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SLA 3D printing for props, models and other things in the entertainment sector

People want things to be real. Give them every excuse to believe you.

In the cut-throat world of film creation, the 3D printing army is gathering apace and rising up to meet the demands of modern-day film, prop and model-making. Everyone now knows that 3D printing is cost-efficient; it’s quick; materials are robust; and it useful for augmenting special effects, manufacturing props, speeding up stop motion, and creating magnificent, intricately detailed armour and costumes.

From dragons and dinosaurs to Star Wars, from helmets to helminths to labyrinths, from filigree to mini-trees, there is no need to tell prop and model makers of the distinct advantages 3D printing. On the other hand, to the uninitiated, the array of printer types and the even wider array of resins available, can be a bit of a quagmire. In this brief article, we’ll explore the benefits of SLA (stereolithography) printing for film, television, commercials, theatre and other events.

Stereolithography or SLA 3D printing

SLA is immensely popular amongst props and model-makers. This is largely for its ability to produce highly accurate, infinitely detailed, highly polished, water-tight parts. One of the greatest benefits of SLA is its versatility. The 3D print materials innovators have come up with a range of resins with mechanical, thermal and optical properties that match standard-, industrial- and engineering-grade plastics.

With a print bed of 800 x 800 x 600mm, the NEO 800 is one of the largest, fastest industrial SLA printers available in the UK. This outstanding machine has a scanning resolution of 1 micron, ensuring side wall quality (with a <0.5mm potential) is superb; intricate detailing is easy; and the smoothest of finishes is possible. With three of these award-winning, industrial sized printers in our 3D printing stable, we have significant capacity and can work to to tight turnaround times.

The materials

We run two exceptional resins on our three NEO 800 SLA machines.

Somos® EvoLVe 128 is a shiny white, durable resin that produces highly accurate, highly detailed parts. Designed for easy finishing (it boasts an exceptional A-side surface finish), EvoLVe has a look and feel that is almost indistinguishable from traditional thermoplastics. It can be bonded to other plastics and metal, and can be painted when a plastic-friendly primer is applied.

Somos® WaterShed XC 11122 is a crystal clear, highly water resistant, very hard engineering resin with ABS-type properties. Again, it has been designed to deliver on intricate detailing, very thin walls of less than 5mm, and an exceptionally smooth finish. Beloved by model makers for creating pattern masters and mould cores, it can be primed easily.

For much smaller parts (less than 500 x 500 x 580mm), we run a grey resin, Somos® Taurus. This robust and durable resin does have a trade off – more finishing is required to produce a smooth surface and fine detailing may be lost as a result. As this material is not run on our NEO 800s, it may also take longer to print. You can find out more about our other SLA technologies here.

What does this mean for prop and model makers?

Remember that costume worn by Ramonda in Marvel’s Black Panther? Iron Man’s new suit? Or, the critically acclaimed 2015 stop-motion picture, Kubo and the Two Strings? The costumery of the former, the armour plates of Iron Man, and the thousands of facial expressions of the latter all came to being through 3D printing.

EvoLVe 128 would be perfect for similar creations. And, with the NEO 800’s large capacity and fine detailing capability, costume parts can be printed in fewer pieces. If you are after stop motion assistance, with some canny design orientation, we could probably fit 40 to 50 different faces on one bed.

 In the same vein as the stop-motion, EvoLVe’s versatility and high definition ability makes it an excellent material for character research and development. The large print bed, and the relatively quick process, enable designers and model makers to experiment with multiple iterations of their monsters, should they wish.

WaterShed XC 11122 is preferred by model makers with large, very rigid parts and items to be printed, and for making pattern masters and cores for silicone moulds. Animatronics, prosthetics, make-up and creature FX specialists, Millenium FX, for example, favour WaterShed for making moulds for many of their award-winning puppets. The moulds for the head and feet of the baby hippo, modelled in the clip below by special effects and Star Wars actor, Robert Nairne, were created in WaterShed. Finer detailing to the face was made before the silicone mould was created by adding modelling clay to the print itself.

 Because of its robustness, and the mechanical properties that give it superior strength in snap fit designs, WaterShed is an excellent material for creating prop models. We’ve lost count of the number of guns props we’ve printed in WaterShed, from canon to sniper rifles. Rough up its surface with a quick sandblast, or prime with a plastic-friendly primer, and you have the perfect medium upon which to paint, from bones to gun barrels.

 Both WaterShed and EvoLVe could save scenery makers time and money, too. The large bed printer is proving attractive to animators wishing to make static dioramas and atmospheric back drops; parts can be pulled apart and slotted together to make new scenes with relatively few pieces.

Millennium FX opted for WaterShed XC 11122 to create the moulds for the head and feet of this baby hippo puppet.

Post printing finishing

There are cons to every printing type. Whilst the NEO 800 printer, and the two resins mentioned above, promise to reduce printing time and deliver an exceptional, highly polished A-surface quality, B-surface quality is not so great. This is because SLA printing requires support structures to be included. And the bigger your model, the more the number of support structures required. Fortunately, SLA resins are some of the easiest to clean up and you’ll find the cost for this is generally built into your price per cubic centimetre.

 As well as support removal, post processing can also include sanding the ‘pips’ (or support nibs), priming, and spray painting if you require.

In conclusion

There is no doubt that 3D printing has pushed prop and model-making for the entertainment sector on apace. We believe one of the biggest influences in R&D, costume making, prop making and animation has been the refinement of one of the oldest forms of 3D printing, stereolithography. It prints large, it prints quickly, and the finish is exceptional.

 We’ve been working with props and model-makers since 2003, and deliver projects for Warner Bros, Lucas Films, Paramount, Netflix and Disney among others. Click here if you’d like to know more about our 3D printing capabilities for the entertainment industry.