BB-8: The Little Droid That Could

Amidst all the hype, an unlikely machine became the biggest breakout of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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On the day after we consumed way too much on Thanksgiving Day of 2014, Star Wars began to once again consume us. Sure, we knew the movie was on its way with J.J. Abrams directing a cast of the old guard (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher) and new (John Boyega, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley). And we’d also been informed of its title, The Force Awakens. But it was on this day, Nov. 28, 2014, that Episode VII truly and forcefully entered our lives via the first official teaser trailer

Words like “we” and “us” and “our” tend to get thrown around more often than they should, but in this case they couldn’t be more appropriate. Star Wars is our franchise. Name a categorization, and Star Wars transcends it: age, gender, sexuality, religion, partisanship, nationalism, etc. On that Thursday, the United States celebrated Thanksgiving, and on Friday the world celebrated The Force Awakens

The trailer gave us our first tangible look at the third generation of the third largest franchise in the history of cinema. In just 88 seconds it revitalized our excitement while indulging in nostalgia. Boyega in a Stormtrooper suit, Ridley starting up a hovercraft, Isaac piloting an X-Wing with the rebel insignia on his helmet, a mysterious figure with a three-pronged lightsaber, and the Millennium Falcon bursting into the scene backed by the theme song. And something entirely new—that adorable ball droid, its hemisphere of a head somehow remaining secure as the globular body rolled along below. 

Amidst all the excitement, the Internet immediately latched on to this little thing. The word “cute” was unavoidable in trailer recaps and analyses. Jalopnik dedicated a whole post to breaking down its mechanics, physics, and place in the Star Wars droid lineage before we even knew its name. A mechanical engineer published a model so people could 3D print their droids. A fan had it tattooed on his leg. Even Luke Skywalker himself couldn’t stop gushing about it in an interview, and although he was careful not to give away its name, he was the first to reveal it was a physical prop instead of CG. “They never cease to amaze me with what they’re able to come up with,” Hamill said in an interview withYahoo!, “I said, ‘How are you ever gonna top R2-D2, the most adorable droid in movie history?’ And when they were demonstrating how they did this thing, live on set—because it’s not CGI, that’s a live prop—I was just amazed. They let me play around with it. I was running it all around at the creature shop in Pinewood. I’m telling you, it’s an absolute delight.” 

Soon after Hamill gave the interview character names were announced via retro trading cards, and we finally knew what to call our newest droid of affection: BB-8. 

Sphero, an advanced toy company based in Boulder, Colo., had been tapped earlier in the year to make a toy BB-8 for the masses. But just like us, the company got its first glimpse of the droid in action from the trailer. “When that came out we breathed a sigh of relief because it actually moves the way we thought it should,” CEO Paul Berberian said. “It doesn’t defy physics. How bummed would you be if you couldn’t bring the character on screen to life in authentic fashion? We played it back 100 times.”

BB-8’s first iteration was on a napkin. Abrams’ initial sketch for Star Wars’ newest droid was simple enough: one circle on top of the other and a small, dotted eye. It was then up to Lucasfilm concept designer Christian Alzmann to fully realize the ball droid, and, unsurprisingly, he drew inspiration from soccer balls. The design continued to evolve in the hands of Jake Lunt Davies, a concept designer for the creature shop, and the final design called for a hemisphere head on top of a full rotating globe. But it was still up in the air if BB-8 could be brought to life as a practical effect. 

“There was a lot of discussion how having a CG BB-8 would be so much easier for shooting,” Abrams said at the 2015 Star Wars Celebration. “But we also knew it would be better for the film, for the actors, for the set, for the look of it, if it were performed.” 

Joshua Lee, a senior animatronic designer, built a small polystyrene puppet in just half of a day to prove it wouldn’t need extra parts to express BB-8’s full range of movement. It then took two weeks for puppeteers Dave Chapman and Brian Herring to perfect its every movement. They had to figure out how to emote joy, anger, sadness, curiosity, and fear. How it would power down? How would it handle stairs? Once the choreography was set, it was time to rehearse for Abrams—just one week before filming began. 

