What impact does 3D printing have on the world of cinema?

Published on August 4, 2020 by Aysha M.
3D printing in cinema

The applications of 3D printing are extremely diverse: from food to automotive parts, this technology is used to create a wide variety of shapes from various materials. The world of filmmaking is another area where 3D printing shows its full potential. Award-winning and extremely popular movies such as Avatar, Iron Man, Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Black Panther have used 3D printing to design props, sets, parts of all kinds, etc. The film industry can now take advantage of the design freedom and flexibility of 3D technologies and put it in the spotlight on the big screen! That’s why we met with various filmmakers, designers and players in the additive manufacturing sector to learn more about the impact of 3D printing in cinema: can it replace some of the techniques used today? What are the advantages it can bring and the limits that need to be overcome?

The film industry is constantly evolving – just compare a 40-year-old film with a recent release, and the difference in special effects alone is staggering. Today, the aim is to immerse the viewer in a world that is as realistic as possible – or at least as close to abstract reality as possible in the case of science fiction. That’s why the sets, props and costumes have become the key elements for many film genres. To achieve this, the world of cinema must adapt to constant change, always trying to use the latest technologies and thus exploit their advantages. This evolution began as early as the 18th century with the sequence of individual images that together produced a frequency of movement. The year 1895 is often regarded as the birth of cinema, when the Lumière brothers succeeded in developing a cinematic technology, which included a device projecting film in black and, but with no sound. Thirty-two years later, the era of sound film started in the United States, then the colour films were introduced. Although the incorporation of sound and colour represent great upheavals in the film industry, the advances don’t end there: the introduction of 3D printing in film making is another huge development of the industry.

The film industry has been shaken by many changes.

What are the advantages of 3D printing in cinema?

Audience is becoming more and more meticulous, demanding increasingly high quality and precision from filmmakers. It is therefore necessary to pay attention to the smallest details when creating a movie, not only in terms of content but also in terms of design. Even the smallest element of an accessory or a garment can play an essential role. Julia Körner, known for her 3D printed collections and the creation of the 3D costumes for the American blockbuster “Black Panther”, explains the difference between 3D printed fashion and costumes as follows: “For fashion in general, it’s the ease of wearing and aesthetics that count, while costume design must also take into account the story, the actors, the set, post-production, etc.”

The goal of producing plays that are as detailed as possible can take days, weeks, even months of work. With conventional production techniques, a lot of manual labour is required. This is particularly difficult when costumes are to be made for a large number of characters, such as in scenes depicting entire army legions. In this case, 3D printing allows for a certain degree of reproducibility. This means that a designer can develop a model and 3D print it several times in a very short time. Filmmaker Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud, a 3D designer with more than 10 years of experience best known for his short film “Chase Me”, in which all the characters and props were 3D printed, confirmed: “3D printing allows two main things: a considerable time-saving in the production of elements (thus a significant financial gain) and a gain in quality. The models printed in 3D can be very precise and detailed. It is also easy to do iterations to improve the part or correct things.

3D printing in cinema

For the film “Chase Me”, Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud created more than 2,500 figures using 3D printing.

3D printing in the world of cinema makes it possible to first create prototypes or to print several different versions and compare them with each other. This offers greater flexibility. If a part breaks during filming, it can be printed again rather quickly. In addition, with a simple modification, a part can be designed before the actor has even tried it out; it does not need to be adjusted to its dimensions before it is produced. Since some 3D printers are relatively easy to transport, manufacturing can be done on site, thus avoiding the long and costly delivery of the props.

In addition to these time and cost savings, 3D printing offers great design freedom. It is possible to produce parts that would be unthinkable with other manufacturing methods. For example, Victor Marin, a conceptual artist and filmmaker, told us: “In one of my last and greatest works, I made the digital sculpture of the Falla de Valencia for Pichiavo; this artwork was made from a very complex piece of wood 26 metres high, and the party ends with the burning of this enormous piece. It was a very magical experience.”

This freedom of design is due in part to the wide variety of materials available for 3D printing. In addition to the aesthetic aspect, there are practical advantages during filming: thanks to the use of lightweight materials and the creation of cavities, it is possible to create much lighter costumes and props that nevertheless look very solid on the screen.

The elaborate cap, designed by Julia Körner, would be impossible to manufacture without 3D printing.

From the model to the final result

3D software for the film industry

It is necessary to develop a 3D model, either from your imagination or from a 3D scan, before you can begin the actual printing process. Jason Lopes, who has spent years working with Legacy Effects, uses Autodesk Maya, Inventor, Fusion 360, Modo and Solidworks software, demonstrating the wide range of software available for the film industry. Julia Körner also confirms this. She explains that a wide variety of software can be used, also in the field of architecture, where development can take from several days to several weeks. For more unusual designs, she uses her own algorithms.

These software solutions also allow for more efficient collaboration. Victor Marin says: “Now it is easier for the director to see the designs clearly and sometimes even to print it in 3D and paint it for even better visualization. It is useful not only for the director, but also for the cameraman to see how the light changes and affects the room. It’s better to invest time and money in the pre-production phase than to waste it during the actual production.

