One of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order’s early standout characters is one that never says a single line of dialogue throughout the course of Cal Kestis’ adventure. BD-1 is a small bipedal droid that assists Cal in his journey in a number of ways. He can hack into electronics and control them, scan elements of the environment and defeated enemies to build out an encyclopedia of knowledge, display holographic maps, and dispense health canisters when Cal needs them. We spoke with the art and sound team at Respawn about what it takes to add a new, unique droid to Star Wars’ canon and find out what it’s like to work with legendary sound designer, Ben Burtt.
In our cover story, we touched briefly on BD-1 and how his original inspiration came from Snoopy and Woodstock. His code name was even “Bird Dog” before he became “Buddy Droid,” but that was just the starting line. “Originally, we had the idea that Cal was a tinkerer, so maybe he kit-bashed this little droid together and originally the little droid was going to work like a backpack to hearken back to Yoda on the back of Luke,” lead concept artist Jordan Lamarre-Wan says. The idea of Cal building BD-1 was abandoned, but the element of him traveling on Cal’s back remained. “A lot of mechs and droids in Star Wars are a very simple silhouette. Very simple shape, but then there are a lot of details within the silhouette to make them very readable,” Lamarre-Wan says.
R2 is a cylinder with a dome, for example, so many of BD-1’s early designs followed those ideas. “Some of our original sketches were actually following those same recipes, so we actually landed on a place that was really close to BB8. And then we saw the trailer revealing BB8, so that was kind of a no-go,” Lamarre-Wan says. Other early ideas gave BD-1 boosters so he could fly around, but the team eventually landed on the bipedal design we see today because BD-1 is meant to help with exploration, both from a gameplay perspective, and within the fiction.
BD-1 is a droid meant to assist explorers and archaeologists, which was a result of the gameplay functions the team wanted for BD. “He didn’t start from a strictly visual, or narrative standpoint,” art director Chris Sutton says. The team knew how they wanted BD to assist Cal and they worked backwards from there. BD-1 has two big eyes, an atypical asset for a droid his size, because he needs to be able to scan things, and he needs to be able to make 3D projections for Cal, and he has legs because he needs to be able to crawl around and explore tight spaces. “BD-1’s not one of a kind – but he’s not common,” writer Megan Fausti says. The general idea behind BD is that the company that manufactured him went under, so you will never see new droids like him, but there are a few out there in the universe. Once the gameplay functions and fiction were in place, his character design began to take shape.
“We try to make BD-1 very human and very personable and like a best friend for Cal,” Fausti says. Along with gameplay and archaeological functions, Respawn also imagined that buddy droids, like BD-1, would be used by lonely explorers. “Part of the function of the [BD] droid is to help [explorers] not get lonely and not get sad, so he can be cheerful or encouraging and express a lot of emotion as a core function to help the person not lose their connection to society,” says narrative designer Aaron Contreras.
“Some of the inspirations visually… we were talking about the manufacturing process of like where the droids come from fictionally, and some of the lines you see on BD will evoke things like a snow speeder, like the way there are diagonal lines on the visor.” Lamarre-Wan says. “The graphic patterns, even the heat sinks on the back. It also evokes the binoculars that Luke uses.”
BD-1 is also very cute, which plays into all these ideas. “Cute wasn’t the pillar, but it helps,” Contreras says with a laugh. “I would say his defining trait would be bravery, but he is cute just by virtue of who he is and what he is to Cal and to the player,” Fausti says. He has a pair of antennas on his head which animator Laure Retif says she tries to use like dog ears. “He’s got a big head, like a bird, and two legs, like a bird, but the emotion of a dog.” Lamarre-Wan says. Retif has to lean on body movement in general since BD-1 is a droid and doesn’t have facial features that can be used to express familiar emotion. He may not be able to move his eyebrows or change the shape of his eyes to get across his personality, but he does have a voice, which is being created by Ben Burtt.
Burtt created just about every iconic Star Wars alien or robotic voice and sound effect that we take for granted, and he also provided the voice for Wall-E. Early in the process, Burtt gave Respawn about five different voices to choose from that ranged from R2-D2 and Wall-E, to voices that sounded close to human speech with layers and layers of processing on top of them. Respawn told Burtt what they liked, and he began the recording process.
Burtt recorded complete cutscenes, but he also recorded all kinds of “dialogue” for various moments outside of specific narrative moments. Early in the process, Burtt received actual dialogue to be translated into BD-1 speech, but over time, the team found more success in just making specific emotional requests of Burtt.
In terms of how it works, like whether or not Burtt is actually making bleeps and bloops into a microphone with his mouth and then tweaking those noises in post-production, Respawn’s sound designers admit they don’t actually know. “I can only really guess at that,” audio director Nick Laviers says. “Yeah, he doesn’t reveal his secrets,” audio director Rhonda Cox says. Laviers and Cox spent time with Burtt at Skywalker Sound touring his studio and even looking at his Star Wars props, like his original Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope script, and they connect with him regularly, but for the most part, they just let him work his magic. “I do think he likes to speak the part,” Laviers says regarding whether or not Burtt speaks actual lines of dialogue. “I think when there aren’t any, Ben kind of makes them up, because he likes to kind of get into the character. My theory is he will perform it in his words first, then he will take a synthesizer and try to kind of create the intonations… but that’s just a theory.”
EA commissioned a robotic puppet version of BD-1 to take to E3, and it’s easy to understand why it went through the marketing expense. “He’s not just a robot. In Star Wars, droids are characters,” Lamarre-Wan says. Respawn wants BD-1 to be just as much of a character as any human, Wookiee, or other alien in the game, and our time with the game shows he has a lot of promise, both from his gameplay applications and his personality.
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