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3-D printing passes Laika screen test

Hillsboro firm pioneer in mass production for animated films


by: COURTESY OF LAIKA INC./FOCUS FEATURES - Norman of 'ParaNorman' had 1.4 million different expressions, thanks to 3D printers at Laika able to print out thousands of nearly identical faces. Brian McLean knew all along that he was in a race against technology. In charge of Hillsboro-based Laika’s 3-D printing and prototyping department, McLean had watched as computer-generated imagery (CGI) allowed animation films from major studios to become increasingly sophisticated.

Laika is a company founded on a more traditional ethic, using handcrafted puppet characters in its frame-by-frame, stop-motion filmmaking process. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in 1993 had signaled a rebirth for stop-motion animation, followed by Laika’s critically acclaimed “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.”

McLean saw computer-generated animation producing film characters who could move seamlessly across the screen with an infinite number of body movements and facial expressions. In contrast, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” according to McLean, broke ground in the field of stop-motion with 800 different heads for its characters. But the characters’ faces, he says, still lacked nuance in their expressions.

The solution for Laika came in the form of cutting-edge technology: 3-D printing.

by: COURTESY OF LAIKA INC./FOCUS FEATUES - Adam Lawthers works on computer graphics during production of 'ParaNorman.'Tom McLean, editor of Animation magazine (and no relation to Brian), recently was given an inside look on the set of “The Boxtrolls,” Laika’s latest production, which is scheduled for a September release. He says 3-D printing completely transforms the possibilities for stop-motion filmmaking, and “Boxtrolls” will set a new standard for stop-motion films.

“The expressions on the faces, the quality of the skin, it looked more realistic than anything I’eve ever seen on stop-motion,” McLean says. “They’re doing things that even the creators of these printers had not thought of.”

Each second of film time in a Laika movie is the product of between 12 and 24 individual stop-motion camera shots. It takes days for a Laika artist to sculpt just one head for one of those shots. Laika needed a machine that could mass produce hundreds of thousands of heads for each of its characters, with each character’s head identical to the others, except for a slight difference as the character’s expressions changed.

Mass-production leader

by: COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES - Laika's latest production, 'The Boxtrolls,' will feature characters Winnie and Eggs when it is released in September.3-D printers at Laika’s studios do exactly that. And they do something more. In McLean’s estimation, Laika’s use of 3-D printers on “Coraline” in 2009 represented more than a breakthrough in the film industry. He says it also represents the first time 3-D printing was used for mass production in any industry.

That meant that Laika would be using 3-D printers in ways nobody had tried before and would be pushing the limits of the machines. A tiny 1-micron shift in the placement of the tip of a character’s nose from one puppet to the next, for instance, would look to moviegoers as if the nose was moving around.

“That type of precision was new to the 3-D printing industry,” McLean says.

In addition, the heads produced by 3-D printers would have to be tough enough to be re-used in scene after scene, standing up to hot stage lights through 18 months of shooting. 3-D printers, as they have evolved, can handle most of those demands. Still, Laika keeps on hand a team of artists to not only create the puppets that will be produced on the studio’s nine printers (the most expensive cost more than $210,000 and can print rubber and plastic), but to touch up and reinforce the puppets after they emerge from printers.

Each cheek blush must perfectly match the blush in the thousands of other faces that will be shot frame by frame. Freckles have turned out to be too delicate for the printers to match perfectly, so Laika engineers designed the puppet faces so they’ll have subtle indentations to guide touch up artists in placing tiny freckle dots, each freckle in precisely the same spot as all the other thousands of faces for that character. Laika’s set puppet librarian keeps watch over a room with hundreds of thousands of body parts — endless different eyebrows and mouths, for instance — that can be exchanged for each new character on a set.

by: COURTESY OF SCOTT PIKER/LAIKA - After placing a new face on Norman, a Laika animator puts on a few finishing touches. Laika used 25 artists on 'ParaNorman,' and more than double that number are at work on 'The Boxtrolls.'Each 3-D printed part has a code number that reveals the humidity and temperature of the day it was printed. Laika’s engineers have discovered that the plaster resin used in its printers absorbs moisture, so it is crucial they replicate that moisture when printing parts that need to look identical.

Laika, by the way, employs 55 artists to work on “The Boxtrolls.” It used 25 artists on “ParaNorman.” According to McLean, 3-D printing is not taking artists’ jobs.

“It’s a tool and you still need artists and technicians to run that tool and get the most out of it,” he says.

Mostly, 3-D printing allows Laika to make its characters more sophisticated. Coraline had 207,000 different expressions and very limited ability to blush or show facial shadow, which was too nuanced for 3-D printers in 2009. Norman in 2012 could blush and show a variety of facial color, and had 1.4 million different character expressions. The characters in “The Boxtrolls” will have cobwebs and dirt on their faces.

“These characters will have more emotional range than I will ever have,” McClean says.

A different kind of sculpting

McLean did not start out as a techie. He was a sculptor when he came to Laika, and he says he was intimidated by computers. Now he oversees one of the most sophisticated 3-D printing shops in the world, and yes, he’s had a change of heart, and vision.

Pretty much everything that’s been produced for sale over the past 100 years, McLean says, was designed so that it could be mass-produced. Complex objects that nest inside one another yet don’t have to be assembled are now easy to manufacture using 3-D printers. This means designers will have the freedom to produce designs based on optimal function.

Airplane manufacturers, he says, are working on landing gear for planes that bears no resemblance to traditional landing gear — because they can use 3-D printing technology. One version he’s seen has coral-like structures inside that allow the gear to be strong yet nearly hollow — a fraction of the weight of traditional landing gear.

Smartphones, McLean says, look the way they do because they can be easily assembled in a factory. He says he can only guess what they’ll look like once 3-D printers build them as intact, individual units.

“3-D printing is on the verge of revolutionizing everything we’ve ever designed as a human race,” McClean says.


by: COURTESY OF LAIKA INC./FOCUS FEATURES - Animation supervisor Brad Schiff gets a zombie ready for a shoot during production of 'ParaNorman.'

3-D printing a natural fit for entertainment industry

Seen "Iron Man?" Those "Iron Man" suits were produced on 3-D printers by San Fernando, Calif.-based Legacy Effects. For months, the suits were computer-designed, printed, altered and printed again. Now that they have a digital file of each of the suits, Legacy can quickly print out as many as it wants.

3-D printing's effects within the entertainment industry are starting to move well beyond the stop-motion animation films made by Laika, according to David Cohen, who covers technology and visual effects as senior features editor of Variety. What Cohen calls film industry “creature shops” have taken to 3-D printing in a big way for fast access to costumes and props.

Creating a zombie traditionally took weeks or months of drawing, sculpting and then modeling to produce a prototype. Now creature shops take can take an artist's idea, digitize it into a 3-D file, and print it out in a fraction of the time, Cohen says.

The entertainment industry changes resulting from 3-D printers are going to be profound, Cohen says, and they're coming fast. He expects entire movie sets eventually will be maunufactured on-site by large printers that can make modifications and print new versions day after day.

“3-D printing is the most unexpected technical revolution I've seen in a long time,” Cohen says. “There are certain things you can sort of see coming. The moment the Internet showed up you could think, computers will get faster and we'll be able to do unbelievable things. The idea that you could have almost anything available on the Internet was out there on sci-fi. … The ability to print wildly complex objects made of all different kinds of materials, I didn't see any inkling of that until it was here.”