3D Printing Is Revolutionizing the Effects Industry

Practical effects enjoy a rebirth thanks to new technology

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

As American Cinema has continued to go deeper into its relationship with visual effects, practical effects have taken a more and more of a back seat. This was true when Phil Tippett realized on Jurassic Park that he was out of a job and had to evolve, and it’s true today as more of the cinematic experience gets put into the computer and manipulated. But thanks to 3D Printing, practical effects have a rebirth, and by working hand-in-hand with CGI, it can make a shot look far more believable.

The Maker Bot

Though the first 3D printers (known as “rapid prototypers” then) came on the scene about 10 years ago, they were used sparingly because they were both time consuming and expensive to procure. And they were used mostly for small jobs like maquettes that could be used to design CGI models.

But as the technology has matured, and the prices have come down, more companies like Legacy Effects are doing their 3D jobs in house and are using them for full sized models and costume pieces.

And it’s also letting FX artists experiment with different design changes, print it it, and have a result in minutes, rather than days. “Concept design is no longer a pencil rendering,” says Alan Scott, co-owner of Legacy Effects,”concept design is a 3D model.”

Legacy has taken the 3D printer and stereo lithography files to create a wide variety of parts that can be swapped and can do it in an afternoon, rather than sending the files to a third party and waiting several days for the result.

Then on Iron Man, Legacy got the idea to use 3D printing to create the full size Iron Man suit. “I ran some numbers and they worked out,” says Dave Merritt of Legacy, “and we made a full size piece that was rapid prototyped.” And they’ve been able to create more work in less time.

“A lot of stuff used to be modeled in clay, the iterations would take several days,” adds Legacy digital artist Greg Smith. “Now we can submit something and have it changed by the end of the day.”

And a 3D printer is allowing shops to do all their work in the same time it took to do just one article. “We complete a whole movie with multiple suits in the same time than we spent hand sculpting the first Terminator.” And when you have hard-edge designs that need to fit and be perfect, digital design and 3D printing allows users to design, check if it works in the virtual world, and then print it out and have it work the first or second time.

But that doesn’t mean that the art of sculpture and costume design is becoming obsolete, it just means users have yet another tool to accomplish their goals. “Once you take a practical approach to your digital sculpture,” says digital sculptor Scott Patton, “you find there are more similarities than not. Today, there really isn’t any difference other than the tactile approach.”

“It’s fantastic, I think. What could the ceiling be on this, because I haven’t seen it yet,” says John Rosengrant, co-founder, Legacy Effects

Then users take the raw, printed design, and then hands it over to model makers and artists who can then take it to a finished level. And it makes creating hero versions, stunt versions, and multiple versions a lot easier because you can mold the final output and then mass produce it. “3D printing offers something that traditional approaches didn’t have a solution for…” Scott concludes.

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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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