Tony Dyson may not be as familiar a name as George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, John Williams, or Ben Burtt, but his contribution to the Star Wars saga is just as important. Today, the man who built R2-D2 passed away at the age of 68. Here are 10 things you might not have known about one of Hollywood’s most iconic robot technicians.
1. HE HELPED SEND JAMES BOND INTO OUTER SPACE.
For 1979’s Moonraker, James Bond’s eleventh big-screen adventure, 007 headed into space in order to track down a stolen space shuttle. The film’s producers called upon Dyson and his team to help create an out-of-this-world environment by building “36 model spacemen complete with backpacks, laser guns, and clothes for the space scene.” Altered States (1980), Superman II (1980), and Dragonslayer (1981) were among Dyson’s other film credits.
2. HIS FIRST MEETING WITH GEORGE LUCAS WAS ABOUT HAMBURGERS AND AIRPLANES.
When asked to recount his first meeting with George Lucas, Dyson says that what they talked about wasn’t R2-D2, but hamburgers and flying. Specifically, “The fact that it's difficult to find a good U.S.-style burger in the U.K. and how much George dislikes flying. The next meeting we discussed R2-D2 and his fabrication.”
3. HE CREATED EIGHT R2-D2 MODELS FOR THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
After working uncredited on Star Wars (1977), Dyson explained that his “project consignment for R2-D2 on The Empire Strikes Back was not only to produce eight [R2-D2] models but also the master molds, so that the arts/special effects departments could produce new and various hybrids of the R2 unit. In the new sequels there has been a reintroduction of aluminum body parts because of the technical requirements.” Why a total of eight models? “Two remote controlled, two Kenny Baker-types with seats, harnesses and foot rests, and four throwaway lighter units with bolted down moving parts to be ejected by the monster in the (Dagobah) bog planet scene.”
4. HE BELIEVES THAT MUCH OF R2-D2’S PERSONALITY COMES FROM THE DESIGN.
R2-D2’s popularity with audiences was not a surprise to Dyson. “It was cleverly constructed to draw attention to it,” he told Digital Journal. “R2’s personality really comes out of the design. If you look at the design, R2 is not an animal, not human, something completely different in fact. On first visual contact you don’t know what he’s about. There’s nothing to relate to, he doesn’t have two eyes, he has three legs, and that is intentional. The actor Kenny Baker, who was inside R2-D2, brought out his personality, sometimes swaying back and forth on those legs, being cute with the voice or bleeps and bloops."
5. R2-D2’S THIRD LEG WAS A PROBLEM.
“The overall design of R2 tends to be a little unstable, due to the fact that the legs are connected to the highest part of the body,” Dyson told T’bone’s Star Wars Universe. “Therefore, when the third leg extends, the whole unit has to be restrained from moving forward. The third leg itself is pushed down by electronic activators. The foot has a drive wheel which, in contact with the ground, moves the leg forward, which in turn twists the body until it reaches its furthest point. When it locks off, this forms a tripod configuration and should also allow the droid to drive on rough ground and even mount stairs. That's the theory anyway.”
6. DYSON IS SORT OF RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ROOMBA.
“Helen Greiner, the co-founder of iRobot—they made the Roomba—said she got into robotics when she was 11 years old and first saw R2-D2,” Dyson told Digital Journal. “Basically she went to MIT because of R2, so looks like she developed the Roomba thanks to what she saw in R2!”
7. HE WAS NOT A FAN OF GREEN SCREEN TECHNOLOGY.
Dyson didn’t believe that every advancement in moviemaking technology was necessarily an improvement. “When it comes to Hollywood, there are the directors and the producers with the money behind the films, and the money demands can make it difficult on directors,” he said. “But I’ve seen how many directors are refusing to work with green screens too much, and not just because that use results in storyline masking, but also because it makes it difficult to film something with any heart. Imagine how is it for the actors, having to pretend something or someone is talking to them!”
8. HE HELPED TO DEVELOP DRONES THAT COULD SAVE LIVES.
Last year, Dyson spoke with GeekWire about his latest project: “I’m putting forward a new startup called Green Drones, drones that will help mankind. They will be all automated and go on search-and-rescue missions, say an avalanche, or take water out to survivors in the desert. Any time people are in need or stranded, drones can go and automatically save them.
“It’s very important when it comes to drones to promote this positive side—and drones have a darker side, like the one that landed on White House lawn. Not cool. It’s important that we not keep pushing hobby ones or warfare ones, but start pushing ones that can help mankind.”
9. HE BUILT R2-D2, BUT WASN’T ALLOWED TO REPLICATE R2-D2.
In an irony that probably isn’t surprising, given George Lucas’ notorious litigiousness, part of Dyson’s agreement in creating R2-D2 was that he would never be allowed to create another one. “The most ironic thing as the years went by, I was told I could never build another R2-D2,” Dyson told GeekWire. “I had started a R2-D2 builders club, and I was told we couldn’t do the exact same sizes and dimensions. The club was upset at first, but this time round, Disney is actually using two people from the builders club to help build R2-D2 for the new films. It’s fantastic now that Disney has bought the franchise that it can be bigger and definitely will not die. It’s an enormous investment to bring it back to the next generation.”
10. HIS FAVORITE MOVIE ROBOT WAS NUMBER 5 FROM SHORT CIRCUIT.
When asked about his favorite movie robot (presumably besides R2-D2), Dyson cited Short Circuit’s Number 5, “because he has great mobility, brain power, fire power, sense of humor and good taste in girlfriends.”