If you see Wall-E or R2-D2 roaming around a children’s hospital ward or at a convention center, you’ll have to look hard to find Mike Senna or Michael McMaster.
Senna has been making the rounds online, celebrated for his creation of a Wall-E robot so real, you would think it had been plucked from the Pixar film like so much Disney magic. But Senna, and McMaster, didn’t spend two-and-a-half years creating the robot for the recognition.
“I don’t care about my recognition. I’m a geek,” said Senna during a phone conversation Friday. “We don’t feel good about getting all that recognition in public. So, I kind of hide away in the corners and operate.”
As if to further illustrate the sentiment, Senna made a point of mentioning McMaster, his fellow collaborator, who called on Senna to participate in the project. Senna lamented the fact that McMaster’s role in Wall-E’s creation has been missing from the story, which went viral last week, following a Yahoo video report.
A deeper dive into the story behind Senna and McMaster’s R2-D2 and Wall-E robots shows a rich story of international collaboration and passion — a growing team of hobbyists that have, for years, taken on the challenge of making fictional robots real. While Senna and McMaster played pivotal roles, both are quick to highlight the rewarding nature of the communities that have helped make the robots possible and the process enjoyable.
Senna, a computer programmer, and McMaster, a citrus farmer are both members of the “R-2 Builders Club,” a group dedicated to building the androids that appear in the fictional Star Wars universe, with an emphasis on the popular white and blue R2-D2 unit. The group was founded in 1999.
Senna estimates the group has grown to anywhere between 4,000 and 5,000 members online, with anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 active. Then, there are the “Wall-E Builders,” a smaller group organized by Scot Washburn in October 2007. Washburn created the group after posting a video of the Wall-E film preview to the R2 Builders Club Web site. As of the writing of this piece, the Wall-E group had 1,420 members.
It was Washburn, in fact, who created the first Wall-E — a smaller version of the robot without the track-system wheels. He found the time to build the unit after he was laid off from his job at a General Motors assembly plant where he had worked for 13 years.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t that detailed of a build because it was based on the trailer, before the movie was released,” said Washburn during a phone interview Tuesday. “It was basically just a box.”
McMaster joined the Wall-E group at its founding and realized that they would need some help. So he called Senna in April 2008 and asked him to join, knowing that Senna was particularly inclined toward attention to detail, having seen his work on the R2 unit.
“It’s amazing the amount of detail and animation they were able to come up with,” said Washburn.
But Wall-E is still not complete. Senna said his Wall-E is about two more weeks away from completion, and McMaster says he also has several features he would like to add over time.
“It’s a work in progress,” McMaster said via e-mail Tuesday, “there’s always room for improvement.”
But building the robots is only part of the fun. It’s the reactions that make it all worthwhile.
“Before I drove into the room,” said Senna of a hospital visit with a young patient with ALS, “he just starts screaming – he just starts going, ‘Wall-E! Wall-E! Wall-E!’.”
“It killed me at that point,” Senna continued.
Senna says moments like this happen both with Wall-E and R2. One of the first interactions he witnessed with the R2 unit was with a blind child who loved the “Star Wars” films. The child could, for the first time, put the physical form of the robot into context. “There’s just a lot of stories like that,” said Senna. “You’ll meet somebody … you see their eyes and all kinds of things just light up.”
McMaster’s experiences are much the same. “While I was at the Chabot Space and Science Center, a young man in a wheelchair came in to see WALL-E,” said McMaster via e-mail Tuesday. “I drove him closer so he could get a better view, and he broke out with a great big smile. ... It was just a magical moment. This type of interaction has happened time and again, and that joy is why we do it.”
Then there is the question of the companies that hold the rights to the characters and their likenesses.
“I frankly am scared to death of Disney,” said Senna candidly of the production company responsible for some of the world’s most recognizable film characters, including Wall-E. Unlike Lucasfilm, which has embraced the films’ active fan base, Disney, in Senna and McMaster’s experience, is much more protective. Both Senna and McMaster have collaborated with Lucasfilm, but have yet to collaborate with Disney/Pixar.
The rights control also means that the units are not available for sale. If you want one, you have to build it. Senna estimates that the R2 unit cost around $5,000 to build, while Wall-E’s price tag is still being tallied.
As for what’s next, Senna says that’s a better question for high-budget filmmakers.
“I keep dreading the next robot film,” said Senna. But McMaster sums up the essence of why he and Senna spend hours in their respective workshops translating dreams into reality, “It’s just a lot of fun.”
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