One Giant Leap for Droidkind

BB-8 has already become one of Star Wars most popular characters. He’s quite possibly the Star Wars character with the broadest appeal across generations, a mix of humorous personality and key narrative function. This adorable and inventive droid has stolen the hearts and minds of fans everywhere.

C-3PO and R2-D2 meet BB-8
C-3PO and R2-D2 meet BB-8

The first concept for BB-8 was a sketch on a napkin that was scanned and emailed to Josh Lee, Senior Animatronics Designer. It caused Josh a lot of head-scratching about how to achieve it on set. The first thing he did was build a model out of polystyrene. He just wanted to get the movements down—the ball rolling, the head pitching. Instantly it was full of character. All you have is a head—there are no eyes—but you can do a lot with that. For example, to make BB-8 look sad, you can just drop the head.

BB-8 netted by Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
BB-8 netted by Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Concept Designer Jake Lunt Davies of the creature shop developed BB-8 working through many variations of the head and body, with very subtle placement of features to really show a personality. The final design was a rotating spherical body with a half-dome head almost hovering above.

Enter Dave Chapman and Brian Herring, the puppeteers literally behind BB-8 who had to figure out how to manipulate BB-8 the puppet to convey joy, sadness, curiosity, and fear, but defining how BB-8 the character would convey those emotions consistently.   “BB-8 can cock his head over and look away, he can double take, he can look scared, he can look angry,” says Herring. “We managed to find a whole vocabulary of movement for him, if you will.”

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This model would then serve as a springboard for a small army of BB-8s, all with their own specialty, designed by Lee and Matthew Denton, the Electronic Design and Development Supervisor. There was the “wiggler,” which was static, but could twist and turn on the spot and was used for close-ups. There were two trike versions, which had stabilizer wheels, allowing them to be driven by remote control without a puppeteer in the shot. A puppeteer in a blue or green suit would hold the rods, and have very fine control over the head and ball. That’s how we achieved some of the more-subtle acting shots. There was a version that could be picked up by actors and controlled via remote for specific reactions and movements. There was the “bowling ball” version, which could literally be thrown into a shot and never fall down (like a Weeble toy). Finally, there was the rod-puppet version, which was operated by Chapman and Herring — one controlling the head, adding nuance and attitude, and the other the body — who would then be digitally erased. It was this version that would be key and able to act on set. Lee and Denton did all their engineering without seeing the script, though they were told of certain BB-8-has-to-do-this benchmarks they needed to hit. It all worked out in the end.

“Matt made the brain, Josh built the body,” says Herring, “and, hopefully, Dave and I gave it heart and soul.”

Rey with BB-8 still from Lucas Films
Rey with BB-8 still from Lucas Films

And finally Pinewood Studios built the fully functional, remote-controlled drone specifically for the red carpet.

BB-8-posing on the Red Carpet Photo Credit: Michael Buckner Variety Rex Shutterstock
BB-8-posing on the Red Carpet Photo Credit: Michael Buckner Variety Rex Shutterstock
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