The Story Behind the Creation of the BB-8 Droid in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Ever since fans saw the new BB-8 droid from Star Wars: The Force Awakens in action, they instantly fell in love with it. Then the fans' minds were blown when they found out that BB-8 was actually a real life working droid that didn't rely on CG. It was insane to see that thing actually roll across the stage at Star Wars Celebration earlier this year.
StarWars.com has released an article that takes us through the creation and development of the new ball droid, which you can read in its entirety here, but I included some of the quotes from the article for you below.
BB-8 was a very innovative droid that took the imagination of several individuals, including designers, engineers, and puppeteers, to bring it to life.
Director J.J. Abrams started the whole process with a little sketch that he drew on a napkin with one circle on top of another, and one of them had a tiny dot for an eye. That was the basic concept that got the ball rolling. Lucasfilm concept designer Christian Alzmann said,
“J.J. wanted something rolling on a sphere, so I tried a lot of different designs developing that idea. 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.”
She went on to confirm that the droid was in fact partially inspired by a soccer ball, which is something fans likened the droid to when they first saw it. After the concept design of BB-8 was finalized, concept designer Jake Lunt Davies took it to the creature shop develop it further as a practical effect. They had to change certain aspects of the design to help in the process of making it work in the real world. Neal Scanlan, the head of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens creature shop revealed that they called the droid ball-bot during its creation, and sayid,
“Outside there in the big open world, 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, a senior animatronic designer on the team then went to start the process of actually bring the droid to life.
“I made a little puppet version 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.”
After that, they had to convince Abrams that they could actually pull it off before shooting began. So they did some screen tests with it and were figuring out how the droid's personality would shine in the process. They found a way to incorporate emotions into it so that it could convey joy, sadness, curiosity, and fear. One of the puppeteers, Brian Herring, explained,
“BB-8 can cock his head over and look away, he can double take, he can look scared, he can look angry. 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?"
Apparently, Abrams didn't even see the final version of the working BB-8 until a week before he started shooting the film. He gave a great sigh of relief when he saw that the droid actually worked well and that they could proceed with it in the film. Up until that point, they were all worried they wouldn't be able to pull off what Abrams was hoping for, but thankfully, they did!
After that, they created an army of BB-8's for filming. Each one had a different purpose and function. Some of those versions are explained in the following excerpt:
"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."
These were all built and designed by Lee and Matthew Denton. Then came the point of actually making BB-8 real. While they were shooting, Scanlan’s team managed to actually make a fully functioning, remote-controlled version. This is the version that all of the fans saw at Star Wars Celebration. Lee said,
“There are several ways of doing a ball robot, 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.”
Of course, he doesn't reveal how exactly it works because, "Where’s the fun in that?” That fully functioning droid all came about just in time to show off at Star Wars Celebration. The fans were definitely impressed. There's no doubt he's going to be a fan favorite character when the movie is released this December.
There is one last thing that the article didn't mention that /Film and other fan sites have pointed out. That's that the design could have been inspired by an early concept design by concept artist Ralph McQuarrie for Star Wars: A New Hope. Regarding his original concept for R2-D2, McQuarrie said,
“I think Artoo was just described as a small robot. I thought of him as running on a giant ball bearing — just a sphere, a circle, wheel-like. He had gyros so he could go in any direction on this ball.”
You can see his concept art for that below.