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Why does R2-D2 have an actor inside? I can't imagine it really being necessary any more. It could easily be done by remote control or even fully CGI, which both happen in some scenes I think. But why not all scenes?

Even the upcoming episode VIII has an actor listed (Jimmy Vee) in IMDb. I would think that with today’s technology it would be a piece of cake.

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Because the remote controls didn't work in the first two movies. – Wad Cheber Jan 29 at 15:49
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There might also be union strictures going on. – FuzzyBoots Jan 29 at 15:56
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Does BB-8 also have an actor rolling inside? – svick Jan 29 at 17:26
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Maybe because Abrams learned from Lucas' massive mistake with ep 1 - 3 that just because you can do things in 3D doesn't mean you should. Going classic keeps the same feel from the original series that was completely and totally lost with the abominations Lucas insulted the world with when he went rogue and vomitted out the eye sores we can not un-see – Kai Qing Jan 30 at 0:27
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@KaiQing - stop holding back! Let us know how you really feel about episodes 1-3... – James McLeod Jan 30 at 1:43
up vote 37 down vote accepted

Kenny Baker was essentially a puppeteer.

From an interview with him

In some scenes you are inside R2-D2, in other scenes, it is remote controlled. Is there (apart from the scenes where R2 is rolling) an easy way for the viewer to see whether it’s you or the remote-controlled droid?

By R2’s extension leg. When they were using that, they swapped R2. I can tell when I am in it because I know the way I move. For others it is hard to tell. The R2 I use is the two-legged one, the one that reacts to dialogue. When it is moving, chasing or rolling; no way my R2 can do that! That one has the third leg, the motor and the steering device.

[...]

Most scenes you have done were with Anthony Daniels (C-3PO). How was it to work with him?

We were both in our droids; there was no interconnection at all. We couldn’t hear or see each other. George (Lucas) used to shout “look left, look right” and wanted me to project emotions like happiness and sadness. It wasn’t very easy, which also applies to C-3PO. He had to record his dialogue later on which had to match his movements. He had way more movement because he had arms and legs. I didn’t have that, so it was very hard to communicate. He came in an hour before me to get in the costume, while I just needed 5 minutes to get into R2. When we were done, they took the lid off and I am out! He needed another hour to get rid of the costume. So, we never met a lot.

As to why there is still an actor in the suit? This largely comes down to Abrams wanting to do things with practical effects as much as possible, and to do things the way Lucas and company did during the production of the original trilogy.

Production designer Darren Gilford explained at a Comic-Con panel.

"J.J.'s mandate from day one was authenticity and being as true to the original trilogy as possible. And he felt the prequels were flawed by the fact that they had every [CG] tool known to mankind and used everything at their disposal. I use the metaphor of disco when the synthesizer came about and everyone was using it in any way possible. And I think J.J. wanted to reconnect with how the original films were made."

The article explains:

The generational theme of J.J. Abrams' "The Force Awakens" naturally carried over to the crew, including the production design partnership between two-time Oscar winner Rick Carter ("Lincoln," "Avatar") and up-and-comer Darren Gilford ("Oblivion," "Tron: Legacy"). Gilford told me it was a very fluid, symbiotic collaboration built on a back-to-basics, hybrid philosophy via Abrams for maintaining continuity with the original trilogy.

This entailed shooting as much in-camera as possible and using lots of practical sets, models and matte paintings. They also reverse-engineered the VFX to accommodate, for example, 2D forced perspective backings rather than relying on CG set extensions from Industrial Light & Magic. You can glimpse this in a corridor shot in the Comic-Con making-of reel (see below). Of course, there's plenty of CG but only when expedient.

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+1 I think it bears mention that some of the "puppetry" that Baker employed in emoting inside a metal can would be quite hard to replicate via remote control. I'm thinking of the exact motions R2 makes when leaning forward in remorse or wiggling back and forth from leg to leg in agitation. Both would seem to require a sense of balance which is not available to a remote control operator. – Todd Wilcox Jan 29 at 17:39
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Please take discussion about abrams' ability to convey scale, or his penchant for lens flares, or bad science to Science Fiction & Fantasy Chat. – phantom42 Jan 29 at 22:20
    
To avoid competing with this fine answer, I'll add that using an CG R2 would still require an actor, one wearing a green suit for motion capture. Or take the whole scene off location and throw it into CG, and R2 wasn't in it enough to warrant that. Animatronics or a puppet would also require a human to control and was unreliable in the original trilogy. Production, especially Episode IV, was fraught with added expense and delays caused by robo-R2's mechanical/electronic failure from sand, rain, and heat. Although electronics have changed in the last 30 years, the elements haven't. – IAmNaN Jan 30 at 18:16

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