The Future Of Film: All Film Props Will Be 3D Printed

Life in plastic, it's fantastic

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If you are ever lucky enough to have a guided tour around a film set, you'll probably at some point be taken to the props department. Generally that's a loud workshop full of angle grinders, oddly-shaped drills and serious-looking people examining strange objects in minute detail. There will be piles of wooden planks in one corner, and large sheets of foam waiting to be sculpted into rocks, weapons or spaceship components, and if you're lucky sparks will literally be flying somewhere off to one side. But film props are changing fast and the days of safety goggles may soon be gone, because 3D printing is the hottest new thing in town and it promises to change the physical side of film production forever.

By now you probably have a notion of what 3D printing involves. A 3D model is created in the computer or scanned in from a real-life object, and then replicated by a machine that builds items from a fine plastic dust called PMMA and a bonding agent added layer by layer. The 3D results are then baked in a huge oven and coated in an epoxy resin that makes them harder. In recent years these machines have become bigger and bigger, and the materials and possible finishes have become stronger and more flexible, so that ever-larger and more elaborate objects can be created. But how far has it come, and how far can the process go?

On set of Guardians Of The Galaxy, props master Barry Gibbs told us that, "We're beginning to embrace 3D print. It's a tool that, at the moment, is quite expensive, so it has to be used properly." A table in front of him was lined up with weapons from the film, and only a close examination revealed that some had the characteristic grain of the 3D printed object alongside other, hand-crafted versions. It turns out that Prop Shop, the speciality film company based at Pinewood, has been working to expand the use of 3D modelling and printing in the industry, and worked with Gibbs, production designer Charles Wood and the team on Guardians to make weapon prototypes and even the canopy of the Milano, Peter Quill's ship.

THE TECHNOLOGY CURRENTLY EXISTS TO SCAN ACTORS, PROPS AND EVEN LOCATIONS SO THAT A 3D IMAGE CAN BE MADE AND STORED OF THE ENTIRE SHEBANG.Prop Shop's Amanda Amphlett says, "We are changing the way that props are being made, because we design in digital; everything we do is 100 per cent digital. We can scan something, model it, and then print it as a prop."

While Prop Shop disputes that the technology is currently expensive ("If you work it out it's cheaper because you don't need to have an entire team in a workshop," claims Amphlett), it's certainly true that it isn't in universal use just yet. It's most popular right now for creating prototype models quickly: a director can examine a design in 3D and then see suggested changes made almost instantly. If he or she wants to gift an extra arm to a monster, add some extra flourishes to a sword grip or turn a spaceship's fuselage upside down, it has never been easier.

But the potential here is much bigger. The technology currently exists to scan actors, props and even locations so that a 3D image can be made and stored of the entire shebang. A variety of systems, from structured light to non-contact lasers to photogrammetry to the LIDAR technology that can scan entire buildings or valleys, can scan most film environments now, no matter how remote the location.

These 3D scans can be used in pre-production to plan shots or pre-visualise action sequences or lighting rigs, and to build sets. Further into the schedule, and those scans of actors and props can be sent to the merchandising division for toy creation, assuming that the cast don't object. Says 3D Supervisor Jet Cooper: "The resolution on the printers we're using now is unbelievable. You can print someone's face at quarter scale and see all the wrinkles and lines; our scanners actually show pores. Some actors hate it!"

Peter Quill flying the Milano.

Peter Quill's ship, the Milano, the canopy of which was created using 3D printers.

Meanwhile, the location scans could come in handy for tie-in game environments (the games industry is already using this 3D mapping technology) and theme park design. While props might still be stored and re-used (the print products are not currently recyclable, although the process itself creates no waste), bigger items could, in theory, be stored digitally in perfect detail and reproduced quickly if a sequel is suddenly greenlit or a spin-off announced. The 3D scans and printers could become a hub for the whole production, key to teams from props to lighting to merchandising. To hear its proponents talk, you might think it will soon replace the director and most of the actors.

But just how big can they go? "We can scan a valley, the trees, and then a games company can take that and make it an immersive environment," Cooper explains. "In terms of printing, the largest printers are by a German company called Voxeljet, and the largest format they have is 4000mm x 2000mm x1000mm. That's massive; that's the largest printer in the world as far as I know. We have the next one down at Pinewood, which is 1060mm x 500mm x 600mm and prints at 600dpi resolution. Anything bigger than that we break into pieces and fix together."

IN ZERO DARK THIRTY, THE FILMMAKERS COULDN'T GET THE RIGHT NIGHT-VISION GOGGLES BECAUSE THEY WERE $60,000 PER UNIT. SO I MODELLED THEM FROM SOME PHOTOS THAT HAD LEAKED ON THE INTERNET PROP SHOP 3D SUPERVISOR, JET COOPERThese larger pieces can be cast in aluminium, which is how the canopy of Peter Quill's ship the Milano was created for Guardians Of The Galaxy. They can also be painted and finished and used for stunts and explosions: if you don't want to blow up a real Aston Martin DB5 (and what kind of a monster would?) you can emulate Skyfall and destroy a 1.6 metre 3D printed version instead. The landing gear and rotor of the Merlin helicopter blown up in the film were also printed to scale for a six metre model. And there are less explosive uses.

"Something a bit unusual in Maleficent was that we scanned the large Friesian horse that was Sharlto Copley's mount, and then designed armour over the top of it and printed the horse armour," says Cooper. "It was large scale because those horses are huge. I'll tell you, don't work with horses or children. We had to reset and scan again and again, because a horse that big moves when it wants to, so it was tenacity that won the day."

Thor's hammer was a product of the 3D printing process, made in various different ways for different uses. A rubber cast of a printed model was used in the action scenes, but the hero prop that Chris Hemsworth's Norse god generally carries is much heavier. Says Cooper: "We print 3mm thick usually, although we can leave them solid in the centre. But Chris Hemsworth is a big guy, and he said, 'For me to sell it, I need more weight', so we left the head solid and added an aluminium rod down the middle to give it extra weight."

Voxeljet VX4000

The largest printer in the world, Voxeljet's VX4000, is capable of printing large-scale objects.

At the other end of the scale, some things have to be as light as possible. "In Zero Dark Thirty", says Cooper, "the filmmakers couldn't get the right night-vision goggles because they were $60,000 per unit and also the US Department of Defense didn't want to release them. So I modelled them from some photos that had leaked on the internet, and I tried to make them very light because they were moving a lot and doing a lot of action in those."

Where 3D printing has a reputation for fragility that prevents it being used for props intended for heavy use – swords, knives and so on – metal plating is making it sturdier and stronger than the old days. "The Germans have been working on new epoxy resins that are like stone; they come out extremely hard," says Cooper. "They're forever having chemical engineers improve the materials. We're also finding new ways to design, to hollow out parts or leave things solid and insert steel rods."

There's no question that artists will still be needed to design and 3D model props in the first place, and to finish them to screen specifications, and the machines are still too expensive for smaller indie productions and wannabe filmmakers, but the next few years should see a fundamental shift in the mechanics of film production, which has remained largely a physical craft since its early days. Says Gibbs: "The awful thing is that the computer is only as good as the artist or technician who works with it, and we've got to work from that. A lot of the guys think it's like working with the devil, because it's working with a product they don't quite understand. But it's the same as all new technologies. It's a new tool in our box that we're now able to use."


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