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Production designer Nathan Crowley was strolling through the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the shoot for “The Greatest Showman” in fall 2016 when he passed a building with a 3D printer printing a chair.

“The lady inside told me it was a machine from BigRep,” recalls Crowley. “I said, ‘When’s the last time you had a filament jam?’ She said, ‘About a month ago.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I need that machine.’”

Crowley didn’t get to use it for “The Greatest Showman,” but he rented two BigRep One models for his next film, director Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” rounding out an arsenal of 18 3D printers used make everything from knobs and joysticks for the lunar module that puts Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) on the moon to a 14-foot-tall scale model of a Saturn V rocket.

“The benefit of large-format printer like the BigRep is you don’t have to either reduce the scale of the part or chop up the part into many pieces and glue it together,” says Frank Marangell, president of BigRep America.

Working with miniature unit supervisor Ian Hunter, Crowley created 3D computer models based on photos and NASA blueprints, which were then printed out in pieces, painted and assembled.

“Anything that was a basic tube would be made by the carpenters and then detail added,” says Crowley, who’s up for a production design Oscar for “First Man” along with set decorator Kathy Lucas. “Then you could print a whole ramp in one go, and those are complicated shapes.”

Crowley has been using 3D printers since 2014’s “Interstellar,” directed by frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan. But back then he used them strictly for concept models.

On Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “we did models by hand for the Batmobile, and it would take weeks,” says Crowley. With 3D printers, “it was a game-changer to be able design and output something, have a look at it, change something and do it again and again without having to handmake each design.”

“The Greatest Showman” marked the first time Crowley used 3D printers to create objects seen on screen, most notably a forced-perspective scale model of New York City circa 1860 with more than five hundred 3D-printed buildings.

The 3D printers use a variety of different materials (ABS plastic, resins, photopolymers, etc.) to build objects, layer upon layer, leaving behind horizontal lines.

“On ‘The Greatest Showman,’ it kind of looked like brickwork,” says Crowley of the lines. “Obviously, that didn’t work on spaceships, because we had to sand stuff down.”
Crowley says the hardest part about working with 3D printers is learning the idiosyncrasies of the different models.

“It’s like owning a classic car, every machine is slightly different,” Crowley says. “The BigRep will run through the end of the print pretty reliably, but with the other printers,
we have to assume that we’ll get a 20% failure. And there’s nothing worse than getting a day and a half into a complicated print and then something goes wrong.”