We often associate the Star Wars universe with George Lucas, but an important piece to this sci-fi puzzle belongs to Tony Dyson, a 68-year-old robotics pioneer who designed and built the loveable R2D2.
With his studio The White Horse Toy Company, Dyson was tasked to create the first mould of R2D2, the astromech droid that accompanied Luke Skywalker and his companions on their many journeys in the Star Wars films.
Dyson and his team ended up making eight R2D2 machines, for good reason: While Lucas initially wanted R2D2 as a background character, it proved to be so intriguing to movie fans, it “was ready for its closeup, and George made him a major character,” as Dyson says.
In an interview with Digital Journal via his home in Malta, Dyson discussed the enduring appeal of the lil robot with a big heart:
Digital Journal: How did you first get into robotics?
Tony Dyson: It all began with Sunday morning movies when I was growing up in England. I was going to the cinema with my sister and seeing jet-men with powerpacks on their backs, using an old carboard-type of special effects. I was seeing these effects on saucers, spaceships. It got to me, it ingrained in me.
Digital Journal: Are you a fan of the hands-on aspect of robotics or more of the designing and blueprinting?
TD: I definitely love tinkering and inventing, and in between my studio projects one of my greatest hobbies is playing in my workshop. But when I had 40 to 80 people in my studio, I had more duties to fulfill than tinkering.
DJ: Tell us about the evolution of R2D2 and why it has lasting appeal with Star Wars fans young and old.
TD: R2 was all about teamwork. George had the idea, drew the concept, and we all got plugged into it. I’m not very surprised to hear how popular it’s become. It was cleverly constructed to draw attention to it.
R2’s personality really comes out of the design. It 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 R2D2, brought out his personality, sometimes swaying back and forth on those legs, being cute with the voice or bleeps and bloops.
DJ: So true, Tony. What makes the Star Wars franchise so enduring, do you think?
TD: Well, back when it first came out, there was no quality space opera out, there was nothing serious before Star Wars. Look at 1977, when the first film was released. That was a period of space travel, of futuristic innovation. And Star Wars inspired us to think of how we can do amazing things with technology. It latched onto our imagination and made us hopeful for a new world.
DJ: Since you’ve been in Hollywood for 25 years-plus, do you think the use of CGI and green screen is hurting the movie experience? Do you think more films should go back to robotics?
TD: 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. 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!
DJ: You’re still quite busy, tell me about the projects you’re working on these days.
TD: I write children’s books, I lecture at universities and am involved in the Green Drones startup. That project aims to develop specific drones for saving lives, like helping people caught in an avalanche or flying over beaches to notify authorities about shark sightings.
And something you might not know: 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 R2D2. Basically she went to MIT because of R2, so looks like she developed the Roomba thanks to what she saw in R2!