Galactic Renaissance Man: Model Maker and Droid Maestro Don Bies Talks Artoo, Becoming Boba Fett, and More

The ILM veteran speaks exclusively to about the prequels, wrangling astromechs, and much more.

In the Star Wars universe, there’s one guy who seems to pop up all over the galaxy. Starting in the 1980s, Don Bies wore many hats during his time with Industrial Light & Magic, including the title of model maker, R2-D2 puppeteer, and droid unit supervisor. Bies also makes many onscreen appearances throughout the systems. You can spot him in the crowd at the podrace on Tatooine, in the background at the club Obi-Wan and Anakin chase Zam Wesell to on Coruscant, and as Barquin D’an and Boba Fett inside Jabba’s palace in the Special Edition version of Return of the Jedi. And if that’s not enough Star Wars experience for you, Bies also co-wrote and directed the mockumentary, R2-D2: Beneath the Dome, which offered a behind-the-scenes look at R2-D2’s life story and his time on the set of Star Wars. e-mailed the talented Artoo wrangler to find out what it was like to go back to the set of the original films and what it takes to be both a droid unit supervisor and a most notorious bounty hunter. Were you a Star Wars fan before you got into the film industry?

Don Bies: Absolutely! I was a huge film fan before the original came out and loved old monster movies like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, and stop motion films like King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. I was always drawn to make-up effects, so I loved films like Planet of the Apes and anything with monsters. When the original Star Wars film came out, it finally inspired me to want to pursue a film career. I also built my own full size, radio-controlled R2-D2. How did you get your start at ILM?

Don Bies: I was working at your uncle’s shop [Chris Walas Inc/CWI] on The Fly and met and became friends with Jon Berg, who worked on my favorite movie sequence of all time: the attack on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Jon introduced me to some other ILMers and got me a gig as a puppeteer on Witches of Eastwick at ILM. In 1987, the person who operated R2-D2 for personal appearances at Lucasfilm was leaving to work for Disney Imagineering, and he recommended me to take his place. I worked on a series of Japanese Panasonic commercials featuring the characters of Star Wars, eventually meeting George [Lucas], Anthony Daniels, and Peter Mayhew. That connection led to working as the Lucasfilm archivist, which then led me to picking up work at ILM in the model shop. My next job was working with CWI alumni like Stephan Dupuis and Kelly Lepkowski, helping create Walter Donovan’s demise in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That dovetailed into a job on Ghostbusters 2, and then I worked on and off in the ILM model shop and at the Lucasfilm Archives for several years. Can you give me an overview of what you did while working at ILM? Were there any specific models you worked on for the films?

Don Bies: I started out doing mechanical designs for creature effects, but eventually began working as a model maker. I was able to pick up computer modeling as a skill, so I was one of a small group of model makers that designed and built stuff using the laser cutter. A few of the films I worked on (besides the prequels) were Galaxy Quest, Pirates of the Caribbean (the first three), Peter Pan, and a host of TV commercials, including the infamous “Darth Vader vs. The Energizer Bunny.”

ep1_ia_1300301 What did being a droid supervisor on the prequels encompass?

Don Bies: As I was one of three “official” R2-D2 operators for Lucasfilm (Nelson Hall and Grant “Mythbuster” Imahara were the other two), the prequels’ producer Rick McCallum called us one day during the filming of Episode I. They were having issues with the R2s in London and asked for some advice. He decided that we at ILM would build a new R2, knowing what technical issues we needed to overcome. I supervised the build with about 10 colleagues and then went to London for six weeks of shooting. I also helped build the C-3P0 puppet used in that film.

When Episode II was coming up, I approached Rick and explained that the entire fleet of R2s needed overhauling, so he agreed and allowed me to set up team at ILM to do the work. Grant updated all of the electronics on 12 R2 units, and Nelson Hall handled all the cosmetic repairs, including repainting and restoring the “R2 Blue” which was changed during Episode I. We also made quick change battery packs and generally made the robots all work as best as we could.
Once that work was done, Rick asked me to supervise and operate R2 for the filming in Sydney, Australia, as well as look after Anthony Daniels and his suit. I hired a small team of local experts in Sydney, and we made sure R2 behaved and C-3P0 looked his best. What would you say was the hardest thing about puppeteering Artoo?

