Regular readers will recall a few weeks ago when we discussed the gathering of BB-8’s creators at Star Wars Celebration Europe and the amazing behind-the-scenes secrets they shared with everyone there. Now, attendees at Kansas City Comic Con have heard a little more of the story from no less than Brian Herring, one of the two main puppeteers behind the franchise’s latest droid hero.
Herring, who can be seen in behind-the-scenes footage running BB-8 around the landscape of Jakku (he’s the one in the head-to-toe green suit), worked with fellow puppeteer Dave Chapman to bring the character to life. In his interview Friday night, he gave his audience the lowdown on what it was like becoming part of one of the most iconic franchises in movie history.
Mr. Herring got his start as an actor and comic, only drifting into puppetry later on. Hearing that an opening was available for apprentice puppeteers on Spitting Image (a British show that involved grotesque puppet caricatures of politicians and other public figures), he got an interview and after slightly exaggerating his prior experience, was selected and got his start. He’s been puppeteering more or less steadily ever since. After a few years doing a variety of interesting characters (about which more below), he got the opportunity to help bring BB-8 to life.
Manipulating BB-8 was hard work. The “pushcart” BB-8 was heavy, and had to be moved over rough terrain at a pretty fast clip. What’s worse, Herring’s green suit wasn’t exactly designed for keeping cool in the desert. He talked about the scene in Maz’s castle when Rey is guided to find Luke’s lightsaber. In the background, BB-8 can be seen carefully descending the stairs. It turns out that was Herring, easing the heavy droid down one step at a time. “Just footage of two or three steps became the whole flight of fifteen,” he said, grimacing at the memory.
Some of the hardest work, if not necessarily the most strenuous, was close-up work for the character itself. In these situations, Herring worked the body and head position while Chapman (with the help of video monitors) worked BB-8’s line of sight, to make sure he was always looking in the right direction. This was tricky, as the monitors could lag behind by a few frames, so coordinating the two parts took practice and skill. “We sort of divided up one brain,” Herring explained, “And just shared it between us for six months.”
In his stories, a pattern begin to emerge concerning J. J. Abrams’ work. Abrams, being mindful of fans’ expectations, worked very hard to use physical effects whenever and wherever possible. According to Herring, the guiding principle of special effects work was, “How would they have done this in 1985?” Very often the same physical practical effects would be used, and only then would CGI be brought in to clean it up. This meant that he spent a lot of time in that green suit (on his first day shooting on the Millennium Falcon, Harrison Ford took one look at him and asked, “Who picked that look?”). There were a few CGI-only scenes (BB-8 flying around inside the Falcon and lashing himself to the walls, for one), but far fewer than one would expect. Herring noted with satisfaction that the other actors seemed to really respond better to the physical prop.
Herring’s work pre- and post-Episode VII is varied, and touches on quite a few other geek touchstones: he has done the musical Little Shop of Horrors about ten times by his reckoning, done some work with the Muppets, and was one of the operators of the giant Voldemort puppet during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics. He also did several characters in 2005’s movie adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, plus roles in the Alien prequel Prometheus and Doctor Who.
As to the future, he’s mostly mum. When asked about what it was like to know things about the next two movies that nobody else did, he feigned ignorance: “Oh, they’re making two more?” He wouldn’t be drawn on any actual information, of course, only smiling and saying that they had big plans, and the movies were going to be a lot of fun.
Brian Herring is a media guest of Kansas City Comic Con, and will be attending the convention from the 12th through the 14th.
Kelly Luck is a combination of miniatures, animatronics, and CGI. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.