Imagine painstakingly creating a working astromech that looks and sounds just like the beloved R2-D2, and then being asked to build one just like it for the new "Star Wars" film. That's exactly what happened to UK "Star Wars" fans and R2-D2 builders Lee Towersey and Oliver Steeples.
It all started when Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy toured the R2-D2 Builders area at Star Wars Celebration Europe this summer in Germany, Steeples told StarWars.com. "She posed for pictures with us, looked at all the droids we'd built, and was very complimentary," Steeples said. "I mentioned that the R2-D2 Builders in the UK were available if required, as a semi-joke. When I was contacted to work on the film by [executive producer] Jason McGatlin, it was on her recommendation."
Steeples and Towersey will be responsible for building astromechs like R2-D2 for "Star Wars: Episode VII" full-time at Pinewood Studios west of London. While they're living out every fan's fantasy to work on a "Star Wars" set, building an astromech is no easy feat. It takes patience, dedication, craft skills, decent blueprints, and the willingness to pay for a lot of pricey materials.
"I've seen people build static droids for as little as $500-$600 and fully remote-controlled droids for $1,000," builder Chris James notes on his site Artoo-Detoo.net. "But you could easily spend $10,000 and more on an all aluminum droid, especially if you're buying all the parts versus making your own."
During a 2010 WonderCon presentation, James and other astromech experts from the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the R2 Builders Club offered a few tips for fans who want to build their own R2-D2, including this one:
"Think of your astromech as a vintage muscle car you're fixing up," James said during the presentation. "It won't happen quickly; you'll spend a lot of money on it; and it will break down constantly. But it's worth it."
While the droid-making duo of Steeples and Towersey are well versed in how to build an astromech from scratch, they are determined to make R2-D2 even better.
"What we do need to do is improve on the mechanics," Towersey told StarWars.com. "We're currently in a research and design phase where we're looking at drive options for reliability on all possible terrains, whether it be a one-motor-does-all, or a system which is easily adjusted depending on terrain. We have a few mocked-up ideas which we hope to road test very soon."