3D printing has become ubiquitous in Hollywood. The flexibility to manufacture one-off parts quickly and affordably makes the technology a useful tool. Additive manufacturing design experts are taking on more and more of the props work.
Rob Wiggins is one such Hollywood prop maker who has worked on the Transformers, Star Wars, and Marvel film franchises for Hasbro. Wiggins then served as a 3D designer and print champion at Formlabs where he modeled projects for SLA 3D printing. He is now with Nexa3D, where he designs and produces props and characters for a wide range of major TV shows and movies.
Wiggins noted that additive manufacturing is taking a growing role in the development of props for movies and TV. “3D printing is being used in the movie industry for world-building. That includes blasters, light sabers, ray guns, everything. Everyday items are also 3D printed; pagers and walkie-talkies,” Wiggins told Design News. “The reason for creating the prop is that it may be unavailable or hard to source locally. The actor may not be comfortable handling things like firearms. We printed a walkie-talkie for a paramedic show. It was lighter and more cost-effective than an actual walkie-talkie.”
Physical props have become more popular as production companies moved away from computer-generated imagery. “When you use virtual production, instead of a green screen, you use an LCD screen. You get the right lighting and actors can act realistically,” said Wiggins. “3D printing can be used for props and engineering tools behind the scene.”
As production companies moved back to the physical world, they also reinstituted the classic miniature models. “We also print miniature spacecraft,” said Wiggins. “The film industry is going back to the older style of using a model instead of computer-generated graphics. With 3D printing, you get greater detail in that model. We did the Razor Crest Starship model.” To get props right, you have to get the material right. “We use different materials, including resin printing or aluminum. We use the process that requires the least post-processing,” said Wiggins. Wiggins learned the 3D printing process on the job. As a toy designer, he was involved in a wide range of production technologies. Over time, we came to focus on the possibilities of additive manufacturing. “You don’t need a degree. Experience is the biggest benefit. That stands for almost any industry,” said Wiggins. “As far as my degree – I went to school for 3D animation. Yet the best education I got came through research. So much information out there on YouTube. You can get good by going to instructions that are available to everyone.” As with much of design work, it all begins with a drawing. “We start with sketch work. The art department sends us a sketch of what the prop needs to look like. “We go from the sketch to an Autodesk design to a 3D printed part,” said Wiggins. “The sketch can be done digitally. I don’t do pencil to paper any longer. Then we go to Nexa3D. software to get the print made.” Sometimes the objects that need to be printed come from existing media. “We take characters from video games,” said Wiggins. “We create a 3D image of the character, and then turn it into a 3D prop.” 3D printed props are moving beyond the world of film production itself. “We also use 3D printing for pitch work, making helmets to get into a TV show. It’s powerful to have 3D printed for pitching,” said Wiggins. “It’s easy for people to envision what the project is going to be if you have something physical. That can go a long way to getting funded. You can bring in a 2.5-foot beast and the producer will say, OK, I’ll fund that.” 3D printing is also getting used for promotional objects. “The biggest replicas we do are for shows like Comic-Con,” said Wiggins. “We printed a promotional replica of Bumblebee that was 20 feet tall.” The process of developing an object can be time-intensive. “The Obe-Wan helmet took four weeks to print. The design was fast on the screen, but we had to shop around for resins. Then we had to mix some of the materials. You don’t want to go through all of this, the design, the engineering, and then you drop it and it breaks in half,” said Wiggins. “I was doing a mix of two or three resins, including a fast and tenacious resin. You have to experiment. That’s why experience is more important than a degree. Many programs will help the engineering, but it’s only when you print it out that you know what you need. We print it out piece by piece. Some of the pieces can take 35 hours.” Much of the early design time is spent figuring out materials and printers. After that stage, production moves more quickly. “Once you know what you need, you can move to the faster printers. then the printing time can come down to five or six hours,” said Wiggins. “The post-process can also be time-consuming. It includes sanding and priming and painting and then sanding again. Sanding is a big part of it, but it depends on the surface you’re trying to get right. It comes down to elbow grease.”