31

Looking at R2-D2, I can't think of any robots I've seen in science fiction that vaguely resemble R2D2's design. What was the inspiration for the design of R2-D2?

33

George Lucas apparently admitted that the inspiration behind the "look" of R2-D2 was the trio of Huey, Louie, and Dewey from Doug Trumbull's film Silent Running, which was released five years before A New Hope.

The 3 droids Huey, Louie, and Dewey stand together

Collage showing the comparisons between the trio and R2, top left shows one of the trio and top right shows R2 and their "similar" looks. Bottom left shows an extension arm of the trio working on a control panel and bottom right shows R2's similar extension arm in a socket working away

Los Angeles Times, 5 Dec 1977

...The drones, by the way, proved to be director George Lucas' inspiration for his own stubby robot, R2-D2, a fact that he admitted to [Doug] Trumbull when he approached him about contributing to Star Wars. Trumbull, however, turned down the assignment because he did not want to repeat himself by returning to another space opera...

Also this interesting tidbit:

According to a August 14, 1981 Hollywood Reporter article, Universal sued Twentieth Century-Fox, claiming that the droid "R2-D2" in Star Wars was an infringement upon the design of drones Huey, Dewey and Louie. Judge Irving Hill of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles dismissed the case before trial, however, stating that "no one has a monopoly on the use of robots in art," and that the robots in question were not similar. Universal appealed the decision, but the Court of Appeals also dismissed the case.

(Source for Excerpts)

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Another interesting point mentioned in this article is that McQuarrie was inspired to give R2-D2 a rounded look specifically to differentiate them from the square robots in Silent Running (perhaps anticipating the possibility of a lawsuit like the one in Praxis' second quote). – Hypnosifl Aug 23 '15 at 23:11
  • Trumbull was originally asked to head up the special effects team for Star Wars, but had to turn it down due to other commitments. Trumbull's Silent Running robots were the first non humanoid robots in film to exhibit a humanist personality... cheating at cards and whispering to each other. So while R2D2's appearance doesn't match those robots, they do form the genesis for the personality... right down to not speaking, at least in words. And it's R2D2's personality that really stands out. – tj1000 Apr 16 '18 at 6:39
16

Not to discredit any of these answers but to augment them, we must recall that though George Lucas came up with the character and guidelines for the design, it was Ralph McQuarrie who designed R2-D2. We must consider his inspiration as much, if not more, than Lucas contributions to the look of the character.

Star Wars Insider once asked McQuarrie about the design of the droids in Star Wars.

SW Insider: Did the script describe the droids or was their look something you came up with?

McQuarrie: I think Artoo was just described as a small robot. I thought of him as running on a giant ball bearing — just a sphere, a circle, wheel-like. He had gyros so he could go in any direction on this ball.

(Source)

Subsequently, some of the earliest variations of R2-D2 looked like a droid setting on top of a sphere just as McQuarrie mentioned in the interview. However, due to technical limitations of the time this concept of Artoo had to be reworked into something slightly different and similar to the droid we all know and recognize today.

The original R2-D2 sketch by Ralph McQuarrie showing a tubular object with an antenna on top, a smaller wheeled bottom and an extension arm out the side

Also worth noting, much of Ralph's early work that wasn't utilized for the trilogy was used during the design of The Force Awakens and this sketch eventually became the inspiration for BB-8.

As you can see this concept is quite different than the Huey, Louie, and Dewey droids in Silent Running that was referenced by Praxis provided answer and is somewhat similar to the D2 Rainbow vacuum cleaner referenced by Charles Coffey. So is the vacuum an inspiration to Artoo? We don't know! Possibly, possibly not.

It's also worth mentioning that before moving to Hollywood, Ralph worked for Boeing as a technical illustrator. He was likely inspired by the streamlined look of many of the air and space craft that he helped illustrate while at Boeing.

So what was the inspiration of Artoo? Very likely pseudo-robotic looking devices of the 70s, concepts from other works and various other career inspirations from McQuarrie's past.

Character design is often a collaborative work and before the final result of R2-D2 was settled upon, there was certainly many rounds of conversations with Lucas and McQuarrie, followed by the prop and costume department working with Lucas input and McQuarrie's final sketches of R2-D2 to come up with a final result. Each contributor likely left their mark from their own inspirations.

Who knows, George could have off-the-cuff thrown out to Ralph that he wanted a "simple robot, it needs to have an arm, or arms, similar to the little droids in Silent Running..." to which McQuarrie could have then sat at his sketchpad, started to think, looked over at his vacuum cleaner, decided to take the thoughts from George and then shape those influences into a pseudo-aeronautical shaped robot, slightly inspired from McQuarries very own past. It's impossible to know the original thought process but this isn't entirely implausible.

Unfortunately, the retelling of these details isn't always perfect and is sometimes contradictory because none of us ever remember all of the small details of our work from 10-30 years earlier. Our minds tend to fill in the "gaps" of our recollection so one thing that George says might not align with Ralph and, even still, there will always be little details that will be left out with time because people just don't remember.

The best answer that we can likely discern is to observe the history of the those involved in the development of Artoo and apply it to the details we have from interviews they've given over the years and settle for something, somewhere likely in the middle.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    See also scifi.stackexchange.com/a/121459/4918 – b_jonas Nov 29 '16 at 16:51
  • @b_jonas Excellent follow-up. IMHO, the provided quotes also further the truth that past-retold can be a bit contradictory. Ralph's story also doesn't quite line up with what was suppose to be one of his earliest drawings-- the spheroid robot. And, yet, he explicitly comments that Lucas wanted something similar to the Silent Running droids. So what is the real genesis & evolution?! I doubt we'll ever know the exact specifics. – RLH Nov 29 '16 at 18:15
8

I have always suspected a Rainbow D2 vacuum cleaner was the inspiration for the design as well as for the name. The D2 was a 1960's version of the Rainbow vacuum.

The vacuum cleaner: tubular with a brown bottom and chrome top; the port for the hose is empty

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    eh...maybe. The name is interesting although it is widely accepted that "The name R2-D2 was derived from the shorthand for "Reel 2, Dialogue 2," the heading on a cue sheet during the making of THX 1138." – NKCampbell Jan 8 '16 at 0:27
4

He appears to be based off a common park trash bin. It's spot-on.

Comparison of R2 on the left and a similarly designed park bin: a tubular shape with a domed top supported by red metal frame on either side; it is tipped back a few degrees to match the angle

| improve this answer | |
2

I actually once heard that the inspiration was a Danish brand of Hoover/Vacuum Cleaner from the company Nilsen & Fisker called Nilfisk. You can see the resemblance with the 3 wheels and the shape quite clearly when you look at the original Nilfisk. It is still sold today with very few modifications to it's design, and is considered a Danish design classic.

Nilfisk Vacuum Cleaner from Danish company Nilsen & Fisker

| improve this answer | |
  • Heard from who? – Valorum Jan 1 '18 at 10:48
2

I am a Rainbow Sales Rep and in the list of famous people who owns Rainbows, George Lucas is one of them and he owned one (not sure if he still does) back in the 1970's when he was writing Star Wars and designing the characters.

So... we like to think he designed it after the D2 Series (Chrome Dome) Rainbow, but I'm sure he will deny it.

| improve this answer | |
  • Pretty cool that you can say this, but this should really be a comment on another answer. You don't have enough reputation to comment on people's answers yet, but that won't be long. – CHEESE Nov 29 '16 at 14:39
  • 1
    Can you provide a copy of said list as proof? – Valorum Jan 1 '18 at 10:49

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.