In his hands, dragons come to life

Michael Latini, the puppeteer
Michael Latini, the puppeteer
Posted: September 08, 2012

Michael Latini is a puppeteer. But when he goes to work nowadays, he doesn't pick up the strings of a marionette or put his hand in a foam monster or a painted sock.

Instead, he takes hold of a metal spine and manipulates its joints, wirelessly commanding a gigantic dragon with a wingspan of up to 60 feet.

Latini, a Philadelphia native who lives in Elkins Park, is on a two-year tour of North America as one of a dozen puppeteers who operate 23 winged monsters, the nonhuman cast of the live arena show How to Train Your Dragon. He and his troupe of mythical creatures will descend on Philadelphia from Wednesday to next Sunday when the show, based on the children's book series and DreamWorks film of the same name, plays at the Wells Fargo Center.

"Puppetry itself is really just manipulating any inanimate object to bring life to it," said Latini, 33. In the case of this show, three puppeteers operate each dragon. One sits below the dragon to drive it around the stage, one uses the metal spine to remotely control its limbs, and one wirelessly operates its mouth and wings. The star dragon, Toothless, gets four puppeteers - the additional operator works the dragon's facial expressions, since the show calls for lifelike actions from Toothless such as snarls and sniffs.

"He can express anger and surprise and happiness. It's really amazing," Latini said.

The only dragons whose movements and sounds are programmed rather than performed live for each show are those that fly. Their movements are choreographed to match perfectly the flashy show's video projections.

"Going to the movies is great to see special effects and everything," Latini said, "but who wouldn't take the opportunity to be able to see in person some of those creatures, to be able to see the true 3-D, not just the 3-D movie?"

Hand-painted spandex skin stretched over beanbag muscles gives the dragons their realistic look. Underneath, they have a steel structure supported by bungee cords. Their motion is powered by hydraulic pumps. Toothless is about the size and weight of a Land Rover, Latini said, while some of his winged castmates are as tall as a three-story building.

Latini is accustomed to high-tech puppets. He has performed as a puppeteer for theatrical productions like Little Shop of Horrors and built puppets for shows including Rugrats, LIVE!, Dora the Explorer, LIVE!, and Broadway productions of Flower Drum Song and Avenue Q.

He is happy to do all things puppet. "When I'm performing a lot, all I want to do is go build something, and when I'm building, I want to go perform," said the Tyler School of Art graduate. "It's the perfect industry for me, because I get to design, I get to direct, I get to produce, I get to perform, I get to build."

Not to mention train dragons.


Contact Julie Zauzmer

at 215-854-5289 or jzauzmer@philly.com.

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