The performer tells StarWars.com about upholding a tradition of iconic puppetry and being very uncomfortable in the desert.
When Brian Herring signed on in the creature shop for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he idly hoped that one of the practical puppets he would operate might go on to be glorified as an action figure.
Then he read the script.
As the man quite literally behind BB-8 -- donning a head-to-toe green nylon suit in the Abu Dhabi desert to sprint behind the rod puppet -- his work with puppeteer Dave Chapman has brought the roly-poly astromech to life and made Poe Dameron's faithful sidekick a fan favorite.
To celebrate the home release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, available now on Digital and via Movies Anywhere and coming to 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and On-Demand on March 27, StarWars.com sat down with Herring to talk about creating the sequel trilogy's droid superstar, his contributions to bringing new life to Ahch-To, and what the journey has meant to the man who, as a child, was told that his obsession with the galaxy far, far away would lead him nowhere. Spoiler: Every word of what his teacher said was wrong.
StarWars.com: You've had a really interesting career for 20 years but you've had a really fascinating last five or so it seems.
Brian Herring: Yeah, the last five have been a little bit, well, exciting's probably the best word to use.
StarWars.com: That is a word you could use for them. You were part of Neal Scanlan’s team developing the BB-8 puppet from the beginning, back in 2013 when you joined his creature effects department as a puppeteer consultant. Let’s talk about the inception of this character and the practical effects that brought BB-8 to life. I believe BB-8 started out as a scrawl on a napkin, code named “Snow Globe”...
Brian Herring: Yes! J.J. [Abrams] very much wanted a live character to be on the set with the actors. He set out to make a sequel to Return of the Jedi like it was 1985, so he was very much into the practical effects side of it. So he doodled something on a napkin that went to Christian Alzmann at Lucasfilm and he did a load of designs, then it came over to London and it went to Jake Lunt Davies' massive brain and he brought the thing home, he made it look like the BB-8 you see. At that point people were starting to work out how it would be done and Josh Lee, who I always refer to as BB-8's dad, he came up with an idea of doing it as a practical puppet. He built a small puppet that he then gave to me to do some little character studies on. I dressed in black on a black background and I made a little landscape covered in black again so the only thing you could really see was this little puppet and I rolled it around. Neal Scanlan came in, he directed me a little bit and we sent those studies off to J.J. J.J. liked it and it was a go and from that point. Josh and Matt Denton, who's one of the chief animatronics people that works for Neal, they started work on the rod-puppet version and other versions. There were seven versions altogether, and they had different functions.
StarWars.com: And after the first film, there was a free-rolling red carpet version created. How much changed from the rod puppet you were operating in the desert for The Force Awakens to the incarnation that was used for The Last Jedi?
Brian Herring: We used completely the same versions of BB-8 in both movies. The red carpet one appears very briefly in the movie. There are things that they're designed for, specific jobs, and that one is great for going out and being photographed and being loved and adored. Public appearances. But when it comes to on-set work, we don't tend to use him all that much.
StarWars.com: Did you have to make any additions or change anything so the puppets could have new abilities for some of the scenes in Last Jedi?
Brian Herring: The scene in the back of the X-wing where BB-8's attempting to fix the engine drive, we had him on a rig and he would go down into the X-wing, the head would come off the body, and there would be a grabber that would come out. There's a digital addition in that there were lots of different little spindles coming out to block the electricity, but everything else there was a grabber that came out of him and that took five of us to operate. That was a completely new rig. And they also put the rod puppet version into a bin for the point where BB-8 is sneaking around and I was in the green suit again running around. I had a couple of different controls, and I had a bin up-and-down control so I would just imagine BB-8 -- I was very much thinking like an old Tex Avery cartoon, where you would see someone hiding very small and then you see the thing lift up and the feet come out and they go [makes noise of cartoon tiptoeing] ding-deedle-ding-deedle-ding-deedle-dee and then back down again. I had a little control that would fire the communicator through the grill of the bin for when Poe calls Finn. Everything in that shot was practical. It came out, John [Boyega] caught it and did his lines, so yeah, that was another rig we had as well.
