How ‘Black Panther,’ ‘The Whale’ Artisans Used 3D Printing to Bring Movies to Life

One of the favorite tools of stop-motion filmmakers including Henry Selick and Guillermo del Toro for many years, 3D printing has become a dominant force in cutting edge costume design and prosthetics construction for this year’s awards season frontrunners. As techniques, materials and methods for adding color continue to develop, its reach could extend even further.

 Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter has employed 3D printing techniques in her work for years. It was a crucial part of her designs for “Black Panther” and “Wakanda Forever,” which just earned her a fourth Oscar nomination. For her most recent film, Carter was faced with challenges that included making costumes, jewelry and crowns that would hold up to difficult environments including water and photograph in the correct color tones.

For the crown worn by Angela Bassett as well as other pieces including Namor’s armor, Carter drew on multiple inspirations including the culture created by “Black Panther” and the Mesoamerican cultures of Central America. The costume designer collaborated with 3D printing expert and UCLA instructor, Julia Koerner, as part of the project.

“On ‘Black Panther’ we brought in 3D printing because there were new materials being developed that were wearable, flexible and softer,” says Carter. “The first film was a film of prototypes. The process was expensive and slow, and we need a six-month lead time. Now we come to ‘Wakanda Forever’ and we have 3D printers in our offices. The 3D process really allows you to play with the line work on pieces and scan in a piece that might be an influence on a costume or armor. “

Adrien Morot, part of the Oscar-nommed team for makeup and hairstyling for “The Whale,” used 3D printing to create the prosthetics that helped transform Brendan Fraser into a 600-pound man. He was able to use scans of Fraser’s face to create a mold for the prosthetics that was designed with unprecedented precision and make subtle adjustments to the mold one the scan was done. After the mold was made by the 3D printer, he then poured a silicon material into it to fashion
the prosthetics.

“It’s a new era starting with ‘The Whale’ and things will never be the same again,” says Morot. “I realized early on that the 3D printing had almost endless potential. So about five or six years ago we started doing in-house tests and they were surprisingly good. They were unlike anything I’d seen in the past 30 years.”

Morot was able to create prosthetics that blended well with Fraser’s skin with 3D printing. He was also able to create the number of prosthetics needed more quickly. Each prosthetic could only be used once in order to maintain the look of character that helmer Darren Aronofsky wanted.

Helmer Dean Fleischer Camp was able to create the shells he needed for “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” which is Oscar-nommed in the animated feature category. Actual shells were too fragile for set lighting and impossible to recreate in order to have multiple versions of Marcel. The original version of Marcel was scanned and then sculpted using digital software Zbrush before 3D printing him multiple times for uses/poses in different scenes.

“The original Marcel was made from a real snail shell that is one of a kind,” says Camp. “When you’re filming him, you notice all the differences. He’s only an inch tall and we’re really on him. Even slight imperfections or differences in shells would give him different expressions. We were able to print shells where you really couldn’t tell the difference. Then we worked with some very talented craftspeople who were able to hand paint the luminescence, the reflective qualities on the shell and the striations on the shell. But without 3D printing, I’d still be on a beach somewhere looking for shells that matched the original Marcel.” 

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