Hero Props That Save the Day

Propshop turns to LightWave 3D and 3D Printing to create just the right props for high-profile films

Posted: Mon 13 Jan 2014

In the James Bond thriller Skyfall, a Merlin helicopter crashes into a building and is engulfed in flames and smoke. At first, viewers might think it was a clever CG-effect that composited a 3D helicopter with a live action plate. Or maybe it was a real helicopter that was sacrificed for the sake of the movie? How about a miniature model?

The answer is, none of the above. The helicopter was fabricated piece by piece in the VX1000, one of the industrial-strength 3D printers that Propshop uses to bring Lightwave 3D models to life. Once Propshop technicians assembled and embellished the 3D printed parts for the helicopter, the result was an accurate, one-third-scale hero prop of a Merlin that crashed realistically into a building while cameras rolled.

“You get real chaos when a large, heavy object blows up or crashes into something else. And you can’t beat the way lighting falls on physical objects,” said Jet Cooper, 3D supervisor in the Digital department at Propshop. Located at Pinewood Studios in London, PropShop specializes in the design and manufacture of hero props, set pieces, costumes, models and miniatures—virtually any one-of-a-kind object that’s key to dramatizing a story.

“While it isn’t practical or safe to smash an actual 60-foot helicopter into a building, or to drive a priceless vintage car off a cliff, the effect can be accomplished realistically using the richly detailed hero props we create using Lightwave 3D and our 3D printer,” said Cooper. “Hero props can also be tiny objects like the casino chips embossed with red dragons that James Bond wins at a casino in Skyfall. Having an accurate, distinctive object in hand or on set helps actors get into role and the audience to buy-into the premise of the scene.”

Compared to the traditional means of making props using wood, plaster, or other physical materials, the combination of Lightwave and the 3D printer is very fast, cost-effective and not carved in stone. Propshop brings new technology and traditional craftsmanship skills together, the digital department works closely with the 3D printers and the workshops to create each piece.

“If someone’s spent weeks carving a 12-foot wooden statue for a movie, and the director realizes they really need it to be 40-feet high, the choices are limited: spend more time remaking it, use the wrong size prop anyway, or scrap the scene altogether,” said Cooper. “With the 3D printer approach we modify our 3D model in Lightwave, send the new 3D data set to the 3D print department, and in hours, the pieces to form the new statue materialize so it can now be the right height. The workshops then apply post processes and paint all the pieces or they go to mold.”

While these physical hero props are as malleable as a 3D CG object, Cooper is quick to point out that there are still instances where CG makes perfect sense. In fact, in the case of the Merlin, the chopper blades on the physical helicopter were added in the CG environment because having real heavy metal-plated objects whirling around posed a danger to the film crew. And while the fiery explosion was primarily a practical effect, it was enhanced with smoke, dust, and other particle elements in the CG environment.

For the movie Zero Dark Thirty, which recounted how U.S. Navy S.E.A.Ls found and killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, Director Kathryn Bigelow wanted to convey the story as faithfully as possible. During the nighttime raid in Pakistan, the S.E.A.Ls wore special-issue night vision goggles, which cost the Pentagon $65,000 each. Even if the Zero Dark Thirty production was willing to spend the money to outfit two-dozen actors with these night vision goggles, they were not available from the U.S. Military at any price.

When the decision was made to create the night vision goggles from scratch using Lightwave and the 3D printer, Cooper had a difficult time finding good reference materials for them. All he could find were very small, blurry pictures he downloaded from the Internet and brought into Lightwave. He then built the 3D models right over top of them in Modeler. The night vision goggles, which Cooper describes as two binoculars with four connecting tubes—were then printed in the 3D printer then finished and painted by hand.

“Our technicians actually took the printed pieces and disassembled them in order to put real night vision lenses into them,” Cooper said. “Not only did they look like the real thing, the actors could actually use them as night vision goggles during the filming. After seeing the movie, U.S. military people even commented to us that they looked just like the real thing.”

Also for Zero Dark Thirty, PropShop used Lightwave and the 3D print technology to create large wall plaques of the “Great Seal of the United States,” that could hang on the walls of a U.S. Embassy set. The distinctive seal features the American bald eagle holding 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other.

“When production companies ask us, do you think we can build these things, I know one thing for sure. There’s nothing I can’t model or achieve in Lightwave,” Cooper said. “It’s my secret weapon. This modeler is very powerful. It lets me model with polygonal sub-division very accurately. And I can give Lightwave objects incredibly photo-realistic looks, textures, and finishes.”

“If a director is looking for a distinctive looking rifle, we can model the gun in Lightwave and then render it out in wood, or tarnished steel, or with metal plating on the sides—so directors can see the look before we print. We can perfect it version after version until the director is satisfied we’ve found the exact right look,” Cooper said.

From Lightwave 11, the 3D data set then goes to one of the VX1000s, which either creates the entire object in one piece if it’s small or in pieces if it’s very large. The VX1000 has a build space of 1060x600x500 millimeters and print heads capable of 600 DPI-resolution.

Even if all you need is a single object, the VX1000 cost-effectively builds moulds (using PMMA polymer resin blocks) that have complex geometries and undercuts that are true to detail on-demand. In a matter of hours, the 3D printer creates the objects using an additive process, meaning it adds layers of polymer onto surfaces rather than cutting or carving into it.

When the pieces finish printing, they are just plain gray objects or parts. Propshop technicians apply post processes, assemble and paint them, put on metallic finishes, add clothing, even install electric wiring and working lights—whatever it takes to make the gray plastic forms look real.

The best example of this is the Aston Martin DB5, a prominent hero prop that’s used in critical scenes of Skyfall. Known as the 007 Bond Car, the DB5 is a classic 2-door luxury grand tourer from the early 1960’s that was driven by James Bond in Goldfinger and other Bond movies. Since the car is now a rare collectible worth millions, it made sense to build it piece by piece in the 3D printer, especially since it would be riddled by bullets and ultimately driven off a cliff.

The detail of the DB5 in Skyfall can be described as painstaking, right down to the reclining leather seats, metal trimmed dashboard controls, chrome wire rims on the tires, wool pile carpets, doors that open and close, and the magnesium alloy finish on the body of the car.

“Since 3D printed parts are opaque, our technicians made a mold of the 3D lens covers for the headlights and poured a clear resin into the mold to make the headlight lenses clear,” said Cooper. “Every part is true to size at one-third scale of its original size. To be sure, I got the measurements of each car part and used a Lightwave plug-in called AS Absolute Size to ensure that every one of the 3D modeled parts was consistently sized in relation to each other and the whole car.”

In Skyfall, scenes featuring the hero prop car were interspersed with scenes in which Skyfall Bond star Daniel Craig drives a real DB5. “We can take an idea for an object from someone’s head and literally materialize it in a form that people can use in the real world,” Cooper said. “The hard part is seeing the helicopter come back from the set all charred and the car totally wrecked. Then it’s onto the next thing, and with Lightwave, our 3D print technology and the skills of our creative crew, the sky’s the limit.”