Multi-talented 19-year-old Sarah McCreanor is trained in dance, musical theater, acting, circus, comedy and music.
She relies on much of that training in her role as Astrid in How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular, the live adaptation of the Dreamworks animated film. But there is one thing for which her varied training did not prepare her.
“I get to fly a dragon. I’d never done that before,” McCreanor told The Beat.
A graduate of Brisbane, Australia’s prestigious Queensland Academy for Creative Industries, McCreanor began the Dragon audition process not having seen the film. (“Maybe a little risky,” she wondered.) At one point, a director gave her somewhat specific direction.
“He said to ‘react to a dragon,’ and he pointed up. I wondered ‘how high?’ ” she laughed.
Actually, at the time, the dragons now used in the show weren’t complete. But in the end, 23 animatronic dragons were built (by Global Creatures, the firm that helped create Walking With Dinosaurs), each weighing more than 2.6 tons, with a max wingspan of 46 feet, and height of up to 40 feet.
Add in that most of the dragons, via a suspended flight track, “fly” out over the audience (Toothless, the lead dragon, flies more than 1.2 miles during each show), and the answer to McCreanor’s questions would seem to be “Pretty high.”
Head puppeteer Gavin Sainsbury supervises the operation of the animatronic dragons, in addition to operating one during each show. In fact, Sainsbury said, each dragon requires two operators – one manning what is called a “voodoo rig” that controls dragon movement including the head, neck, body and tail, as well as its movement around the show floor, the other manipulating the mouth, eyes, sounds and other effects such as “breathing” smoke.
An experienced puppeteer, Sainsbury works with the director to make sure his “actors” work seamlessly to tell the story.
“It’s much like acting, just with a unique method of manipulation,” he explained.
“The dragons don’t speak, but using head movements, eye blinks and the more than 100 specific sounds substitutes for speaking. You can make these creatures very expressive.”
“The first time I saw one of the dragons I was so not even expecting how huge and lifelike they are,” McCreanor said.
“It blows my mind. And I get to ride one!”
The live actors and animatronic dragons are supplemented by a light and laser show that also includes projections of sets and other images spanning more than 20,000 feet throughout the arena.
“At first, you get engulfed in how big and bold the show is,” Sainsbury said.
“After working in it a while, the magical almost becomes normal, but the audience reminds you on a daily basis, when these creatures and characters from the movie are right there in front and above them, how magical it is.”
McCreanor, who has since seen the movie, was quick to add that all of the technology is really to support the telling of a story.
“It’s telling a great story about relationships and courage,” she said.