The Task Behind This Season's Cutest Breakout Star: The BB-8 From 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' One of the new characters in the latest Star Wars, BB-8, is one adorable droid. With only a sketch of the final product, its creators didn't know how much fuss would come from the harmless robot.
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The Intimidating Task Behind This Season's Cutest Breakout Star

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The Intimidating Task Behind This Season's Cutest Breakout Star

The Intimidating Task Behind This Season's Cutest Breakout Star

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sometimes an aging star has to watch a charismatic newcomer slip into the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS" FILM)

SIMON: We're talking, of course, about R2-D2, the adorable little robot or droid who first appeared in "Star Wars" in 1977. And over the years, he's faced some cuteness competition. Yoda and the Ewoks come to mind.

But the latest "Star Wars" movie, "The Force Awakens" brings us what might be an even more endearing new droid. NPR's Neda Ulaby and that it will be tells us more about BB-8.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: All over the country, you can hear arguments like this one between two 7-year-old twins.

CECILIA SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: BB-8.

LINCOLN SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: R2-D2.

CECILIA: BB-8.

LINCOLN: R2-D2.

CECILIA: BB-8.

ULABY: These siblings are debating which droid is superior. Neither's seen the movie yet, but Lincoln Sandoval-Strausz staunchly supports the original R2-D2. Sister Cecilia begs to differ.

LINCOLN: But R2-D2 can fight.

CECILIA: BB-8's cute. BB-8's always awesome.

LINCOLN: BB-8's, like, oh, I have to serve you (imitating BB-8).

CECILIA: BB-8's cute.

MATTHEW DENTON: (Laughter) It is cute, isn't it?

ULABY: Meet the two men who built BB-8. Matthew Denton supervised electronic design and development for the movie's characters, and Joshua Lee's a senior animatronic designer.

Now some fans mocked when BB-8's images first went public...

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS" FILM)

ULABY: ...For looking like a soccer ball. And, well, it does. But these days, Denton and Lee have gotten used to people cooing over the droid's soulful giant eye and its sweet round silhouette.

JOSHUA LEE: ...That it's got similar proportions to a baby.

DENTON: And it has kind of characterizations of a puppy, like a puppy dog.

ULABY: Like a plucky little terrier who's up in everyone's business. BB-8 was first imagined by the film's director. J.J. Abrams says Lee sketched the little droid on a napkin.

LEE: Yep, that's correct. And it is a 30-second sketch.

ULABY: When they got that sketch, Lee and Denton were asked to devise a robot not dependent on digital effects. Abrams wanted to avoid CGI whenever possible.

LEE: We weren't really sure whether it was possible to achieve BB-8 physically. In fact, it was only about with a week to go before filming began that we actually had the physical droids there for J.J. to look at.

ULABY: In the movie, BB-8 is a robot on a mission. It's discovered by a girl on a desolate planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where do you come from?

(SOUNDBITE OF BB-8 DROID)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I know all about waiting.

(SOUNDBITE OF BB-8 DROID)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) For my family.

(SOUNDBITE OF BB-8 DROID)

ULABY: It took about a year of testing and building to come up with all of the BB-8s used in the movie, Lee says.

LEE: We built seven different versions of BB-8 to get all the shots that we needed to, and they all got nicknames. We had one called The Wiggler.

ULABY: The Wiggler was for close-ups. It wiggles around in one place.

LEE: ...Turning its head and tilting its body.

DENTON: We had The Bowling Ball.

ULABY: That one was literally bowled through shots whenever the droid had to move fast. And when BB-8 had to emote, there was a special puppet version.

LEE: ...Where a puppeteer was physically controlling the puppet through rods and levers. That was incredibly expressive.

ULABY: And expensive - those rods and levers had to be digitally removed. And what was its nickname?

LEE: It was The Puppet (laughter). Not very original, sorry.

ULABY: Imagine if you're Matt Denton, who built BB-8, and your job was to remote control it. Not so fun, he says, on set in Abu Dhabi, where temperatures regularly exceed 120 degrees.

DENTON: You couldn't touch your hand on anything. If it was metal, you didn't pick it up when it was in the sun in the desert because you'd burn. And it was like working another planet at times, but I guess that was the point.

ULABY: Here's the wildest part. Denton and Lee had a list of things they knew the droid needed to do - speed over sand, navigate through forests, climb down stairs and more. But they never saw a word of the script until the movie started shooting.

DENTON: So we didn't know how much BB-8 was in the movie. And then I've really just realized what a huge deal it is, actually.

ULABY: Without meaning to, they created a movie star. Neda Ulably, NPR News.

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