Original Prusa 3D printers in Star Wars? – Interview with Joshua Lee


Hi, my name is Josh Lee, I’m an animatronic model designer. I’ve been working in the film industry for quite a while now, My first film was the Fifth Element and then I’ve worked on the Harry Potter series Prometheus Maleficent 7 Star Wars films now. We’re looking forward to the new Star Wars film coming out soon. I came here today. We’ve been working here in Prague for a few months on a big new Amazon TV series. I thought I’d pop in and talk to you about how we use 3D printing in the film industry. We use all sorts of 3D printing now in the film industry. Traditionally we’ve made things with machining and molding and casting, but more and more we digitally model things with handheld scanners we might cyber scan a person, then digitize it, work on that. That really suits using 3D printing, because then we can model it in either hard modeling or ZBrush or something like that. And then use 3D printing. We use really high-res, high-end stuff, like big SLA machines. For mechanical parts we might get things done in nylon on an SLS. But more and more we’re using desktop machines like the Prusa. I’ve got two Prusas for research and development. I think the thing I like about them the most is, when you’ve got a really tight deadline on the film. The director has a new idea and you just wish there were more hours in the day. We used to do a lot of all-nighters to get things made. Well, now if you’ve got your own 3D printer you can design it quickly, press print and you can go home! That’s the best thing. In the morning you get this amazing thing that’s appeared, like magic, and you click it off the bed and you’re up and running again. I still get a small thrill every time I come in and see this thing, that has magically appeared overnight. We use quite a few techniques. We’ve started using 3D printing in mold-making. We might 3D print the sculpt and then you can 3D print a two-part jacket, with a gap around it, fill that with a silicone rubber, then cast that out of something and you can touch it up, so you could cast that out of plastiline and then do the final sculpt and then reuse all that with a new silicone jacket. That’s a really interesting technique. All the creatures that we make have eyeballs and they’re very difficult to make. They’re all different sizes, have to be machined on the back to take the mechanism and then painted over the top. We’ve started 3D printing those, with all that machining in, and then we paint and put a clear casting over them. We do heads, we cyber scan an actor, we will 3D print the head and then model on a prosthetic makeup. That means the actor doesn’t have to be life cast anymore, Which is a difficult process for them. For example, if we wanted a dinosaur for a major Hollywood picture about dinosaurs. You might take the 3D model that exists already. You could split it up into lots of sections, 3D print all those sections But you’re going to get joints on each one. Also the finish, the skin texture.. We really pay a lot of attention to skin texture, so that probably won’t be in your 3D print. So we would piece together the 3D prints like a big jigsaw and then take a mold of that. Then we recast it in plastiline and then take another mold, that plastiline can be worked up, all the joints are made. Also, the thing is, we need flexible skins, all the skin needs to move around the neck. So when we cast out from that new mold, we use silicones or foam rubbers. So, in fact, 3D print is an incredibly good starting point for all our very complicated processes. But it accelerates the build, phenomenally, actually. You could use your best PLA for your model. We’ve been using PETG for the two-part jacket, because that’s nice and flexible and strong. That is good enough to be used as a practical part. The best thing is, you only have to do it once, because you can reuse the jacket. Just cast another silicone out of it. We are inventing new ways of using it, because our deadlines are so tight, and everybody changes their minds. The director has a new brilliant idea, we have to respond quickly and it has to be economical as well. We can’t be too expensive. We are using all the industrial 3D printers, but also our own desktop machines. That means we can respond really quickly. Because even with the best 3D print professional service, you’re still looking at two or three days. With our own printers, we can do it same day or next day. We use the printer for mechanical parts as well. PETG is a fantastic material for mechanical parts. It will take a thread if you tap it. It’s flexible enough to be strong, it’s resilient. I’ve always printed in PLA and then got things printed in SLS nylon, but now, increasingly, I’m just using PETG and that will end up in the finished film prop. The amazing thing is that all the different materials open up new ideas. What you can do with multi head or multi filament printing. Recently I built a pair of hands, where the joints were flexible hinges, 3D printed at the same time into each finger. The fingers were so tiny, that it’s almost impossible to actually build something that you could put together. The 3D print allows you to model in and print in those joints, but also all the little tiny channels for cabling, the fixings you can model in. Best thing is, once you’ve designed a right hand, you just click mirror in the slicer and then you can print left hand. That was amazing, because normally I have to make both sides. It really opened up a huge new way of making things, especially with the “democratization” of 3D printing that Prusa are really good at. Also, I’ve picked up techniques from Prusa themselves actually. I’ve got my MK3 as a kit which I bought myself for Christmas, because I used to get Lego for Christmas. You know, I wanted to put a kit together on Boxing Day. I picked up quite a few tricks actually. I’ve been trying to figure out, how to put threaded fasteners into 3D prints. Heat swaging inserts and things like that. From the kit I saw the awesome power of the M3 square nut in their pocket. Now I use that everywhere on all my builds, because it’s so simple. There is no post-work. Just pop the insert in and you get a nice strong fixing. Also that’s where I first came across PETG actually. Wondering how Prusa printed these things so strong. Also, chamfering corners rather than radiusing them, so you get a nice print. I learned all that from building the kit actually. Now I use all that in all my prints. The movie that started our experience was probably Prometheus. We started to use it on that, but we’ve really developed it on the Star Wars films. At the beginning of those I built the BB-8, we 3D printed the masters