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Behind the Scenes: 3D Printing

 

3D Printing: Making a Better Future is an original short I made for the company MatterHackers. It was designed to be a general informational short, so there wasn't a focus on a particular product. My client was interested in having something that could describe the vision of what 3D printing could be someday. For me that meant that there were ample opportunities to have fun creating what was essentially an animated story. And the subject matter was intrinsically inspirational, so I was pumped.

In our first meeting I went over a bunch of potential directions and laid out a variety of emotions that we could evoke. After I had a good sense of the image/feeling they wanted to present, I started writing the story from scratch. During this time I also hunted for good music. In the end I listened to well over 700, relevant songs before discovering something that had the emotional elements I wanted. I think this is the most important stage in the process. It's about building a solid foundation for the months of work ahead.

An early timeline and story document sit side by side. When I'm making a musical short, this is how I develop the story.

An early timeline and story document sit side by side. When I'm making a musical short, this is how I develop the story.

I showed the guys the story beats and let them listen to the music. Even at this early stage, they liked the direction. Next it was time to create the storyboard, but not before using up at truckload of sketch paper. So many ideas came and went, but I eventually produced the storyboard that you can now watch below:

As you can see, storyboards aren't meant to be pretty. Their only function is to get the point across. If you compare it to the final version, you can see that a lot of things changed, but I tried to keep the spirit of it the same. That's all part of the process...discovering what works and what doesn't. For instance, one sequence simple didn't work at all.

After a round of revisions, it was approved so I went forward with visual development. Below are a number of the early images. Keep in mind that this process is a process of discovery. Artists usually have an idea of what they want, but it's more of a feeling. The specifics are fuzzy in our brains, so it takes a while to manifest it. It's no fault of the artist, that's just how the brain works. That said, the feeling is strong, and ultimately that's what keeps us working to bring it to light. It's hard, but if we hang in there long enough, we'll discover something that matches our taste.

One of the earliest designs tests. Just throwing darts at the wall at this point. No idea where it's going to go yet.

One of the earliest designs tests. Just throwing darts at the wall at this point. No idea where it's going to go yet.

You can see that I tried a lot of different colors and styles.

You can see that I tried a lot of different colors and styles.

For whatever reason, I was captivated by a 2D, textured approach. But this ultimately this didn't fit the vision.

For whatever reason, I was captivated by a 2D, textured approach. But this ultimately this didn't fit the vision.

I showed my client visual options, including some of what you see above, but they weren't working great for this video. My client had an unusually mature understanding of the artistic process, so they weren't worried that the direction wasn't there yet. I was thankful that they were so educated about this kind of thing. Eventually I made the following image and knew right away that I had stumbled onto something. It captured MatterHackers' essence and could work well for the story's vision.

The design test that finally started to speak the right language.

The design test that finally started to speak the right language.

After that there were dozens of scenes to design, hundreds of assets to create, and a seemingly unending number of tiny details to obsess over.

Here I am drawing the characters for the last sequence.

Here I am drawing the characters for the last sequence.

The animations I did were ambitious, at least for me at that time. The sheer number of inter-dependencies, scripts, expressions and manual manipulations had my head swimming. The scene that had the most "what the hell am I doing?" moments was when I had a few cubes morph into a 3D printer (0:23). People have since asked me how I managed to do this. The answer is simple: manual labor. It was not a procedural thing. I had to design and map out each piece and then animate them into their pixel perfect positions. It took a number of drawings on paper, and then a lot of experimentation to get the animation paths to flow well and the mass distribution to work. And each piece is actually lined up perfectly to hide the seams that would normally be caused by anti-aliasing.

The last 3-4 weeks were brutal. I was going through a lot at that time in my career. I had obligations to another project, I was doing legal paperwork for my business, and I was going through the stress of quitting my position at a company I had worked at for years. In fact, I gave my 2-weeks notice during the last week of animating 3D Printing. I was sleeping about 4 hours per night, and I literally did nothing else except work. Dinners were made and eaten as fast as humanly possible. T'was tough, but incredibly fun!

The reason I crunched like this had to do with the fact that I am a perfectionist. I could have released something decent and spent more time sleeping. But pain is temporary, and film is forever. Of course the final product wasn't perfect, but it was better than I thought it was going to be. That probably has to do with the fact that I kept adding and polishing all the way up until the last few hours before release. There are even a number of Easter eggs for the careful observer.

Animating ad infinitum.

Animating ad infinitum.

In the end, MatterHackers really liked the film. Honestly, they were one of the very best clients I've ever worked with. They were hands-off, open to new ideas, patient, and understood the artistic process. I hope I get to work with them again one day. They're really smart, excellent people. If you're interested in 3D printing, please go check them out.