How 3D Printing Helped Star Wars: The Force Awakens Zoom into Theaters

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3dp_bb8_Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens3D printing has been one of Hollywood’s prop making secrets for a few years now, and the technology has been heavily deployed in everything from The Lord of the Rings: The Hobbit trilogy to Iron Man and all of the subsequent Marvel films to the Star Trek reboot series. But it isn’t only props that are getting the 3D printing treatment; Hollywood costume designers have started to incorporate 3D printed features in many of the costumes that they’re designing. Hollywood prop makers, costumers, SFX designers and makeup artists have been developing some revolutionary uses and applications for 3D printing, and the next few years of upcoming action movies will be no exception. Among all of the hype and excitement for the slate of sci fi and action movies do out in the coming years, nothing will touch the build up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which finds itself landing in theaters this weekend.

Star Wars isn’t just another movie franchise, it is literally THE movie franchise. Star Wars started everything that we love, and let’s be honest hate, about blockbuster movies. Not only were they the first to heavily invest in movie merchandising, they were the first science fiction movie to become part of the world’s cultural language and enrapture fans not typically interested in genre movies. So it is no surprise that the huge excitement that the seventh film in the series is generating has given its obsessive fans a closer look at the filmmaking process then ever before. While the filmmakers and Disney, who purchased the rights from Star Wars creator George Lucas for $4.5 billion, have made sure to keep a tight lid on the movie itself they have gleefully provided a wealth of information about the process of making the movie.

After the prequels were heavily criticized for relying far too much on digital effects, the director of The Force Awakens was quick to point out that he would be using as much practical effects as he could. That meant lots of real world sets filled with real world actors and extras, all of whom would need to be wearing costumes and holding futuristic props. Fans got their first look at exactly how much 3D printing was used in the film when Disney debuted a truckload of costumes and props at both the 2015 Star Wars Celebration and the Disney D23 Fan Expo. Costumes were presented in enclosed glass cases with plaques detailing how each part of the costume was made, and 3D printing was integral to quite a few of the props. In fact, it is probably safe to say that many of the costumes wouldn’t have been possible without 3D printing, at least not in practical terms.


Kylo Ren.

One of the biggest mysteries leading up to the film’s release is exactly who was under the mask of the new trilogy’s main villain Kylo Ren. He was the mysterious helmeted bad guy using the controversial hilted, red lightsaber seen in the first teaser trailer released last year. A close up examination of it revealed that the entire prop was completely 3D printed, which is common these days for movie props that are going to be seen in multiple scenes throughout the movie. The filmmakers would need several versions of the prop, different versions for closeups, stunts and SFX shots and a 3D printed prop would simply be much easier and less expensive to reproduce several times.

While many prop houses and practical effects fabricators will often have their own on-site 3D printers, the growing use of 3D printing in film has resulted in a whole new type of 3D printing service bureau that caters almost exclusively to Hollywood. 3D printing companies like PartWorks offer 3D printing and rapid prototyping to all sorts of industries, but an increasing number of their clients are from films, TV shows and broadway productions who need unique, realistic and accurate props quickly and without the need for several different companies. They offer prop making services from top to bottom, starting with 3D scanning, reverse engineering, 3D CAD and then entire prop fabrication process which includes using their on-site metal stamping and fabrication, CNC machining, 3D printing and plastic injection molding machines.

“3D printing is dramatically changing the motion picture, home video and television industry. PartWorks is uniquely positioned to provide a one-stop digital manufacturing solution that studios and production houses can rely on to quickly and efficiently bring fantasy closer to reality. In a business where each prop is custom and can be quite extraordinary, our customers demand quick, reliable response and premium service. Our unique combination of custom part design and production services dramatically reduces turnaround time and lowers the risk of involving multiple partners,” says PartWorks CEO Scott Geller, who recently worked with the History Channel on a series of detailed historical reproductions.


Captain Phasma played by 6’3″ Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie.

