3D Printing Movie Props: Why SLA Technology is a Game-Changer
Rapid Prototyping with Stereolithography (SLA)
Written By: Ian Nakamoto, Visual FX Artist - October 29th, 2018
The film industry is a world of make-believe, but the props that bring this world to life need to be as real and detailed as possible. For years, the movie business relied on traditional methods of crafting props—from woodworking to metal casting. While these techniques have their merits, they are often labor-intensive, time-consuming, and restrictive in the complexity of designs they can produce. Enter 3D printing, specifically Stereolithography (SLA) technology, a game-changer that offers unparalleled advantages for creating high-quality movie props.
In the age of high-definition cameras and screens, every little detail matters. SLA 3D printers excel in producing intricate and highly detailed models, making them ideal for creating props that stand up to close scrutiny. They can achieve layer thicknesses as fine as 25 microns, offering extremely high-resolution models that can replicate even the most complex of designs. This level of detail ensures that props like ancient artifacts, magical amulets, or sci-fi gadgets look realistic and convincing on screen.
In 2018 Forge Labs collaborated with Theta Effects on a complex prop for Come to Daddy, a black comedy feature starring Elijah Wood. In the film, Elijah Wood’s character has a cast-iron receipt spike stabbed through his cheek - an effect that had to be done with real props, rather than CGI. Theta Effect produced the prop in two components - a false cheek, which held the base of the receipt spike, and a spike which was mounted on a dental appliance inside the mouth.
When it comes to movie props, appearance is everything. SLA 3D printing offers a smooth surface finish, thereby minimizing post-production work. Other methods, like Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), often leave visible layer lines that need to be smoothed out manually—a time-consuming process. With SLA, the layer lines are less visible, resulting in a smoother and more realistic-looking prop right off the printer bed.
Props in films often have to mimic a range of materials—glass, metal, wood, and more. SLA 3D printing offers a broad spectrum of resins that can imitate various materials. Specialized resins can produce parts with unique properties like transparency, flexibility, or even a ceramic-like finish. This level of versatility allows prop makers to create items that not only look like the real deal but also behave like them under different lighting conditions and physical interactions.
Since it had to hang off his face, the base of the receipt spike needed to be extremely lightweight. It also had to be durable, easy to paint, and it all needed to be done fast - making it a perfect fit for 3D printing in Accura XTW.
In the fast-paced environment of film production, timelines are often tight. SLA 3D printing enables rapid prototyping, allowing designers to produce a model, evaluate its fit and finish, and make any necessary adjustments quickly. The capability to iterate rapidly can be a lifesaver when dealing with last-minute script changes or unexpected prop malfunctions.
Traditional prop-making methods can be expensive, particularly for custom or low-volume items. The mold-making process itself can cost a small fortune. With SLA 3D printing, these additional costs are eliminated. You can print one prop or a hundred, each with a different design, without having to create individual molds for each.
Working digitally allowed the design of the prop to move quickly. When it was discovered that an initial version of the prop moved too much, the part was quickly modified to allow for powerful magnets to be incorporated, and reprinted the same day.
Finishing touches make all the difference in how a prop appears on screen. Many SLA resins are easy to paint and post-process. Adding intricate details like engravings, embossings, or even weathering effects can be easier on the smooth and highly detailed surface produced by SLA 3D printing.
Theta Effect painted the part to mimic the look of cast-iron. To see more of their excellent work, click here.
Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing is revolutionizing the world of movie props. Its advantages in terms of detail, material versatility, speed, and cost make it an invaluable tool for film production companies. As 3D printing technology continues to evolve, its application in creating ever-more convincing and complex props will only increase, raising the bar for what's possible in the magical world of cinema.