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I went face-to-face with a breathing dinosaur

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The” Jurassic World” dinosaurs are coming to arenas this fall in a new traveling show.
Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

BURBANK, Calif. – It’s actually not the teeth that get your attention first. 

It’s the eyes.

The velociraptor’s yellow eyeballs don’t exactly look at you but through you, a soul-piercing kind of stare that suggests she’s wondering just how salty your skin tastes.

At least that’s how I feel when I’m stalked by one of the dinosaur puppets from the Jurassic World Live Tour, a traveling stage show that arrives in dozens of U.S. arenas starting Sept. 26 in Columbus, Ohio, and runs through 2020. 

My raptor encounter takes place in a nondescript building that looks like a dentist’s office and smells like freshly baked bread. The first clue that I’m in the right location (which is located next to a bakery): A sign on a door that reads “DINOSAUR CROSSING.” I walk inside, and it turns out to be a portal to the Jurassic era where dinosaurs roam.

Almost. The door leads to a place affectionately known as Dino Headquarters, where humongous, scaly animals are created for the Jurassic World Live Tour.

For those dinos to roam as they should, they need “dinoteers” (as they call the puppetmasters here at Dino Headquarters) to embody them, such as Robert Gardner, who makes his way inside a 17-foot-long piece of machinery-turned-living dinosaur. He moves her head, limbs and jaw. You can see his black spandex-clad legs if you look for them. 

And I can also see dinos-in-progress: a mama stegosaurus whose skull hasn’t been attached to her body yet, a different velociraptor whose translucent head reveals batteries and wires, a triceratops with holes where her horns will be. 

But no matter. My heart still races when the velociraptor’s nose is pointed my way. It’s a testament to how well the “Jurassic” movies have instilled an illogical fear of extinct creatures, how true the Jurassic World Live team stayed to the animals from the movie, and how high-tech animatronic puppets have gotten in order to tell stories about prehistoric creatures.

Wait, did she just blink after she started walking toward me? Yeah, I ran.

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Chris Nobles, an associate producer of the Jurassic World Live Tour, assured me that the velociraptors’ eyelids do move. The reptiles are also programmed to appear as though they’re breathing and looking around. 

“They’re alive,” he jokes.

The velociraptor I met is one of 24 dinosaurs in the touring production of the live show that’s set right after 2015’s “Jurassic World,” when the Jurassic World resort falls and the destructive Indominus Rex breaks into a scientist’s lab. The story of the show ends three months before the 2018 sequel “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” begins. 

The show features new human and dinosaur characters that aren’t in the movies, but also old favorites. You couldn’t do a “Jurassic” story without a T. rex. And this one is 43 feet long.

“With (computer graphics), you can do a lot of amazing things. We had to get the same types of movements, same type of agility, same type of speed (as in the movie), without CGI. It’s been about two years in the making of bringing the dinosaurs to life,” says Nobles, whose production company worked with Universal and “Jurassic” directors Steven Spielberg and Colin Trevorrow to make sure the stage dinosaurs are identical to the film versions.

But dinoteers see something that viewers don’t in the movies: The way the dinosaurs look from the inside.

A camera screen within the dino provides “a little bit of visibility,” says Gardner of working a velociraptor. While bringing the animal to life, he bears the weight of the 135-pound puppet on his shoulders, back and hips. 

“It’s kind of like being a fighter pilot: You move joysticks around, you’re pulling all sorts of levers and triggers,” he says. “As long as I keep the head looking alive, you’re going to be scared of her, because that head is big enough to consume half of a person.”

But Gardner might also operate a stegosaurus that would have him crawling on stilts or a T. rex that’s operated via remote control by someone outside of the carnivore.

“This is a dream come true for me. I always went around pretending I was a dinosaur, but now I get to do it in a state of the art, spared-no-expense puppet,” he says with a smile. 

Gardner lets me join the fun. Once he’s out of the velociraptor, I take a closer look. I gently touch her rubbery neck skin. I go inside the belly of the beast, where it’s quite cramped and hot. (Against my objections, they prop the dinosaur up on a wooden box because no one trusts me to hold her weight on my own.) 

I’m grateful for a tiny fan right near a monitor below her mouth, which displays a camera feed. I can’t see much, but I do see what looks like a bicycle brake. I flick it; her wrist moves. I notice a joystick and jerk it; her head follows. Gardner points out controllers for her thumb and jaw. I move them all in an attempt to tilt her head like a curious puppy. I am one with the dinosaur. 

On the way out, I make sure to graciously thank the velociraptor. It works. She doesn’t try to eat me.

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