How to use 3D Printing for Entertainment Design? – By Anne E. McMills

Women in 3D Printing’s mission is to increase the visibility of women in the Additive Manufacturing industry and encourage more women to use 3D Printing technologies. We have been doing so by highlighting female leaders and innovators on our platform since 2014. To provide even more insights on female experts in the Additive Manufacturing Industry, we are inviting women to contribute to this series by sharing their business and tech expertise through guest blog posts to be published as Industry Insiders and “How To?” series.

Anne E. McMills has been teaching 3D printing since 2011. Her passion is for expanding 3D technology’s home in theatrical design. Furthermore, Anne is involved in advisory panels and focus groups for 3D technology companies where she has the opportunity to be a voice for the entertainment industry. In addition to her passion for 3D printing, Anne is a lighting designer, professor, and also the author of 3D Printing Basics for Entertainment Design. She has worked in theatre (from Broadway to the West End) as well as in dance, opera, theme parks, concerts, award shows, industrials, architectural lighting, and television. Anne is the Head of Lighting Design at San Diego State University (where she also teaches 3D fabrication) and a proud member of United Scenic Artists, Local 829.


Over the past decade, 3D printing has become somewhat of a household concept.  For many, the basic ideas have been demystified; squeezing molten plastic through a robotic tube of toothpaste, for example, makes sense to the average consumer.  With the proliferation of desktop 3D printers in grade school classrooms, local libraries, and even some office supply chains, the overall idea has become less science-fiction and more everyday technology; especially as more and more parents begin to receive 3D printed snowflakes for the holidays.

        At the same time that this technology has become more normalized in the everyday household, commercialized uses have grown by leaps and bounds.  STEM applications have received the lion’s share of the spotlight – from medical (creating 3D printed organs) to engineering (printing end-use parts in manufacturing) to food-grade explorations (growing bio-printed hamburgers) to astronauts printing tools at the international space station; the applications are simply extraordinary!  However, even with all of these fantastic innovations, we should not overlook the “A” which turns STEM into STEAM – the Arts!

        3D fabrication technologies have become a mainstay of entertainment design over the last decade.  From theatre design to television and film to puppets and special effects makeup, 3D printing and scanning have become a revolution in these art forms – both altering and merging with traditional methods of fabrication to produce items quickly and efficiently, as well as enabling the design of fantastical creations in new and exciting ways.  

Here are my personal top 5 ways to use 3D printing for entertainment design:

  1.     Scenic Design

Scenic design has easily been the most influenced discipline for 3D fabrication to call home.  Traditionally, scenic designers spend hours producing beautiful miniature models of their scenery which will be used onstage during the future performances.  These scenic models become both a working development product for the overall look of the play, as well as a finished resource (used by the director who stages the show and the scene shop that builds the final scenery).

        In the past these scenic models have been produced by hand; designers painstakingly cut out scale doors, fireplace mantels, chairs, etc. out of foam core, card stock, or illustration board and glue the pieces together. 

Scale furniture designed and printed by Kacie Hultgren of PrettySmallThings

Scale furniture designed and printed by Kacie Hultgren of PrettySmallThings

This process can take days and add up to a great expense – both in materials and labor time.  3D printing has changed a lot of that.  Now, the printer can be printing complex detailed items (as seen above in the work of Kacie Hultgren of PrettySmallThings) while the designer or the designer’s assistant builds the larger, flat pieces out of traditional materials.  Combining these two fabrication methods creates elegant models more quickly and more accurately than simply done by hand.  As printing technology improves in speed, the tendency for large, flat pieces to warp is reduced, and color printing becomes the norm, it seems inevitable that scenic models may be printed as one complete piece in the near future.

  1.     Props
Prop skull designed by MacGyver

Prop skull designed by MacGyver

The second most prominent area for 3D printing in entertainment design is within the field of prop fabrication.  Props (or “properties”) are a large category – roughly considered anything that is not scenery or costumes with which the actors interact.  This could be a prop radio, a table setting, a lamp, or even something like the famous skull in Hamlet (here designed by MacGyver and available on Thingiverse)

The artisans that specialize in props are truly the wizards of the theatrical world, and the need to know many fabrication techniques is vital.

        3D printing and scanning fit right into the prop artisan’s toolbox.  Perhaps the production calls for a replication of something rare or breakable or exact multiples of an item; or maybe an object too expensive for the production budget to afford.  3D fabrication can provide a solution to all of these issues – either building original creations or scanning and printing copies of actual items.

  1.     Costumes and Costume Accessories

Costumes and costume accessories also benefit from 3D printing.  The versatility of creating original accent pieces not found in real life or the ability to replicate antique pieces to complete a look expands the landscape of the costume designer.  Perhaps the character needs some unusual buttons, or a specialized crown or mask, or a unique corset design; 3D printed accents can tell a character’s story in ways that traditional items may not be able.  In the future, as fabric printing techniques become more fabric-like, perhaps entire costumes may be custom-made.

  1.     Creature Design

Designers of puppets, marionettes, animatronics, and stop-motion animation also rejoice in the ability of 3D printing to create unique items.  (e.g. the marionette designed by Owen M. Collins)  

Animal marionette designed by Owen M. Collins

Animal marionette designed by Owen M. Collins

Due to the final size of most of these creations, 3D printing is well-suited; many pieces can be printed completely without the need to divide larger items into pieces.  Full characters may be printed or individual parts such as noses, eyeballs, teeth, hands, snouts, and the like.  These pieces can be used alone or incorporated with traditional materials.  In fact, 3D printing can also be used to create inner structures such as a puppet’s internal skeleton, working mechanisms, and joints.

  1.     Special Effects

Special effects are the final discipline to top our list at number five.  Special effects can mean anything from miniature cities built to explode during a summer blockbuster’s big car chase, to specialized spray nozzles designed to produce just the right amount of rain for that final romantic kiss, to molds used to produce the scariest zombie makeup seen on screen.  3D printing and scanning only further open the floodgates of creativity enabling unique effects for television, film, and theatre produced in new and exciting ways.

        It seems that no area has gone untouched by 3D technologies in the field of entertainment design.  As they continue to improve it will only proliferate more throughout the artforms – and perhaps inspire you at home.  Maybe this year your printer will help you win Best Zombie at the Halloween parade!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: