Joshua Lee is an animatronic model senior designer, with more than 25 years of experience in the film industry. He worked on many famous movies: The Fifth Element, Prometheus, Maleficent, or cult statuses series like Star Wars or Harry Potter. He won the Visual Effects Society (VES) “Outstanding Models in a Photoreal or Animated Project” Award, for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015).
We met Joshua in Prague, where he had been working for several months on a big new Amazon TV series. Obviously, we talked mainly about our common interest and one of his important tools of the trade: the 3D printers.
So, as expected, our first and foremost question is, how do you use 3D printing in your work?
We use a lot of different techniques of 3D printing in the filming industry. Traditionally, we made things with CNC machining, molding, and casting. We only really adopted it in the last 5 years. I am really using it a lot now. With all that hand-held scanners you get nowadays, you can cyber-scan a person, digitize it and work on that. Use hard surface modeling, or Zbrush, and then 3D print it. We use hi-res, high-end stuff like the big SLA machines, or for mechanical parts, we use SLS printing from nylon. But more and more we use desktop machines, like the Original Prusa. I have two MK3s, which I use for research and development.
The thing I like the most is how 3D printers help when you have really tight deadlines. The film director has a new idea and you just wish there were more hours in a day. We used to do a lot of “all-nighters” to get things made. If you’ve got your own 3D printer, you can design something quickly, press print and you can go home to bed – that’s the best thing! In the morning, you are up and running again and this amazing print awaits you there. I still get a small thrill, every time I come in and see this thing that has magically appeared there overnight. (laughs)
Could you give us some specific, typical examples of use?
We use quite a few techniques. We started using 3D printing in mold making. We 3D print a sculpt. Then we print a two-part jacket to it, with a gap around it, which you fill with silicone rubber. Then you cast it out, touch it up, then cast it out of plasterline again and you could do the final sculpt and then reuse all of that with a new silicone jacket. That’s a very interesting technique.
Or the eyes – all the creatures that we made have eyeballs. They are very difficult to make. They are in all different sizes, they have to be machined on the back to insert the mechanism and then painted over the top. We started 3D printing those, with all that machining in, and then we paint them and put a clear casting over them.
We do heads. We cyber scan an actor, 3D print his head and then we model on the prosthetic makeup. Therefore the actor doesn’t have to be live cast anymore, which is a difficult process for them.
So you rather use 3D printing just as the first step, a base for further work?
For example, let’s say you need a dinosaur for a major Hollywood picture. You can take an existing 3D model and split it into lots of sections and print them. But you’re gonna get joints. And also the finish… You know, we really pay a lot of attention to the skin texture.
So we will piece together all the 3D prints like a big jigsaw. And then, instead of using it directly, we take a mold of that. And then recast it in plasterline and then take another mold. And then all those joints on that plasterline can be easily worked up.
Another thing is that we need flexible skin, it needs to move around the neck. So when we cast out from that new mold, we use silicone or foam rubbers. So, in fact, the 3D print is just an incredibly good starting point for all our very complicated processes. But it accelerates the build, phenomenally, actually.
What printing materials are you typically using?
You can use your best PLA for your model. We have been using PETG for the two-part jacket, that’s nice and flexible and strong. It’s good enough to be used as a practical part. The best thing about that is you only need to do it once, you can reuse the jacket, cast another silicone mold out of it. We are still inventing new ways of using it. Because our deadlines are so tight and everybody changes their minds. The director has new brilliant ideas and we have to respond quickly, without it being too expensive. Using both all the industrial 3D printers but also our own desktop machines mean that we can be really quick. Even with the best 3D print professional service, you are still looking at two or three days. Whereas with our own printers, we can do it the same day, the next day.
Do you also print some movable parts or mechanisms?
Yes, we use the printers 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. Earlier I’ve printed everything in PLA, or in nylon (on an SLS). But now, increasingly, I’m just using PETG. And that will end up in the finished film prop. Amazing thing is that all the different materials sort of open up new ideas. What you can do with multiple extruders or multi-filament printing… Recently I built a pair of hands with joints, which were flexible hinges, 3D printed at the same time into each finger. The fingers were so tiny, that it would be almost impossible to assemble them together. But they could be printed already including those joints. And also all the little tiny channels for cables and the fixings. The best thing about that is that once you’ve designed a right hand, you just click “mirror” in the slicer and you have a left hand. That is amazing because normally I have to model both sides.
What are your thoughts on the desktop printers like the Original Prusa MK3?
It really opened up a huge new way of making things, really. Especially with that “democratization” of 3D printing, that I think Prusa is really good at it. I picked up a lot of techniques from Prusa themselves. I got my MK3 as a kit, which I bought myself for Christmas, to put it together on Boxing Day. And I picked up quite a few tricks, actually! I’ve been trying to figure out how to put threaded fasteners in 3D prints. I tried heat swaging inserts and things like that. In the kit, I saw those awesome M3 square nuts inserted in pockets. And now I use that everywhere, on all my builds, because it’s so simple. There is no post-processing, you pop the insert in and you get a nice, strong fixing. And also, that is where I first came across PETG, actually. I was wondering how Prusa made these things so strong. Also, chamfering corners rather than radiusing them, so you get a better-looking print. I learned all that from building the kit. And I use that knowledge in my own prints.
When you first used 3D printing in your work?
We started to use it when filming Prometheus. But we really developed it on the Star Wars films. In the beginning, when I built the BB-8, we printed just the masters. And then we used silicone injection molding techniques to create the final models. But towards the end of Star Wars, I was actually printing, well, not the whole BB-8, but the actual final parts. So we really developed it on that. We started to use it for mold making, for mechanical parts. Because there was very little time and we had to populate the film like Star Wars with creatures. You need androids, you need a lot of stuff. And of course, on a 3D printer, you can create a lot of stuff really quickly and economically.
Is there some innovation, new 3D print-related thing you would really appreciate?
The thing that I would like to see, is a large-format FDM printer that works well, really. If you are going to build a dinosaur, you could tile it off smaller pieces, but that’s a lot of work to split it up. Also, human heads – we have to print those quite a lot.
There is a problem with bigger prints because as the volume increases, the speed becomes an issue. I’d really like to have our own print farm at work, to make large prints, sized approx. 60-70 cm cubed. Rather than using outside companies with industrial-level printers. It’s better for us because then we don’t have a problem with secrecy when it’s all done in-house. Our deadlines are tight like I said, so we need to make everything as quickly as possible. Often, even if there is a problem with the print, an outside company might reject it, but we would accept it. Because we know we can post-process it with some filling and filing.
So, the next thing I really want to see is a large format farm.
What are the advantages of animatronics compared to CGI?
Animatronics has made a sort of a comeback in the last 8 years, really. I have worked on a number of films which were very heavily CGI. Lots of blue screens, just a table, and a few props. I think it’s more exciting when there is animatronics on set. When there is a big set behind you. And that excitement of the crew and the actors, I think it builds a sense of momentum, which comes across in the film. I think you get better performance from the actors because they are interacting with something real. And I think directors know that.
Also, some things are incredibly difficult to do with CGI, like a real person touching an object, that sort of simple physics. There is a real feel to animatronics, which CGI often lacks. Things have momentum and weight, and also there is something quite charming about animatronics, which I think comes across.
Another reason is, we are cheaper. Even though animatronics is expensive, as soon as you do more than a couple of shots, we end up cheaper than CGI, which is an important aspect for the producers, of course. In the last few years, there has been a lovely balance between CGI and animatronics. When using a puppet we built, we are less constrained by having to hide people, mechanisms, etc. CGI can remove all of that, and then if the character has to walk up across the room, they can tape that over. We still can’t do that as well as they can. There is a great balance now, which makes for really great films.
If you compare older CGI and animatronics films, say, 10-15 years old, which of them looks better in your opinion?
Animatronics seems to age better than CGI. It’s something about the charm of puppets. The audience is more willing to accept it. It might be something that your eye and your brain know how the physics work. We are constrained by gravity and momentum when we are filming, while the older CGI stuff often looks like it isn’t.
Do you have any fun stories, when something got wrong on the set?
(long pause) It’s not fun when it goes wrong. (everybody laughs) It’s often quoted that a film set costs a thousand dollars a minute. So if you keep them waiting, you will have someone standing over you, going “thousand a minute, thousand a minute…” It’s a very high-pressure environment. But good fun.
As for the electronics, are you just using off the shelf stuff like Arduinos, Raspberry Pi?
We have a whole department for electronics. They build their own PCBs, quite a high-end stuff.
Are there any special animatronics techniques you use to your advantage, that might not be so obvious at first glance?
The thing that I have found recently is that you can make one object. If you are making an arm, for instance, you can make it as a single object. There is skeleton underneath the skin, which also serves for mounting your electronics, mounting your servos, running your cables, if you get it printed in metal it could be your heat sink as well. So, the thing I have come across lately is that these are almost becoming ready-made products now. With all that CAD, 3D scanning, 3D printing. That’s all in our hands as makers. I am just a prop maker you know, so all those industrial techniques are available to everyone, really. You could end up with incredibly sophisticated single objects, that just 5 or 6 years ago would have had to be bolted together from many different parts.
Do you keep some of your work?
I don’t get to keep any of the props. Nothing. Especially things from Harry Potter and Star Wars, they all became priceless, really. It’s my job, once I build them, to protect the look of them, make sure they are not photographed. Because there are paparazzi trying to photograph these things during the filming. I keep it secret for years, and then I make sure they are secure and give them to the production. And some of them – that’s really nice – end up in museums. That’s incredible. Something that you have made ends up in the Smithsonian. That’s amazing. But I don’t have a single thing I made. It’s a very strange existence. (laughs)
Not even something small? Or another model you would print just for yourself?
Again, all those designs belong to the production company that I am working for. To be honest, after a year of filming…I’ve had enough. I think I’ve built, last time I counted, 28 BB-8s. So, to be honest, I don’t really need one of my own. (laughs)
Is there something you want to build, based on your own idea?
The best thing about my job is, that every film, you get a very clever director and writer coming up with new challenges. What I really enjoy is someone saying, wouldn’t it be great if we could get a robot that did that? It’s like being given a puzzle, and you have to work it out. I really enjoy just getting those puzzles from directors and writers. And figuring them out. I am not very good actually at inventing those puzzles myself.