Why Star Wars' Breakout Star, the Seemingly Lovable BB-8, Is Having a Ball – but 'Shouldn't Be Trusted'
“We always saw BB-8 as a naughty puppy or a very clever little child,” says Neal Scanlan, chief of creature and droid effects, in PEOPLE’s new Star Wars special issue. “They know how to be coy, how to be cute, how to sulk, how to pull at heartstrings to get what they want.”
The droid is essentially a next-generation upgrade of R2-D2, the venerable robot sidekick who has appeared in all seven Star Wars films. “[Director] J.J. Abrams drew the original design for BB-8 on a little napkin,” Scanlan says. “The idea of using a droid that can roll and navigate things using a wheel or a ball is very current. Poor R2 is becoming a dinosaur.”
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Like R2, though, the real BB-8 is a (somewhat) working robot, not a CGI character. Scanlan’s team infused BB-8 with a distinct personality on set that the other actors could play off of. Main puppeteer Brian Herring, wearing a blue suit so he could be digitally removed, would perform the gestures and even the initial sounds.
“Those aren’t the sounds you’ll hear in the movie,” says Scanlan, whose team used that approach for all their characters, including the creature menagerie in the castle of Maz Kanata. “But the people that performed the puppets would vocalize to mirror the performance, which means you start to engage with them as characters. After a while, people don’t talk to the performer anymore, they talk to the puppet.”
That on-set interaction helped give BB-8 a well-rounded personality, including some secrets beyond just what all those orange panels are hiding. Scanlan has cryptically warned that BB-8, who is already a favorite breakout character, “shouldn’t be trusted.”
Of the droid’s mysteries, Scanlan did reveal to PEOPLE, “BB-8 knew what he was up to, or she knew what she was up to because we’re not quite sure if it was a boy or a girl. She or he is using all those little tricks to be able to get around Rey [the central character, played by Daisy Ridley] and be able to transport himself on this incredibly important journey. He’s on a mission, and he has to succeed in this mission. He has a strong ability to be able to manipulate people – in the nicest possible sense of the word.”