then we used silicone injection molding techniques to create all of those. But towards the end of Star Wars I was actually 3D printing, not the whole BB-8, but the actual parts. So we really developed it on that. We started to use it for mold making, for mechanical parts, just because there’s very little time. We have to populate the film like Star Wars with creatures. You need androids. You need a lot of stuff. And of course, you can create a lot of stuff on a 3D printer very quickly and economically. The thing that I would like to see in 3D printing is a large format FDM printer that works well, really. Because if you’re gonna build a dinosaur, you could tile it out of pieces this big, but that’s a lot of work to split it up. If they were just a bit bigger. And also… human head, we have to print those quite a lot. There is a problem with bigger, because as the volume increases, not exponentially, but the speed of it becomes a problem, as you get bigger. What I’d really like to do next, is to have a print farm at work. Rather than using outside companies, to use industrial processes to make large prints sort of this size, I’d love to have a farm at work where we could just print them. Because then it’s better for us, we don’t have a problem with secrecy, because it’s all done in-house. Our deadlines are tight, so it will all be done as quickly as it can be. Often, sometimes even if there’s a problem with a print, an outside company might reject it, but we would accept it. Because we know that we can fill it or file it. So I think that’s the next thing, a large format farm. That’s what I want to see. It’s really great for me because animatronics has made a comeback in the last eight years. I think the reason is, I worked on a number of films which were very heavily CGI, a lot of blue screen, just a table and a few props. There’s a few reasons, really. The first reason is, It’s more exciting, when there are animatronics on set. When there’s a big set behind you, that excitement of the crew and the actors builds this sense of momentum which comes across in the film. I think you get a better performance from the actors. I think directors know that you get a better performance because they’re reacting with something. It’s also very difficult for the CGI guys, as soon as a real person touches an object, that’s incredibly difficult to do in CGI, that sort of physics. There’s a sort of reality to animatronics, which you sometimes don’t get in CGI. Sometimes you do, but sometimes you don’t. All the physics works, things have momentum and weight. Also there’s something quite charming about animatronics as well, which I think comes across. The other reason is, we’re cheaper. We’re still cheaper. As soon as you do more than a couple of shots. It’s expensive making animatronics, but as soon as you get more than a couple of shots, we’re probably cheaper than CGI. Of course, the producers are always looking at balancing the books. The good thing is that in the last few years there has been this lovely balance between CGI and animatronics, where we’ll build a puppet, but we’re less constrained by having to hide people and rods because the CGI can remove all the people and if the character has to walk across the room, they can tape that over. We still can’t do that as well as they can. So there’s this great balance now to it, which makes great films. I can’t figure out why animatronics seems to age better than the CGI. I think it’s something about the charm of puppets. I think the audience is more willing to accept it. I think it might have something to do with your eye knowing, your brain knowing how the physics of objects works or doesn’t work. We’re constrained by gravity and momentum when we’re filming, whereas sometimes they’re not in CGI. Certainly not the older stuff. It does seem to age better, don’t know what that is. The thing about a film set is that… It’s often quoted it’s $1,000 a minute. So if you keep them waiting on a film set, you will have someone standing over you going: $1,000 a minute, $1,000 a minute So the emphasis is on never holding them up, always being ready. So you’ve got to pre-empt what they want, and also things have to be reliable, they can’t break. They will understand if if they do, occasionally. I try to get at least two months of filming in, before I’ll admit to a breakage on set. Because they just do not wait. It’s a very high-pressure environment, but good fun. We have a whole department who do the electronics. They build their own PCBs. It’s all quite high-end stuff. The thing that I’ve found recently is that you can make one object. So if you’re making an arm for instance, you have a palm shape, you can make a single object, which is the skeleton underneath the skin, but is also mounting your electronics, mounting your servos, running your cables, if you get it printed in metal, that could be your heatsink as well. The thing I’ve come across is that these are almost becoming products now. With all the 3D CAD and 3D printing and 3D scanning, that’s all in our hands now as makers. I’m just a prop maker, you know. All those industrial techniques are available to everyone, really. You could end up with incredibly sophisticated objects, that just five or six years ago would have involved many different objects bolted together. That’s the thing I’ve noticed recently. I don’t get to keep any of the props. Nothing. Especially things from Harry Potter and Star Wars, they all become priceless. My job is to keep them once I’ve built them. I protect the look of them. I make sure they don’t get photographed, because there are paparazzi trying to photograph these things during filming. I keep it a secret for years and then I make sure they’re secure, and give them to the production. Some of them end up in museums. That’s incredible, something that you’ve made ends up in the Smithsonian. That’s amazing, but I don’t have a single thing that I’ve made. It’s a very strange existence. Again, all those designs belong to the production company that I’m working for. And to be honest, after a year of filming, I’ve had enough. I think I’ve built, last time I counted, I’ve built 28 different versions of BB-8. So, to be honest, I don’t really need one of my own. The best thing about my job is that Every film you get very clever director and writers coming up with new challenges. So what I really enjoy is someone saying: wouldn’t it be great if we get a robot that did that, and then it’s like being given a puzzle. And then you have to work that out. I really enjoy just getting those puzzles from the director and the writers. And figuring them out. I’m not very good actually at inventing those puzzles myself. That’s where the enjoyment is.

