TELEVISION : Primal Secrets From the World of 'Dinosaurs' : Disney reveals both the wizardry and the wizards behind the prehistoric stars of a prime-time sitcom

Mack Wilson stood on the fringe of a dark, cool sound stage and stared intently at the monitor before him, waiting for the director's cue. Wilson slipped his right hand into a mechanical glove, hard-wired to a master-control computer. His left hand gripped a joy stick that would drive Nintendo junkies giddy--a swiveling wrist mechanism, separate push-buttons for each finger and an independent joy stick for the thumb.

Twenty-five feet away on a dense jungle set spilling over with fog and prehistoric flora, Bill Barretta also waited for the director's cue. Barretta, in constant contact with Wilson via radio headset, squatted inside a hot, sweaty foam-latex dinosaur suit. An assistant held a small electronic fan to the mouth of the fubsy dinosaur to cool off Barretta.

Meet the puppet team behind--and inside--Earl Sinclair, the megalosaurus star of ABC's prime-time comedy series, "Dinosaurs," from Jim Henson Productions and Michael Jacobs Productions with Walt Disney Television.

Remember when puppets weren't much more than a sock with buttons for eyes? The walking, talking, mugging creatures from "Dinosaurs" are prodigies of electronic, mechanical and computer engineering, manipulated by performance artists who have made it their life work.

"Dinosaurs," a 1950s-style sitcom about a wise-cracking family of blue-collar dinosaurs whose daily lives are a comment on modern times, stomped its competition during a smash five-episode run beginning last April. The premiere episode of the series, accompanied by a banzai of network promotion, was seen by three out of four children watching television in America that night. For several weeks, "Dinosaurs" ranked in the Top 10 of all series on television and was the No. 1 show among all viewers under 50.

But this fall, "Dinosaurs" has been suffering through something of an Ice Age.

Encouraged by early promise, ABC this season took a chance with "Dinosaurs," pulling the fledgling series from its sheltered Friday-night time slot--behind ratings powerhouse "Full House"--to head up ABC's Wednesday-night comedy block. The results have been mixed. "Dinosaurs" retained its core audience, remaining the most-watched TV show by children 2 to 11. But the series plunged in overall ratings. Last week, "Dinosaurs" finished 43rd out of 93 shows on the four major networks and regularly finishes second in its time slot.

"I think it's fair to say we were made somewhat nervous by the (scheduling) move," said Dean Valentine, Disney's executive vice president of network television. "Producers want to see their show protected for at least a year and have audiences fed (into it) before you're put into an 8 p.m. time slot, where you're responsible for an entire evening's lineup. We weren't sure the show was ready for that."

As long as the series has been on the air, the "Dinosaurs" set has been strictly off limits to the press. Recently, however, Disney's publicity department rolled out the red carpet for The Times to take a peek behind the scenes. The producers shrug off the suggestion that their defenses have suddenly come down to push ratings up.

"That is very cynical indeed because it's completely untrue," series creator and executive producer Michael Jacobs said. "We said all along that for the first season we would have no press on the set, because we did not want to blow the integrity of the show for kids. I didn't want the press around because the angle would have been to take pictures of these creatures with their heads off. It's like 'Alf': Do you want to see pictures of Alf or somebody's hand up Alf?

"I wasn't going to have it. It's the kids who come first, and I didn't want to blow the fantasy for kids."

Now that the "Dinosaurs" characters are living entities that many children have come to know and believe are real, the producers reason that it's OK to start letting people in to take a look.

On the director's signal, the puppet team went to work. Earl, a sort of reptilian knockoff of Ralph Kramden from "The Honeymooners," bounded onto the jungle set propelled by Barretta, who says he can see where he's going only when Earl's huge mouth is open.

"Hang on, Robbie, Daddy's coming!" boomed Earl, who was searching for his lost scaly green son, a 14-year-old herbivore with a Mohawk.

Off stage, Wilson's hands were a flurry of activity, as each minute movement activated one of the 30 tiny servos and motors implanted in Earl's head to operate his mouth, eyes and facial expressions. During filming, Wilson records Earl's dialogue live into a microphone as he maneuvers Earl's head. Later, in a recording studio, Wilson's voice is dubbed over by the gruff voice of Stuart Pankin from HBO's "Not Necessarily the News," which is what viewers hear on television.

After delivering his line, Earl turned to thunder away--only to blunder over some low shrubs with his big feet and land on his face. The fall wasn't in the script. Fearing the worst, crew members rushed to Barretta's side to see if he was OK. But when they rolled him over, from deep inside Earl's chest they heard the muffled belly laughs of Barretta.