StarWars.com: And what about the scene at Canto Bight where BB-8 is mistaken for one of the slot machines?
Brian Herring: We did shoot that practically at one point. I think that's all digital now. We shot a version of it with a small actor just kind of knocking into BB-8, but I was asked to go over to the motion-capture studio. That alien is played by Mark Hamill and he was in the mo-cap suit. I spent the day over at Disney's mo-cap facility in London wearing a giant metal wire frame. I was providing the resistance for Mark's character and he was doing all this drunk acting and also kind of just leaning against it and that kind of thing. Yeah, that was a fun Sunday. The BB-8 was there to provide him with a physical prop to interact with.
StarWars.com: I would love to see the behind-the-scenes pictures from that. That sounds fantastic! BB-8 has so much personality, and the droid is really a scene-stealer. What do you think you bring to the character as one of the puppeteers and operators that’s integral to how people are responding to the character?
Brian Herring: Well, the nice thing about the design of BB-8 is that you can see him act. As brilliant as R2-D2 is, most of his acting is done in sound editing because you can take a physical performance and you can change the emotion of the sounds that are being put across that performance, and you can go from it being a happy performance to a sad performance just by changing the noise. With BB-8, you can do a lot there and then physically, without having to make any sounds. I do the sounds on set for him, so Daisy [Ridley] or John or Kelly [Marie Tran], when they're interacting with BB-8, they'll be doing lines and I'll be going [makes a droid beeping and warbling noise] so that they have something to act against.
We had two weeks at a sound stage to find his personality inside the movement and a lot of it comes down to timing. Dave [Chapman] and I share a sense of humor so we laugh at the same things. Dave knows now when I'm going to move, he can see me getting ready to move, and he knows where he's going to focus the droid. And let's never underestimate the power of direction! Be it J.J. or Rian [Johnson], we give them what they want to see. Sometimes you get to play around with it. We did 10, maybe 20 different versions of him peeping around the corner of the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens. That little shot that first appeared in the trailer, we did loads of different versions of that. We did fast ones, slow ones, one where the body came out, then the head, then just the head. There were so many different versions of it and they used one for the trailer and then used a different one for the movie.
[BB-8 is] a little bit like a dog; that really developed. In that scene where Rey originally finds BB-8 and frees him from Teedo, he's got a bent aerial. And we shot that a few times where she just pulled it out and then she did it one time and I just inclined the head forward...he would offer his head like a dog does to scratch his ears. We did it three times during that film but it only ever played once, but if you look at the end of The Last Jedi, we came to do the scene where they're all reunited and there was gonna be Rey and BB-8, and I said, “Oh, should we do the aerial bit?” And I brought the head down and she just looked at it and she said, “Oh, it looks great!” And that made it into the film, so I was very pleased. It's a nice little bonding moment. If you think of him as Poe's dog, and then the dog runs away and he's a stray dog, and then Rey finds the stray dog and keeps the stray dog until the dog gets back to his master, that for me has been a sort of a thing that's played out, you know quite nicely.
StarWars.com: In The Last Jedi you also saw a little bit more of that, like Poe rubbing his belly. How would you describe BB-8’s personality?
Brian Herring: His personality, he's very loyal but he's a biter, you know, he's feisty. And he's clever you know, so he gets what he wants. He's tenacious and mischievous and he's tough as well. They're programmed to be loyal and they love whoever they're with, that's the thing. He's a friend to all. He's like Artoo. Artoo saved everybody's life at one point or another through those films and BB-8 -- he's the new puppy, isn't he?
StarWars.com: And you mentioned this before, but I want to come back to it real quick. When you're on set and you're making the BB-8 noises, do you have a script in front of you that tells you the translation of what BB-8 is saying?
