3D Printers Are Transforming Design in the Film World

Rapid Prototyping Will Make Props, Costumes and Set Fixtures easier to design

By James DeRuvo

Art and set designers have gotten high tech, discovering the benefits of rapid prototyping (3D printing).  The concept is essentially the ability to print a 3D object much like you would print a screenplay.  And it’s giving them the ability to plan out sets, props, and other designs in 3D space for planning and designing sets for the film and theatrical industry.

“Printing out the pieces and putting them in the model theater helps me take in the spatial relationships better than viewing a 3D world represented on a 2D screen. The 3D printer makes this a lot easier.” – Owen Collins, designer and chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Washington and Lee University

Rapid prototypers have been around for awhile.  But they were obscenely expensive and were largely the domain of industrial companies that used cad drawings and large format machines to mill prototypes.   Then came a fellow named Bre Petis and the MakerBot.  Petis was an editor for Make Magazine who wanted a 3D printer for every day use, but they were out of reach.  But being he worked for Make Magazine, he saw a challenge:

We wanted a 3D printer but they were too expensive, so we made our own and then realized that everyone should have one …

The result was a 3D printer that uses simple design software like Google Sketchup, and can print out small and moderate sized plastic parts by just hitting print.  But Pettis says that the importance is to create an accurate design, from all angles.  And that’s where the 3D software like a CAD application come in handy.  Then, the software will slice it into layers.  Then, when printing, the 3D printer will use either plastic or polymer to lay out the layers one of top of another as it “prints.”  It uses heat or a laser (depending on the design) to melt the source material into thin layers that stack one on top of the other.  And then when it’s done, you have a 3D image.

And you actually don’t have to even design something … Pettis and others contribute to the “Thingverse,” an online catelog of 3D rendered items which can be  downloaded, altered, and then printed on a 3D printer.  And you’re not limited to designs.  The only thing about 3D printers though, is size.  You won’t be building a full size costume helmet on one.  But you may be able to create smaller parts that fit together.   But that takes some tweaking.

First off, most low cost 3D printers, like the MakerBot, come in kits that you have to put together.  But some, like the MakerBot’s new “Replicator” come premade.  And as Kacie Hultgren, a scenic designer in Newyork says that while a 3D printer gives you the advantage of seeing the spaitial relationships of pieces in a 3D world and allows for the solving of design problems before going to a full size design, the biggest issue has been the learning curve.

“you need to experiment with print speed, temperature, design tolerances and a host of other factors to get optimum results,” says Hultgren.

As such, in the short run, it may take longer and cost a little more than the old school method to create your design and finalize it.  Especially with larger pieces that often have to be outsourced to companies with those expensive, larger format rapid prototypers which charge a hefty fee for your prototype.

3D Printing was used largely by by costume designers for Iron Man 2 when Tony Stark’s Mark II Suit needed to be physical for scenes where a CGI model wouldn’t do.  So they turned to Legacy Effects, which has been using rapid prototypers since Jurassic Park, but didn’t really use 3D printers until a project for Bungie’s Halo video game.  They used it to literally print the Iron Man suit.

The detail we got out of all our applications in house came out translated perfectly when printed and new right then, this is how we’d be doing all our business,” says Jason Lopes, of Stan Winston Studio and Legacy Effects

And fans are even turning to 3D printers as well, creating their favorite props and then printing them out.  Which adds yet another layer to not only the movie experience, but also a potential market as in the future, studios could sell their prop designs for fans to customize and print themselves.

But there’s no denying that technology is changing even this facet of production.  From set design to costume and props, 3D printers will certainly be a valuable tool in the toolbox.  But in the end, it’s the design that will drive the evolution.  It always has.

“I want to use technology when it saves time, money and improves quality,” adds Hultgren.  “I have to remember on occasion not to get carried away by technology; often enough, my hands are faster than the printer. I think good design requires an embrace of both traditional craft and technology.”.

About doddle 16509 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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