Find out how Lucasfilm brought BB-8 to life without digital effects

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Dec 17, 2018, 5:00 PM EST (Updated)

When the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrived in November, there were plenty of new things to take in, but two elements immediately stood out. One was the cross-bladed lightsaber that we ultimately learned belongs to Kylo Ren, and the other was a new droid who rolled around the landscape like a soccer ball with a dome attached. Later, we learned that this new droid was BB-8, and fan fascination with him has been mounting ever since, thanks in no small part to an appearance at Star Wars Celebration that revealed that it is, in fact, a practical effect. "Practical effect" is one of the sexiest phrases you can say to a Star Wars fan, and so BB-8 became a favorite even before we knew his role in the full movie.

We still don't know quite how BB-8 figures into The Force Awakens, but we do know that we love the design and movement of the character, and in a new post on the official Star Wars website, the minds behind the droid got to explain how they did it. According to the story, BB-8 began as a sketch on a napkin by director J.J. Abrams, and evolved from there into the character that we've seen in the footage so far. According to Neal Scanlan, the head of The Force Awakens creature shop. his team set out to make BB-8 as a free-roaming character free of puppeteers and other attachments, but they ultimately decided to, at first, create a character that would be assisted by various elements which would then be digitally removed, like puppeteering rods.

"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," Scanlan said. "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.”

So, the team developed several variations on BB-8 that could be used in various situations, from wide shots to close-ups in which the droid interacted with other characters. Through it all, though, the team never forgot the dream of creating a fully functioning BB-8, and ultimately they found a way to design one that could roll out onstage at Star Wars Celebration, to shrieks of delight from the crowd.

“It had been sort of burning a hole in me,” senior animatronic designer Joshua Lee said. “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.”

So, a BB-8 droid that can really roam around any environment was ultimately made, without any rods or strings or other puppetry tricks. As for how they ultimately achieved that goal, the Lucasfilm team isn't telling.

“I’m not sure I want to say," Lee said. "Because where’s the fun in that?”

For the full story of how BB-8 came to life, from sketch to shooting and beyond, head to the link below. It's fascinating.

(Via Star Wars)

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