Brian Herring: Sometimes, yeah it does. There are lines in English and I just have to make that. The Skywalker Sound guys take all that off later and replace it with the proper stuff. I'm just there to give the actors something to talk to and an intention in the scene so you do [makes loud, shrill droid chirping sounds] if he's angry. Or I think there's a scene that's going to appear on the Blu-ray that is BB-8 comforting Finn. I don't know how it's going to come out, I haven't seen it. But we did a scene with that where he was kind of like [makes concerned booping and beeping] 'cause he was all sad. So you know, “Are you all right?” You know, it was that sort of thing.
StarWars.com: Does BB-8 have the “I have a bad feeling about this” line in The Last Jedi?
Brian Herring: According to Rian Johnson, so I'm saying yes! [Laughs]
StarWars.com: You've mentioned Dave Chapman and I want to give credit where credit is due, because he is the co-captain of Team BB-8. You sort of tag-team the role with him and you talked a little bit about how you split up the performance duties. What has that collaboration been like? Have you worked with Dave before or has this been just an all-new adventure for the two of you?
Brian Herring: Dave and I have known each other for about 20 years. We hadn't worked together for ages and then we did a children's television show for the BBC and we laughed for three weeks solidly, and I was just kind of annoyed that we hadn't been doing it for longer. And then I got a job on Prometheus with Neal, and he said, “Do you have anybody you want to bring on for this?” So I got Dave onboard for that one and we just get on. He's a really, really talented guy and a very, very nice human being, so he carries my brain around in a bucket because I'm always, I'm doing the physical performance and he's brilliant. I usually use a monitor and I don't get to do it a lot with the physical stuff for BB-8, so I trust Dave, obviously, and J.J. and Neal, to say whether or not they think the performance is good. Because you can sometimes get down to see the playback, but oftentimes you can't. He's just a good personality to have around on set and I really enjoy working with him. We lost him for a bit on Last Jedi because he went off to do a little job with a certain Frank Oz. I stayed with BB-8 right the way through the movie, but Dave had to stand next to a burning tree for a couple of nights and do various other little bits and pieces of Yoda.
StarWars.com: I love the idea of you and Dave working almost as one brain, two bodies.
Brian Herring: Well, it happens quite a bit. Dave and I did all the initial [research and development] work for the porgs, as well and a load of stuff. Dave is the voice of and did the animatronic head for the little croupier that's in Canto Bight -- I was under the table doing the physical walking for that so they had both of us working together there. We tend to get put together just because we're a good team. So with the porgs, I was on the head and the body and Dave was on the wings and we would communicate doing little bird noises, just to say what we're gonna do next. We just do these funny little chirrups and chirps, none of which are in the movie, and that was me giving signals to Dave.
StarWars.com: Beyond the porgs, in The Last Jedi, what other creatures and characters did you work on?
Brian Herring: I'm trying to think because we've done Solo since then so it's been an awful lot more.
StarWars.com: Right, and we can't talk about that.
Brian Herring: We can't talk about that one yet. The sea cows, which was the thing that Mark Hamill milks, there were two more of those. There was the initial big one that had six performers on, I think. And there were two other sea cows there. I can't remember the proper name, I'm sure you'll correct me on this...
Brian Herring: Those, yes. And the baby which appears at the last moment on that shot, that was Dave doing it as a glove puppet and I had the face, so I had the eyes, the snout, and the water spurt because they were all practical. We did that. What else did we do in Last Jedi? Lots of stuff in Canto Bight. We were all over the place, because we would jump in and out of stuff as we were needed to. You are never more than about 10 minutes away from something we've done. Through Last Jedi we did a lot of the mouse droids and the sentry droids, remote control stuff, faces for creatures. We got an awful lot of those. We're down there for the whole movie so anything that needs doing we're sort of the frontline puppeteers for that sort of stuff. And that also spreads out to about another 50 puppeteers we bring in for big days.
