Most of my images involve people. Until very recently, I don’t think I’d ever photographed anything that you’d call a “robot.” So even though R2-D2 (or “Artoo”) may be an iconic character from one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time, he’s definitely outside the realm of my usual subject matter. Take my word for it though, when you meet him in person, he’s at least as expressive as most of the humans I know.
So how did I get access to this little blue guy? Well, among TV and movie watchers there’s a subset of fans who want a more visceral connection to a story than simply watching it unfold on a screen. Places like the Replica Prop Forum and the R2-D2 Builder’s Club cater to these fans, offering them a like-minded community of enthusiasts, instructions, encouragement, and even access to limited runs of custom-made difficult-to-find components. This droid’s builder, Alec Bialek, is a mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Alec takes his Artoo to events like the premier of The Force Awakens at SLO’s historic Fremont Theater, giving fans a chance to meet the famous droid in person. After seeing photos of Artoo at a recent school fundraiser, I contacted Alec, and he generously granted me an exclusive one-on-one to meet Artoo and make something along the lines of a ‘portrait of an astromech droid.’
Alec’s Artoo isn’t completely finished yet – Alec is still working on the feet and the base of the body – which is why I mostly photographed Artoo from the “waist” up. When those last pieces are done, Alec is planning to weather Artoo so he looks a little more battle-worn, consistent with his appearance in the films.
The interesting part of making these images, at least for me, was exploring the space between portraiture and still life. Even in the Star Wars universe, Artoo isn’t quite a living thing, yet somehow he’s imbued with a very strong sense of agency and personality. That sense is borne partially from the puppetry and sound effects that you experience when you watch the film (or, if you’re lucky like me, when Alec fires up his remote control and has Artoo run circles around you while tweeting & whistling). But it also has a lot to do with Artoo’s basic visual design. He’s hardly anthropomorphic, but when his big, black, glassy eye is pointed in your direction, it’s hard not to feel like you’re being seen.
That sense is what I tried to capture in these last two images, and what I would very much like to capture with other similar subjects. If anybody reading this happens to know someone who’s built other character droids from popular sci-fi – such as WALL-E, Johnny Five, Marvin, Bender, H.E.L.P.e.R. or others, please don’t hesitate to share this post with them, and have them drop me a line.