When BB-8 rolled out on stage at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim last year, the adorable droid blew fans away with the fact that he wasn't a CG creation. People had seen BB-8 in The Force Awakens teaser trailer, but seeing him in action as a real droid at the panel was a whole different matter. Fans were instantly in love, and some were inspired to think about how they could perhaps build the droid themselves.
This led to the creation of the BB-8 Builders Club, a group whose members build life-size versions of the spherical droid. The fans, many of whom were already members of the R2-D2 Builders Club, began researching the new droid. BB-8 Builders Club co-founder Carl Cunningham told the Daily Dot that during this time, the BB-8 fans saw an opportunity with the new droid to form a separate club, since the R2-D2 one had been around for awhile. They would still remain members of the R2-D2 club of course, but the new one focused on BB-8 would be a little looser and have fewer rules.
Before they could bring BB-8 to life, however, they first had to figure out how to build him. The builders went through a research and development process where they collaborated to reverse engineer the droid with the goal of having some fully constructed BB-8s before the release of The Force Awakens last December. Club co-founders Michael Erwin and Tiny Panganiban began using available photos of BB-8 to model the droid in a 3D space so it could be rotated. From there they began to determine sizing and dimensions."Then we started figuring out 'Ok, how will we make the parts?'" Erwin told the Daily Dot. "And sort of just slicing it, where you take a 3D model and you slice it for a 3D printer, since we were builders primarily instead of making these as chunks of printable pieces, we'll actually make these parts that you can put together."
As development continued, the parts they created became lighter, more efficient, and easier to print so that eventually the part count for building BB-8 began to drop. According to Erwin, these parts include the body, the dome, the electronics, and the internal drive mechanism which they sometimes call the hamster. This hamster is a controlled robot that goes inside and is responsible for the spinning and steering of the droid.
After more research, development, and testing, a series of 3D files were created and made available in the fall for people to print. From there fans have continued to collaborate, and they've started to make parts out of different mediums as well. The builders are also still working on figuring out one important aspect of the droid. How do they recreate the movement of BB-8 seen on screen? The droid was puppeteered in the movie and there were in fact multiple versions of the droid used. These versions are explored in the blu-ray special feature "Building BB-8."
Because there are multiple versions of the droid, builders have to decide which type of BB-8 they want to tackle. They can fortunately get some help by joining in the discussion on the club's Facebook page and website forums. It's easy for anyone to join the club on these websites: You don't need to pay a membership fee or fulfill any requirements to become involved. The Facebook page is a closed group and you do have to sign up for the forum, but the process is fairly simple and anyone can go through it. Using these sites, members share files, plans, photos, ideas, and more related to building life-size BB-8s."We have around 4,000 members of which 1,300 are very active [on the website] and we already have over 100 BB-8s in various stages of development across members so 100 people have already actively started building BB-8 going back to about a year ago, and it's growing all the time," Cunningham said.
According to Cunningham they received a big boost in membership when the movie was released, with their Facebook page growing from 2,000 to 3,000 members to more than 10,000 in less than a month. While not all are actively building a BB-8, as of this writing the club on Facebook has more than 13,400 members.
Erwin said BB-8 is an easier droid to build than R2-D2, even though they are still refining some things for the droid. If you have a 3D printer or can find someone with one, you can get started on making your own. Erwin advises beginners to start with the dome, which takes about 65 hours to print, because it only takes about six hours to assemble once you have all the parts. It could be finished in a weekend, he said.
The body takes longer, but there is what Erwin calls Plan B: buying plexiglass and polycarbonate spheres that you can paint white and using decals to make it look like the BB-8 sphere. These are available for download as PDFs from the club’s website.
As for the internal parts, Erwin said if you understand how a remote-controlled car works it's only a little more complicated for a BB-8. Builders are constantly working on easier, smoother drive mechanisms, but Erwin doesn't think it's too tough. He said he's seen more complicated BB-8’s built out of Lego.
"If someone can do basic painting and they can do basic sanding with relatively cheap tools, sandpaper or sanders, we’re talking you can easily have a BB-8 built fully operational right around like what we saw in the stage version for probably about $2,000 and that’s all your time, materials, the internals, the electronics, the sound effect mechanisms," he said. "All the files are made available on the club website so you can download the files, print them out, or have one of other builders print them or you can take them to a third party printer and they can print the parts for you. So for less than $2,000, at least less than $2,500, you can have a fully functional BB-8. It may not do all the special effects and shooting things out of it, but a fully operational life-sized one-to-one scale of what we’ve seen in the movie."
For those who want to give building BB-8 a try, Cunningham described the club as like any other Star Wars fan group, such as the costume organization the 501st Legion. Their mission is to share everything they develop with anyone who wants to build BB-8. Cunningham said everyone in the group is very helpful to newbies and will assist beginners in figuring out what they want to do and how to get started.Like other fan groups, the BB-8 Builders Club is also present at conventions and events across the country. It's taking part in these types of events that personally makes it all worth it to Cunningham.
"I love when I take it to a children's hospital and it just lights up the whole room, all the kids. That's what the mission is. We don't make them and sell them, we make them for ourselves and we'll do events," he said. "We'll sometimes do promotional work with Lucasfilm and Disney where they'll need a R2-D2 or a BB-8 at a particular event and we'll arrange for one of us to be there and have the actual R2 or BB-8 at that event, but for the most part we just do it because it's a hobby we enjoy and we like getting them out there for other people to see them.”
Cunningham said when Lucasfilm learned about the club the company was excited since it knew it would need BB-8 at future events just like they need R2-D2s. The club will receive calls from the company about events coming up or commercials and marketing where they need a BB-8.
"It's a lot easier to contact us and say, 'Hey do you have someone in this area that can show up with their droid at this event?' It's a lot easier to do that then it is to travel around the world with the actual screen-used robots, particularly when you’re filming new movies with them so we’re actually getting a lot more requests from them lately," he said.
The club is helping to raise money for Lucasfilm's Force for Change campaign and will be making appearances at events for May the Fourth (also known as Star Wars Day). Cunningham said they were contacted by Lucasfilm who is working with children's hospitals across the country where they want droids to appear for the holiday. Prepare for BB-8s to be out in force this year.