Remembering Tony Dyson

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I was very saddened to read that a very old friend of the site, Tony Dyson, had passed away. Tony was the robot engineer who created the many R2-D2 units for The Empire Strikes Back. He also worked on other films like Moonraker, Superman II, and Dragonslayer.

It may be hard to believe now, but back when the internet was young, there weren’t many Star Wars websites out there. Lucasfilm itself didn’t even have a web presence. For a short time, fan sites like this one were the only source of Star Wars information out there. So when I started up this site in 1996, it wasn’t long before e-mails began to come in from all sorts of people. One of those people was Tony Dyson, a man I’d never heard of. He told me he was the guy who made the R2-D2 units for Lucasfilm when they made The Empire Strikes Back.  He had pictures and seemed genuinely happy to share them and his information. He said he’d be more than willing to do an interview for the site, which he enjoyed. His interview became my first “official” Star Wars related interview, which is why his passing hits home a bit for me.

The site’s gone through many changes since then and a lot of my old content has been either archived or lost completely, but I still have many of my old interviews, including Tony’s. The site was only a year old at the time and I wasn’t much of an interviewer, but Tony’s answers were honest and we had a good time. My memories of him will always be of a friendly and enthusiastic man who loved what he did.

Here is the first interview I conducted for this site from December, 1997 with Tony Dyson. Rest in peace, good sir.

Interview with Tony Dyson – Originally published: December 1, 1997
(Cleaned up but largely unedited)

Tony Dyson contacted me many moons ago and told me that if I ever wanted an interview to just ask. So needless to say, I asked and therefore, I received. He’s the guy who built the R2-D2 robots for The Empire Strikes Back. He’s done a lot of other film work as well. He’s a very cool guy. If you would like to know more about Tony’s work in the film industry, check out his web site at www.robotworld.com.

T’bone: It appears that you only worked on The Empire Strikes Back? Is this true?
Tony Dyson: Yes. Of the Star Wars saga, this film carried my main credit under the name of my SFX studio “The White Horse Toy Company.”

T: Were you on the sets at all?
TD: Yes. I escaped my own studio a few times for [Dagobah] the Bog Planet & the Carbon Freeze scenes. They are the most notable sets I can think of in ESB.

T: Did you meet George Lucas?
TD: Yes, most of the crew met him in post production. On occasion he came over to the UK and he was available throughout the main shooting at Elstree as he worked in close collaboration with Irvin Kirshner, the Director.

T: What was your first conversation about?
TD: Hamburgers & Flying. The fact that it’s difficult to find a good US style burger in the UK and how much George dislikes flying. The next meeting we discussed R2-D2 and his fabrication.

T: How does one go about making R2-D2?
TD: With the aid of a very talented team!

T: Did you make any other droids for the movie?
TD: No, not for ESB.

T: Were your R2 models used in Return of the Jedi?
TD: Yes, the project consignment for R2-D2 on ESB was not only to produce eight models but also the master molds, so that the Arts/SFX departments could produce new and various hybrids of the R2 unit. In the new sequels there has been a reintroduction of aluminum body parts because of the technical requirements.

T: Did you do any other work for Lucas?
TD: Yes, indirectly as a consultant on various projects.

T: What did you do for Steven Spielberg?
TD: I was also a consultant.

T: When did you create your first robot and what did it do?
TD: R2-D2. This robot was the first publicly recognized robot character that my studios produced.

T: Describe Irvin Kirshner.
TD: A very quiet and polite man, one would describe him as an actor’s director. He is considerate of an actor’s creativity and excels at bringing out the personality of each character in the story.

T: What was expected of you during 1978-9 through 1980?
TD: Most of this time was dedicated to working on ESB, the R2-D2 project.

T: Did you make all of R2’s inner gadgets also?
TD: No. A lot were fabricated and designed on set to keep up with the ever changing script.The person in charge of this was Andrew Kelly (Gadget Kelly) under the supervision of the overall SFX supervisor Brian Johnson.

T: How many R2’s did you make for the film in total?
TD: Eight units in all, plus the master molds. Two remote controlled, two Kenny Baker types with seats, harnesses & foot rests, and four throwaway lighter units with bolted down moving parts to be ejected by the monster in the [Dagobah] bog planet scene.

T: Who is your favorite robot of all time?
TD: Short Circuit.

T: If you could be a robot, which would you be?
TD: Short Circuit because he has great mobility, brain power, fire power, sense of humor and good taste in girl friends.

T: What are your biggest inspirations?
TD: American DC comics & Isaac Asimov.

T: Favorite movies?
TD: The Empire Strikes Back, Runaway, Tombstone, all the Die Hards, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hook.

T: Did you meet any of the actors from any of the Star Wars movies?
TD: Yes. You do have a tendency to bump into them when you work at the studio. They are everywhere. The other tedious thing as an SFX supervisor is that it’s expected that you will eat in the Green Room, a restaurant restricted to directors, producers and actors. When working on Superman II, I had Christopher Reeve in costume on my left & Olivier Tobias in an Arabian costume on my right. The things we have to put up with in the film business…

T: Who originally built R2 for the first Star Wars? Was it ILM?
TD: No. It was not ILM. Being in America, a long way from the main studio in the UK, the only models they were responsible for were inserts of space craft models & other models which were independent to any main sets. All the main props, SFX props, sets and actors were filmed at the main film studios Elstree UK or on location. Each film has had a different SFX supervisor. On SW this was John Stairs who was in charge of building the first prototype R2-D2. The entire fabrication was in aluminum and I believe the welding of these sections was contracted out to a racing car company in the UK. Unfortunately this prototype was too heavy for easy control. So when it came to ESB, the responsibility to solve these problems was passed over to me by Brian Johnson (visual SFX supervisor) and a SFX electronic technician (whiz kid) Andrew Kelly was assigned to my team as an SFX studio liaison.

T: Do you get any royalties or was it a flat fee for the job?
TD: No royalties. It was a flat fee. Unfortunately most of the production team work under flat fee contracts.

T: How does that third leg work?
TD: Good question! The tricks of the trade! The truth you want, yes? The overall design of R2 tends to be a little unstable due to the fact that the legs are connected to the highest part of the body. Therefore, when the third leg extends, the whole unit has to be restrained from moving forward. The third leg itself is pushed down by electronic activators. The foot has a drive wheel which in contact with the ground moves the leg forward which in turn twists the body until it reaches it’s furthest point. When it locks off, this forms a tripod configuration and should also allow the droid to drive on rough ground and even mount stairs. That’s the theory anyway.

T: Would you work for George Lucas again?
TD: Yes, without hesitation. There are no producers, directors or film companies I have worked for that I would not work for again.

T: Where can our readers find more information about your career in the entertainment industry?
TD: I thought you would never ask! My full profile and many unique pictures can be found on my Domain at ROBOTWORLD.COM. In fact, you will also find my Autographed memorabilia (free) and a signed SW Christmas card for all my visitors. After November 30th, I will be posting a special feature all about Starcon97, a SW convention in the UK from the viewpoint of being a Guest.

T: Have you been contacted at all about working on the new prequels?
TD: The best answer I can give to that question is that when I worked on ESB, my SFX studio was restricted from making any press releases for 12 months after we completed the project. (No further comment.)

Very interesting… Thanks for the interview, Tony!

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