Matt Denton Talks BB-8: “Our First Version Didn’t Have Lights”

Matt Denton was one of the driving forces behind BB-8, alongside fellow animatronics expert Joshua Lee. Tech the Lead spoke to Denton about the trials and tribulations of building BB-8, about his Mantis project, and more.

Can you give us a little insight into who Matt Denton is? How has your interest in animatronics and special effects come about?

Well, I suppose my interest in SFX and animatronics came about by watching sci-fi and fantasy films as a kid. Films like Star Wars and Johnny 5 got me interested in robotics, although at the time I didn’t really think what I was watching was often an effect rather than a real robot.

And then films like E.T. and Labyrinth got me interested in animatronics. I remember watching Labyrinth with my best mate at school, and we decided to try and build Hoggle. My mate sculpted the face and we cast it in plaster cast, then painted in layers of Copydex glue to make the skin. I made a simple eye mechanism from some roll-on deodorants and servos from my R/C cars.. all very high-tech.

Did you think you would ever work in the industry as you do now, when you were younger?

No. I didn’t even think it would be an option. When I left school I was still fascinated by robotics and control system, so I carried out a 4-year apprenticeship in electronics and software engineering with Marconi Defence Systems. It was a good mix of practical hands-on skills and theory, and gave me a good start within electronics/software.

When you first started working on animatronics, what inspired you?

During my time at Marconi I started to grow interested in films like Star Wars and Blade Runner, and one of my colleagues brought me in a book which was 10 years of Industrial Light & Magic. It was a fascinating book and I noticed they used electronic engineers to make the lights in models work, and for animatronics. I suppose this planted a seed in my head that I might be able to apply my skills to a more creative industry.

The BB8 robot you created for the Star Wars red carpet was most likely a dream come true for you, since you said that you have seen Star Wars as a source of inspiration. Back then, no one knew how you made the robot a reality – what were the biggest difficulties you faced while building it?

The red carpet BB-8 was a huge challenge for myself and Josh Lee, who was the principal mechanical engineer for the project. We both had some idea of how it might work, but had not tried anything in practice, so we decided to just start making it and see where it led.

There were other ball-based robot around at the time, but none with an external head! The more we got into the project the further we pushed our initial goals.

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James is an active member of the Star Wars collecting community, and is the Brand Director for Jedi News. James is also the host of the Star Wars Collectors Cast, and co-host of RADIO 1138 on the Jedi News Network.