Thursday, December 2, 2010

INTERVIEW: One Native Detroiter's Walk with Dinosaurs - Meet Puppeteer Kari Klein

Puppeteer Kari Klein makes dinosaurs come to life
Have you ever met anyone interesting on Twitter?  Well I met a former Detroiter who operates arena size dinosaurs...

One of the things that I love about Twitter is that it has allowed me to connect with people from all over the country that I would usually never have an opportunity of meet.  Recently Twitter helped me to meet one of the puppeteers who worked as part of the stage show “Walking With Dinosaurs – The Arena Experience”. The show came to Detroit in January and I wrote a review about it for my blog. About a month ago, the TV show CSI did an episode that involved the massive “Walking with Dinosaurs” puppets in the storyline.

I tweeted to the CSI followers that I and my son had seen the awesome dinosaurs when the show was touring in Detroit. That tweet was answered by Kari Klein, a former puppeteer for the show. I could not believe that I was actually having a conversation with the woman who made those dinosaurs come to life – and I found out she is originally from Detroit.

Kari graciously granted me an interview so that I could find out more about the woman who walks with dinosaurs...

I was very pleased when I found out you are originally from the Detroit area. Where did you grow up and what are your fond memories of the area? Do you still come back to visit?
I grew up in Waterford and graduated from Waterford Mott. I have so many wonderful memories from growing up in the Metro area: concerts at Pine Knob (I know it's called something else now, but it'll always be Pine Knob to me), Boblo Island (RIP), Belle Isle, Greenfield Village around Christmas & Greek Town but by far my most fond memory is Fall...Driving around the tree lined lakes and eating fresh donuts and cider at the Franklin Cider Mill, miss that very much! I haven't been back to visit in quite awhile since my parents now also live down in Florida and my sister is now on the west side of the state in Grand Rapids. It was a great experience to come home last year when we performed at Cobo Arena. I remember seeing so many different shows there as a kid. And of course I HAD to get a coney dog!!

My ten year old son thinks what you do is totally cool. How does one go about becoming a puppeteer in terms of education and training?
Tell your son thanks, I think it's pretty cool too! Hardly any puppeteer I know has had the same path. It's not like becoming a Doctor or Lawyer...though there are a few Universities that offer degrees in Puppetry (University of Connecticut has an amazing program) For me it happened by accident. I went to college at Western Michigan University, majoring in Fine Arts. My plan, at the time, was to eventually become an animator for the Walt Disney Company and I was lucky enough to get an internship with them down in Orlando. Towards the end of my internship, I went to an open entertainment audition (just for the experience). The main reason they were having the audition was to cast for a new parade, but they were also looking for puppeteers and made everyone go though each of the different types of auditions. Without any experience, I was cast to open a new show as a puppeteer and what I thought would be just a summer job, turned into a career!

How did you get your job with "Walking With Dinosaurs - The Arena Spectacular"?
A friend of mine sent me a video from YouTube, when the show was first being developed. I took one look at it and knew that was what I wanted to do! It wasn't until some time later that a North American tour of the show was announced. I sent them a letter and my resume but didn't hear anything for almost a year! Eventually I did hear from them and was asked to attend an audition, the rest is history!

Your resume says that you were a "Lead Voodoo Puppeteer Plot 1"? Can you please explain in layman terms what that means?
A plot is the team of 2 puppeteers that it takes to perform a dino. It takes 6 puppeteers per show, each in teams of 2, so there are 3 plots. Each team has a Lead and an Auxiliary puppeteer. The Lead puppeteer uses what's called a 'Voodoo Rig' to perform all the large movements of the dino (head, neck, body & tail), the Auxiliary puppeteer performs the smaller more detailed bits of the dino (eyes blinking and looking left and right and the mouth) by using a joystick. They also perform the sounds of each dino. The roars and growls are prerecorded and played back on a keyboard, like a piece of music!

Which of the dinosaurs did you operate and what goes into making them all so life-like in their actions?
I performed the Plateosaurus, Allosaurus, and Ankylosaurus - on occasion I also did the Ornithocheirus, we all took turns performing him. As far as making them life like, it's a combination of cutting edge technology and the classic art of puppetry. As puppeteers we understand how to breathe life into inanimate objects and to develop character. And Sonny Tilders along with the Creature Technology Company created beautifully engineered puppets. They move so fluidly and there's little to no delay between what we do on the voodoo rig and and dino.

Do you have any funny stories to share from your Walking With Dinosaurs gig?
It's difficult to narrow it down! One of the most interesting things was while we were in Mexico for a month of shows. In our second week there, one of our dinos was stolen! That wasn't what was funny, but to watch it explode all over the world news and to see it grossly exaggerated with each report became an on going joke. It ended up being reported that a 5 ft tall, remote controlled dino worth over $100,000 dollars was taken - in reality it was one of the two smallest dinos (one of the baby plateosaurus' that hatches at the beginning of the show), it was about the size of a small cat and not remote controlled or even electronic in anyway. We joked that some kid in Guadalajara was getting a really nice Christmas present or else we were going to see bootleg versions showing up on the streets. OH that's the other thing about Mexico, they set up flea markets outside the arenas we performed in with bootleg merchandise based on our show! I think we all came back with suitcases full of black market goods :).

Actor Larry Fishborne from CSI in the "Death by T-Rex" episode
What went into making the CSI episode featuring the dinosaurs? Believe it or not but it was over a year and a half in the making! They came to us with the idea of centering an episode around our show last summer. We had some of their writers shadow us for a few days to get a feel for the production on and off stage. Shooting was over two days - one day on a soundstage at the Universal Lot and a very long 18 hr day in the arena. The CSI crew was amazing, they were in awe of us and we were in awe of them - it was a great working relationship! Here's some insider info: the shot where they show one of the puppeteers controlling the voodoo rig - That was Patrick, one of our Controls Engineers - The shooting schedule was moving along faster than they anticipated and they were ready to do that shot before any of the puppeteers arrived, so we missed our chance at the spotlight :(

What would you be doing if you were not a Puppeteer?
I would hope that I would have completed my original dream of becoming an animator or something else in the arts...I'm not much of a 9-5'er type ;)

What's next on the horizon for Kari?
I'm still trying to figure that out! Right now I'm taking a much needed break - 2 years on the road is more tiring than I thought it would be! The company that created the Walking With Dinosaurs show is currently creating 2 more shows, just as HUGE. One is a Broadway show of King Kong and the other is a collaboration with Dreamworks to create an arena show based on the hit movie How To Train Your Dragon. Both are over a year away and I hope to be involved with either one of them.

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Watch Kari in action in this short video clip...


Photos of Kari courtesy of Kari Klein.  CSI photo from

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