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The Intimidating Task Behind This Season's Cutest Breakout Star

Dec 19, 2015
Originally published on December 21, 2015 2:11 pm

Sometimes an aging movie star must sit and watch as a charismatic newcomer steals the spotlight — even inanimate ones. R2-D2, the adorable little robot — or droid — first appeared in Star Wars in 1977. And over the years he's faced cute competition from Yoda, and the Ewoks. But the latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, brings us what might be an even cuter new droid: BB-8.

These days, the two men who built BB-8 have gotten used to people cooing over the droid's soulful, giant eye and its sweet, round silhouette. Matthew Denton supervised electronic design and development for the movie's characters; Joshua Lee is a senior animatronic designer.

Some fans mocked BB-8 when its images first went public, for looking like a soccer ball, among other harmless things.

"It's got similar proportions to a baby," says Lee.

"And it has characterizations of a puppy," says Denton. "Like a puppy dog."

BB-8 was first imagined by the film's director, J.J. Abrams, who sketched the little droid on a napkin in 30 seconds, Lee says.

When they got that sketch, Lee and Denton were asked to devise a robot not dependent on digital effects. Abrams wanted to avoid CGI whenever possible.

"We weren't really sure whether it was possible to achieve BB-8 physically," says Lee. "In fact, it was only about a week to go before filming began that we actually had the physical droids there for J.J. to look at."

BB-8 is a robot on a mission, discovered by a girl on a desolate planet. It took about a year of testing and building to come up with all the BB-8s used in the movie, Lee says.

"We built seven different versions of BB-8 to get all the shots we needed to," says Lee. "And they all got nicknames," adds Denton.

'The Wiggler" was for close-ups, given that it wiggles around in one place, "turning its head and tilting its body," says Lee.

The "Bowling Ball" was literally bowled through shots whenever the droid had to move fast.

And when BB-8 had to emote, there was a special puppet version, nicknamed, quite simply, "The Puppet."

"A puppeteer was physically controlling the puppet through rods and levers," says Lee. "That was incredibly expressive."

And expensive — those rods and levers had to be digitally removed.

Now imagine you're Denton, who built BB-8, and your job was to remote-control it. It wasn't always so much fun, he says, on set in Abu Dhabi, where temperatures regularly exceeded 120 degrees.

"You couldn't touch your hand on anything if it was metal — you didn't pick it up because you'd burn and it was like working on another planet," he says. "But I guess it was the point."

Here's the wildest part. Denton and Lee had a list of things they knew the droid needed to do, including speed over sand, navigate through forests and climb down stairs. But they never saw a word of the script until the movie started shooting.

"We didn't know how much BB-8 was in the movie and I've only realized what a huge deal it is actually," says Denton.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sometimes an aging star has to watch a charismatic newcomer slip into the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS" FILM)

SIMON: We're talking, of course, about R2-D2, the adorable little robot or droid who first appeared in "Star Wars" in 1977. And over the years, he's faced some cuteness competition. Yoda and the Ewoks come to mind.

But the latest "Star Wars" movie, "The Force Awakens" brings us what might be an even more endearing new droid. NPR's Neda Ulaby and that it will be tells us more about BB-8.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: All over the country, you can hear arguments like this one between two 7-year-old twins.

CECILIA SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: BB-8.

LINCOLN SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: R2-D2.

CECILIA: BB-8.

LINCOLN: R2-D2.

CECILIA: BB-8.

ULABY: These siblings are debating which droid is superior. Neither's seen the movie yet, but Lincoln Sandoval-Strausz staunchly supports the original R2-D2. Sister Cecilia begs to differ.

LINCOLN: But R2-D2 can fight.

CECILIA: BB-8's cute. BB-8's always awesome.

LINCOLN: BB-8's, like, oh, I have to serve you (imitating BB-8).

CECILIA: BB-8's cute.

MATTHEW DENTON: (Laughter) It is cute, isn't it?

ULABY: Meet the two men who built BB-8. Matthew Denton supervised electronic design and development for the movie's characters, and Joshua Lee's a senior animatronic designer.

Now some fans mocked when BB-8's images first went public...

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS" FILM)

ULABY: ...For looking like a soccer ball. And, well, it does. But these days, Denton and Lee have gotten used to people cooing over the droid's soulful giant eye and its sweet round silhouette.

JOSHUA LEE: ...That it's got similar proportions to a baby.

DENTON: And it has kind of characterizations of a puppy, like a puppy dog.

ULABY: Like a plucky little terrier who's up in everyone's business. BB-8 was first imagined by the film's director. J.J. Abrams says Lee sketched the little droid on a napkin.

LEE: Yep, that's correct. And it is a 30-second sketch.

ULABY: When they got that sketch, Lee and Denton were asked to devise a robot not dependent on digital effects. Abrams wanted to avoid CGI whenever possible.

LEE: We weren't really sure whether it was possible to achieve BB-8 physically. In fact, it was only about with a week to go before filming began that we actually had the physical droids there for J.J. to look at.

ULABY: In the movie, BB-8 is a robot on a mission. It's discovered by a girl on a desolate planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where do you come from?

(SOUNDBITE OF BB-8 DROID)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I know all about waiting.

(SOUNDBITE OF BB-8 DROID)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) For my family.

(SOUNDBITE OF BB-8 DROID)

ULABY: It took about a year of testing and building to come up with all of the BB-8s used in the movie, Lee says.

LEE: We built seven different versions of BB-8 to get all the shots that we needed to, and they all got nicknames. We had one called The Wiggler.

ULABY: The Wiggler was for close-ups. It wiggles around in one place.

LEE: ...Turning its head and tilting its body.

DENTON: We had The Bowling Ball.

ULABY: That one was literally bowled through shots whenever the droid had to move fast. And when BB-8 had to emote, there was a special puppet version.

LEE: ...Where a puppeteer was physically controlling the puppet through rods and levers. That was incredibly expressive.

ULABY: And expensive - those rods and levers had to be digitally removed. And what was its nickname?

LEE: It was The Puppet (laughter). Not very original, sorry.

ULABY: Imagine if you're Matt Denton, who built BB-8, and your job was to remote control it. Not so fun, he says, on set in Abu Dhabi, where temperatures regularly exceed 120 degrees.

DENTON: You couldn't touch your hand on anything. If it was metal, you didn't pick it up when it was in the sun in the desert because you'd burn. And it was like working another planet at times, but I guess that was the point.

ULABY: Here's the wildest part. Denton and Lee had a list of things they knew the droid needed to do - speed over sand, navigate through forests, climb down stairs and more. But they never saw a word of the script until the movie started shooting.

DENTON: So we didn't know how much BB-8 was in the movie. And then I've really just realized what a huge deal it is, actually.

ULABY: Without meaning to, they created a movie star. Neda Ulably, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.