 1999 BBC television series.

Everything is super-sized. Toothless is nine feet high at the shoulder, 28 feet long and stretches out with a 33-foot wingspan. The Red Death is the largest animatronic animal ever built. His head and neck measure 39 feet, his head is 16 feet wide and 20 feet high. The monster’s tail is 66 feet long. Monstrous Nightmare has a 46-foot wingspan.

Internal workings

Inside the guts of each dragon are 885 feet of hydraulic hose, 18 truck batteries and half a mile’s worth of cables. On the outside are 1,000 feet of dragon “skin” and 20 gallons of paint.

Sainsbury said each dragon is operated by two puppeteers using remote control technology. The lead technician will move the dragon’s head, neck, body and tail. He’ll also “blink” the large, yellow or green eyes. An assistant puppeteer will control the dragon’s mouth, activate sounds and turn on special effects, such as smoke rings. “They also look after the wings,” Sainsbury said.

A third member of the team moves the dragon itself.

“The dragon driver is the person in the low-profile carriage underneath the dragon,” Sainsbury said. “They’re responsible for the path the creatures take as well as the speed. We call them the racing car drivers of the dragon world. If they speed up, so does the creature and so do the legs. If they slow down, so do the creatures.”

It’s work. But it’s also kind of fun.

“These are big boy toys,” Sainsbury said. “I’m not supposed to refer to them as toys because they’re million-dollar pieces of amazing, animatronic robotics. But when you get a hold of these things, you can make them do all these amazing things, fun things every show.

“A good puppeteer with a good puppet can do great things,” he added. “I think that’s what we’ve got here, a good combination of puppet and puppeteer.”

Dragons will take wing during the show, and the technology behind the flights is simple to understand.

Sainsbury said a track is suspended from the arena ceiling, with carriages attached. “Under the carriages are the dragons, they move along the track,” he said.

Fully assembled and loaded with dragons, the flight track system weighs almost 62,000 pounds. The heaviest carriage is for Toothless — 7,500 pounds. The star dragon travels over a mile on the flight track; the dragons “fly” at speeds between 15 and 20 miles per hour.

On the road, the dragons and all their gear fill 30 52-foot semi-trailers. It takes 161 people 36 hours to set up the show — but just 10 hours to load out.

Sainsbury worked on the “Walking with Dinosaurs” tour and welcomed the chance to work on the new show, with new creatures. The dragons get their own personalities, thanks to head and eye movements and other subtle motions puppeteers build into their routines.

Gronckle, a green, short-winged dragon, is Sainsbury’s favorite fire-breather. “He’s like a cheeky bulldog, he gets a lot of laughs during the show, he’s the silly dragon,” he said. “He’ll blow a lot of smoke rings.”

He admits it would be great fun to take one of the show’s dragons out to a neighborhood park, the way other people show up with kites or model airplanes. But he said producers would have a problem with such a freelance excursion.

“And I think getting them there would be pretty difficult as well,” he said.

Actors on the floor get to know their dragons.

“They actually form a relationship with these guys,” said Hodgson, “which is akin to working with another actor. They’re bouncing off each other, the puppeteer responds. It’s almost like having a real live creature on stage, kind of like an ensemble drama play.”

Kids know the score

While children of another era might have been terrorized to see robotic interpretations of Dracula, the Wolfman or Frankenstein’s monster, Hodgson believes children in the stands know the dragons from the movie, and are not scared by their appearances. And there’s a happy ending for the Norsemen and their winged adversaries in both the movie and live shows — something that never happened when Frankenstein and his pals were on the loose.

“The kids are excited to see the characters come alive,” Sainsbury said.

Hodgson said people should not expect to hear the dragons talk during the show.

“There are no English words,” he said. “Just some dragon-speak.”

Categories: Entertainment

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