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How LAIKA used 3D printing and Cuttlefish software to bring ‘Missing Link’ to life

The animation studio 3D printed over 100,000 faces for its latest stop-motion feature

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One of the most prolific animation studios today, LAIKA has brought stop-motion animation back to the big screen with a number of endearing and entertaining works in recent years. From Coraline to The Boxtrolls to ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings, the Oregon-based studio has touched all of our hearts in some way with its animations—a feat which it owes in part to 3D printing technologies.

Over the years, 3D printing has played in intrinsic role in the production of LAIKA animations, helping to bring its team’s creativity to life. The studio, which combines stop-motion animation and CGI, utilizes 3D printing to create set pieces and characters for its films. For instance, in 2016 it 3D printed a 16-foot-tall skeleton puppet for Kubo and the Two Strings and in 2012 it used 3D printing to create tens of thousands of facial expressions for ParaNorman’s characters.

The tradition goes on, as LAIKA’s latest release, Missing Link, features a number of elements that were 3D printed, including 106,000 faces. The new film, which follows the hairy, eight-foot-tall Mr. Link as he embarks on an adventure to find his family, leveraged Stratasys’ multi-color J750 3D printers as well as the Cuttlefish 3D printer driver developed by Fraunhofer IGD.

The Cuttlefish 3D printer driver, a patented tool which enables precise control over diverse 3D printers for high-fidelity reproduction, allowed LAIKA’s animators to ensure that every 3D printed model matched in color and remained consistent. This is the first time that the studio has employed the Cuttlefish 3D printer driver.

“We have used 3D printers for our stop-motion movies since Coraline, LAIKA’s first film,” said Brian McLean, LAIKA’s renowned Director of Rapid Prototype. “For our current production Missing Link, we leveraged Fraunhofer IGD technologies because they are unrivalled in terms of color consistency and geometric accuracy. The combination of Cuttlefish software and Stratasys J750 hardware has allowed us to produce the most sophisticated colored 3D prints ever.”

In stop-motion animation, scenes are created by sequencing 24 still images per second of film. This, as one can imagine, entails extensive work, as scenes must be carefully placed and moved. Having consistency, from one frame to the next, is therefore incredibly important for a seamless effect.

As a voxel-based universal 3D printer driver, Fraunhofer IGD’s Cuttlefish offered a solution to this challenge, as it enabled the LAIKA team to closely control and monitor the consistency of the geometry and colors of the 3D printed components before being printed. The tool also allows for objects to be simulated onscreen before printing.

A recent advance in the program now opens up possibilities for 3D printing fully transparent objects. That is, Cuttlefish can now account for the dispersion of light through the printed object as well as changes in hues and surface textures from incidental light. This capability is useful not only for the production of animated films but also in other areas, such as the medical sector, automotive industry and in cultural heritage contexts.

“As 3D printer capabilities expand, such as a growing range of available materials, so do the challenges that software must overcome,” Fraunhofer IGD wrote. “Accurately positioning the input material to reproduce geometric and visual attributes requires enormous amounts of data. Against this backdrop, Cuttlefish supports streaming, i.e. processing only the data currently required for printing, minimizing the amount of memory needed. Even highly complex and large 3D models are ready to start printing in a matter of seconds.”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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