Beep-Bee-Dee-Ooowww: The Art of Speaking Without Words

Beep-Bee-Dee-Ooowww: The Art of Speaking Without Words

Why do we always seem to know what R2-D2 is saying? Even though he just beeps...and whistles!

 

The Star Wars movies are filled with iconic lines: “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” “No, I am your father,” and of course the classic, “You stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!

 

Yet until the release of Episode 7, the most lovable character in Star Wars has generally been considered to be R2-D2, a character who doesn’t have a single comprehensible line (unless you happen to be fluent in Astromech...in which case, I salute you). And the character now battling for that top spot? BB-8, who again, does not speak Basic and doesn’t have subtitles. So how did these droids become some of the most emotionally expressive and endearing in the franchise, despite saying nothing?

 

Buddy up

 Well, the first technique used is to ensure Artoo, BB-8, and Chewbacca are almost always with another character. If you want to include someone speaking a different language or in confusing gibberish, this is the go-to solution. When done well, this feels an awful lot more natural than subtitles and keeps the audience or reader from being pulled out of the action to check what someone actually said.

 

As with anything, you have to be careful when writing this kind of speech. Although C-3PO is a translator, he never says what Artoo actually said, he simply reacts. Listening to their dialogue is kind of like hearing one side of a phone conversation. The key is to include enough in the half you can hear to be able to infer what Artoo said from Threepio’s reply.

 

When executed successfully, as it is throughout the movies, it allows droids and wookies to answer back, shout, tease, cry, and celebrate just like any other character. And there’s something adorable about those whistles that no-one can quite explain.

 

What’d he say?

 Another technique is one used time and again for various reasons in film and literature, and that is introducing someone who has the same level of understanding as the audience. By that I mean, why do so many characters not understand Chewie? To give Han (and now Rey) an excuse to translate for him. This is more useful if you want the audience to know exactly what’s being said rather than just the general meaning without resorting to subtitles or footnotes.

 

This can also be a nice way to establish bonds between characters - Han and Chewie have known each other for a long time, so it makes sense Han can more easily interpret his growls than other people can. Obviously, it’s gonna get repetitive after some time if every time your character wants to speak you have to have someone else asking what they mean, so this is usually used in conjunction with other methods.

 

Express yourself, Darling

This last one is a lot easier to pull off on screen than in writing, but is still doable in both mediums. R2-D2 and BB-8 are extremely physical in the movies, when they whistle their heads spin around, attachments deploy and they move and shake around when they get excited. In the latest film we even get the closest thing to thumbs-up a droid can manage. Artoo and Beebee act out how they’re feeling, sometimes better than the actors themselves (*cough* Mark Hamill *cough*), despite having no faces, no speech, and no limbs.

 

On top of this, the droids and Chewie make use of intonation despite having no lines. We can tell if astromechs are happy or sad by the speed and pitch of their chirps, we can tell when Chewie is angry by how loud and growly he is. By mimicking general human voice patterns, without the words, we get a sense of emotion even before any other characters get involved.

 

Honestly, I think the success of the droids is one of the most impressive achievements of the Star Wars franchise, to make robots gesture and show a level of emotion is an immense challenge. Of course, it helps that Artoo and Threepio were seen as the light comedic relief, but they were still integral to the plot. And without being told anything we know Artoo is loyal, cheeky, confident, and intelligent. It’s basically the biggest case of “show don’t tell” in cinema :)
 

Thank you to ambassadors May Hayashi for writing this blog and Prodigy for creating the banner

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