3D printing in filmmaking

The future of filmmaking: 3D printed props

  • Written by Lana Lozova
    Sep 28, 2016

Have you ever wondered how Hollywood and creative studios make props for movies in 2016? Do they build those realistic gadgets and swords by hand? What is the hottest technology around to create complex and astonishing models quickly and very cost-effectively? Michael van Kesteren, a conceptual designer and art director, is here to reveal some behind-the-scenes secrets and share his experience and thoughts on how 3D printing is changing the film and TV industry.

Traditional prop making gets an upgrade

Traditionally, props were made using sculpting and fabrication methods. Clay or foam was used to sculpt a master for the mold. From this mold, replicas would be cast and the artist would add parts made from metal, plastic or wood, depending on the need.

Michael van Kesteren, conceptual designer
Michael van Kesteren, conceptual designer and art director

Michael started 3D printing in 2010, when he was creating props for the film Dredd in South Africa.

3D printing was becoming more accessible and widely used, so we looked into using the process to create the masters for the guns we designed. We formed a good relationship with the local 3D printing company and used various processes, depending on the part we were making.

When he arrived in the UK, it took some time to convince the people he worked with that a 3D printer was a benefit and not a threat. Eventually, he just bought one himself. Once it became clear how much of a beneficial tool it was, things took off from there.

3d printed props for movies

3D printing enhances the craft

What his fellow fabricators and artists found was that 3D printing didn’t replace traditional techniques, it was another tool to be used in the process. There was some initial skepticism from the traditional model makers. 3D printing was seen as a threat because it made so much possible. Now they see that 3D printing actually enhances and supplements their traditional methods. It helps them create a better model by taking on tedious tasks that were big time-consumers and gives them more time to be creative.

Now that 3D printing is a part of the process, workflows are more efficient. The work starts when technical drawings and references are received from the Art Department. The object is then modeled and printed using the best-suited process and material. Michael aims to do all modeling during the day and the printing at night. In the morning, printed parts go to the model makers for clean-up and assembly, either on their own or as part of a larger item. Often all that’s needed is a small detail part that fits onto a larger build. After clean-up and assembly, it’s off to the Paint Department and then final delivery to the set for shooting. If many copies are needed, the print is molded and cast.

3d printed props for movies
3d printing in prop production

Desktop 3D printers are set to revolutionize movie making. They allow filmmakers to unleash their creativity and create highly-detailed custom models, just like this mini-gun! Michael’s 3D printing journey started with an Ultimaker 2. He’s recently upgraded to the Ultimaker 2+ and is a big fan of its extremely fine layer capabilities and reliability. "The Ultimaker 2’s biggest advantage is the finesse of its prints. I print in either 0.06 or 0.04mm layers, with a 0.25mm nozzle. We get the best possible result and the easiest clean-up."

Top 5 benefits of 3D printing

3D printing has allowed prop makers to use their time more efficiently and work more effectively. Michael found that 3D printing benefits his craft in many ways.

  • Speed. Even before 3D printing, he used 3D modeling to design and render concepts. 3D printing allows him to produce a mock-up, prototype or master in 24 hours. This is very handy when there are deadlines to meet and decisions to make. The model makers now focus on items that require their skill, instead of making small, tedious adjustments to the same part over and over.
  • Scalability. Scaling the same model up or down requires minimal effort. Scaling a hand sculpt, especially under time constraints, can lead to a poor finish. The sculptor has to work under duress and might not be able to get the item done to the proper finish without working late.
  • Precision and Reproduction. If you allow for shrinkage, you can create parts that always fit the first time. And if they don’t, it doesn’t take long to fix. If you need the part again, 3D printing recreates the same part over and over without molding and casting.
  • Lower Material Cost. PLA filament is much cheaper than many other sculpting materials. And if you only need a few copies, 3D printing is more cost-effective than creating a mold and casting the parts.
  • Fine Detailing. Some props like ornate renaissance and medieval weapons have very fine detail on the surface. If an object is flat, the part can be etched. But if the part has high detail and is a complex shape, etching is a nightmare. 3D printing allows recreation of the fine detail in the part. This can be molded and cast in any material.

3D printing in movie magic

Next time you’re enthralled by your favorite fantasy flick don’t forget that the magic is courtesy of extremely skilled and talented model makers, sculptors, and 3D printers. Because while prop production may remain the same, the tools that make it happen are changing. What can you imagine with your 3D printer?