A Tribute to R2-D2: In Memory of Tony Dyson

The story of R2-D2 and the man who built him

Tony Dyson with R2-D2
Tony Dyson with R2-D2, the droid he built. Tony Dyson

It's not hyperbole to say that R2-D2 is the most prominent and popular robot of all time.

Alongside his counterpart (C-3PO), he was one of the first characters we met in Star Wars: A New Hope, the film that birthed the franchise, way back in 1977. And although he's never spoken a word -- his speech is communicated through complex combinations of beeps -- his bright, fearless personality comes shining through.

Much of that is due to actor Kenny Baker, who sat inside the droid and acted out his scenes in Episodes I through VI. Baker served as a consultant for Artoo's limited role in Episode VII, The Force Awakens, in which the little guy's acting was all done by remote-control robotics. Baker is in his 80s these days, and has retired from acting. Starting with Episode VIII, fellow British actor Jimmy Vee has succeeded him.

The man who built the R2-D2 models used in the original trilogy was a robotics and filmmaking professional named Tony Dyson. Although his place in Star Wars history is not as well known as some others, his contribution remains vital. Mr. Dyson passed away on March 4, 2016 at the age of 68.

In his honor, I present the following R2-D2 facts and trivia about everyone's favorite Astromech droid.

R2-D2 in Star Wars

In Star Wars continuity, R2-D2 was manufactured by a company called Industrial Automaton, and was purchased by the government of Naboo, for use on the queen's royal starship.

He stands 1.09 meters tall.

Artoo has been owned by five individuals: Queen Padme Amidala of Naboo, Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, Senator Bail Organa, Senator Leia Organa, and Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker. As such, he's spent more time among the Skywalker clan than anyone. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi remarks to Luke Skywalker, "I don't seem to remember ever owning a droid." And it's true -- despite serving alongside Obi-Wan on countless occasions, the Jedi Master never actually owned his "little friend," R2-D2.

As of The Force Awakens, Artoo had been active for at least 66 years, which is considered a very long lifespan for a droid. By that time, he's considered obsolete from a computational standpoint, compared to more modern Astromechs like BB-8. But according to The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary, Artoo's remarkable place in history is what kept him from being retired from service.

More than any other character, R2-D2 has witnessed pivotal moments in history. He was present at the secret marriage of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala. he loyally accompanied Yoda during the Jedi trials that led him to Moraband (which is funny considering he and Yoda comically fought over food many years later on Dagobah, in Empire Strikes Back). He watched Anakin strangle his wife Padme and fight his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi on Mustafar. He was present for the births of Luke and Leia. He was with Luke as he learned the ways of the Jedi from Yoda, and later as he established his own Jedi Academy, as well as the massacre of all of Luke's students by the Knights of Ren.

R2-D2 appears in every film, was a fixture on , has shown up a few times on Rebels, is a part of Star Tours at Disney World and Disneyland, starred in the 1985 animated series Droids, was in Genndy Tartakovsky's animated Star Wars: Clone Wars series, briefly appeared in the disavowed 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, is always part of the LEGO Star Wars TV specials, and more.

When the prequel trilogy came out, fans were surprised to learn that Artoo had rocket boosters tucked away inside his legs. Why had he never used them in the original trilogy? According to a canonical novelization of Return of the Jedi, by the time of the original trilogy, the boosters had stopped working and were past warranty!

R2-D2 in Real Life

Artoo's popularity led to the creation of the well-known fan organization, the R2-D2 Builders Club, in 1999. The Club, which anyone can freely join, connects builders around the globe with one another to share their knowledge and techniques for building Astromech droids.

In 2003, R2-D2 was one of the first four robots inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon University.

Artoo has a habit of popping up in the backgrounds of other films, particularly those with effects handled by Industrial Light and Magic.

To date, he has made cameo appearances in at least eight major films:

  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): In the famous Steven Spielberg blockbuster (which arrived in cinemas the same year as A New Hope) an inverted R2-D2 can be seen affixed to the underside of the alien mothership.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): During the scene where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) discovers the Ark, a nearby hieroglyphic includes a tiny but visible depiction of R2-D2 and C-3PO.
  • Goonies (1985): Although he isn't visible in the film, Artoo is attached to the deck of the pirate ship that sails at the end of the movie.
  • Mission: Impossible III (2006): J.J. Abrams has put R2-D2 into every movie he's directed, this being the first. When Tom Cruise and Keri Russell's characters escape from an enemy stronghold while lying on top of a delivery truck, the little droid can be seen half buried in the ground amid debris scattered about.
  • Star Trek (2009): When the planet Vulcan is destroyed, Artoo floats among the debris in space.
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): The little guy flies through the air during one of the movie's numerous robot battles.
  • Super 8 (2011): An actual original R2-D2 toy from the historic Kenner toy line appears on a boy's desk.
  • Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): Artoo is among the wreckage sucked into space when Khan's warship fires on the Enterprise.

The little droid even has his very own real-world holiday! May 23 is (unofficially) known as R2-D2 Day, a day for celebrating selflessness.

Tony Dyson

It's accepted fact that Mr. Dyson created the original R2-D2 model for Star Wars: A New Hope. Multiple reports state that Artoo's design came from the artwork of Ralph McQuarrie, with development by mechanical effects supervisor John Stears, and physical construction by Tony Dyson.

Yet in a 1997 interview, Dyson himself states that the model used in A New Hope was actually created by John Stears. He says that that first model was made of aluminum, and was an unwieldy contraption that was difficult to use.

When The Empire Strikes Back went into production, Dyson's studio the White Horse Toy Company was hired to build a more user-friendly R2-D2.

Regardless of which movie his models were made for, Dyson and his team actually constructed eight Artoos across five months: two were remote-controlled, two outfitted with internal seats, harnesses, and footrests for Kenny Baker, and four lightweight models that could be used for stunts, such as the swamp monster that swallows and then vomits out R2-D2 on Dagobah. White Horse Toy Company also at that time made all of the R2-D2 master molds that would be used for Return of the Jedi and other productions in the future.

According to what may be Dyson's last known interview, Artoo was constructed from "a wide variety of materials" that included fiberglass, epoxy resin, aluminum, carbon fiber, and thermoplastic (the same kind of melt-able plastic that LEGO bricks are made of).

In addition to Star Wars, Dyson also worked on Superman II, Moonraker, Saturn 3, Dragon Slayer, Altered States, and built robots for the likes of Philips, Toshiba, and Sony. A life-long proponent of robotics, his final project was a startup he called Green Drones. With so much negativity surrounding the topic of drones in the media (usually relating to privacy violations), Dyson wanted to promote the beneficial aspects of drone technology, i.e. the ways drones can help mankind.

He proposed that small drones could be used in emergency situations, and instead of being controlled remotely by a human, they could function autonomously, even recharging themselves when not in use. The goal was to create drones that could be used for search-and-rescue, or to carry needed supplies to disaster survivors that rescuers might not be able to reach yet.

It's not known how far along Dyson's Green Drones project was at the time of his passing.

Perhaps Mr. Dyson's unique perspective on life and robotics can be summed up in this statement from the GeekWire interview mentioned above:

"At end of it, as we progress mentally and understanding our universe, we understand that we are also robots -- free-running robots, but we are robots. We have DNA and basic programming skills, and we work within those frameworks, but we basically are a robot. We can also progress and destroy the world, so it would make sense that anything we would make would also have the possibility to do the same."

- Tony Dyson, 1948 - 2016