3D Printing & The Future of Animation

Blog, On Animation
March 2, 2015
How best to describe the industry of animation, in the last twenty years? Turbulent. Turbulent and ever-changing. Animation, from the inside, is all about life and art – this is what we tell ourselves as artists, anyway– but from the outside, animation is led by technology. Advanced technology itself has evolved faster in the last ten years than it had for a hundred years beforehand. Just as iPhones, nano-technology, computers and internet have launched our everyday lives into the very techy, very digital future, it has also taken with it the art of animation.

One quite spectacular tool, (which, as a self-proclaimed traditional artist, I very much approve of) is the 3D printer. The 3D printer is, in my opinion, among the very peaks of our current technological feats. A 3D printer allows us to recreate 3-dimensional computer models – of any form – into scaled, plastic models, all with a slightly complicated, currently expensive, but none-the-less miraculous push of a button.
Just like any massive leap in technology, the 3D printer can be questionable in the wrong hands. It has become one of the fastest ways to produce weapons from scratch – but on the very same hand, is at the forefront of medical technology, creating bodily organs the same way. What I love best about the 3D printer, however – aside the fact that it can create anything – is that it is revolutionizing the way studios can produce stop-motion animation.

Like beloved hand-drawn animation, stop-motion has a finesse, charm and patience that is eternally appreciated. This nostalgic sensation we get from ogling over Glen Keane’s pencil-tests, or studying photographs of Aardman’s tiny, skeletal models and sets – tiny lightbulbs and bookcases! Clothesline pegs and glass bottles! I could look at them all day – is due to their hand-crafted quality. Humans – and artists indefinitely – have an affliction for hand-crafted goodness. We seem to be able to understand and admire the level of work that goes into detailing on wood or metal or paper. That level of curiousity turns baffled when we touch upon computers and computer-generated animation. There is no less amount of work that goes into modelling digitally! But unless you have soaked yourself in Pixar’s behind-the-scenes bonus discs, or studied it firsthand, it is much harder to understand, and a great deal harder to appreciate.
It has been talked about for some time now, that 2D animation and subsequently, (even more old-fashioned) stop motion animation, have been losing their grip on the commercial world. 2D animation seems to have been advanced and exploited to its very limits. In stop motion, it has become an expensive and time-consuming task to chisel and model a city street corner out of polystyrene, where it could be created digitally in less than half the time. It’s also considered lunacy to hand-craft hundreds of plasticine faces and manoeuvre hundreds of steel-boned models, when computer animation – even drawing them flat on paper – is far quicker.
This is where the 3D printer has its powerful advantage! Stop-motion animation models can now be manipulated digitally and printed en-masse, revolutionizing the way in which stop-motion animated films can be achieved. Stop-motion studio LAIKA (US) created what sites are calling “one of the
biggest, if not the biggest stop-motion production ever created”1 in Box Trolls (2014). Film studios such as Aardman as well as LAIKA use 3D printing to create hundreds of masks/heads, hands and feet kits, as well as a multitude of other assets. They are modelled on the computer, and then printed to scaled, 3D pieces. These pieces are interchanged frame-by-frame to create the desired movement and lip-sync of the animator’s model. Though LAIKA had already taken advantage of 3D printing in their first film, Coraline (2009), the art of 3D printing had since advanced. The hundreds of expressive masks/heads created for the characters of Boxtrolls were printed as they appear in the final film, while on Coraline, the pieces still required painting. LAIKA has also taken to using digital effects in conjunction with their traditional medium, creating a progressively alternate form of cross-over animation, as compared to their original film Coraline. The scale of Boxtrolls as a stop-motion film, despite additional utilization of CG animation, would be unachievable – both physically and on schedule – without the use of 3D printing.
Meanwhile, Aardman in the UK created epic-scaled Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) with the advantage of 3D-printed models and assets, and indie studio DBLG created their own acclaim when to Vimeo they uploaded their short, Bears on Stairs (2014). ‘Short’ is hardly the correct term, for it was less a film, and instead an eye-catching, minutely framed and mesmerizing series of 3D model bears, photographed in sequence, as they climbed a short set of stairs. This became the ultimate example of how 3D printing can be utilized to create animation – albeit, an expensive experimentation, but a sure vision into the future of animation and 3D printing. Since then, China has released their first 3D-printed short film Box Man (2014), and outside of animation, prop-makers such those from Legacy Effects have used 3D printing on films like Iron Man (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013).
Back to animation; the only aesthetic lost in 3D printing – what I’ve noticed – is the finger-printed-clay, straight-forward methodology that is distinct in works like Adam Elliot’s Harvie Krumpet (2003) and his Uncle (1996)/Cousin (1999)/Brother (2000) trilogy. Despite this gentle difference, and that the models are initially constructed using computerised 3D software, very little hand-crafted characterisation is lost using 3D Printing. This is evident in each of LAIKA’s Oscar-nominated films. Cloth and metalwork continue to be hand-crafted, as well as a model’s skeleton, and sets continue to be modelled and painted by hand.
There’s no doubt stop-motion will always be more time-consuming than any other form of animation, even with the benefits of 3D printing – however there’s little doubt that the field will ever be much the same due to 3D printing as well.
3D printing is fascinating! Do you think 3D Printing is practical enough to lead the way in animation? Comment and let us know!

Madeline Byrne