Performing Arts: Dragon Training — A Primer

Dreamworks’ new show takes the Verizon Center by fire-breathing dragon.

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Red Death attack (Photo by Todd Kaplan)

Other than their low, low prices and seemingly never ending rows of camping equipment, sugary cereals and flat-panel TVs, there aren’t many enticements that would draw me in early to my neighborhood Walmart on any given Saturday.

Free dragon training, however, might be the rare exception.

So when the kind marketing folks at Dreamworks Animation sent Washington Life a Very Important Media Advisory last week about the appearance of life-like dragons in Aisle 12 of Walmart Store #7653 on Richmond Highway, I was there.

With breathless anticipation, my two minis dragged me from bed at some ungodly hour last Saturday, furiously waiving said Media Advisory, claiming there was no possible way that any right-minded father/journalist would ignore such an Important Media Advisory/Press Event happening that morning at the Walmart up the street.

And sure enough, there it was, its oversized head protruding over the camping equipment and jumbo Frito bags, “Deadly Nadder,” from “How to Train Your Dragon Spectacular,” which opens for just eight performances beginning today, July 19, at the Verizon Center.

My kids giggled with delight. The faux fear only occurred twice.

"Gronckle" and "Deadly Nadder" with Dreamworks' (Photo courtesy Dreamworks Animation)

Measuring 39 feet long, with a wingspan of 30 feet and a height at shoulder that tops two Wizards players, Deadly Nadder was everything fearsome he was cracked up to be.

A monstrous nightmare for the mortal Soccer Mom perusing the produce two aisles over, Nadder huffed, puffed and shot smoke to set fire to the skilled dragon slayer Dreamworks Animation flew in from Burbank to contain the beast.

OK I made that part up, but you get the picture.

Deadly Nadder is one of the five largest dragons Dreamworks is trucking in on 52 semis to the Verizon Center this weekend for its full-on dragon extravaganza. All told, 23 dragons representing 12 different species with such fearsome names as “Gronckle,” “Red Death” and “Night Fury” — a toothless wonder measuring 33 feet across — complete the inventory of prehistoric beastoids calling the Nation’s Capital home until July 22 when the show ends.

The dragons are a sight to behold. And build.

Nightmare attack during dragon Olympics (Photo by Todd Kaplan)

Each contains 885 feet of hydraulic hose and 1,000 square feet of dragon skin, taking 430 cubic feet of foam, 20 gallons of paint and half a mile of cabling in each body. It takes a full 24 microprocessors to control movement along with 15 hydraulic rams and six hydraulic motors to make these suckers move. To build each one from scratch requires more parts than a Jersey junkyard: 500 bearings, 3,000 nuts and bolts, 7,000 square feet of bungee cord (yes, bungee cord), and over 10,000 square feet of steel.

And it takes a team larger than a Midwestern family to operate each dragon. Weighing in at 2.6 tons, about the size of a standard family car, it takes three people or more to operate each dragon.

One driver controls the dragon’s direction and speed, while one lead puppeteer (a job description which sounds, well, so friendly) controls all the body and head movements. An auxiliary puppeteer controls wings, mouth and vocalizations.

"Astrid" () with "Toothless" (Photo by Todd Kaplan)

Toothless, being the most complicated animatronics ever created by Creature Technology Company, takes an average team of four.

Night Fury, we are told, has a full range of facial expressions and emotions; the toothless boom took 15 months to build with the help of 65 practitioners and has 16 separate wireless networks to coordinate, communicate and control everything from its eye blink to what we anticipate will be a full-on flame ball explosion.

The other dragons in town also have a few redeeming qualities to report: Gronckle can apparently blow smoke rings 100 feet across the floor, and Red Death, at 66 feet long, is the largest animatronic the company has ever built.

Lest we forget the six Flying Dragons and the rest of the dragon family which make up the show, we are told there will also be a passel of monstrous nightmares in town, including Stingers, Kite dragons, Shadow Puppets, and other chassis-based dragons making the Nation’s Capital their home this weekend.

A technician works on "Gronckle" (Photo courtesy Dreamworks Animation)

If you’re into the kind of wild imagineering coming out of Hollywood these days, the production of the show itself might be just the thing for you. The backwall is nine movie screens combined, with nearly 21,000 square feet of screen surface and 21 million pixels. The show floor is held together by 28,000 magnets. “If the cables used in the show were laid out end to end, they would stretch from L.A. to New York,” according to press documents. “There are more automation cues in the opening sequence of the show than a standard Broadway musical has in a night.”

“How to Train Your Dragon Spectacular” is one of the most ambitious theatrical technologies ever to tour arenas, we are told, with a complicated system drawing from car manufacturing plants, railroads and roller-coasters that has never been attempted for a touring show before.

Each section of the track is individually powered for safety reasons and each flight carriage weighs as much as an elephant. Once fully assembled and loaded with dragons, it weighs 28 tons. The heaviest carriage (Toothless’) weighs about 7,500 pounds — about the weight of a Range Rover. Over the course of the show, Toothless travels about 1.2 miles on the flight track and the dragons travel up to speeds of 15 to 20 miles per hour.

The way it works is that the creatures scan a barcode strip as they run around the track which tells them where they are at all times. Each carriage has a series of winches and liner actuators capable of top speeds of up to 10 feet per second.

It takes a small city to bring the show to life, with a team of about 160 technicians working 36 hours straight to set up. The touring company is made up of 85 touring cast and crew, who bring it all in on 30 52 foot semi-trailers. If traveling as a convoy, the trucks would stretch over a half mile when parked nose to tail.

Barney Rubble could not have explained it better. Dragons, let the rumbling begin.

The tour schedule can be found here. Tickets for the Verizon shows are on sale now at Ticketmaster, with prices starting at $24.50; 800-745-3000.

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