There’s something to be said for building something with your own two hands. Usually, there are trials and tribulations that crop up along the way, but that’s neither here nor there. When that last nail is pounded into place, when that last screw experiences its final turn, when that last dab of paint is applied, you can breathe a sigh of relief, step back to admire your work, and even go as far as to pat yourself on the back for a job well done [even if you’ve had to start over a time or two 😉 ]. That can describe Greenfield, Wisconsin’s Steve Schmidt. Well, sort of.
The thing is – once Steve completed his impressive, full-scale, working R2-D2 last year, he was ready to make alterations to his droid. That’s not hard to imagine since Steve considers his R2 unit a “work in
progress.” “There’s always something to change, to make better,” the software-designer-by-day remarks. In fact, when he first began building R2 back in 2014, Steve opted to start the project over before he barely began. Displeased with the way the frame of R2’s garbage-can-shaped body was turning out, Steve scrapped the project, and started anew. Steve’s R2 unit is in its third ‘rebirth’, and even now Steve is working on alterations to the silver-domed droid. “You never really feel completely finished,” the 45-year-old fan admits. Currently, Steve is hard at work attaching R2’s new aluminum legs. The metal legs were a Christmas gift from Steve’s wife, Kim, who, by the way, is working diligently on her own Star Wars droid – the skittering mouse droid from “A New Hope”. “It certainly makes birthday and Christmasgift giving a lot easier,” Steve quips. Kim bestowed R2’s dome on the self-professed “dark sider” as a birthday present when it became clear building his own R2 was not a passing fancy.
Even though Steve admits to being drawn to the Dark Side characters in the ever-expanding Star Wars Galaxy, it was clear what would grab his attention – and desire – to construct when he caught the “building bug.” “I don’t think there ever was a question about it being R2,” Steve shares. “R2 is an icon.” And, of course, R2 is the real hero of Star Wars. He always saves the day! “You know, R2 doesn’t [really] say anything, but you know exactly what he means.” Steve credits sound designer Ben Burtt with the genius behind R2’s personification. “He based R2’s ‘talk’ on baby talk,” Steve explains. Watching and listening as Steve directs R2 around the living room, you get the sense of exactly what R2-D2 is saying, what he has in mind. He is a droid on a mission [even if that mission might be a bit limited at present 😉 ].
As easy a decision as it was to make R2-D2 his first droid-building project, the going has not been easy for Steve. As challenging – and at times frustrating – as it has been, fashioning his very own astromech droid “has been a labor of love” for the Star Wars fan. It has helped to have a ‘partner in crime’. “Kim keeps me sane whenever I want to try something different,” Steve says with affection. “She keeps me from quitting, too.” Kim has had her hand in crafting R2 as well. She has done all the Bondo work on R2’s legs, and it never hurts to have an extra pair of hands when just one’s own two hands are not enough to get a job done.
It was at Star Wars Fan Celebration III, in Indianapolis, Indiana, where Steve got his first real look at R2-D2 creations, and was duly impressed with what “ordinary people” had been able to create. Fast-forward to CVI, in Orlando, Florida, where Steve had occasion to chat with builders … and the R2-D2 building bug took root. Aided by an extensive, generous droid building community – that would be astromech.net, the official website of the R2-D2 Builders Club – not to mention the connection the master builders established with Lucasfilm a number of years ago [a group was invited to Skywalker Ranch to measure every inch of R2], R2 [and other droid] builders have an arsenal of data, plans and expertise at their fingertips – and they always are willing to share their knowledge with like-minded members. “Members in the builders club will make runs of parts, and share what they’ve learned along the way [to building their own droids],” Steve extolls. Steve has made his own contribution to the community – he has made alterations to some of the programs in his hand-held, wireless controller, and like his fellow builders who have been so kind with their tips, he has shared his methods with others. “It’s a great community!” he adds.
One of the best improvements Steve has made along the way was replacing R2’s front “foot” casters. The original wheel allowed for only front and backward movement. Now, with a 360-degree caster in place, R2 can turn in pretty much any direction. “He has a much smoother ride now,” Steve states. “It really has been a lot of fun building R2. I’ve learned a lot, and I enjoy the tinkering part.”
“Oh, I’ve blown up circuit boards,” Steve continues, with a bemused smile on his face. “I’ve blown out [R2’s] lights. I have a large scrap pile of materials.” And it’s all been worth it, as far as Steve is concerned: “I’ve gotten to create something from this universe that is so fantastic. We get giddy just looking at him!”
Knowing how much pleasure R2 is to have around, it gives both Schmidts a great deal of joy to bring R2 out in public. They did just that this past December when all three of them – two humans and one droid – ventured out opening weekend when “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” hit theaters. Weighing in at a hefty 200 pounds [the droid’s two lawn tractor batteries account for 40 pounds alone!], R2 rolled into the area theater on a sled that Steve calls R2’s gurney, and was set up in front of a huge “Rogue One” display so movie-goers could have their photos taken with ‘the droid who needs no introduction’. That is where I had the pleasure of meeting Steve’s R2 unit [and Steve and Kim, too]. It was getting close to “Rogue One’s” start time while my husband Tom and I waited in line to have our photo taken with R2. After snapping our picture and moving away, R2 began to move, but there was a family still waiting for a photo. I turned, and beckoned R2 to wait so I could take a photo of the foursome – which R2 was kind enough to do – and then we hurried into the theater to take our seats. As I walked down the aisle, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how lifelike R2 is to all of us. There I was – talking to a machine just as easily and freely as I would a person. How could I help it? R2 has that quality about him, doesn’t he? 🙂 Imagine my delight when R2 rolled into the theater, and took his place a mere two places away from where I sat! “I love to see people’s faces light up!” Steve says. There were a lot of smiling faces that afternoon. 😀
What’s next on the horizon for Steve [other than tweaking R2, that is]? He will continue to bring R2 to his public appearances – upcoming commitments include the Maker Faire in Milwaukee this coming
September, as well as Family Sci-Fi Day, usually slated in October, at Milwaukee’s Discovery World Museum. Steve hopes that he will have the chance to bring R2 to a future Star Wars Fan Celebration to be part of the impressive Droid Builders Room. As far as fashioning any other droids from the Star Wars Galaxy is concerned, Steve says his next endeavor will be an Imperial R4 droid. “And BB-8, too, at some point,” he adds. Like R2-D2, Steve intends to make both those droids fully operational.
Whether he has R2-D2 in tow or he is venturing to a convention on his own, Steve says he loves getting together with other droid builders: “We take off their domes to peer inside. It’s like going to a vintage car show. It’s so much fun just to ‘nerd out’.”
Feel free to ‘nerd out’ yourself, and leave a comment below. Not only would I love to hear from you, I am sure Steve would like to hear what you have to say about his endeavor. 🙂 Or, if you’d rather, drop me an email at email@example.com. Too, be sure to check out astromech.net. You just might be inspired to build an R2-D2 [or other droid] of your own. 🙂
Until next time,
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