66 Replies to “Original Prusa 3D printers in Star Wars? – Interview with Joshua Lee

  1. Classic tractor fever had an episode on using 3d prints to make tractor replica parts I want to do the same for 15 inch gauge shay steam locomotive to print the master parts is alot easier than carving it out of wood and if I was to use some kind of wax filament the lost wax casting method could be used

  2. I've worked in films (Visual Effects) for a long time, and I also love making things, 3D printing, etc. This was a great interview combining those two worlds 🙂
    It takes a lot of work to make something look as good as the real thing with computers (if it's possible at all), plus, as he said, it helps actors. And, while we can fix a lot of things, we can't fix their performance in post-production!

  3. I think the audience appreciates animatronics too because no matter how good something looks you can tell it's not really there. From all my years in film I have come to believe good film makers use a combination of CGI and traditional effects such as animatronics.

  4. so BB-8 parts was printed on prusa machines and actually was in the film? that is kinda mind blowing for me :O very cool interview!

  5. Analog is manifest, digital is not. It's a shame what they did to Star Wars…all this wasted potential. It could have been amazing.

  6. Im really proud to be a maker and I also love my two Prusas. The most comfortable printer ive ever used and with 0 failed prints to these day.

  7. This video will be a resource I use in class to show the relevance and uses of 3D printing. Now I just need to update a few assignments to implement it. Thanks for this interview!

  8. I Need Your help i habe i Prusa i3 mk3s and i dont have Good adhesion More i cleaned with abs and seted the z Offset More ins Minus now it Sticks But i geht some resedues on the bed
    I Need your help!
    I have a normal pei sheet

  9. Animatronics DO age better. I mean the animatronics from the first Jurassic park movies still looks great, but the CGI from that era is horrible. Even re watching Lord of the rings, which was excellent at the time, the cgi really do suck compared to today. But all the props looks great. I also feel bad for actors that has to do entire movies alone on a green screen.

  10. 5:27 – "Everybody changes their mind, and the director has a new BRILLIANT idea…"

    I feel just a little bit of sarcasm in that phrase lol

  11. forget flexible on that little prusa over therre on the table, its not direct drive so no. also Pet G requires enclosure, so good luck with any prusa at all just get raise 3d . nice strong fixing unless you overtorque it and then it splits. use plastic mould heat inserts instead

  12. cgi is worse because of light technology in CGI more realistic light takes more to render, and more powerfull renders cost more . I thought you would know if you worked for 'years' apparently in this industry

  13. This is an absolute dream job. I'm currently starting my master degree in engineering in Germany. Combining CAD, 3D Printing etc. to make props sound like a super fun job. But I don't know if there is something similar in big scale in Germany.

  14. If you are familiar with AirSoft guns, they create. a “ tracer round” effect by exposing a pellet to intense light as it travels, at 450fps, through a 6” light tube. You can get green and orang tracer rounds. This gives rise to a thought: could you create photo-activated dyes ( think photochromic eyeglass lenses), such that you could expose them at the printhead to create colored filament? Could you then, almost like RGB TV, use various wavelengths and exposure times to create an infinite range of color as it is laid on the model? No changing reels, no color division, just continuous color as needed.
    I don’t know what’s happening in CZ, but new ideas and products are blooming.

  15. Joshua needs to check out Astromech.net we make R2s, BB8s that are remote, No body pushing them around. Im hoping Prusas XL will be as big as Crealitys 500×500 Printer.

  16. Notice how they make it a point to move the power supply and filament spool out of the scene? The mini is a prop. Shady!!

  17. Human visual system can see CGI vs Real object where focal point of human sight happens to be focused as we spend a lifetime of gathering visual samples of how "reality" around us works & what it looks like, the real lighting & physics from reality & modeling that with CAE/ CAD/ CGI/ CFD getting better but still not original or real & some people with sharp sight & good visual information can see the difference in the fake // even if the CGI fake very realistic, a tiny subtle difference can be noted by tetrachromatic women & artists & other visually intelligent viewers

  18. Kind of click bait-ish. Would like to actually see 3d printing as part of a production process, instead of just hearing about it. The Prusa MINI product placement is pretty chach.

  19. I love that the movie version of BB8 requires all those handlers while the home built one actually work with gyros and such.

  20. Man, I would love to figure out how to use flexible filament in combination with other types like PETG on the MMU2S. As it is, flex simply doesn't work on the system. Care to share your settings?

  21. Please get one of those fluffy mics that filter out the s sounds.
    Looking forward to more use case stories like this! 👍🏻

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