We’re still over three months away from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so I don’t want to say that BB-8 is going to be one of the most memorable characters of the year. However, if the character charms audiences like he did when he rolled on stage at Star Wars Celebration back in April, he could easily be the big scene-stealer of the new Star Wars sequel, and earn his place alongside Artoo and Threepio.
But what went into making this potential superstar? StarWars.com has posted a long article on the making of BB-8, and while it sadly lacks illustrations or videos about the internal workings for the marvelous practical effect, it does contain some neat trivia about the droid’s development.
It all started with director J.J. Abrams sketching out “two circles atop one another, with a tiny dot for an eye.” From there, it eventually went to senior animatronic designer Joshua Lee:
“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.”
But what jumps out about BB-8 isn’t just that he’s a technical marvel or his unique design; it’s that he comes off like a character. That’s thanks in part to puppeteers Dave Chapman and Brian Herring:
“We had, I guess, two weeks to ourselves on an empty soundstage, just figuring out how this character moved,” Chapman says. “[Head of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens creature shop] 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?”
For all of the work they did trying to get BB-8 ready, Abrams didn’t even see a puppeteered version of BB-8 until a week before shooting began. Needless to say, he was relieved, and this opened the door for other BB-8s that would be used in various situations:
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.
“The end,” at least as far as production is concerned. We’ll know if the effect really came alive when the film opens December 18th.