Come this Christmas, every child is going to unwrap a small box and receive a BB gun, and make their parents wonder why they’re so disappointed. And that’s because the real star of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens is going to be BB-8, an adorable droid that looks like a 1990s mouse dry-humping a soccer ball.
The amazing thing is, is that BB-8 is a proper, working puppet. Not CGI at all, but what you see is very much real. So how did director JJ Abrams and his crew create the little fella? According to StarWars.Com, BB-8 wasdrawn up by Abrams as “two circles atop one another, with a tiny dot for an eye,” as senior animatronics designer Joshua Lee explained:
“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 BB-8 is more than just a puppet. He’s a proper character, as puppeteers Dave Chapman and Brian Herring revealed:
“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?”
And here’s where it gets amazing. Abrams only saw a working model of BB-8, a week before filming was scheduled to begin:
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 Force Awakens soon. The Force of your children demanding BB-8 merch, even sooner.
Last Updated: August 28, 2015