StarWars.com speaks with the creators of the galaxy's newest astromech.
How do you create a Star Wars droid that’s different from what’s come before, but authentic to a galaxy far, far away? How do you push forward in the spirit of Star Wars innovation, but not push too far? How do you hold on to the magic of Star Wars robotic design, but still make something imaginative? Those were the questions faced by the designers, engineers, and puppeteers working on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They answered by blending the old with the new, by staring down expectations, and by eagerly jumping into the unknown. They answered with BB-8: the lovable, practical-effect, ball-shaped droid.
Here’s how they did it.
Droid design 101
When it came time to create a new astromech droid for the first film of a new Star Wars trilogy, director J.J. Abrams started as anyone might: he made a sketch on a napkin. It’s a fitting beginning, considering the handmade, warm look and feel of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The sketch was basic -- two circles atop one another, with a tiny dot for an eye -- but the core concept was there. And it was powerful enough to get the proverbial ball rolling for Lucasfilm concept designer Christian Alzmann. "J.J. wanted something rolling on a sphere, so I tried a lot of different designs developing that idea,” Alzmann says. "He would give direction on the kinds of shapes to use, and that led to a personality for the droid. Of course, the original sketch had very pleasing, round shapes, so you kind of figured it wasn’t going to be a very serious or angry character. Ultimately, BB-8 developed out of a back-and-forth process with J.J. where he gave feedback on each iteration of the design.”
And as for the fans who initially referred to BB-8 as the “soccer ball” droid due to patterns on his body, well, they have a keen eye. “I looked at a lot of soccer balls,” Alzmann says, laughing. "When you’re on a project like that, you start looking at everything spherical for inspiration. I think I ran across a soccer ball, and I was just like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of perfect.’”
With Alzmann solidifying BB-8’s basic design, the decision was made to try and create the droid as a practical effect. At this point, concept designer Jake Lunt Davies of the creature shop developed BB-8 further, working through many variations of the head and body, with very subtle placement of features to really show a personality. The final design -- a rotating spherical body with a half-dome head almost hovering above -- looks, quite simply, very Star Wars: imaginative, but also functional. And with the goal to make BB-8 a practical effect, he would have to function somehow.
Into the creature shop
Nailing the actual design of BB-8 was only half the trip through the asteroid field. It was now up to the creature shop to finish the ride. "When we originate a design from the start,” says the legendary Neal Scanlan (Babe, Prometheus), and head of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens creature shop, "we can change aspects of the design to make it work as a practical effect. In the case of BB-8, we couldn’t make any concessions as the design already existed as a hemisphere on a ball. So, our challenge was bringing this to the screen.” It’s a greater challenge than one might think -- and while BB-8 is a practical prop, that wasn’t always set in stone. Scanlan’s team had to figure out if they could do it and, not inconsequentially, convince Abrams it would look good. But at this early phase, they still had to answer the how of it all.
"Outside there in the big open world,” Scanlan says, "the whole ball-bot, as you would call it, concept, is something that universities to individuals have played around with. We looked very closely at what one would consider existing technology and decided that it was not far enough advanced to be able to put that into a droid or into a robot that we could use in the film world. Not yet, anyway…So, the idea of having versions of BB-8, which we knew we could have aspects digitally removed, really then opened up a much greater sphere of possibility.” Joshua Lee, senior animatronic designer on Scanlan’s team, got to work.
"I made a little puppet version,” says Lee, “because there was a lot of talk about how this thing could move and whether it needed extra parts, like an extending neck, to allow for greater movement. I had this feeling that it didn’t need anything else, and so to prove that, I built, in half a day, a little polystyrene puppet with the main movements. All the head movements and the ball rolling around, and handles on the back. I remember as soon as I picked that up, it was just so expressive. You could see that there weren’t any other fancy movements needed, that there’s so much expression and character actually in the shapes and in the way the head sort of arched over the sphere. Neal was working in a different office at the time, in another part of the studio, and I excitedly ran down and showed him this thing. We both thought, that’s it, there’s really something there, and a puppet version would be one way of achieving it on set."
Before any filming began, however, they’d have to prove to Abrams that it would work for his purposes, that it could perform with his actors. Enter Dave Chapman and Brian Herring, the puppeteers literally behind BB-8.
"We had, I guess, two weeks to ourselves on an empty soundstage, just figuring out how this character moved,” Chapman says. "Neal Scanlan came in and advised and directed us. We did camera tests and recorded it for ourselves, and just found every parameter of this character’s movement.” The personality of a droid -- and discovering it -- is something that audiences usually don’t even think about. But that was Chapman and Herring’s job, and it meant not only figuring 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. We worked out a whole bunch of stuff. What would he do if you turned him off? What happens to his head if you power him down? Does he go down stairs? Does he go up stairs?” Finally, BB-8 was ready for his audition.
