Humans can tame a flying fire-breathing dragon with a lot of loving care, a sentiment that was true in the DreamWorks' animated film "How to Train Your Dragon," and now the live show featuring animatronic versions of the beasts, including one weighing in at 2 tons and another with a 40-foot wing span.
The robotics, pyrotechnics, acrobatics, acting and video -- a backdrop the size of nine movie screens -- combine to tell the story of an awkward boy named Hiccup, the son of a Viking chief known as a great dragon slayer, and a supposedly fierce beast who becomes Hiccup's friend and ally.
"We stay very true to the story, and it's a story with a message for all ages, about tolerance and understanding and not judging a book by its cover," said Lynda Lavin, the show's resident director.
Her job, she said by phone from the touring show's Toronto stop, is to maintain the vision of its director, Nigel Jameson, and the design team that took several years to create the arena-scale experience.
The show's dragon tamer is Nigel Hodgson, officially head of creature controls, who oversees upkeep of the 23 animatronic puppets that fly and blow smoke and fire during the show. He watches each performance at a main control panel, which shows the detailed status of the operating systems inside the creatures.
"Quite a bizarre way to earn a living. It's very worthwhile, and not just a little bit of magic," he said via phone from Toronto.
"My main focus is the live action and watching each and every move to ensure it's going how we want it to go, just in case we need to intervene and change or stop something. But that's a very rare event, so thankfully I get to just watch the show and interact very little."
Each robotic dragon has three operators -- a driver who takes it to a choreographed position and two puppeteers, one responsible for body movement and another for sounds and effects, like fire.
"Toothless is quite special," Mr. Hodgson said of the show's dragon star, which has the most elaborate system for facial expressions. "It has an extra puppeteer who's looking after the facial and emotional things that it can do to make it look that much more special."
Toothless and his pal Hiccup are integral to a scene that Ms. Lavin said combines all the elements that make the live performance a spectacular. In the movie, it's an underwater rescue.
"It's absolutely beautiful, one of the prettiest scenes in the entire show. It comes in the second act. Toothless is drowning, and the boy who has befriended him, Hiccup, dives in to save him, and Hiccup's father dives in the water to save him," she explained. "It's just done so beautifully with all of the elements of the show: with the video, the automation for flying, with the dragon being incorporated into it all. The way they lift them up with the video going down to give the illusion of the rising to the top of the water, it's just gorgeous."
The technological elements that make that possible are not especially new when looked at individually, said Mr. Hodgson. He was working with the "Walking With Dinosaurs" arena show in Thailand when he got the call from DreamWorks, and he left in October 2010 for Melbourne to be part of the "How to Train Your Dragon" design team.
Putting all the elements together, including a cast of 21 actors, now that was tricky. It takes more than 50 trucks to carry the show from city to city.
"The director's desire for the show was to create a very rich multimedia environment that was almost like immersing yourself into a video game," Mr. Hodgson said. "So the creatures have been blended in with very high-definition elaborate video to make the set look like it's living and moving with the creatures. It's an interesting blending, particularly in an arena on this large scale."
Ms. Lavin's background is theater on a large scale, but nothing like an arena show. She has worked on productions of the musical "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera."
"How to Train Your Dragon Live" was designed to play to the back rows of venues usually used for hockey, basketball and big-ticket concerts.
"The show is so big, we can only play an arena. We couldn't do this in a legit theater like the Benedum, it would never fit in there," she said. The backdrop cuts off about a fourth of Consol's seating, and the action plays out on something akin to a thrust stage -- "just a very big, a 150-foot thrust," she said.
The action and pyrotechnics are a big part of the thrill ride, but there's a story to be told that requires actors and puppeteers to sell what for many families may be familiar characters. Each dragon was created to have its own personality, Ms. Lavin said. "That helps because I don't think anyone thinks when they are becoming actors, I'm going to have to go up against a 40-foot dragon."
The actor who portrays Hiccup, in particular, must interact with Toothless in a way that mirrors their relationship from the movie.
"I think the actors start to lose any inhibitions with it being a robot," Mr. Hodgson said. "They react to it like another actor. Hiccup gets reactions he can bounce off and the puppeteer gets reactions from Hiccup that he can bounce off as well."
It took months of rehearsal at a methodical pace to get the show up to the standards of safety for the actors and the crowd, along with fine-tuning the hi-tech entertainment into a well-oiled machine -- make that dozens of machines, all designed to deliver gasps from audiences of all ages.
"From the very outset, in the first minute of the show, they are being taken through this amazing videoscape to action with pyrotechnics. ... So I think they start the ride very early and are amazed from the first minute," Mr. Hodgson said. "Hopefully, it continues so that every minute holds another surprise."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.