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Make Way For Monsters At Knott's

April 04, 1987|JIM WALTERS | Walters is a Times copy editor.

Paint brush in hand, Lee Thomas stood ready to take on the next prehistoric monster. A garishly green 200-pound baby Triceratops a few feet away had already met its match; a gray-undercoated 15-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex awaited her.

"In this light, all of these figures look a little strange," said the figure-finisher at Sequoia Creative Inc., which is creating 21 fully mechanized figures for Knott's Berry Farm's newest attraction. "But this theatrical paint really lends itself to the special lights that will be on them."

Theatrical lights, steam and blasts of hot and cold air will help set the stage for "Kingdom of the Dinosaurs," the theme park's $7-million eight-minute ride spanning more than 200 million years scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.

The Sun Valley-to-Buena Park migration of the life-size Ice Age creatures and half-size dinosaurs begins its trek by truck on Monday. "We're going to have to cut holes in the roof and lower some of them in by crane," Knott's spokeswoman Pamela Baker said.

In the meantime, Knott's has evicted its Bear-y Tales characters and is bringing in assorted prehistoric sights and sounds to the 40,000-square-foot building in the Roaring '20s section that will house the creatures.

"We're playing with a whole pallet of sounds and senses to make it all work," said Knott design manager Robin Hall. "We are really trying to manage the environment: 60 degrees in the Ice Age room with cold-air ducts strategically placed; steam and heat pumps at the volcano in the dinosaur room."

Terry E. Van Gorder, Knott's president and CEO, conceived the attraction in November. "He was at a museum looking at dinosaurs and thought something along that line would be a terrific addition to the park," Baker said.

Paleontologist Steven Conkling, ranger at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park and one of the 25 experts the park consulted, likes what Knott's has done. "They've even made sure all the dinosaurs of each era are grouped together and put in the correct time sequence," he said.

Conkling said he is helping Knott's entertainment division come up with appropriate dinosaur sounds using the " 'best-guess' approach. By studying fossils, we can determine what their nasal cavities and respiratory systems were like and go from there."

Sequoia Creative, which brought King Kong to the Universal Studios tour and a spaceship to the Closing Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics, dispatched engineer Bob Gurr to check out a mechanical pterodactyl made for a movie and now housed at the Smithsonian Institution. "Ours," he said, "is going to be in 'low-flapping mode,' just gliding and soaring.

"We did break new ground with the technology we used to make the dinosaur skin--muscles, wrinkles, warts and all: It was made on the figure, by hand, without a mold."

Turning a 6-foot block of light-green foam into spike-tailed Stegosaurus isn't a 9-to-5 job. Charged by high-volume classical music, Carl Surges spent many a late night whittling blocks of the very dense material into animals, guided by the table-top-size figures his younger brother Neil sculpted from artists' drawings.

The hewed figures spent about a week in the plastics department where they received a latex undercoating, were "chopped" with bits of fiber glass from a gun, painted white and then were smoothed down. After the engineers scored the sculptures and marked them for movement, they were sawed apart and hollowed to accommodate the machinery. In the case of the largest figure, a two-ton, 32-foot-long Apatosaurus, that's a lot of green dust.

Employing computerized drafting, engineers designed the steel frames and mechanics of each pneumatically driven figure. Every swish of the tail, every swipe of the claw is done by computer-directed pneumatic systems.

Woolly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger mechanics come from a variety of backgrounds: Larry Johns of Reseda has worked in tool-and-die shops; Jim Creek of Northridge has been employed in the aircraft industry, and Warner Grayson of Newhall spent four years with the federal government making experimental agricultural machinery.

Once the mechanical features were added, the figures were re-assembled and coated with glue, then their foam-rubber skins attached. They received a Koba-coating, which helps seal the surface, followed by several days' worth of painting by Thomas and the other members of the figure-finishing team.

"Lee (Thomas) is a guru at her craft," Sequoia spokeswoman Virginia Schweninger said. "Lee knows exactly what color and shading to use to get the right dramatic effect." Thomas worked on many projects in her 18 years at Disney--and lent her face to the crystal ball of the Haunted Mansion's seance room.

Spark-filled time-travel tunnels near each end of the ride and a score of other special effects are being produced by Art & Technology Inc. of Sun Valley.

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