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R2-D2: From Helpful Droid to Hero

We all knew R2-D2 was cool...but in Star Wars Episode II he turns into a swash-buckling, damsel saving hero. Bill Desowitz speaks with Billy Brooks of ILM's "rebel unit" to find out about the transformation.

It's appropriate that the animation department at Industrial Light & Magic responsible for R2-D2 is known as the rebel unit. That feisty little robot is quite the rebel, and in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he is required to do a lot more physical activity than accustomed to: flying, climbing stairs and saving both his buddy, C-3PO, and the new heroine of the franchise, Senator Padme Amidala (played by Natalie Portman).

Making the CG R2-D2 move convincingly was the biggest hurdle for the Episode II team. Here, they send him flying. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved. Digital work by Industrial Light & Magic.

Making the CG R2-D2 move convincingly was the biggest hurdle for the Episode II team. Here, they send him flying. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved. Digital work by Industrial Light & Magic.

R2 Gets A Boost

So it should come as no surprise that George Lucas demanded an all-new computer-modeled R2-D2 to append the motor-controlled practical model that's been a staple of all the previous films. The job went to Billy Brooks, a rebel unit artist and Star Wars fanboy, along with 15 other artists. "We are generalists," Brooks explains, "who are capable of doing all aspects of animation: modeling, texturing, animation, lighting, rendering and compositing. I computer-modeled R2-D2 for one CG shot in the middle of Phantom Menace, but I revamped the model and got it ready for 17 shots in Attack of the Clones. It took two weeks to remodel the head and four weeks to make sure the look of the metal matched the practical model."

A step by step progression of how ILM made the CG R2-D2 fly -- first they create the wireframe of the character.

A step by step progression of how ILM made the CG R2-D2 fly -- first they create the wireframe of the character.

As with the all-new CG Yoda, the challenge was to adhere as closely to the original character as possible. For example, when walking upstairs, Brooks had the CG legs still rock back and forth in that renowned "Kenny Baker shuffle"(supplied by the actor who fits inside the practical model).

Or when he swoops down to rescue Padme when she's trapped in a cauldron, Brooks introduced animated elements of the CG R2 correcting himself. "I would put in imperfections because I didn't want R2 to be too digital; I wanted him to be in character. I grew up with R2 and I didn't want to blow it. He's part of my childhood."

And why is the CG R2 Mac-based? Simple. Because the rebel unit is primarily Mac-based. And since Lightwave had some new tools, Brooks wanted to try it out for the first time in production instead of sticking with Maya or Softimage. Brooks says the results were very impressive.

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Here the animators create the background element for the scene.

"Lightwave offers a motion mixer that allows you to predetermine behaviors rather than tweaking animation curves," he explains. " Maybe you go from three legs to two legs in one shot, and maybe the rocket packs fold up in his arms. You put the chunks in a timeline. It's like non-linear editing, where you stretch and expand or overlap chunks of animation. In addition, Lightwave contains tools to easily randomize, such as when R2 wobbles over imperfect surfaces. And the animation curve editor is very fluid."

Getting It Just Right

As always, though, the most important cues came from Lucas. "I would go to a meeting and George would say that he wants R2 to walk upstairs. And then it would be up to us to figure out how. I would brainstorm with my little R2 toy on my desk and then get opinions from my office mates. I would present a concept to Rob Coleman, the animation supervisor, and he would say, 'What if he had more weight here?'"

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Another physical challenge was having the rockets come out of R2's legs, an idea inspired several years ago by a Doug Chiang sketch. "What I did was redesign the mechanism so that it folded into the legs. George liked the test, but originally there was no close-up of the shot, so we made a new one that got into the movie."

Flying, of course, was an issue of believability, since it's a totally new concept for R2's character. Brooks says he sketched it, played with his toys and came up with the idea of the robot kicking his legs back for thrust, with the rockets remaining stationary. "Then I came up with the idea that he could spin with one leg back and one leg forward. I thought that would totally be in character for R2."

Even grabbing a piece of bread proved troublesome during a scene on a freighter. Brooks had to get that clicking, jerking motion from the mechanical arms just right. "At first I thought the movement was too jerky, but then I remembered that's how he did [it] when extending his arms in the old films."

Then details of R2-D2 are filled in before the flying shot is completed.

Then details of R2-D2 are filled in before the flying shot is completed.

Also bothersome were the shots of the bread itself. "I modeled the CG bread and was scared of how it would meld into the shot of the real bread."

At one point Brooks got to do a complete CG replacement shot when it was discovered that a foot was missing a piece on one of the practical models. "It was a quick and dirty 1:1 replacement during the Coliseum battle sequence," Brooks recalls. "It took two days and was hard to match. I wanted to see if I could do it purely as a challenge, having previously only appended different aspects of the practical R2 shots. It worked out fine."

Bill Desowitz is the former editor and managing editor of Animation Magazine, and writes about film regularly for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

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