"IT’S pretty amazing."
One can only take Sarah McCreanor's answer as a bit of an understatement, since the question is about what it's like to fly on the back of a dragon.
Not a real dragon, of course, but as close to the real thing as any living person ever has or perhaps ever will. As one of the young stars of the How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular, McCreanor spends part of every show night aboard the back of an 81/2-metre-long animatronic Night Fury named Toothless, soaring four storeys above the arena floor at speeds exceeding 30 km/h.
The 20-year-old native of Brisbane, Australia, is one of two performers who share the role of Astrid, the feisty young Viking girl who is both rival and friend to Hiccup, an unlikely teenage hero whose decision to befriend a wounded dragon causes the mythical ancient village of Berk to reconsider its reputation as the home of dragon slayers.
"In my role, I get to run around onstage, I get to do flips, I do flying, and I even get to fly on a dragon, so it's like a big circus," says McCreanor, during a break between afternoon rehearsal and evening performance at a tour stop in Saskatoon. "I love all the things I get to do, and I never get bored with it. It's really thrilling to do it every night.
"I never imagined I'd be doing something of this scale at any point in my life, let alone at 20 years old. It's overwhelming, and even a year into it, I'm still pinching myself."
The massive live adaptation of the 2010 Dreamworks Animation feature, based on a popular book by Cressida Cowell, opens a four-day run at MTS Centre that includes evening performances Thursday through Saturday and daytime shows (11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) on the weekend.
It's one of the most ambitious live entertainment shows on tour today, bringing 13 massive robotic creatures (representing nine different dragon species) to life in front of a projection screen that covers more than 1,900 square metres (the equivalent of nine full-sized movie screens combined).
The human cast provides the acrobatic heroics, but there's no question that it's the dragons that steal the show. Each of the massive (and, even close up, amazingly lifelike) creatures is controlled by a team of puppeteers -- some stationed inside the animatronic beasts, others working from a remote location -- responsible for everything from huge, sweeping head and wing movements to the most subtle of facial expressions.
"It's pretty awesome," says lead puppeteer Gavin Sainsbury, "because they're so huge, yet they're so responsive. It's not typical that a puppeteer gets control over so much on something so large. As lead puppeteer on this job, I have control of everything from the eyes moving left and right, and the blinks, to the head movements, neck movements, all the major body movements and the tail movements. That's a lot for one puppeteer to look after.
"And there's a person standing at my side, another puppeteer, who activates all the effects (including smoke and fire), all the sounds, the mouth, the wings and some of the trickier bits involved. It's pretty cool -- there aren't many other big puppet shows like this travelling around the world, so we consider ourselves to be pretty lucky."
In the case of the ground-bound dragons that move around on the arena floor, there's also a "driver" stationed inside a small, cleverly camouflaged chassis beneath the dragon's body.
"The driver is a crucial part of our team, responsible for the path and the speed of the creature," says Sainsbury. "So it's three people working very closely (or, in the case of Toothless, four, because of the added complexity of that creature's facial expressions); if any one of those people gets out of sync, it looks foul. We work very hard, constantly, to make sure it looks right."
How To Train Your Dragon builds on the technology developed by The Creature Technology Company for the Walking With Dinosaurs live show that toured the world a few years ago. What makes Dragon different, however, is that it's a fictional yarn filled with mythical creatures and a storyline that requires its human and robotic stars to create drama and emotion.
"It's a lot more fun, actually," says Sainsbury. "With Dinosaurs, we had to follow what the BBC had created (for television), and it had to be 'correct.' With this show, based on the Dreamworks film that had these great characters that are very funny and expressive, they've kind of let the director and us run riot with it to some degree.
"There's a lot of room for comedy, and we've actually discovered things during performances that we find that we can build on.... We can have a load of fun developing these characters as we go. Dinosaurs equals historical; Dragon equals mythical; it's a good step forward for us. Don't get me wrong, I loved Walking With Dinosaurs, but this is a step up on the fun level."
Clearly, both the puppeteer and the actor agree that the How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular is providing an experience that they won't soon forget. And they're confident that Winnipeg audiences will leave the MTS Centre feeling that they've seen something pretty special.
"We all love it," says Sainsbury. "I think we all really enjoy it every time we do it. ... They are very cool toys, and to have it be your job to perform with them is highly desirable, in my eyes. I get to brag about what a cool job I have."
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Tipping the scales
A few fun figures related to How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular:
13 -- number of animatronic dragons in the show (representing nine different species)
14 -- wingspan of largest dragon, in metres
1,450 -- average weight of large dragons, in kilograms
1.7 -- number of kilometres of "dragon skin" created for the show
270 -- length of hydraulic hoses in each large dragon, in metres
25,400 -- weight of the show's overhead flight-track system, in kilograms
3,400 -- weight of flying version of Toothless, the show's dragon star, in kilograms
91,000 -- approximate weight of the entire show, in kilograms
1.9 -- distance Toothless flies during the show, in kilometres
85 -- number of cast and crew members traveling with the show
30 -- number of semi-trailers required to transport the show
36 -- number of hours it takes a crew of 161 to set up the show in each city
1 -- where How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular ranked in touring-show box office in 2010, ahead of Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Black Eyed Peas