June 27, 2019

How 3D Printing Technology Has Influenced Storytelling

Up to the mid-1980s, the highest aspiration of many comic book artists was to stop working on the monthly superhero books and instead develop, or be hired to illustrate, a syndicated strip. Some artists, like Al Williamson (who illustrated the “Star Wars” strip) and Russ Manning (“Tarzan”), got a “gold star” and had their work gracing many local newspapers across the country.

As the entertainment industry started expanding, thanks to advancing technology, many comic book artists, whose daily job it was to illustrate fantastical adventures, found new venues for applying their skills.

Comic book artists were uniquely qualified in one particular area of booming entertainment. Movie storyboards.

The Evolution of Storytelling

Sequential storytelling, an art form that uses images deployed in specific order for the purpose of relating a story, is something that comic book artists work with on a daily basis. Starting with a script, the artist breaks down the story into individual pages and then lays out each page and the flow of the panels on that page, so that not only is it not confusing, but is actually exciting to read and look at.

A number of comic book artists, starting with Alex Toth and Doug Wiley, have started making a transition from comic books to story-boarding animated features back in the 1970s, and were responsible for such Saturday morning cartoon classics as:

  • Johnny Quest
  • Super Friends
  • Spider-Man
  • Scooby-Do
  • Masters of the Universe
  • Conan the Adventurer

Storyboards are not only used in animation features to help directors pre-plan their production, storyboards are also used by feature film directors to pace the flow of movies. Some directors, Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, and James Cameron among them, prefer to do their own storyboards; others work closely with the storyboard artists making sure their vision for the film is present in the very first sketches.

There are also directors who allow the storyboard artist free reign on the first pass from script to visual transition, and only start providing input as the filming gets on its way.

The trickle of comic book artists, working in Hollywood, became a mighty river in 2006 after “300” was filmed solely based on Frank Miller’s layout from the comic book of the same title. More and more producers and directors started seeing the benefits of working with artists who have been focusing for years on developing exciting ways to tell horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero stories.

However, what many comic book artist found, when they transitioned from comic books into film storyboards, is that their exclusive use of pen on paper (or even Photoshop) didn’t suit their new assignments.

They all started a transition into 3D.

The transition into 3D software was prompted by the need for countless iterations to find the best shot and the right angle for any particular scene. Once the scene is set up, the need to constantly redraw everything for a slight change in the viewer angle disappears. This removes the constraint of time and allows both the artist and the director, to focus on finding the best creative solution.

3D Printing & Storytelling

I got to interview Isabelle Pichay, a recent graduate of Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD), an art school that is a skip and a hop away from Hollywood, and boast many working award winning artists on their faculty.

3D Printed Star Wars Storm Trooper

According to Isabelle, the understanding of how to communicate through visual story-boarding and the utilization of the newest technology to accomplish this, was an important element of her studies.

The roots of story-boarding were discussed, starting from the designs on Ancient Greek pottery (which told a sequential story when the pottery was rotated 360 degrees) and going right through Disney Studio animator Webb Smith, who is credited with the first complete storyboards for the 1933 Disney short Three Little Pigs.

Motion pictures knew a good thing when they saw it and one of the first live action films to be completely story-boarded was “Gone with the Wind” (1939).

Isabelle’s studies broke down the story-boarding process, referred to as pre-visualization or “previz”, into four digestible elements:

1. Storytelling Theory: History of storytelling and principles of clear and understandable visual communication. After the background and basic visual rules were established , the students spending months and years learning tools to implement the learned principles in real life projects.

2. Creating the characters that will act throughout the storyboards: Software package like ZBrush, a digital sculpting tool that combines 3D/2.5D modeling, texturing and painting, is a great tool to start building your “actors”.

3. Rigging: Before the characters can be transported into Autodesk Maya, a software application that creates highly detailed 3D cinematic animations, the characters have to be “rigged”. “Rigging” is the process where a 3D model is given some sort of skeleton so that it can be posed. By defining the joints and nodes, as well as the rules by which they can be moved, artists determine the articulation of their models.

4. Lights, camera, action: Maya is specifically designed with the motion picture application in mind. Working within Maya, the sense of space, light sources, camera locations and movement become easily definable and would enable the director to properly budget bringing his visuals to life.
-Other software packages that make the process of creating an actual “reel” of storyboards with sound effects, voices, music, and special effects direction round off the process.

3D Printing in Today’s Culture

In recent years, 3D modeling and 3D printing have advanced enough to become a huge part of the cosplay subculture (cosplay is “performance art” in which participants called cosplayers wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character). Previously, cosplayers had to hand carve or glue cardboard tubes together to create their costumes.

Now there are 3D print shops that exclusively cater to printing custom cosplay designs, and Fusion 360 software that helps the hobbyists to go from concept to engineering/manufacturing drawings.

Another pop subculture revolutionized by 3D modeling and printing is Dungeons and Dragons board games! The Dungeon Masters can now really make their imaginations run wild and help their quests take on a whole other dimension with custom designed and printed figurines and environments. Isabella explains:

There is a lot of new tools generated by cutting edge technology, and they are really fun to use. The capabilities for enhancing and making storyboards, or comics, or movies look spectacular are right at the fingertips. But the most important thing, the first thing that should be solid, is still the basic story or message that you are trying to communicate. Without that, no matter how many fancy tools you got, you got nothing.

See how Stratasys 3D printing technology is helping LAIKA Studios power the next-generation of stop motion animation. Watch the technology bring the new movie "Missing Link" to life:

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