“Star Wars” is one of the most beloved movie franchises in the world. And a big part of those movies are the droids who fight alongside the Rebel Alliance and Resistance.
There’s BB-8, who made its debut in 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
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A few dozen Wisconsinites have taken their love of “Star Wars” to another level by creating their own versions of droids, just like the ones featured in the movies.
“Our club builds these and all the different robots from ‘Star Wars’ and other movies,” said Mike Masino of Madison, who built his own R2-D2. “It was just kind of a robotics project. I wanted to do something from a movie; thought it’d be fun. It’s basically just a shell over a remote-controlled robot. It’s within millimeters of the one that’s in the movie. It’s almost exactly the same.”
Masino and other fans from around the world share R2-D2 blueprints and building tips online, through websites like Astromech and on Facebook. Locally, there’s R2-MKE, an active group of builders based in southeast Wisconsin. People who join official builders clubs can buy parts online and often cheer each other on.
“You know, all kinds of trial and error went into getting them working,” Masino said. “There is just a ton of talented people in the club. You know, [they] engineered stuff to get us to this point.”
That includes studying pictures of R2-D2 and reverse engineering. Masino said at one point, club members were able to take measurements at Skywalker Ranch to help perfect the schematics.
The builders clubs have had a relationship with Lucasfilm for years. Club members agree not to profit from the sales of droids and parts.
“Everyone loves to meet a droid, and these clubs have really provided a great way for fans to interact with a bit of the Star Wars galaxy in their own communities,” a Lucasfilm spokesperson wrote via email. “Building droids is quite an ambitious endeavor, and we very much admire and appreciate the time, dedication and creativity these talented fans invest into their passion for Star Wars.”
Masino and the other builders take their R2-D2s and other droids to children’s hospitals and charity events. They’re a big hit at Comic-Cons and other gatherings, like the Madison Mini Maker Faire in November 2019.
People tend to light up around these droids and ask to get their pictures taken with them.
“I mean, that’s why we do that, right? So people can experience that,” Masino said.
At the Madison Mini Maker Faire, kids flocked to the event’s other celebrity droid: BB-8. They had a lot of questions for his creator, like:
“How does its head stay attached?”
“Can you move it around?”
“How fast can it go?”
Phil Carper of Waukesha maneuvers his BB-8 with an Xbox controller. He smoothly rolls the homemade droid throughout the room.
“He is made out of mostly 3D printed plastic and injection molded plastic for the little skeleton underneath it,” said Carper, who spent nearly two years building his BB-8. “It was a lot of trial and error. My wife and I tried fiberglass and it didn’t work. It didn’t look as good. Once you start, you want it to look as realistic as possible.”
So, Carper taught himself how to use a 3D printer and also turned to a supportive online community, BB-8 Builders Club, to help figure out how to build his own droid.
“I would go on Facebook and be like, ‘Hey guys, I’m having this weird issue. His head won’t stop wobbling’ and this guy would be like, ‘Oh yeah. Here’s what I did…'” Carper said. “Everybody just bounces all their ideas off each other. One guy would have a very hard time figuring it out by himself.”
It’s really impressive watching BB-8 in action. Its dome-like head almost levitates above its spherical body — thanks to a combination of magnets, weights, axles and motors on the inside.
Like many people in the droid builders clubs, Carper was raised on Star Wars.
“It’s like my entire life. You can thank my mom for that,” Carper said laughing. “I have a one-year-old and I usually have him here with me [at events]. He loves to run around with all the kids that come up and gather here. He thinks BB-8 is his pet. I was working on this thing…before Luke was born.”
That’s right. His son is named after Luke Skywalker.
“I’m waiting until he’s old enough to understand ‘Star Wars’ before I show him the movies,” Carper said laughing. “If anybody spoils the Empire thing, I’m going to lose my mind. I want to see his reaction!”
Phil Carper, father of Luke, may the force be with you.