Why Hollywood loves 3D printing

The movie industry is beginning to see how much value 3D printing offers, especially on effects-heavy films that are made with huge numbers of 3D digital models.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
This glove, used in 'Iron Man 2,' was made using a 3D printer, and is part of a full-body suit used in some of the film's live-action scenes. Objet

If you've seen "Iron Man 2," you've seen 3D printing in action at a very high level.

When director Jon Favreau and Paramount Pictures were making the hit 2010 film, they needed to find the best way to put together a physical Iron Man suit for certain scenes in the movie that couldn't be computer generated.

Rather than build models by hand, as was long the practice in Hollywood, the filmmakers turned to 3D printing, one of the hottest technologies around.

Indeed, in the film's scenes that were done in live-action -- as opposed to CGI (computer-generated imagery) -- its star, Robert Downey, Jr., can be seen wearing a suit that was first digitally modeled, then produced in pieces on a sophisticated 3D printer, and then painted.

Though it's not a technique that's much discussed outside the industry, 3D printing is increasingly being adopted as a way to help make movies more efficiently and quickly than ever, according to Jason Lopes, a system engineer at Legacy Effects, an Oscar-nominated effects studio.

And why not? As Lopes explains it, when his team is working on a visual effects project for a major film, 3D printing provides an easy and efficient way to advance through the process of getting approvals on each new round of work as they create complex costumes or suits for their producer clients.

For example, Lopes said, when Legacy Effects is working on a suit for a client with an effects-heavy film, it's necessary to take concept art provided by the producers and, step-by-step, turn that art into full-scale models.

In the past, that meant creating new handcrafted foam models at each step of the way. But now, because they're starting with 3D reference art provided by the client, Lopes and his team can simply print out, say, a one-quarter-size model, and present it to the client for approvals. Then, based on the feedback they get, they can go back to the reference design, make any necessary changes, and print a larger version.

Eventually, Lopes said, the process scales up to full-size, and at that point, the effects team can produce anywhere from a single element of a suit to a full-scale suit by printing its component parts and painting them. And because they are made using the same 3D reference designs that are used to create computer-generated suits for all-digital scenes, the physical and CGI versions should look exactly the same to the popcorn-munching viewer, allowing directors to craft scenes that have either all live-action or all CGI, or a combination of both.

And that's exactly the process that Legacy Effects used for "Iron Man 2."

To Scott Summit, an expert in 3D printing who runs Bespoke Innovations, this process makes a lot of sense.

Because CGI scenes are usually made based on a database of 3D reference models, Summit suggested, it makes perfect sense to turn to 3D printing when a filmmaker has to make a live-action scene in an effects-heavy action film like "Iron Man 2."

Another look at the "Iron Man 2" glove made using a 3D printer by Legacy Effects. Objet

"You can leverage one database for multiple different outcomes," Summit said. "It's so convenient and easy, it just makes sense."

If you've ever seen something come off of a MakerBot, or another low-end 3D printer, you might have trouble believing that the technology is capable of turning out something good enough to be used in a tent-pole movie with a 9-figure budget.

And that may well be true of the lowest-end consumer-quality machines. But with higher-end 3D printers that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the quality is much higher -- to the point, explained Bruce Bradshaw, director of marketing of Objet Geometries, where the layering of the printouts is so fine that it's nearly impossible to see any of the tell-tale layer lines that often betray that an item has been 3D-printed.

Objet's machines, which are used by Legacy Effects, produce models with a layer thickness of 16 microns, Bradshaw said, or the width of one-third of a human hair. And that precision and quality, he added, is ideal for teams in the entertainment industry like Lopes'.

Bradshaw pointed to the work done using Objet machines on "Iron Man 2," as well as more than 200 individual facial models used for Henry Selick's stop-motion film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline."

For his part, Lopes said that one of the biggest benefits of using 3D printers is that the machines can be counted on to turn out just what they're supposed to, time after time after time. "I print more and have less problems," said Lopes of his 3D printer, "than I do with my traditional Epson printer. I run it 24-7. It's nonstop."

Lopes said that though Hollywood has been slow to recognize the value of 3D printing, producers are starting to catch on to what the technology has to offer.

"We walk them over to the technology and show them and blow them out of the water," Lopes said. "I think it's starting to infiltrate more in Hollywood, and more and more people who know what comes out of our studio are seeing how this technology can assist any industry."

Summit, who has long been a proponent of 3D printing, and who teaches about the technology at places like Stanford and Singularity University, recognizes that what it can do at the high end is almost available to anyone who can get their hands on one of the machines.

"Especially now, when that technology has become so much more consumerized, it's no longer the domain of wizards and magicians...and that's disruptive," Summit said. "You don't have to have a degree [in 3D modeling] anymore to get fairly compelling results."