"We did show and tells [with Abrams],” Scanlan explains. "All credit to the man, he didn’t actually see his version of the puppeteered BB-8 until about a week before we began shooting. He never put pressure on us, he never made us feel bad. I remember the day that we showed it to him, his first initial response really hit home with me, because he looked at [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy and said, ‘What a relief.’ And I could see the weight of the world lift off his shoulders. I think that was the point at which, I suppose, the decision was made that we could go practical, and we didn’t have to go digital. I think up until that point, it was sitting in everybody’s mind that unless we were able to deliver something that was actually believable and usable and directorially friendly, the only other option was to go digital. He put his faith and trust in us and, as such, apparently we didn’t disappoint. Then, after we showed it to him, the mood in the room lifted immediately. Everybody started to engage with BB-8 not as a practical effect anymore, but as a little character. They started to view it much more as that, and we sort of built it all from there. The use of BB-8 was built on that first initial impression we left J.J. and Kathy with."
This model of function 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. 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."
Still, for BB-8’s designers, there was unfinished business.
Making BB-8 real
While Scanlan’s team ruled out a fully functioning, remote-controlled BB-8 for shooting, they never forgot that original goal. Despite having a full workload, they took the initiative to make one that was entirely free-running. No rods, no puppeteers, no anything. The dream.
"It had been sort of burning a hole in me,” says Lee. "I started to design this crazy idea of one that would roam around and that we would show to the fans, as well. So, we really couldn’t do it for filming, but it had to be done.” Lee already had some knowledge of how it would work based on his initial R&D at the beginning of production. It would be a matter of settling on a technique and, more importantly, one that would match the movements and personality of BB-8 as established through puppetry.
“There are several ways of doing a ball robot,” says Lee, “but there was nothing that included an articulated head or anything that could spin on the spot -- and that’s one of BB-8’s signature moves. So, I started to design the prototype while Matt adapted his existing software to make control of this new BB-8 possible.”
Well…how did he do it?
"I’m not sure I want to say. Because where’s the fun in that?”
After Lee and Denton finished a gray-ball prototype that actually worked, Scanlan presented it to the higher-ups, securing additional funding. Paint and detailing were then added by the creature shop’s paint-finish designer, Henrik Svensson, to make this new BB-8 film-accurate. It all came together in time for a surprise debut at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim last April, during Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens panel. BB-8 rolled out onstage, dome twisting all around, peering at the audience, beeping and booping in curiosity and circling around R2-D2. It was the first official confirmation that BB-8 was not a CG creation, but rather, a practical effect, and the thousands in attendance went berserk. Denton operated the droid, having done just one rehearsal the day before.
"It was nerve-wracking because all manner of things could have gone wrong, live on stage,” Denton says. Yet it worked, and he heard the crowd's roars. “It was the best feeling I’ve ever had, I think,” he says. Those in attendance weren’t the only ones impressed with the free-roaming BB-8, however.
"When that thing rolled out at Anaheim,” says Herring, "Dave and I were doing a commercial in South Africa and we were watching the live stream. And out it came, and we were like, ‘They did it. They bloody did it! Look at this thing!’ It just blew us away."
"I think the red carpet version, at this moment in time, stands almost singularly as a technical achievement that no one has yet matched,” says Scanlan. "We watch, very avidly, the forums and the discussions that people are having on ‘How did they do that?’, and no one’s yet cracked the actual problem.” So, while it’s not used in a film (yet), there has been a giant leap for droidkind.
Looking back…and forward
For everyone involved, the experience of working on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and of creating BB-8 will not be soon forgotten. There were hurdles, there was doubt, there was the joy of pulling it off and the joy of seeing fans embrace him. "I’ve had the time of my life,” says Lee. "This has been the job of my life, really. It couldn’t have been a more interesting and challenging and fun project.”
"Same here,” adds Denton. "I think this is probably the best thing I’ve ever worked on, both in terms of what the film will be, and the creatures and robots we got to work on."
Soon, the world will get to see the rest of that work. For now, BB-8 has already made an impact, representing the wonder that Star Wars makes possible.
"I hope that he can sit with the really great, memorable Star Wars characters,” says Herring. "You know, you can look at him and R2-D2 and Chewbacca and go, ‘Oh, they’re all from the same place, and they all took part in the same story.’”
"What I think is the excitement for me comes from the fact that the world, at the moment, has only seen two shots of BB-8 in the movie and the Anaheim stuff, which is all great,” says Chapman. "But in the film, there’s so much going on and so much more for them to see. I’m excited for them to see the character’s journey in the movie.”