This post contains spoilers so be sure to have watched our new 3D printed stop-motion short, SHeLvEd, before reading:
When I was first approached about creating a stop-motion film using 3D printed characters I immediately accepted. “It would be fun,” I thought “…and it will be easy.”
Well the very first thing I learned about filmmaking is that it is not easy. Before I even made it to the technically difficult parts, I was confronted with the surprisingly tough artistic challenges:
- What is the storyline?
- Who are the characters and what do they look like?
- How many explosions should we add?
- Is the ending happy, sad, confusing, a cliffhanger or all of the above?
A team made up of GoEngineer CEO Brad Hansen, Tandem Studios President Nathan Smith, Kevin Lynk, and I brainstormed answers to these questions and more. By the end of our session we knew our protagonist was a determined robot who had a fembot love interest, played with dangerously cool toys, and possessed zero understanding of basic physics. We eventually called him Gary:
With an arsenal of Stratasys 3D printers available to us, Kevin Lynk and I had near-complete freedom in his design – we could make him as simple or complex as we wanted because building him wasn’t much more complicated than pressing “Print.”
We did have to make him stop-motion compatible though, which was not a trivial task. For his movements to look natural he needed 33 different joints, and each one had to withstand thousands of cycles of loosen/adjust/tighten/repeat. Some parts performed flawlessly from Revision 1 (Kevin’s parts) and others took 2, or 3, or 6 revisions (mine).
One part that took several iterations to get right was Gary’s thigh. The knee joint was simple, but the hip was a ball joint that needed to hold all of the character’s weight at times. We designed, printed, and tested 4 iterations before we had a working solution – but all that happened within the span of a week.
The printers allowed us to flex our creative muscles by designing parts we’d never dare attempt if we were building them by hand or CNC. Kevin was particularly proud of Gary’s hairpiece, but he didn’t seem keen to my suggestion to add “digital hairstylist” to his resume.
I had the most fun designing Gary’s bazooka (including a bazooka in the film was a stipulation for my joining the team). The story included two versions of the gun – one that was intact and another that had been destroyed after Gary decided to fire a grappling hook from it. The exploded version was my first real opportunity to use the SOLIDWORKS Flex feature and it performed perfectly.
When it came time to print the parts, careful consideration of the print orientation was needed. With FDM printing, vertical walls look the best and parts are strongest parallel to the layers. For some parts we had to balance aesthetics and strength – the parts had to look good for the camera and withstand the rigors of filming. With the palms for example, our original prints (oriented for best aesthetics) had to be reprinted (oriented for highest strength) after the snap-fit caused the plastic to crack.
Overall, the design and fabrication of Gary, his two female counterparts, and all of his accessories took about a month of part-time work. The majority of the parts were printed on the Fortus 250mc, but we also used a uPrint SE Plus and Fortus 400mc for the larger parts. Speaking of size, the parts are actually bigger than they appear on film – Gary stands almost 16” tall and sports bolts as large as 1/4-28×2.5”.
We still paid attention to the smallest details, even if we knew they wouldn’t show on camera. The grappling hook measured about 2” long and its working gears had as little as 0.007” clearance. We printed it on the Objet 30Pro.
As we finished the parts, we handed them off to Nate to work his magic. The story was set in our Salt Lake City print lab, but filming was expected to take weeks so he resorted to green screen for the background. He and his screw came in after-hours one night to take all the photos he’d end up using over the ensuing months. Their attention to detail was impressive, but their fascination with shadows is something I’ve yet to fully understand.
Nate spent the next couple months bringing life to our characters. He’d occasionally send us a photo to keep us excited and remind us he was still slaving away on the project.
I couldn’t be happier with how the whole story panned out, and I hope you enjoyed it too. I learned my lesson – film making is fun but it’s definitely not easy! Although SHeLvEd is less than 5 minutes long, it took about 3200 stills and 700 hours of filming and editing to complete. I’m ready to start the sequel, but Nate (and Gary) will need a vacation before that happens.