Saturday afternoon at Dragon Con featured The Puppetry of BB-8: Most Adorable Droid in the Galaxy, a panel that brought together the con’s Star Wars and Puppetry tracks. A packed ballroom of attendees listened intently as Brian Herring and Dave Chapman took us on a fast-paced, witty, one-hour tour of how they came to be a part of the crew for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and brought to life the movie’s most adorable star.
These two puppeteers have a great rapport and were enjoying sharing their stories. This was evident from the get-go as they playfully interviewed each other about how they got into puppetry. Brian’s journey began with what he referred to as “being economical with the truth” at an audition for a TV show. He told them he’d been part of a national tour of the musical The Little Shop of Horrors, when in fact he’d worked the show when it came through the theater he was employed by… moving scenery. The people at the audition told him their show’s puppetry would be a bit different than Little Shop’s, requiring him to watch monitors as he puppeted. He managed to do well enough on that test that they hired him. Herring has since done The Little Shop of Horrors ten times, which he feels makes up for everything.
Dave’s story began when he was 11 years old. It was then he wrote a letter to Jim Henson telling him he wanted to do what Henson did. He got a letter back saying that the Henson Company trained puppeteers and they’d put his letter on file; maybe they could train him someday. Then one day many years later he got a call asking if he’d like to come train. They actually kept his letter on file from when he was a kid and reached out to him when they thought he’d be ready! So in 1994 he began training at the Jim Henson Company and from there would go on to puppet for various British TV programmes as well as Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets Most Wanted.
Both Brian Herring and Dave Chapman worked for Neal Scanlan (The Force Awakens’ Creature Effects Supervisor) on the film Prometheus. When those in the industry heard that the new Star Wars movie would be made in the UK they wondered who got the job and Brian happened to ask Neal if he’d heard who was in charge at the right time as Scanlan then hired Herring as the Puppetry Consultant for the entire film.
They discussed the secrecy of making The Force Awakens saying they jokingly called it “Episode 7: Don’t Tell Anyone What It Is”. This made it difficult to offer other puppeteers jobs when they couldn’t tell them much about the project. Both Herring and Chapman worked on the BB-8 puppet for some time before it was decided BB-8 would indeed be in the movie in that form. So they didn’t get to read the script until that decision was made.
The puppeteers recounted getting to read the script for the first time saying that there was a hallway with a lady who’d take your phone, wallet, and such as well as confirm your identity. Then you’d go down another hallway to a room where you’d take a script, sign out which script number you had, and then sit at a table that had cameras trained on it. Only then could you read. Brian said they got excited when they opened it up and saw J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan’s names but they really got giddy when they turned the page and it said: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
From there they dove more into BB-8’s development. Their accompanying video featured content I didn’t recall seeing anywhere else. This included their first video test they showed Abrams of how BB-8 would move, using a much smaller model. In it a very small, very adorable BB-8 explores his surroundings and investigates a sponge. Did I mention it was adorable? It was so adorable. The audience was loudly making awwwww noises.
We also got to see early sketches of how the BB-8 design might be puppeted, even though some of them, Brian noted, are actually impossible to do. The puppeteers couldn’t remember which one of them said it, but they recalled that when they brought the full-size BB-8 to a meeting to show J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, the first thing one of them said was “What a relief!” BB-8 would be a puppet instead of CGI.
There were seven BB-8 puppets with different functions and operations. In addition to showing footage where they tested how fast they could maneuver the droid around an obstacle course, they showed BB-8 clips from the finished movie and talked about what they were doing then. In case you were wondering, the BB-8 thumbs-up was an ILM contribution – not puppetry.
Brian and Dave said that BB-8 needed to keep moving at all times even if it was just slightly in order to give the appearance that he was on; otherwise he looked dead. They shared that BB-8’s head is not attached to his body for their puppets. The head is on a rail and the rail is digitally removed later. In contrast the “red carpet” BB-8’s head is held on with electromagnets. The use of a pump helps maintain the optical illusion that puppet BB-8 is spinning in directions beyond the moving forward he is actually doing.
On set Brian Herring was the one in the green screen suit, moving BB-8’s body around, while Dave Chapman would sit behind a monitor and operate BB-8’s fine head movements via remote. Brian faced challenges with the heat and sand in Abu Dhabi while Dave’s challenges included having to “undercook” his movements since the monitor had about a 4-second lag. Dave shared that at one point he told J.J. he wanted to have a shirt made that said “359 degrees of wrong” because getting BB-8’s eye line with the actors had to be at exactly the right angle, otherwise BB-8 looked drunk.
The desert provided the first on-set difficulties for BB-8 since The Force Awakens was filmed chronologically. In regards to that Brian stated that Anakin Skywalker was right – sand does get everywhere. The BB-8s would have to be vacuumed each night to remove it. The glue used on them would get tacky too. It was also out in the desert that Brian started providing BB-8’s voice so Daisy Ridley would have something to respond to. He said it was then that he knew the crew had decided they liked BB-8. Apparently British film crews are a good barometer as to whether or not a performance will go over well.
For the scene where BB-8 unintentionally flies around the corridors of the Millennium Falcon, Brian used a “bowling” BB-8 that he literally would throw around the set. On one take it almost took out an IMAX camera. He said the resulting shot turned out really cool but it turned out they were in the wrong corridor so the take couldn’t be used in the film. The scene on Takodana where BB-8 follows Rey down the stairs was done practically and took about 8 takes to get right. Ultimately though they said the trike version of BB-8 is the most difficult to operate overall.
The BB-8 that so many fans watched roll out on stage at the opening of Star Wars Celebration Anaheim did not exist during filming. Dave and Brian watched the live stream of the event and were so excited that the feat was pulled off. They said they also got a text right after assuring them that they still had jobs because the new BB-8 couldn’t do everything they did.
During audience questions, a child asked if BB-8 was always meant to be that cute. The short answer was that yes, J.J. had intended for him to be that way. Someone also asked how the droid’s personality came about. The puppeteers credited the script and Brian said early on while walking alongside BB-8 he realized the droid was the size of a small dog or child. So he approached BB-8 like a Jack Russell Terrier that knows how to get what it wants but can get angry and stomp around like a toddler.
The strangest question from the audience (according to the panelists)? A gentleman asked where on his body a planned BB-8 tattoo should be placed. They decided arms were the safest. Someone asked what Gary Fisher (Carrie Fisher’s dog) thinks of BB. They said he’s not a big fan of the droid and doesn’t seem to trust him. For anyone who has played with their remote-control BB-8 around a dog – this is no surprise.
And finally the good news – Brian and Dave confirmed BB-8 will be back from Episode VIII. So hopefully we have another delightful panel to look forward to from these two gentlemen about two years from now.
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