The capabilities and limitations of the complex "Dinosaurs" puppets--Earl, by the way, sustained the fall quite nicely--are still being explored. The same puppet technology was used to bring the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" to life on film, but the Henson people say the "Dinosaurs" characters are even more refined.

The technique is commonly referred to as animatronics, although to the Henson group it's still puppetry. Jim Henson first fully explored this technique in his 1982 film "The Dark Crystal," which defied critics to describe the dazzling fantasy world Henson invented. At that time, eight puppeteers--each controlling a single facial movement of a major characters--were required to do what Wilson now does alone on Earl.

"You're creating life at the same time you're trying to remember dialogue and operate all these servos," Wilson said. "The combination of expressions are endless."

The hand controls that operate Earl are hooked directly into a computer, called the puppet control system, into which the puppeteer programs each move. Wilson demonstrated: By wiggling the fingers of his right hand inside the mechanical glove, he made Earl's mallable lips curl. Moving his hand left produced a "Ffff" from Earl's lips, and moving his hand right got an "Ohhh." Tilting his hand down made Earl smile.

"I would say this is the hardest show to produce in television," said Ted Harbert, ABC's executive vice president of prime time. "It's just ridiculous. It's almost impossible."

"Dinosaurs" represents a tremendous investment for Disney and ABC. Rumors on the Disney lot and in the financial community have placed the budget between $1 million and $1.5 million per episode--which, if true, is more than the cost of most one-hour series. Weekly Variety estimated that the network is paying Disney a $650,000 licensing fee to air each episode of "Dinosaurs," compared to the average fee of $450,000 for a half-hour comedy.

"It's an expensive show to do," acknowledged Disney's Valentine, who would not reveal the budget. "But it's not out of the ballpark. Clearly if it were, if the number were so outrageous that somebody would gasp and keel over at the sound of it, that's something we would not do. We're known as a fiscally conservative company.

"As fiscally conservative as we are, there are certain projects that we love, and this is one of them. Everybody's been behind this project from the very first day. It would be a mistake to underestimate the value of excitement."

When the Walt Disney Co. was negotiating to buy Jim Henson Productions a year and a half ago, the deal seemed like a marriage forged in Fantasyland. Mickey Mouse and Kermit the Frog are the embodiments of childhood for millions of people around the globe. Disney is still regarded as the industry leader in animation and Henson raised puppetry to a new level of sophistication. Working together, the creative possibilities appeared limitless.

The relationship got off to a quick start when Henson presented Disney his vision of a prehistoric sitcom starring dinosaurs. Disney agreed to supply the financing and hire producers to create the series, while Henson's company took care of the set and puppet designs.

But when Henson died last year of a strep infection, buy-out talks collapsed and a heated legal battle ensued. Last May, days before the case was to go before a federal judge, Disney apologized and settled a licensing dispute with Brian Henson, Jim Henson's son, over the use of Muppet characters at Disney theme parks.

Today, "Dinosaurs" is the only surviving example of what a union between Disney and Henson might have been.

"This show is so big, so ambitious, Disney was about the only company we could have partnered with," said Brian Henson, who now heads Jim Henson Productions. "There are only two companies that could have pulled this production off. Even during the negotiation problems, we were saying, 'We must not let this affect "Dinosaurs." We must not let this affect "Dinosaurs." ' "

In the world of "Dinosaurs," the year is 60,000,003 BC, which prompts son Robbie to wonder: "Why are we counting backward? What are we waiting for?"

Earl, a blustery tree-pusher for Wesayso Development Corp., knocks down forests to make room for tract homes. Fran, a sensible allosaurus housewife, is most concerned with the cancellation of "thirtymillionsomething" by the network ABC (Antediluvian Broadcasting Co.).

Daughter Charlene frets about dating and baby-sitting. Pink, soft Baby Sinclair, meanwhile, finds great pleasure in tormenting Daddy Earl, whom he calls "Not the Momma!" Recalling the days when dinosaurs ate their young, Earl sighs, "That was a golden age."

When "Dinosaurs" premiered last April, TV critics were unanimously wowed by the special effects, but many were not amused by what they perceived as stale sitcom humor. They complained that underneath the dinosaur suits the Sinclairs were just a standard, recycled television family. Some blamed the writing of executive producer Michael Jacobs. Referring to him as the "former producer of the slack hack sitcoms 'Charles in Charge' and 'My Two Dads,' " the Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote: "One gets the impression that everything bright about 'Dinosaurs' was contributed by Henson and everything pat came from Jacobs."

"In a way, that's unfair, because nobody's ever written for a world of dinosaurs reflecting human lifestyles before," Henson said. "Quite often a moment doesn't work because we couldn't make it work with the characters."

