How Iron Man and Laika Studios are Shaking Up the Movie Industry with 3D Printing

Each year 3D Printing plays a more central role in the entertainment industry, especially for  filmmakers and effect studios. 3D printing allows these creative minds to make the “unprecedented” more quickly and more realistically than any other technology. They are the stereotypical “small batch production” centers as they are producing the visuals for a single film. So it is no wonder that 3D printing is beginning to take center stage in flim production.


Photo Source: 3DPI

As we know, there is a huge pressure for box office success that continues to push the entertainment industry to increase the quality of productions and budget to meet the yearly increase of public expectation. In the past years, Hollywood has almost matched NASA’s budget for technology investments as shown in this infographic from Universe Today.

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Graphic source: Universe Today

Higher costs and higher expectations bring about the natural economic principle of doing more with less to keep the competitive edge. That is why 3D printing technology is becoming a driving force in film making. As the film industry invests the revenues from successful movies back into innovative technology, they are becoming one of the key early adopters driving the development of Industry 4.0. For the Entertainment Industry is no longer just about prototyping, but producing 3D printed props from spaceships to engines to buildings to furniture to futuristic costumes and prosthetics.

1) IRON MAN: Rapid Production of Realistic, Futuristic  Costumes

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Iron Man System Engineer, Jason Lopes was brought in specifically for his experience with rapid prototyping/rapid production and small batch production. They leveraged 3D printing to make the realistic ironman suit much quicker and more effectively than past props and costume makers ever experienced. It represents a huge step forward in terms of possibility for set and costume designers.

The suit’s flexibility was greatly improved due to the introduction of 3D printing, enabling the combination of rigid and flexible as well as clear parts that allowed the actor to move and interact according to the demands of each scene. Coloring and finishes are a major advantage, and the post production time needed is considerably less compared to other ways of manufacturing. After all, the main character is not just another human, but a superhero that takes part of incredible fights risking his own life.

Jason Lopes, Ironman System Engineer

Not only did the additive manufacturing help the production process, but because the files are digital - Ironman fans can order their superhero 3D printed suit online or with their own 3D printer. It is a whole new era for film merchandising.

ironman helmet2.jpgPhoto Source: Techcrunch

2) LAIKA: 3D Printed Stop Motion Animation

Stop Motion Animation has also entered a new era thanks to 3D printing. Animation studios have always been at the cusp of artistry that transcends and blends the digital with the physical. The feeling of stop motion animation is something that can be only truly achieved by the coincidence filled process of physically moving characters in space. But Laika, the animation studio that brought us The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and Kubo has pioneered a method to speed up the production process and improve emotional expression of the animated characters.

Facial expressions are the central part of the personality of an animated character, representing different moods and emotions they are experiencing through the storyline of the film. Laika recognized this and created 400 different heads of Jack Skellington, the main character in The Nightmare Before Christmas, to simplify the animation process. But each head was made by hand.

Coraline was the first film to integrate 3D printing in creating the heads for the film which numbered 20,000 different expressions. The huge libraries of facial expression increasing the accuracy in the representation of emotions. ParaNorman and Boxtrolls productions, in 2014, were the first ones to implement colored 3D printing, reaching 52,000 prints with groundbreaking detailed facial features in the last movie, allowing the crew save an enormous amount of time and budget.

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In 2016 Kubo and the 2 Strings was released making a Box Office of almost 75 million USD. The movie won awards for pushing the boundaries of animated films with color and definition of sharp edges and fine detail. They used over 22 million of heads for facial expression of the various characters and also used 3D printing to create some components of their puppets (armatures).

As 3D printing contributes to the detail and expression of a stop motion characters, it will only be a matter of time before these techniques will be integrated back into traditional special effects.

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3) The Foundry joins the 3D printing revolution

Arguably the film industry's top special effects and visual modeling program is MODO from the Foundry. They have been pushing the visual field for years for what is possible to integrate into filmography. But they too see that there is a blending of the physical and the digital which is why they announced a native 3D printing application within their software to allow support this direct link. This step has led some to anoint them as the “Photoshop of 3D Printing”.

We notice a blending of the disciplines from Animated Graphics, Video Game Development and Virtual Reality - all exponentially growing industries that are finding their physical form in 3D printing (they all share the same core 3D model baseline)


Sunglasses designed in MODO for 3D Printing
Image Source: The Foundry

What is coming next?

Art and technology have shaken hands to produce extraordinary productions utilizing these new technologies. And because these effects are often much cheaper and faster to produce than traditional methods, it opens the door for more productions to follow in their footsteps.

Our next blogpost will concentrate on how 3D printing is used for special effects including realistic models and facial prosthetics as well as how it is creating revolutionary new music videos and instruments for the music industry.

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