Movie Projector. Source: Shutterstock
Movie Projector. Source: Shutterstock

Art directors use 3D printing technology to quickly and affordably create movie props.

In an industry that’s all about imagination and bringing the unimaginable to life, it’s no wonder 3D printing technology is quickly being adopted by the film industry. Art directors and designers are turning to 3D printing to create custom movie props quickly while lowering costs. But that’s not all. Laika, a stop-motion animation studio, uses 3D printing to create many of their characters in box office films such as “ParaNorman” and the soon-to-be-released film, “The Boxtrolls.”

In “The Wolverine” 3D printing was used to create props, including the armor for the Silver Samurai character. Michael Turner, the art director behind “The Wolverine,” talked about the growing use of 3D printing in the film industry and in “The Wolverine.”

“3D printing was great for that character because of the small pieces that made up the armor, and we even created swords with the printers,” Turner said. “It’s very fast with the modelling on the computer, so you get a real thing pretty quickly once it is designed.”

A 3D-printed object begins as a computer-aided design (CAD) file or other 3D file. The file is then sent to the 3D printer and the model is sliced into layers to determine exactly how the part will be printed. Then material is deposited layer by layer until the part is complete. 3D printing technology decreases the time it takes to create an object, compared with traditional injection molding methods.  

“Anything that makes our job quicker and easier, so we can bring more things into a physical realm, and do it economically, we’re all in favor of it,” said Lloyd Finnemore, The Wolverine’s SFX assistant supervisor.

The team at Laika went beyond just 3D printing props when it 3D printed the characters for the stop-motion film “ParaNorman.” Over 31,000 face parts were printed for the production. Nine thousand different faces were printed to animate Norman. For each movement of the face, parts had to be replaced, known as replacement animation. One second of animation requires up to 24 face replacements.

Each face is designed with slight changes to the mouth and then series of faces are 3D printed. When the faces are filmed using stop motion, the character appears speak and have expression. “The color has to be exactly the same. The shape has to be exactly the same. They have to work perfectly,” said Kingman Gallgher, Laika Rapid Prototype Lead.

Another advantage of 3D-printed movie props is they can be printed at home. So if you’ve ever wanted your own Iron Man arc reactor, Harry Potter Deathly Hallows necklace or Wolverine adamantium claws, they are only a few clicks and a 3D print away.