The D23 Fan Expo also revealed that large portions of the shiny chrome Stormtrooper armor worn by the ruthless Captain Phasma played by Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie were 3D printed. The 6’3″ Christie makes an imposing villain in her armor, and 3D printing was heaving used to produce multiple parts of the costume. Her helmet, based heavily on the iconic Stormtrooper helmets which were also 3D printed, was designed using CAD software and then 3D printed in nylon that was then chrome vacuum-plated. The rest of the costume also had several 3D printed details, like her gloves which were made of leather and then covered in 3D printed pieces that were similarly chrome-plated. Similarly the large staff used by the movie’s hero Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, was 3D printed in several parts and then assembled, painted and wrapped in swatches of fabric to make it look like a well used piece of equipment.

Perhaps the biggest use of 3D printing was saved for one of the most recognizable characters from the movie, the golden protocol droid C3PO who was played once again by Star Wars legend Anthony Daniels. The 69-year-old British actor has almost continually portrayed Threepio, not only in the six previous movies, but in everything from cartoons, video games, animated movies, theme park rides, TV commercials and all manner of media, so being included in the cast for The Force Awakens was clearly a no brainer. But in an interview with Yahoo! Movies Daniels, revealed that while he did resume his role inside the nervous droid, donning the gold plastic suit wasn’t initially a requirement this time around.

69-year-old British actor Anthony Daniels resumes the role of C3PO.

69-year-old British actor Anthony Daniels resumes the role of C3PO.

“For The Force Awakens, when J.J. Abrams asked me if I would be in it, he said, ‘Do you just want to do the voice?’ And I said, ‘I want to be in the costume, but I want it to be faster.’ So what they did was 3D print it. It weighs about the same, I would say, because the plastic is quite heavy, but it allows you to prototype things. So it looks exactly the same, but there are differences to the way it fits together that make it much faster to put on and take off, which is most important. It gets hot in there,” explained Daniels.

The new 3D printed red-armed C3PO costume.

The new 3D printed red-armed C3PO costume.

All of the costumes and costuming props were created under the supervision of practical special effects and costume design legend Michael Kaplan. He has been working in Hollywood since 1981, and won the first of many industry awards for the costumes for the classic science fiction film Blade Runner. In the coming decades he would design award winning costumes for notable films like Fight Club, Armageddon, I Am Legend, and Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He has been incorporating 3D printed components to many of his costumes in recent years, including the recent hit movie Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the costumes in the rebooted Star Trek franchise where he first worked with The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams.

In the coming months 3D printing is destined to play a huge role in the costumes and props from some of Hollywood’s most anticipated films, like the DC film Batman vs Superman where costume designer Michael Wilkinson heavily relied on the technology. 3D printing was used to design several prototypes for Batman’s iconic cowl which was designed using a 3D scan of actor Ben Affleck’s head, neck and shoulders. And once again 3D printing was used to create the metallic undersuit structure of Superman’s Kryptonian costume as worn by actor Henry Cavill, who had his entire body 3D scanned so the suit could be designed using CAD software and include several 3D printed features.

Several prototypes of the Batman cowl were made using the 3D scanned head of actor Ben Affleck.

Several prototypes of the Batman cowl were made using the 3D scanned head of actor Ben Affleck.

And of course we’ll see more in the next Marvel film due out in May, as Captain America: Civil War will feature just about every character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of them with costumes incorporating 3D printed components. Renowned costume designer Judianna Makovsky who previously worked with Marvel on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was in charge of creating dozens of superhero costumes, including the Captain himself, a new suit of armor for Iron Man, the Winter Soldier, War Machine, the Falcon and an all new version of the newest and tiniest Marvel superhero, Ant-Man. Makovsky isn’t a stranger to costuming large films with fantastical, 3D printed elements; she’s worked on the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series and X-Men: The Last Stand.

It’s clear that with the next few years of blockbuster science fiction, action and superhero movies already slated that 3D printing will continue to play a major role in their creation. And with several new Star Wars movies already in production, including two additional sequels, spin-off films like Rogue One due out next year and Han Solo and Boba Fett origin movies, Kaplan will have plenty of opportunities to impress us once again with his ability to blend traditional costuming methods with advanced 3D printing technology.  Discuss this story in the 3D Printing Star Wars forum thread on


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