Is This The Droid You’re Looking For?

Today sees the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first of a new trilogy in the beloved sci-fi franchise. Fans have been waiting anxiously to see whether the new films hold up to the originals in a way that the prequel trilogy arguably failed to do, but it also holds significant interest for the engineering community – thanks to a little droid called BB-8.


Director J.J. Abrams first sketched out the BB-8 droid on a napkin; a basic idea of two circles, one atop the other, with a little dotted eye. From there, the challenge for the film crew's creature shop was to bring it to life. Abrams wanted it to be a practical effect, so there were a range of technical challenges to overcome.

In the end, the BB-8 you see in the films is a combination of half a dozen practical versions; a static version that could twist and turn for close-ups, a couple of versions using stabiliser wheels that could be driven by remote control, one that could be picked up by actors, one that balanced like a Weeble toy, and one that was controlled by two puppeteers using rods. This meant that CGI effects could be kept to a minimum, being used to remove the puppeteers from shots rather than to create the character.

However, while the screen BB-8 is an amalgam of those different versions, there is another BB-8…