The Droids You’re Looking For

The Bay Area R2 Builders spend serious money building replicas of R2-D2.

Johnathan Burton’s R2-D2 at the Space Station Museum in Novato eariler this year at their annual event. (Courtesy of Bay Area R2 Builders/Facebook)

Powered by a DC motor, wheels move and a metallic head turns. Through a built-in amp system, familiar sounds echo. No, this isn’t the start of some futuristic horror story, it’s the blue-and-white astromech droid known as R2-D2, who helped destroy two Death Stars and once rescued Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewie from certain death in a garbage compactor.

Who knew the droids the Empire was looking for were in San Francisco all along?

Well, versions of those droids, at least. And while the words Obi-Wan Kenobi gets an Imperial Stormtrooper to utter — “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” — may have become a cliché in pop-culture vernacular at this point, Star Wars fever is anything but, especially with last winter’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the upcoming first spin-off film, Star Wars: Rogue One, hitting theaters this December.

For most people, the magic of Star Wars fades after the credits roll, but one group of superfans takes what’s seen on screen and crafts it into a mechanical and physical reality. The Bay Area R2 Builders do just as their name implies: Create and build replica R2-D2 units.

The group — also part of the international group R2-D2 Builders Club — held its first event in 2008. Currently, about 20 to 30 people are involved, and members aren’t limited to Jedi, Sith lords, or engineers. The professions represented include dentistry, philosophy, and teaching. (There’s even an opera singer.)

Founder Chris James mentions that it’s a “broad spectrum of people” united by their “passion that they want an R2-D2.”

Building the droids can be somewhat isolating, and it’s not something for the weak of heart, either.

“It takes a lot of planning and research to get it right,” James says.

Many people underestimate the amount of work required. Getting the electronics right, and even painting the unit, comes with its own set of challenges. It isn’t uncommon for other groups to reach out anxiously with unrealistic timelines.

“People will write and say, ‘Oh, I have this Girls’ or Boys’ Club, and I want to build an R2 this summer.’ It’s just not going to happen,” James says. “Not to the same level as what they think they could do.”

Time is one element of bringing these droids to life; monetary costs are another.

R2 units can be created from aluminum, wood, or styrene. (The club’s building plans were drawn from the only R2-D2 unit actually built by Industrial Light & Magic, which they got access to for measuring.) Relying on cheaper materials can keep the cost per unit to around $500, according to James. Adding in electronics to make an R2 that moves roughly doubles that price.

But making a shiny, metal droid that also moves around — especially if it involves paying a machine shop to create some of the pieces — can push the total into the thousands of dollars. From there, the sky’s the limit. It isn’t uncommon for builders to add on other functionalities, including the scrappy droid’s periscope, gripper, and even the zapper that R2 used to shock the devious, rat-like Salacious Crumb aboard Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge in Return of the Jedi.

James mentioned that some droids can run between $10,000 and $15,000, with machine-made aluminum parts and top-end electronics inside it.

Hey, nobody ever said saving the galaxy one droid at a time was cheap.

James’ droid took about two years to build, including features like a hologram, just like the one R2 used to broadcast Princess Leia’s plea for help to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“What tends to happen is some people come to see our droids, and they see it and they go, ‘I want that,’ ” James says. “But it may take them two years and $15,000 to have that, right?”

While individual Builders labor alone, once the units are completed, members share their work with the group. The Builders attend myriad events — including the Maker Faire, comic conventions, and charity events (including hospital visits), as well as visiting schools and STEM programs.

James, however, mentions that there are “different levels” of enjoyment from being involved with the group.

“You play with people, right? You end up puppeteering this thing and interacting with people. That’s always fun,” James says. “People are respectful. Some people get a little crazy over him and, you know, spoil it — but on the whole, I love seeing people light up when I take him out.”

For James, even though R2-D2 is something that’s very rooted in a galaxy far, far away, the actual process has become something outside the typical dedicated fandom.

“People think I watch Star Wars every day or every week or whatever,” James says. “It’s kind of become bigger than Star Wars now. For me, it’s just like this release where I can be creative and think of things I can add to him.”

“It’s just a creative outlet now,” he adds. “I like being able to work on things, just, you know, at my own pace, and then you get to show it off right, later on.”

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