The role of 3D scanners

Jason Lopes, who designed and produced the famous Iron Man costume using, among other things, 3D printing, told us: “Digitization plays a major role when you are responsible for designing a suit or accessory for a person. A scan of the body and head is performed. This data now allows you to design around the real proportions of your actor. You can also use this scanned data and have it printed in low-resolution 3D or even have it milled into foam to check the fit of the printed components, which can then be produced in less time before the final fit is made in person.” 3D scanning shows how detailed and customizable 3D printing can be. Instead of taking measurements manually, the 3D scanner can provide more reliable results.

Which 3D printing technology should I choose for film production?

Not an easy question with the abundance of choice that exists on the market today! According to James Reeves, Managing Director of voxeljet UK, the film industry is “a very secret industry”. One of the factors that will determine the choice of technology is the budget. For example, Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud initially wanted to use an FDM printer for cost reasons, but then, thanks to a push from the Formlabs company, he was able to switch to Form 1, which he says allows better quality even on very small parts.

Multi-colour technologies are very popular in the film industry, offering a much higher level of realism than other processes. For example, the animated film “Mr Link”, nominated for the Golden Globe, was made with Stratasys’ J750, a machine based on PolyJet technology that can print many shades of colour. The latest version, the J750 TM, is used by designer Julia Körner, this machine offers the possibility to 3D print directly onto the fabric instead of sewing the already printed pieces later on. Körner explains: “This opens up completely new design possibilities in terms of portability, functionality and colour aesthetics.

3D printing in cinema

It is possible to 3D print directly onto textile (Image credits: Julia Körner)


In most cases, it is necessary to rework the 3D printed parts: therefore, plan a more or less long post-processing time depending on your project. Victor Marin says: “You have to prepare the mesh before sending it to print, and depending on the 3D printer technology (FDM, resin, etc.), the part must be reworked. Sometimes it is necessary to rectify the part or even the model in the traditional way on certain parts. Every year, manufacturers of 3D printers try to improve them, to produce better prints to avoid cleaning.” Jason Lopes even explains that post-processing steps can take up to 99% of the manufacturing time. This includes removing support structures, cleaning the model and smoothing the surface. In some cases, the part has to be painted manually to add more detail.

The challenges of 3D printing in the world of cinema

The above-mentioned post-processing time is particularly difficult to manage for film-makers using 3D printing. In addition to the time factor, which plays a major role in film production, this leads to high personnel costs. Often, a large number of costumes and props have to be produced and manual post-processing is therefore time-consuming. For his short film “Chase Me”, Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud needed 20 minutes for post-production of only one character, with a total of more than 800 hours!

3D printing in cinema

Mister Link is an animated film that used 3D printing. (Image credits: LAIKA)

Another challenge of 3D printing in the film world is to understand the technology, how it works and its advantages. Jason Lopes’ experience is this: “Most entertainment companies do not use additive manufacturing software. This makes it difficult to understand digital goods for digital displays/media and to implement them properly for additive manufacturing. It can be very complex and time consuming, but at the end of the day, there is no better way to achieve a large optimized workflow from concept to reality.

What is the future for 3D printing in film?

3D printing has already contributed to many exciting and award-winning film projects and is unlikely stop there! We haven’t been able to get any more information about future projects – the industry remains very secretive but that hasn’t stopped us from measuring the impact of additive manufacturing in cinema. Could it become an integral part of costume design and prop development, or even replace other processes? After all, the world of cinema has very often been shaped by technological changes in the past, oftentimes, that is exactly what drives the industry forward.

For Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud, 3D printing has its place in cinema: “We can already see that 3D printing has been very widely adopted in the film world. From stop-motion films to big American blockbusters and advertising. 3D printing is often used to produce props/set elements, but not only that, it is also found in the design phase to validate a custom/concept design, etc. Clearly, the future of 3D printing in the cinema is already mapped out.”

Victor Marin believes that 3D technologies will play an increasingly important role in the future, as digital creation or 3D scanning of models can be done faster than manual creation. However, he recommends the coexistence of methods and warns against replacing traditional methods altogether: “For example, when you make a statue, it is easier to resize it in a few clicks or even change the proportions or pose. It’s also very good when you work with a 3D scanner because you can create a very accurate model from the scan. We are having great success with 3D technology, but we must not forget the traditional method.”

Julia Körner also calls for the union of both worlds. She sees 3D printing as an additional design possibility that allows the creation of complex and elaborate structures that cannot be achieved with traditional manufacturing methods. With her works she tries to unite tradition and progress by combining the two methods in her own way.

One thing is sure, we will keep you informed on the upcoming movies, short films and commercials that will incorporate additive manufacturing! What do you think about 3D printing being used in cinema? Let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages! Sign up for our free weekly Newsletter, all the latest news in 3D printing straight to your inbox!

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