StarWars.com: Is there a nuanced difference for you as the puppeteer going from operating a droid puppet to operating an organic creature like a porg?
Brian Herring: Yes, yes. I mean, you still have to give it intelligence and intention of focus, but sometimes that's very comedic and sometimes it's mechanical. Although, bizarrely, BB-8 is mechanical but we try to make him as comedic as possible. The audience has to recognize emotions in those characters, so we have to give it human traits. With the porgs, we looked at a lot of bird footage. We looked at robins. We looked at puffins. We looked at penguins. We looked at seals, as well, and you do smaller movements because they're smaller puppets. You know, you can't make everything big and wild all the time.
The other thing I missed off, actually, we did the Caretakers. There were, at one point, 23 Caretakers, I think. There is a scene that I think is going onto the Blu-ray where Rey arrives in the village and there's a big Caretaker party going on and every one of those Caretakers had an actor or actress in it between the height of 4-foot-7 and 5-foot-1, and then they have these big animatronic heads on and each one has its own puppeteer. They have an earpiece, so the puppeteers are talking to the performers at all times so they know what's going on, to guide them around the set and keep them safe. That's another part of our job on Star Wars, is to be almost puppet directors for people in suits.
StarWars.com: Can you talk about why it's important to have the practical effects puppets versus just using CGI for the whole thing?
Brian Herring: Practical effects on set, I think, are so important because the actors have something to react to, but also the audience can tell if something’s not there. Audiences are really smart now. They've seen everything and I think sometimes, and I love CGI, I love that stuff, but I think sometimes if you can imagine it, you can do it and that doesn't necessarily mean because you can do it, you should do it. It's Jurassic Park! It's that [Jeff] Goldblum quote, not the movie itself. I think there was a real craze for doing everything digitally a few years ago and some of those movies suffered for it. You can tell when something is practical. Like, for instance, when Snoke has Rey in the throne room and he puts his hand to her face, those are practical puppet hands and a digital face. You can see things moving. You can see Daisy Ridley's hair move because the practical hand is moving her hair. So you get that.
There was a shot in The Force Awakens, where Chewbacca is on the gurney and Finn is trying to help him and BB-8 comes in. And I whizzed it in at one point and I hit a crate and I said, “Sorry, JJ! I hit the crate.” He went, “Hit the crate every time you come in because it shows you're there.” It shows you're real and people can invest more. You do get brilliant performances, like Gollum [a character from The Lord of the Rings also played by Snoke actor Andy Serkis], where you have a human performance. And all these things work best when you have a performance at the heart of them. That's not to say that the animators aren't awesome at what they do, but even if they have to go in and fix it digitally later, they have something organic and it's the imperfections that make things perfect.
StarWars.com: Oh yeah, like the hair ruffling, the crate moving -- it's those little things that you may not even register as the viewer, but that do give it some more weight...
Brian Herring: Exactly.
StarWars.com: And makes it more believable.
Brian Herring: Yes. Totally, totally. And audiences can tell. They can tell! So J.J. wanted to get back to the aesthetic of Star Wars from the '70s and '80s and Gareth [Edwards, who directed Rogue One] and Rian, and then [Solo director] Ron Howard, they've all continued that. And because Neal Scanlan was right there in the thick of it back in those days and he's got those guys that have those skills, and he's continuing to bring new people in to learn those skills, that's how you get a team... I mean, I'm extremely grateful for the gig. And long may it continue! [Laughs]
StarWars.com: You were seven in 1977 when the original Star Wars hit theaters. Take us back to when you first discovered this galaxy: How did you respond to the film? What resonated with you most as a child and now, as an adult looking back at the experience, do the same things still resonate with you today?
