A technology that promises (some would say threatens) to permanently transform our lives and businesses gets compelling behind-the-scenes treatment in “Print the Legend,” Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel’s skillful overview of the major players in the 3D printing industry, the ingenious and highly competitive products they’ve turned out, and the controversy they’ve stirred up vis-a-vis the gun-control debate. Still, as cutting-edge as these innovations may be, the dramatic trajectory here — the initial thrill of a successful collaboration giving way to the forces of hubris, conflict and betrayal — could hardly be more timeless or universally applicable. Reminiscent of such classic studies of geek entrepreneurship as “Startup.com” and “The Social Network,” though it’s ultimately a softer-edged, more optimistic film than either, this well-handled documentary should maximize its modest theatrical potential on the basis of its remarkable access and early-bird take on a fascinating subject.
In covering the technology known as stereolithography, which can be used to “print” everything from chess pieces to prosthetic hands and functioning human organs, directors Lopez (“Chevolution”) and Tweel (“Make Believe”) had the good fortune to begin filming at a crucial moment for the biz, which aims to make 3D printers as ubiquitous and home-user-friendly as personal computers. At one end of the spectrum is MakerBot Industries, the Brooklyn-based garage operation turned $400 million powerhouse whose rise is widely attributed to the charisma and vision of its co-founder/CEO, Bre Pettis — a figure likened here by many to Steve Jobs, for better or worse.
At the other end of the spectrum is Boston-based up-and-comer Formlabs, founded in 2011 by three college grads in their 20s. These include Max Lobovsky, whose visible discomfort in the spotlight makes him an odd public face for the company, though by film’s end, his own talents and growth potential have been amply confirmed. The struggle to get Formlabs off the ground offers a valuable lesson in the challenges and rewards of Kickstarter funding, as the free 3D printers they promise their investors are endlessly held up by production and testing delays.
While these two companies are seen at very different points on their respective timelines, their narratives are unsurprisingly similar: In each case, a few budding tech geniuses pooled their smarts and resources to launch a company on a shoestring and experienced an exciting period of success and growth, only to see their personal and professional relationships strain and break under the pressures of expansion. In the case of Formlabs, differences of opinion and personality among upper management send co-founder David Cranor packing, leaving Lobovsky in the driver’s seat. Another setback: 3D Systems, another major player in the industry, files a lawsuit against the fledgling company for patent infringement.
The tensions at MakerBot are considerably thornier and more complicated. Industry watchers here criticize the company’s 2011 decision to switch from open-source hardware to a proprietary closed-source model, signifying a huge shift in corporate philosophy that was described by co-founder Zachary “Hoeken” Smith as “the ultimate betrayal.” Smith is one of the many former MakerBot staffers who speak out here, with varying degrees of diplomacy, about Pettis’ overly controlling leadership and refusal to tolerate dissent among his ranks; the film’s best line comes from former MakerBot VP of sales and business development Jeff Osborn, noting that Steve Jobs’ biography “gave a lot of people permission to be assholes.”
Because Lopez and Tweel are tracking the rise but not the fall, “Print the Legend” doesn’t have the falling-apart-before-your-eyes immediacy of “Startup.com.” It’s more talking-heads piece than fly-on-the-wall drama, and statements to the effect of “I’m not sure I should be talking about this” are about as close as anyone gets to dropping their guard. The film’s central insight is by now so familiar — how can such brainy, innovative thinkers be so susceptible to the banal temptations of greed, ego and compromise? — that it actually robs the picture of some specificity; more in-depth details on the actual mechanics of 3D printing, even at the risk of alienating less tech-savvy members of the audience (present company included), would have been welcome.
To that end, the documentary’s secret weapon, so to speak, is Cody Wilson, the law student and free-market anarchist who made headlines by firing the first 3D-printed gun, and who is determined to put that technology in the hands of Americans everywhere. As the founder of Defense Distributed, which publishes open-source, 3D-printable gun designs online, Wilson delights in the reality that disruptive technology, by its very definition, produces outcomes that neither the government nor society can ultimately control. He may be an impish professional troublemaker, but Wilson’s voice feels like a necessary one, insofar as it spotlights an ethical quandary that, to judge by “Print the Legend,” the industry would generally prefer to ignore. (In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy, MakerBot yanked all downloadable 3D-printing files for gun parts from its website and launched an ad campaign focusing on the technology’s constructive rather than destructive potential.)
Tech credits rep a solid, straightforward mix of informative graphics and cleanly shot, crisply edited footage, most of it filmed at corporate offices and consumer electronics tradeshows. Some of the musical choices — Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” for the gun portion, Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” for Pettis’ image-makeover montage — are too on-the-nose.