Much like Berberian watching the first trailer, Abrams was filled with relief upon seeing the puppet. “I could see the weight of the world lift off his shoulders,” Neal Scanlan, head of the creature shop, told “I think up until that point, it was sitting in everybody’s mind that unless we were able to deliver something that was actually believable and usable and directorially friendly, the only other option was to go digital. He put his faith and trust in us and, as such, apparently we didn’t disappoint.” 

A squad of six BB-8s were used throughout filming, each with its own purpose. A version called the “wiggler” could twist and turn and was used for close-ups. Two versions with tricycle wheels could be driven without a puppeteer. A “bowling ball” version could be thrown around without toppling over. Another version could be picked up by actors and react via remote control. And the final rod-puppet version was manipulated by Chapman and Herring—one for the head and one for the body—before the two were digitally removed.

“[disney ceo bob iger] points to this character and goes,
‘that's bb-8, he's going to
be pretty popular.’”
—Paul Berberian, sphero ceo

In July 2014 Sphero joined Disney’s startup accelerator program. The program is typically for younger companies, and Sphero had already done $20 million in sales in four years from its eponymous robotic ball. But Berberian couldn’t resist access to the Disney executives who served as mentors in the program, so he fired off an application and was accepted. It only took until the program’s second day for that access to pay off astronomically. 

Disney CEO Bob Iger pulled out his phone during a meeting and began showing the Sphero team photos from the Star Wars set. “He points to this character and goes, ‘That’s the new droid,’” Berberian said. “‘It’s BB-8, and he’s going to be pretty popular. He looks a lot like what you guys have been making for several years. Do you think you can make this as a toy?’”

Of course, they said yes. “I think I’m staring at something that can be pretty big,” Berberian said of his immediate reaction. “You’re trying to mine for diamonds your whole life, and all of the sudden you see the world’s biggest diamond in front of you. You are trying to gasp at what that means.” 

Iger did his research, but what he didn’t know is that Sphero had already been planning to offer accessories on top of their spherical toys. Within 48 hours Sphero already had a prototype to present. But Berberian still wasn’t sure if BB-8 would be computer-generated. He was worried its movements couldn’t be replicated in a galaxy that isn’t far, far away, a concern that was finally alleviated when he watched the trailer with the rest of us.

Disney and Sphero didn’t collaborate on technology, but the two maintained a continuous dialogue to make sure the toy captured the nuances of the character. Disney would show how BB-8, say, shakes off a collision or looks dazed and confused as it’s moving, and Sphero developed the codes to express those animations with its head. These preprogrammed codes are sent from the phone app, which serves as the full controller and hosts holographic messages, to the robot’s virtual machine. 

Simultaneously, the ball’s movements are controlled through an Application Program Interface, which the app also tells where to move by the degree. To make sure this movement is precise an Inertial Measurement Unit corrects the movement 400 times per second. If it’s supposed to drive at 23 degrees but veers to 24, the IMU will put it back on track. It does this by essentially driving inside of the shell. Two wheels are moving inside the ball, displacing its center of gravity. 

As complicated as it sounds, it’s not even the most difficult part. “Our nemesis has always been the shell,” Berberian says. “The hardest part is making something perfectly round, perfectly sealed. How do you charge it and get all the decoration right? There’s over 120 steps to get the decoration correct.” 

And then, of course, there’s staying quiet. Outside of his team, the only person Berberian told was his wife. His sister introduced him to A New Hope when he was eleven years old. She called him, oblivious, when The Force Awakens trailer dropped and said, “It looks like Sphero. You guys should do that.” 