Don Bies: Not running into people…

Actually, it was all quite easy. Once everyone understood Artoo’s limitations as an actor, it all went smoothly. There were always challenges when it came to floor surfaces and obstacles, but I can’t say anything was terribly difficult. You also did some work for the Special Editions — what was it like to step into those sets and scenes that are so well-known and loved?

Don Bies: It was a great opportunity. Having always wished I had worked on the original films, it allowed me that fantasy and I enjoyed every minute of it. You also got to play Boba Fett for some of the new scenes. What was that like?

Don Bies: In addition to Boba, I was also the Bith band member in Jabba’s band, as well as numerous stormtroopers and Imperial officers scattered throughout added scenes. In fact, I was every eighth stormtrooper and Imperial officer in A New Hope when Han Solo rounds the corner on the Death Star and comes face to face with a bunch of imperials. Both Nelson Hall and I were in so many scenes that the effects supervisor asked us to stop.

As far as Boba Fett, I know he is a well-loved character in the films. For me, I felt he was well designed (from an artistic perspective), but ultimately had little to do within the films and his demise (or was it…?) was unspectacular. Many times I was asked what it was like to wear the costume, and I always answer it was hot and heavy. I’m glad I got to do it — and in quite a famous scene — but it didn’t mean as much to me as it would have to others. However, I think that no matter what I have done in my career or life, I will always be known as playing the character for that one scene! Can you talk about your experience creating the mockumentary, R2-D2: Beneath the Dome? Where did the idea come from?

Don Bies: It originated when I was in London working on Episode I. Two of the other R2 operators (Graham Ridell and Patrick Johnson) and I were shooting a scene where the good guys are storming the Naboo hangar, just prior to the duel with Darth Maul. We were goofing around driving the robots around and started thinking that it would be fun to get a big ball and have the R2s play soccer. We thought the documentary crew would get a kick out of filming it. Alas, it never happened. When we started shooting Episode II in Sydney, I mentioned it to my crew and we expanded on it further, joking we could do “A Day in the Life of R2-D2.” When we posed the idea to the documentary crew, it grew further, and they started to do mini interviews with the cast and crew, asking them what it was like working with R2-D2. Some of them were funny and some not. George granted approval for the project, so then we started staging scenes — R2’s “girlfriend” was a visiting actress friend of Natalie Portman’s. Ben Burtt suggested R2 should go bungee jumping… We did a few other gags, but then we left it alone because filming kept us busy and then we went on location. A number of months went by, and then Lucasfilm Marketing decided to pick it up again, so we went through all the footage that had been shot and strung it together to come up with a cohesive storyline. The final, released version was not exactly what I had in mind, but the fans seemed to enjoy it.

Don Bies Of the various models that you worked on, which was the most fun to create?

Don Bies: Though not actually a model, I loved making Vader’s mask for the scene where it is placed onto Anakin. It’s such an iconic piece, and I was very happy when Episode III model supervisor Brian Gernand picked me to work on it. I had help from Mike Jobe, who created the fiberglass shells and John Duncan who did some of the detailing on the chin piece. Carol Bauman topped it off with a beautiful paint job.

I also had a lot of fun making the podrace announcer’s booth — there were a lot of fun details inside that are hard to see in the finished film. And quite a few of us got free reign to design and create our own buildings for Theed City. I think I made two. I believe it was Lorne Peterson who took to naming the buildings after their designers — he would write the name on the back side, and all those that worked on that model would sign it. I think one of mine was called “Casa del Bies” or something like that! You used to take your son on set sometimes, what was it like to share that experience and your love of the films with him? Did you guys see The Force Awakens together?

Don Bies: It was great to have that experience with him, particularly the opportunity to get our photo taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair (and his photo as a baby with Ray Park as Darth Maul!). He was a little too young to appreciate it at the time, but he still remembers some of it and I think is now grateful for the experience. George really created a family atmosphere when shooting, so as a father that was very much appreciated. Yes, we went to see The Force Awakens together — then we both took my wife and daughter to see it the next day. Since the original Star Wars inspired you to pursue a career in film, what does it mean to you to have contributed to it? 

Don Bies: It’s really an honor and a privilege to have been involved in the films and its legacy. I was fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and have developed the skills that allowed me to be involved. I’m always touched when a fellow fan compliments me and my work.

Anina Walas, a recent graduate of Seattle University, is currently an intern at Lucasfilm with the team. She loves pretty much everything Disney, great weather, making/eating really good food, and of course, Star Wars. You can follow her on Twitter @aninaden, but beware, she’s terribly inconsistent about tweeting things.