Brian Herring: Yeah, I was 7 in '77 and my dad took me to see Star Wars in our local cinema and I lost my mind. I absolutely lost my mind! I was obsessed with it, absolutely obsessed with it. I had the curtains, I had the bedspread, all the toys. Everything was Star Wars. There was no Internet, you couldn't get the things on video. Video didn't happen for some years. So I saw it a few times at the movies and just played and played and played. I used to get the comic books every week, we had Star Wars Weekly in the UK. Occasionally there'd be a B-program on the making of Star Wars. I just absorbed everything I could get about this amazing thing and the stories. I even got a report card when I was about 9 saying that “Brian's obsession with Star Wars will lead him nowhere and he should concentrate on his academics.”
StarWars.com: Oh, I hope you saved that!
Brian Herring: Yeah, I wish I had that framed. My mum worked in the theater when I was born so I always kind of wanted to go into the business, but I never thought that I would end up doing what I'm doing... I got to the point where I was working in the film industry. I'd worked on an Alien movie and I'd worked on the Hellboy movie and I thought, you know, well, that's not bad. I'd worked with the Muppets and I thought, well that's fun. I [thought I had] missed my Star Wars slot and then Star Wars came back around and here I am.
If you want to know what it means to me, every Friday on The Force Awakens, J.J. would get the crew a little something, there'd be like a taco truck or a hat or something. And one Friday towards the end of the shoot they gathered the whole crew together in one of the sound stages and they set up an exhibition. So Rey's speeder was there, there were costumes, the luggabeast was out. There were lots of behind-the-scenes photographs. They brought everybody together and J.J. said, “I want to show you something.” And there's a big video screen and him and Kathleen Kennedy showed us the film that they showed at Comic Con, but ours was a little bit longer and we saw the first-ever rendered shot of the Millennium Falcon where she said, “The garbage will have to do.” And this cheer went up. And when the lights went down on this thing and it started, I started to tear up. We were tired, you know.
Brian Herring: And by the end, the lights went up and there were all these great big guys in their 40s all a bit misty-eyed, but I'd gone a bit far with it and I was crying. And eventually Kathleen Kennedy came over and she said, “Are you all right?” And I said, “No.” I've just seen this on the screen and I've realized it wasn't something I'd always wanted to do. It was all I'd ever wanted to do. It was the only job I'd ever wanted and I didn't know it existed. And I said, “Now I've done it I don't know what I'm gonna do next.” And she hugged me and she said, “You're going to keep doing them.” I was a bit of a mess for awhile after that, but it's been the most amazing ride for me, even when it's a day job. Even when you're in there for long hours and you've got to get the scene right and that sort of thing. Movie sets, there's lots of waiting around, but you're waiting whilst leant against an X-wing fighter. It can't get any better than that, surely.
StarWars.com: You have such reverence for Star Wars and it's so clear that almost everyone working on them now, with the exception of the people who have been working with them for 40 years off and on, were fans first. They bring that kind of love to it and that childlike wonder that some of us, if we're lucky, never lose. That was just a fantastic story that you just told, but can you talk any more about being a part of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi as part of the crew, as an integral member, one of the main characters, and still being that seven-year-old kid inside?
Brian Herring: I was there for 16 months. The first day I went in, there were lots of drawings on the wall of things that looked like Star Wars, but not quite Star Wars. And the new stormtroopers looked like stormtroopers but they weren't quite stormtroopers. And then we met Daisy and John and they were going to be the Star Wars characters, but not characters that I knew... Then we went to work on M-stage, and M-stage had the Millennium Falcon in it. So you go onto that set and just that's, that's pretty much Star Wars. And we did two weeks there with BB-8 and Rey and Finn and then Harrison Ford came to work. The day he showed up, he walked up the ramp in his outfit, in the full Han Solo with Chewbacca, and I'm standing in my green onesie holding the rod for BB-8 in the corridor that goes to the Millennium Falcon cockpit. And he looks at me, he looked me up and down and he just went [in a voice impression of Ford], “Who picked that look?” And I went, “Ah! I've just met Indiana Jones, who's making fun of my clothes!” But then we got into the scene and about halfway through I suddenly went, [in an awed voice] “I'm in Star Wars. Ohhhhh man!” And I had a bit of a wobble there and then, but I did suddenly think, “This is proper. This is it now. Everybody's going to go and see this.” And it's actually, this is actually happening.