"I think Michael Jacobs writes the best dialogue and has one of the finest ears of any writer I've worked with," argued Disney's Valentine, who brought in Jacobs. "He's suffered for having created two shows that were critically perceived as being generic, or bad television. Shows take time to find their voices. It doesn't always happen overnight. Here, an entire world had to be created."

Jacobs, for his part, said that the "Dinosaurs" characters had to be familiar to viewers in order to be successful.

"We had a character ideal in mind," Jacobs said. "The crotchety Archie Bunker, Fred Flintstone, Ralph Kramden--all of these are the same character, the harassed married man who's got the best friend and the faithful family. You look at Al Bundy or Homer Simpson, it's the same thing, the same guy. The point is, because we were going to have such an odd-looking cast of characters and the far-out sets, which won an Emmy, and so much for the audience to absorb, why send this thing over the top and say we're going to do a prehistoric 'Twin Peaks' ?"

Jacobs said that at one point Disney executives were concerned because "Dinosaurs" appeared too steeped in the mentality of a 1950s sitcom. But he and Valentine defended their approach.

"If the series is going to have any chance of success, the characters have to be able to arc," Jacobs said. "And in the character arc of the series, we will go through the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, rather than start out now and have nowhere to go."

Right now, the Henson Creature Shop is finishing touches on two new characters who will be added this season to evolve the themes of the series. Monica, a brontosaurus who snoops into the Sinclair household through open windows with her lanky 12-foot neck, will wake Fran out of her domesticated housewife mold. Spike, a prickly stegosaurus and the last of a barbaric breed of dinosaurs, will become a rotten influence for Robbie.

In sharpening the edge of their comedy and updating the story lines, "Dinosaurs" hopes to find a more adult audience.

"We have one flaw as a television show," Jacobs said. "It's a major flaw and we hope it won't be a fatal flaw. The fact that we're a puppet show may have alienated a certain adult segment from even giving the show a chance."

Disney Television, which has had bad luck in recent years in supplying the networks with successful TV series, is currently riding high with nine prime-time shows on the air--including the season's hottest new sitcom, "Home Improvement," starring Tim Allen. One studio executive speculated that the high cost of "Dinosaurs" will be worthwhile if it can help reestablish Disney as a major player in network television.

"Disney needs hit shows," the executive said. "They need the shelf space in prime time. They want the networks thinking of them as a studio that produces hit TV."

Disney has arranged creative financing deals to help pay for "Dinosaurs" and the rest of its burgeoning slate of TV series. The company recently offered public bonds, in which small investors can share in the profits of Disney's TV shows. And to help get "Dinosaurs" off the ground, the studio, in another unusual move, borrowed money from ABC--to be paid back incrementally--against the start-up cost of the series.

"The biggest problem with this show is these characters cost so much to build and we had to create a whole new look with the sets, so we had a giant initial investment," said Rich Frank, president of Walt Disney Studios. "Had the show gone 13 episodes and been cancelled, it would have been too big a risk for anybody to take. So we came up with an interesting financial arrangement to share the risk (with ABC) for start-up."

Also to help pay for the series, the first six episodes of "Dinosaurs" will be made available on videocassette Dec. 6. "We never dreamed the show would be as expensive as it is," Jacobs said. "The videocassette release is very early, based on getting some of the money defrayed."

The video also perpetuates the "Dinosaurs" characters in the eyes of young children, who tend to pop in videocassettes and watch them over and over. For the same reason, there are plans for an extensive line of "Dinosaurs" merchandising and toys, including a pull-string version of Baby Sinclair, who screeches such trademark lines as "Not the Momma!," "Hello, Fatboy!" and "I'm the baby, gotta love me!"

"The baby dinosaur would kick butt this holiday season if it were out there," Jacobs said. Because "Dinosaurs" was not picked up by ABC until June, there wasn't time to get products out by Christmas. "We didn't want to saturate the market with bad product just to get them out," Jacobs said.

The prehistoric lizards are also roaming around Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where the whole family--from Earl to the wheelchair-bound Grandma Ethyl--are the featured attraction in a daily performance and motorcade at Disney-MGM Studios.

"This is the kind of show I can afford to invest a little extra in," Frank said, "because I get side benefits from having characters in the park, toys in the stores, videos on the shelf. We did licensing on some T-shirts that just went out last week, and they blew right out of the stores."

Henson--who is developing other TV shows, including some with puppets, and is creating the animals for Columbia Pictures' film version of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods"--eventually expects the "Dinosaurs" TV series to sell around the world. Jacobs envisions foreign countries dubbing in the voices of popular local actors as the characters.

"This show is finding life everywhere," Henson said. " 'The Muppet Show' was sold in over 100 countries. Our shows systematically work everywhere. One of the great assets of puppets is (that) there are no preconceptions, no race distinctions, no sexual discrimination, no cultural problems. These characters translate universally."

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