ALLEN, Texas — The inside of a giant, unmarked Collin County warehouse looks like a mini-Jurassic Park. Four life-size Tyrannosaurus rexes stand side by side — mouths open, teeth bared.
They’re among hundreds of prehistoric creatures programmed like robots to walk and roar.
“When you first see our stuff moving, it gives you little chill bumps,” Robby Gilbert, director of exhibit displays at Billings Productions, told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/2cqvRnZ). The Allen-based company builds giant animatronic dinosaurs and bugs and rents them to zoos and museums in countries including Australia, China, Sweden and Spain.
Here, workers — artists, engineers, ex-fishing guides and former stay-at-home dads — bring these creatures, extinct for millions of years, back to life.
Their heads move left to right, mouths open and close and eyes shift back and forth. But instead of flesh and bone, these behemoths are made from steel and rubber.
“There’s quite a few scary animals still around today, but nothing quite like what there used to be,” said James West, head fabricator at Billings Productions.
Earlier this month, a forklift picked up the company’s newest creature — a quetzalcoatlus, an ancient bird-like animal — like a toy to ship it to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference in San Diego for its debut.
Standing 20 feet tall at the crest of its head and with a 30-foot wingspan, the largest known flying animal is about the size of a small private jet. Scientists say it glided through the air millions of years before we existed.
“It’s the imagination of what these animals were and knowing that they were real, but you can’t picture them alive,” Gilbert said.
The company has its roots in North Texas, founded more than a decade ago on Industrial Boulevard in McKinney by husband-and-wife team Larry and Sandra Billings.
People have built animatronic dinosaurs for decades, mostly on small scales for museums. The Billings family found its niche with zoos.
“If a kid reads in a book about a creature, they have no idea what it really looks like,” Sandra Billings said. “By us building it, they can remember what they read, and they can visualize it.”
The Dallas Zoo featured 20 Billings animals in an exhibit last year. They are part of a message about conservation, said Sean Greene, vice president of guest experiences at the zoo.
“Look at these amazing animals and how big they were, and they’re not here anymore,” Greene said. “And look at animals like elephants and rhinos and gorillas. . We don’t want them to go the way of the dinosaurs.”
Larry and Sandra Billings didn’t set out to build dinosaurs. They fell into the business while working for a contract company in Singapore after their boss bought some fake dinosaurs and sent the two to Irvine, Calif., to manage them. When that company disbanded, Larry Billings decided to build his own.
In the first four months, they built about 60 dinos with a small crew.
“We were sleeping at the shop. I would sleep in the car, and he would sleep in his office,” Sandra Billings said.
Larry Billings, who was raised in McKinney, died of a heart attack at age 63, four years after the company launched. But his wife continued to build it, moving the home base and production in 2012 to a 70,000-square-foot warehouse in Allen.
“I wanted to carry on with his dream about what he wanted to do. I didn’t want it to just die with him,” she said.
Workers at Billings Productions, sometimes referred to as The Dinosaur Company or The Giant Bug Company, have designed and built roughly 350 creatures, including 17 Tyrannosauruses.
Four of them stood side-by-side in the workshop as tools whirred and giant fans blew a breeze into the balmy space.
Behind the T. rexes, workers balanced on ladders to paint the new 20-foot bird-like creature. Artists still have creative liberty when choosing color, but Billings Productions has worked in recent years with paleontologists and professors to build more scientifically accurate, life-size dinosaurs.
“When you discover these fossils and these remains, they only go back together one way,” Gilbert said. “When we show these animals off, we can say that’s about as accurate as we can get.”
In a neighboring room behind a plastic curtain, Michelle Sims puts the final touches on a small-size dinosaur model sculpture. Nearly a dozen close-up shots of glinting bird eyes hang taped above her corner work table.
Sims, a field technician manager, develops eyes for all the creatures. Beady T. rex eyeballs in shades of red, orange and yellow fill a cardboard box in the corner of her desk. More unpainted eyeballs are stored in nearby bins.
“I’m obsessed with dinosaurs,” said Sims, who studied drawing, painting and social work in college. “They’re so mysterious.”
Many of the company’s employees share a fascination with dinosaurs. West built his own animatronic dinosaurs in his shop before coming to Billings Productions nearly a decade ago. A former fishing guide who used to weld trailers and build fences, he now installs the dinosaurs’ frames and gives them their movements — as if they were alive.
“All these dinosaurs, they started as an idea,” West said. “They give me the molds, and I put the bones in them.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
Editor’s note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News.