Then later on, we got to work with Carrie Fisher and Hamill was around and Anthony Daniels, who was absolutely charming and completely accepting of BB-8. He was brilliant with us. The scene we played out with R2-D2, C-3PO, and BB-8 was, for me, like being asked to join Laurel and Hardy and to actually be in the middle of it with those two characters that I'd seen on screen for all those years. Just amazing.
There was an interesting jump between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi because no one really knew what BB-8 was in the first movie. But the second movie, stars were arriving, Laura Dern was coming in and just going, “It's BB-8!” and being really excited. And Benicio del Toro at one point brought his daughter around the creature shop and he pointed at me and said to his daughter, “That's the guy that does BB-8...I work with him.” And I was like [sarcastically], “Yeah, you work with me...Benicio del Toro.” It was a very kind thing for him to say. I know where I stand in the pecking order, but BB-8 is now a very, very famous thing. You know, it's like myself and Dave, we're not... From J.J. right through Neal all the way down, it's a huge team and we're all part of its success.
StarWars.com: And certainly from the beginning, the tradition of Star Wars has been about collaboration, an enormous team effort to bring something no one has ever seen before and make it a reality. When you're approaching your work on Star Wars, how does that history influence how you do your job?
Brian Herring: For me, when I went into Force Awakens, I thought, “Well, this going to be great and I would like to do as many characters in this as I can because I would love it if one of them got turned into an action figure.” But then the BB-8 thing started to happen and then we realized how much it was in the movie. I felt a huge amount of pressure because we didn't know. We didn't know how much it was in the movie. We knew it was the new droid but it wasn’t until we read the script that we realized what we had on our hands, and I put probably too much pressure on myself because I wanted it to be able to sit next to R2-D2, Yoda, and Chewie as a character from that galaxy…
When I was doing tests for it, Josh would give me mock-ups of BB-8 covered in the special vinyl they were using to cover his body and just get me to run around the back lot to see how it reacted to mud, and if it would scratch. And at some point, I thought I was going to die because I'd gone out full-speed and I was a man of a certain age who'd never really seen the inside of a gymnasium, so I didn't want to be the guy who almost made a Star Wars film. [Laughs] I didn't want to see some young guy on a documentary say, “Yeah we had another guy but he died in the desert and we had to bury him.” So I went and got a personal trainer and I went to the personal trainer three times a week just to get my cardio up to scratch and to be able to run in sand, because I knew I was going to have to go fairly fast. It paid off in Abu Dhabi, I'm so glad I did it. I didn't take the responsibility lightly. It was very, very stressful for me because also it could have gone digital at any point, so for myself for Neal to make, for Matt all those guys who built that, we really wanted it to be in the movie and we really wanted to do a great job. And they made all these wonderful things and they handed them to me and Dave and just said, “On you go.”
StarWars.com: What has been the most surreal part of this whole experience for you?
Brian Herring: I went to Star Wars Celebration. I've been a Star Wars fan for years and I collect signed posters and somebody rolled a poster out in front of me that Mark and Carrie and Harrison had signed, and asked me to sign it. That was a big deal. That's been a very, very weird and lovely thing. It's been very nice to meet other Star Wars fans. But also standing on the Millennium Falcon! Any sentence that you can say, “We were working on the Millennium Falcon...” I always hear what's about to come out of my mouth when I talk about this stuff and it makes me laugh before anybody else does. I come from Harlow in Essex, and if you ever said to me I'd be doing this, I never would have believed you.
For more on Brian Herring, check out this week's episode of The Star Wars Show!
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available now on Digital and via Movies Anywhere, and comes to 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and On-Demand on March 27.
Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them!