R2-D2 and C-3PO are the OG Star Wars droids, but there’s no question to who’s the biggest star. C-3PO is a narc. He’s utterly devoted to (or programed for) logic and etiquette. He’s cowardly in the face of slightest danger. He complains more than Larry David. Many fans loathe him, and even the other characters seem to be annoyed with him. But who doesn’t rock with R2? R2-D2 is smart, independent, and curious. He’s loyal, and any act of rebellion ends up justified. He’s saved everyone’s life at least once: Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Padme, Anakin, Lando, and countless randos. George Lucas himself called R2 his favorite character. And though we can’t understand him as well as the characters who are apparently fluid in droid, his beeps, boops, purrs, and screams convey all the messages we need. 

His throne had never been threatened until BB-8 took the stage at this year’s Star Wars celebration. R2 was already lamping on stage when BB-8 rolled up to thunderous applause. Pinewood Studios built the fully functional, remote-controlled drone—which was couldn’t be done for filming—specifically for this moment. The rehearsal was done just a day before. 

“I think the red carpet version, at this moment in time, stands almost singularly as a technical achievement that no one has matched,” Scanlan told “We watch, very avidly, the forums and the discussions that people are having on ‘How did they do that?,’ and no one’s yet cracked the actual problem.” 

Initial reports attributed the feat to Sphero, and Berberian had to remain mum because of his non-disclosure agreement. The website made no mention of BB-8 or Star Wars, and requests for comment went unanswered. Finally, on Sept. 3, Sphero was able to announce the toy and clear the air on creating the BB-8 for filming. 

“Lucasfilm always gets fans hyped up about a character they don’t know sh*t about.
bb-8's the new thing.”
—Lee Sanger goldin,
star wars superfan

Sphero’s toy went on sale the next day, as well as a cheaper version from Hasbro, as part of Force Friday. A testament to the cash Rancor that is Star Wars merchandising, Force Awakens products pulled in an estimated $1 billion on day one. And no item was more coveted than Sphero’s BB-8. Berberian couldn’t release specific sales figures but said Sphero sold in four hours what it expected to sell in six weeks. A manager for an electronics store near Complex’s office, who wasn’t authorized by corporate to speak, said her store sold all the units it received in two hours. 

Its success is a testament to the imagination of Pinewood Studios and the commitment to detailed recreation by Sphero. BB-8 is one of the coolest creations to come out of the Star Wars universe and is arguably the most obtainable. But BB-8 exists. That magical feeling of seeing the droid rolling with its head bobbing around can be replicated in your living room. 

“We wanted to build a product that was fun, playful, controllable, accurate, and precise,” Berberian said. “Obviously, we couldn’t do the same things they do with movie magic and prop masters. I could build a $10,000 BB-8. It would be super cool, but the thing we wanted to deliver is that magic for everyone.” 

Despite all the fandom, we still don’t know much about BB-8. The official Star Wars databank says only that it belongs to Isaac’s character Poe Dameron. But that hasn’t stopped speculative fans—the sort that has cooked up the Jar Jar Binks theory—from assigning it the female gender or theorizing that it’s secretly evil. 

“Lucasfilm always gets fans hyped up about a character they don’t know shit about,” said Lee Sanger Goldin, the biggest Star Wars nerd I know. “When Phantom Menace came out everyone was like, ‘Darth Maul!’ Darth Maul is in that movie for as long as Mike Tyson is in The Hangover. It wasn’t a significant role, but everyone was going out and buying toys. BB-8’s the new thing.” 

That new thing has been everywhere in the run up to Dec. 18. It’s on the cover of Time. It’s on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. It’s playing soccer with the Spanish national team. It has its own TV spot in which it busts out a loop de loop.

Sphero will allow itself one night of celebration on the day all the madness is built around. The company has rented out two theaters to see the premiere for its holiday party. And then it’s back to work to update BB-8 accordingly. More holographic messages will be added to reflect storyline, as well as other features Sphero isn’t yet ready to announce. “With most toys, once it leaves the factory it never changes,” Berberian said. “With us it’s constantly changing. 

And then there are two more movies you could potentially be a part of. 

“I can’t confirm anything, but I hope BB-8 is around for a long time.” 

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