Supanova Interview: Star Wars Puppeteer Brian Herring talks bringing BB-8 to life & The Han Solo Film!

With Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the verge of release, on the verge of madness and on the verge of probably breaking even more box office records, I got to speak to Brian Herring, famous Puppeteer who helped bring the lovable and adorable BB-8 to life on screen for the first time in Star Wars The Force Awakens.

With Brian returning for The Last Jedi and Episode 9, I was giddy with fan-boy excitement to be able to talk with someone so involved with the Star Wars universe and with the upcoming appearance in Australia for the Supanova Comic Con & Gaming Expo which takes in Brisbane on the 10th – 12th November and Adelaide 18th – 19th November, there couldn’t be a better time to catch up and find out exactly what Brian brought to the screen, how he created some of BB-8’s quirky movements and characteristics and a quick nod to a fallen icon of the Star Wars Saga. Did I mention the Han Solo film also? No? Well, let’s get to it.

Brian Herring

You must be pretty busy. You’ve got Episode 8 (The Last Jedi) and working on Episode 9 as well. Are you still involved with all of that as we speak?

Well, Episode 9 hasn’t kicked off yet for me personally, but hopefully I’ll be there as well. But Episode 8 is done and dusted and it was a lot of fun.

Awesome. You’re coming all the way out to Australia for Supanova. Why so far for a Con? We must be doing something right?

I’ve never been to Australia and the opportunity was a huge deal for me. This is what’s been lovely since Episode 7, I’ve gotten to see a bit of the world and go around and talk about BB-8 and Star Wars and stuff. I’ve been aware of Supanova for some years.

I vaguely know Danny (Supanova Founder and Director Daniel Zachariou) and we spoke about it years and years ago when I got a couple of movies like Prometheus and I’d done Hellboy II and he said, “Oh yeah, we must find a way to get you out,” and I think Star Wars clinched the deal really.

Wow. Knowing the big wigs is a good step in the convention door. Well, as everyone knows, you’re the man that helped bring BB-8 to life in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A little character we were absolutely not prepared for. I mean, who could ever outplay C-3P0 and R2-D2? Why do you think this tiny little droid you helped animate through your amazing puppetry became a worldwide pop icon over night?

Well, I think a lot of it is to do with some extremely clever people. J.J. Abrams is a very smart man and he wanted something that could run alongside R2-D2. He wanted to bring a new droid into the next generation and he drew a little thing on a napkin, just a little, tiny sketch, but then, through loads of people from Christian Alzmann at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) and Jake Lunt Davies over at the workshop in London, they worked out the design and it was a cute little thing. What’s really clever about it is that it looks like old Star Wars. It looks like you’ve seen it before, but you actually haven’t and that was really sweet.

There’s a big team involved with BB-8 and there’s Joshua Lee who’s an engineer and who worked out the best ways of doing it and then alongside one of the head animatronic designers, Matt Denton, they came up with various ways of performing this droid and luckily, Neil Scanman (Oscar Winning Creature and Visual Effects Designer), who’s the head of the creature shop, brought me onboard as a puppetry consultant and I had to do a little test with it. I started playing around with this little foot high puppet and I realized it could be really, really expressive whereas, as much as we love him, most of R2’s acting was done in the sound edit.

Kenny Baker would do a great job of animating him but you could put different sounds on it and get a completely different performance using sound with the same physical movements. With BB-8, because his head can move around, you can get a lot more expression out of him so that, I think, has really helped make him as popular as he is because you can tell when he’s sad, you can tell when he’s happy, you know? That’s a really important thing from a puppetry point of view. He’s very expressive. Also, he gets to do some fun stuff, which always helps.

Well, any little quirks of BB-8 that we can watch and think, “Ah, that was Brian’s idea. He created that?”

Well, I work with another puppeteer called Dave Chapman who’s been doing the job for 20 years, same as me. We’re very old friends. We have the same sense of humour. I’m trying to think if there’s anything I specifically came up with.

A lot of the ways that he reacts to things are done to my timings. The bit where he comes down the stairs behind Rey, when they’re coming down the stairs in Maz’s castle, we had to come up with a way for a round droid to come down stairs. We tried it on normal stairs and the body was too big but luckily, the spiral staircase in the set was a lot bigger and we decided that, as a round droid, he wouldn’t like stairs. It wouldn’t be something he would choose to do so, I kind of turned up with the idea of him being like a little toddler coming downstairs on his bum! He’s very unsure about it. So, if you see that shot, because it is a practical shot and they just painted me out of it, you see him look down and check out the step and then kind of put his head back and roll his bum down, he looks at the next one and rolls his bum down. We just wanted to give the general impression, he wasn’t happy about the stairs at all. That was quite fun!

Yeah. That was awesome! I have to ask because it’s Star Wars but, did you have much interaction with the Princess, Carrie Fisher, before her sad and all too early passing?

Yeah, we did work with Carrie on seven and eight. We didn’t do a great deal with her, but she was good fun. She was lovely to have around. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since ’77 and to be in the presence of the Princess, it was an amazing thing, with all of those legacy characters (that’s what we call them) it was amazing to meet them all. Carrie was good fun and she’s greatly missed.

Yeah, she is. What are some other major projects coming up for you that we can keep an eye out for, ones that you’ve been most proud of?

There’s film coming out at Christmas that a few people might see called, The Last Jedi. That might be quite fun. That’s the big one on the horizon at this point. Obviously, Ron Howard Tweeted a picture I was in the other week, so I can’t really deny that I’m involved in the Han Solo film!

That’s going to be quite good. They’ve kept me quite busy there, which has been brilliant. I got a couple of commercials, but you can’t talk about them at the moment, which are on the way out for the UK TV. But, at the moment, it’s all Star Wars.

You’re riding the Star Wars train.

I can’t complain. I am indeed riding the Star Wars train and a fine train it is to be on.

Where are you situated over in fine and dandy England?

I’m in Northeast London. I’m up by Stratford where the Olympic Stadium is and where the 2012 games took place. Which was quite handy because I was involved in the opening ceremony at the 2012 games. Just wake up, walk across the way, I was so close. Yeah. I managed to finish my part of the ceremony, get the costume and the makeup off, have a beer and get home before Paraguay brought the flag out.

That’s awesome. Are you looking forward to doing anything when you’re down under?

We’re hoping to stay for a couple of weeks extra or a week or so extra. We’ve got two great shows to go to (Supanova), which is obviously the priority. I’ve got some friends down there so we’re going to try to hook up with them and I don’t really know yet. My girlfriend’s currently researching all that. Yeah. We’re really looking forward to it.

Thank-you so much for your time and we all can’t wait till you arrive and hit Supanova, Brisbane and Adelaide in November.

Brian Herring arrives in Brisbane this weekend for Supanova Comic Con & Gaming Expo on the 10th – 12th November and Supanova Adelaide 18th – 19th November 2017. Star Wars: The Last Jedi Begins in Australian Cinemas December 15th, 2017.