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Interview with Award-Winning R2-D2 Builder Chris James – Plus R2 Video!

In honor of the RoboGames in San Francisco this weekend*, I present this geektastic interview with award-winning R2 builder Chris James, whose work been seen on bunches of Internet tube stations like Gizmodo, the Official Star Wars Blog, and even The New York Times.

He’s totally internet-famous, people. Which is like being regular-famous, but without a drug problem.

Grant Imahara and Chris James R2D2
Grant Imahara of MythBusters with Chris and R2 at RoboGames 2008.

Great White Snark: Is anyone in the R2 Builders Club working on the parts that would allow R2-D2 to project a holographic video of Princess Leia?

Chris James: Holograph, no, that technology doesn’t exist yet. This is probably the top questions we get asked – having said that there are a number of builders who have installed micro or pico video projectors in the dome. Prices are falling fast and it’s definitely on my to-do list once it dips below the $400 mark.

GWS: A top question, eh? Good. My perfect record of asking inane, trite questions remains intact. Let’s make it two in a row: R2’s “feet” recently took some abuse when he crossed a cobbled sidewalk. When are you finally going to give him the the upgrade to jet propulsion?

CJ: Again, another top question – normally from the younger generation of fans brought up on the prequels. I couldn’t imagine trying to lift a 200lb Astromech with jets or the carnage it would cause around him. But again there are a couple of people who have installed pop out fake jets from behind the buster covers – but I’m old school, if it didn’t happen in 1977 then it really doesn’t count.

GWS: That’s what I’m here for, Chris. To artfully rehash all questions that have been asked many, many times before. Let’s try this again. What’s R2’s power source? Would you ever consider running him on dilithium crystals, or are you a Star Wars purist?

CJ: At a convention a few years ago we were able to get some of Kenny Bakers DNA and clone him, but it gets pretty expensive feeding him Marmite Sandwiches and Newcastle Brown Ale. So, yes I could call myself a purist.

GWS: Nice! One-thousand Alliance credits for the Kenny Baker joke. I know you frequently introduce R2-D2 to other robots at various events and exhibits. Which ones does he seem to get along with, best? Is it true that Robot B-9 is sort of a dick?


CJ: R2 is friendly with most of them, and if they don’t reciprocate, his hacking abilities normally come in handy to turn them into his way of thinking. But you’re right, B-9 can be a jerk at times –I tend to blame the parents, I mean B-9 Builders. Now K-9, is another story – he’s the salt of the earth and way cooler than any B-9 we’ve met.

GWS: I knew it. I totally got a “douche” vibe off of that 1960s reject. If you had to retrofit R2-D2 to compete in a Battle Bots competition, what would be his weapon of choice?

CJ: Good question. I’ve been challenged a few times at RoboGame, but R2 has never entered the arena due to weight class issues. If you’ve ever butted heads with him, you know he’d make an excellent sumo wrestler.

GWS: Was R2 upset when Lucas replaced him with a CGI character in some of the scenes in the prequels? Does R2 fear that actors like him will lose jobs to CGI in the future?

CJ: Not sure about R2, but I know Kenny Baker who played Artoo in 5 of the 6 movies was put out of a job for the last one. He’s got a screen credit but never performed on screen. On top of that, most, if not all, of the clones in Ep 2 and 3 where CGI. No armor was made for actors. I was always surprised that they never made 3PO CGI – maybe have been more to do with lighting all that chrome. It will be interesting what treatment Artoo and 3PO get in the new live action TV show which is going into production soon.

GWS: R2 seems to enjoy dancing. What else does he do, besides The Twist?

CJ: He’s pretty good at the tango, but C3PO never wants to lead.

GWS: R2 shoots compressed air out of one of his front ports. Is that a pretty standard feature among R2 units in the Builders Club, or did you see an unique opportunity to startle the hell out of admirers who get a bit too close? You know… like me.

CJ: It’s a relatively easy addition and probably the first gizmo most builders add – It’s very tempting to use it all the time, but I normally keep it in reserve for special people.

You heard him, people! I’m “special.” No voice of authority has called me that since fifth grade. But back then, “special” was followed by “needs.”

Many thanks to Chris for his time and consideration! If you’d like to meet Chris and R2 (and rub elbows with me as I throw myself at the Plexiglas barriers separating me from 300-pound robotic killing machines), definitely check out the RoboGames this Saturday in San Francisco.

* Videos of battling robots forthcoming, people!

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