3-D Printing Movie Props

CGI isn’t the only tech on the digital frontier of special effects

Movie studios spend more than US $100 million every year on computer-generated special effects, according to the Los Angeles Times. But despite this influx of money, the CGI industry is in deep financial trouble, with 12 special effects houses closing or declaring themselves bankrupt in the past five years. Even an Oscar can't stop the wolves from howling: Top Hollywood effects shop Rhythm & Hues filed for Chapter 11 protection in February, the same month it collected an Academy Award for its work on the movie Life of Pi.

Effects houses are being squeezed because competition is so intense. Hundreds of universities around the world now pump out students who are up to speed on top CGI software—the kind of specialty expertise that once insulated the industry. “There are tens of thousands of entry-level people using this very cheap, very high-end technology to break into the business,” says Terrence Masson, director of the Creative Industries program at Boston’s Northeastern University. “That worker-bee volume of people is not going away.” Consequently, some effects companies are seeking other ways to capitalize on their digital expertise—by inventing new ways to make physical props.

Consider Weta Digital, based in Wellington, New Zealand, which helped usher in a revolution in photorealistic digital characters such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago. Now its sister company, Weta Workshop, is leading the way in using 3-D printing to create props and set pieces for The Hobbit trilogy, the second installment of which, The Desolation of Smaug, will be released in December.

For the Lord of the Rings movies, Weta Workshop made most of its props by hand, says Pietro Marson, head of Weta Workshop’s animatronics department. Marson has been at Weta for 14 years, making props and costumes not only for the Middle Earth creature menagerie but also other Weta contracts, including King Kong, Avatar, District 9, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

“We’ve gone from virtually hand-making everything to utilizing 3-D modeling and manufacturing on most of our work,” Marson says.

Marson points to goblin scenes in the first movie in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. He estimates that 90 percent of the animatronics responsible for moving goblin eyeballs, facial muscles, lips, and tongues on set came from Weta’s fleet of 3-D printers, routers, and mills. (CGI goblins are still used to fill in crowds and for other scenes that are impractical to film on set.)

The speedup can be tremendous, Marson says. A 3-D-printed eye mechanism might cost $50 to print and a day to fine-tune. By contrast, employing a craftsman to make the same thing by hand, he says, could take up to two weeks. The benefits can also be seen on-screen—computers can’t always substitute for the authentic look and feel an actor can convey when working with a physical prop or set.

Jason Lopes, lead systems engineer at Legacy Effects, in San Fernando, Calif., agrees that 3-D printing is revolutionizing the field. For example, he says, when his designers developed Iron Man’s armor for the Iron Man and Avengers movies, the digital file used to produce 3-D printed armor plates for full-size costumes served multiple purposes. The lighting department used it to make 1/8- or 1/4-scale models to solve problems before anyone was on set. CGI teams, whether in house or elsewhere, could then use it as a starting point for their wizardry, ensuring that the all-digital action matched the physical suit perfectly.

Legacy Effects currently keeps three 3-D printers busy, Lopes says—an Objet500 Connex, an Objet Eden260V and a MakerBot Replicator 2. In the last four years alone, his in-house printers have logged 19 000 hours, representing 100 print jobs per week. Lopes says that Legacy has also outsourced thousands of 3-D printing hours at nearby 3-D printing facilities. “There is no limitation for us,” he says, “except a client’s budget.”

About the Author

Mark Anderson is a contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum and the author of The Day the World Discovered the Sun (Da Capo Press, 2012).

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