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3D Printing for Production Design

Anne E. McMills is the author of the book "3D Printing Basics for Entertainment Design" -

Photo of 3D printed faces for the film "Anomalisa". Production Design: John Joyce

Being a production designer means being the artistic center of a film; the guiding force behind the overall look of the piece. And dare we say that the production designer is as paramount to the success of a film as a good story, a good director, or a good cast?

Today’s typical audience isn’t satisfied with a mediocre-looking production, even if the plot is riveting. Film is a visual media, therefore our audiences want compelling film sets that tickle the imagination. Whether the set is an elegant period parlor or a fantastical sci-fi environment, it is the production designer’s mission to make those visual elements speak to the audience in the most cathartic way possible and transport them seamlessly (and believably) to that world. Along the way there can be many challenges… not simply developing the visual language of the piece, but also organizing the entire art department, budgeting, making sure the sets are ready when needed… the list goes on and on.

But let’s focus on the visual elements themselves. Are there ways that technology can help make the production designer’s job a bit easier? I argue that 3D printing and 3D scanning should be added to an already packed bag of tricks to help ease the process. I think the advantage of 3D fabrication methodology is the ability to allow the designer to look beyond the realistic and/or the easily attainable. And, more specifically, I think it can make things a bit faster to set – which always helps the bottom-line in an ever-shrinking production schedule.

Say, for example, you are creating some sort of alien lair for a sci-fi thriller. Perhaps the overall aesthetic to the creature design is a grotesque being covered in textured scales. As the production designer, you may choose to create its lair with a similar scale-like design covering the set, as if this creature was ‘one’ from its surroundings. Now, it’s true; this sort of thing has been done for years with traditional sculpting and casting techniques. However, that can take a lot of time and tie-up a lot of labor creating each scale one-by-one or casting several at a time. The advantage to 3D fabricating these scales could be measured in time saved. With 3D fabrication, the original scale could still be created by hand, if so desired, then 3D scanned and printed en masse. Yes, 3D printing takes time itself, but once the machine is working it allows your other artistic staff to move onto the next item on the list. It can almost be as if you have an entire secondary worker (in the form of a printer) working away while the other artists continue to produce more great work. And the best part is that the 3D printer doesn’t need to take a coffee break! You can even send out your 3D models to a printing service so they can print it for you… saving even more time!

Not only do these techniques hold true for sci-fi and fantasy works, but say you need a gorgeous antique Rococo mirror frame for your period drama parlor set. There’s a good chance that the actual thing is not in your budget. Instead, you could 3D scan the authentic item at a museum and 3D print it! Even large ones can be printed in pieces and glued together. A traditional sculptor could also perform this service, but simply the time it takes to sculpt something symmetrical can add up. In addition, being able to scan the real thing leaves out the artistic interpretation stage of the creation, producing something closer to the real object than if created by hand. Many items can even be found online to quickly download and print – further saving on the modeling steps!

Besides scenic elements, hand props can also be created through 3D fabrication methods. In fact, the size of most hand props makes 3D printing ideal. This could be anywhere from a space-age weapon to a Mozart-era table filled with a feast of fake, fancy food. Even real, edible food can be 3D printed from sugar to produce beautiful out-of-this-world creations. The costume designer can even get in the action and print hair and clothing accessories that match the feeling of the production design.

Furthermore, for a stop-motion animation film, the entire world can be printed!... the sets, the props, and the characters! Professional companies from LAIKA to Legacy Effects use 3D fabrication in their everyday production needs.

But how do you know when it might be best for you? Consider these questions below:

- Will it save me time to 3D print/scan this object?

- Will it save me money to 3D print/scan this object?

- Are multiple copies needed of this object?

- Does a model already exist online that I can download and use?

- Does this object need a high level of detail that may be hard to create traditionally?

- Will 3D printed materials be more reliable than traditional materials for the intended use of this object?

- Will this object be abused and may need replicas available?

- Do I need to copy a rare or fragile item and produce more?

- Do I need to replicate something I cannot purchase, such as a famous statue?

- Is this object organic, artistic, or have tricky complex features that may be easier to scan and print than sculpt, cast, or other?

- Is it complex enough that carving is the only other way I can imagine making this item? Would 3D printing be faster than

carving it?

- Will 3D printing help me to avoid the use of potentially dangerous chemicals required in the traditional creation of this object?

- Will other individuals need a replica of this item? Will this object need to be completely custom?

- Does it sound interesting – or just plain fun – to create this object by way of 3D printing/scanning?

I hope you find these ideas useful for your next production design project. For these ideas, exciting case studies, and more, check out my book 3D Printing Basics for Entertainment Design.

Item 3D printed from a photogrammetry ‘catch’ of a real-world item.

Item 3D printed from a photogrammetry ‘catch’ of a real-world item

Thickness analysis tool in Autodesk’s Meshmixer used to determine the feasibility of a print, depending on the desired end-material. In this example, the pins are showing features smaller than 2mm.

In order to 3D print an object, models must be ‘manifold’, or watertight. For example, the solid cube (red) is manifold. The center (blue) hollow cube is not manifold because the front plane is missing, causing a hole in its mesh. This can be fixed by adding a surrounding wall thickness to the object (green).

Object 3D printed from the printing service Shapeways in black nylon (left), stretchy elasto plastic (center), and sandstone (right).

Item 3D printed from a 3D scan of a real-world item.

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