3D Printing on the Silver Screen
By Michael Gelfand
The magic of Hollywood movie-making starts with a compelling story and script, and then springs to life when the right cast, costume and set designers, cinematographer, and director collaborate on the same vision. But behind the scenes, 3D Printing has an important and growing role in how art direction and visual effects can impact a film.
In the broadest sense, 3D Printing is driving the evolution of traditional movie production processes. It's also transforming previously impossible ideas or impractical creative wishes into real, physical on-screen objects. And off-screen, the technology affords capabilities that improve the efficiency and speed at which costume designers and artists can design and build costumes, props, and, in some cases, actual characters.
The list of well-known movies that have leveraged 3D Printing for one purpose or another grows every month. The list includes blockbusters like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Avatar, The Muppets, Terminator Salvation, Real Steel, The Avengers and all the Iron Man movies. 3D Printing can be used to create figurines and remarkably lifelike faces of human and non-human characters, as well as to test lighting in specific scenes, to scan artists' faces for realistic makeup applications, and to construct form-fitting armor and shells of costumes and suits with complex surface geometry.
"The resolution of today's 3D Printing is amazing," says Jason Lopes, lead systems engineer at production company Legacy Effects.
Lopes, who is responsible for integrating the firm's technology into their artistic pipeline, says the designs created by Legacy's artists are transformed from the digital world into the physical world with virtually no loss of definition.
"It's almost exact, and the time savings (over traditional sculpting) are incredible," he says. "The prototype gets it in our hands much more rapidly; we can make many more versions and spend much more time in the design process; and get a concept approved much quicker."
As Lopes explains it, 3D Printing technology helps Legacy's artists assess whether a design that looks great on a computer monitor will translate well into the physical world.
"Lots of times a slick design will be approved by a director, only to find out that it won't work correctly for us in the real world," he explains. "With 3D Printing, we can rapidly prototype a design without having to make compromises that affect the original art."
If Legacy's team is designing a suit of body armor, for example, there's no guarantee the suit will be able to move and articulate the way everyone hopes when they go to design the suit around the actual performer. 3D Printing technology allows the team to rapidly prototype and test creative concepts, and spot problems early in the process.
Although 3D Printing resolution is extremely detailed (as high as 1,600 dpi), that resolution can sometimes be inadequate to ensure that an approved computer image will be camera-ready the moment it's completed by the printer. Because of that, most products that are generated by 3D Printing are run through a hybrid process that includes traditional molding, sanding and painting before they're ready for the big screen. Another current limitation of 3D Printing is that the resins used in the additive, layer-by-layer printing process have to cure, and that curing process can cause visible lines on printed objects that must be removed by manual craftsmanship.
But even with the current limitations, there's no doubt the use of 3D Printing in movies and TV commercials will only increase, explains Lopes.
"It allows us to be more creative, and it makes us way more efficient," he says. "If I send a project to the printer when I leave the office at 5pm, it's ready in the morning. It may look like Star Trek to someone who's never seen it in action before, but looking at objects as layers is a very logical approach; it's no different than building with Legos."
Michael Gelfand is a writer, editor, and former NY bureau chief of Musician magazine, who has contributed articles about business, financial services, entertainment, technology, and consumer electronics for Esquire, RollingStone.com, Interview, Hollywood Reporter, Premiere, CNET, and other publications and websites.
Legacy Effects was not held by either the T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Stock Fund or the T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Value Fund as of December 31, 2011. The funds' portfolio holdings are historical and subject to change. This material should not be deemed a recommendation to buy or sell any of the securities mentioned.
T. Rowe Price and Michael Gelfand are not affiliated.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios