The Wolverine: Part digital, part 3D printing

It’s tempting to think that everything we see in big budget blockbusters is just a digital effect. On the set of The Wolverine, while some props were digital, many were real — including props specifically created using 3D printers.
At a media screening of the extended cut of The Wolverine last night, Art Director Michael Turner, stunt coordinator Kyle Gardiner and SFX Assistant Supervisor Lloyd Finnemore were very lightly grilled on aspects of the movie’s production. Lightly grilled because, hey, it’s a media launch for the Blu-Ray that comes out this week but there were some interesting bits of detail that emerged.
Like the fact that there’s someone out there with the job of “Koi Wrangler”, because part of one scene was shot in the Chinese Gardens at Sydney’s Darling Harbour. According to Lloyd Finnemore:

“The biggest thing we had to deal with was the Koi, because they’re protected. So we had to wrangle the Koi out of a big pond into a little pond at the side so that they were OK.”

“We were (firing) bullets into the water. For the most part these were pneumatic spouts of air just under the water directing it up, but we also had pellet guns that would shoot into the water. They had to have fish-edible pellets in them. Ordinarily we’d have glass marbles or something, but we ended up having to compress fish food so we could shoot them into the water to keep the Koi guy happy.”

I've never considered feeding my fish by shooting at them. But I'm now tempted.
I’ve never considered feeding my fish by shooting at them. But I’m now tempted.

It’s fascinating getting some behind the scenes details — like the fact that a nighttime village near the end of the movie is actually the carpark at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, for want of a big enough soundstage — but what I found particularly interesting was the intersection between digital effects and real props, especially those that were created using 3D printers.

The Silver Samurai as he appears onscreen is mostly not real, except when he is. According to Lloyd

“to be honest, 95 per cent of the Silver Samurai that you see onscreen is completely digital. There are some scenes later on where the art department built a suit, on, I’ll call them teeter-totter rigs that held the actor in his suit, and it made him kind of weightless for a couple of key scenes. The majority of it was stunt performers wearing stilts that we tried to make as non-slip as possible — plasterer’s stilts — with climbing shoe rubber on the base of them.”

Michael Turner notes:

“We did actually make one Silver Samurai suit, and that’s the one where he’s sitting on the throne at the very beginning. That was a thing the props department actually made, and it’s beautiful. We drew it all in a 3D program, and sent it all to be 3D printed, and it came back over a weekend in small parts. We’d chrome it here, and then assemble it. That was the only one.”

This one is digital (I think), but there's a full suit of this stuff out there, all 3D printed. Am I the only one who now wants to own it?
This one is digital (I think), but there’s a full suit of this stuff out there, all 3D printed. Am I the only one who now wants to own it?

3D printing has had its impact on this production, as Turner stated

“It’s very fast, because you can model it in the computer, and you can actually get a real thing very quickly. I’m working on another film at the moment, and we’re talking about getting a 3D printer into the art department so that we can build our sets as a model using a 3D printer, that’s a very cool thing to do. We can make them quickly, instead of out of cardboard.
In terms of 3D printing, in terms of organic printing and what they’re doing now, I’d hope we’d soon have something where we could soon print a whole set.”

For Lloyd Finnemore, the attraction of 3D printing has to do with speed.

“We find we use 3D printing, and CAD, just because our timeframes for manufacturing things is so short. We try and do a lot of that activity in-house, because we can do a lot of it on demand. We use inhouse 3D printers for both plastics and wax, and we’re super-excited by the (future) prospect of printing steel.
It’s not my job to predict futures, but anything that makes our jobs easier, faster, and so we can do it economically in the real world and get it right here and right today we’re all in favour of. We’ve built our own 3D printers just to get things fast, because it’s the only way to get things done”

The carpark at Olympic Park is a dangerous place. I already knew this, but not quite how dangerous.
The carpark at Olympic Park is a dangerous place. I already knew this, but not quite how dangerous.

This piqued my interest, because speed and cost are the main reasons why so much of Hollywood has switched to digital effects rather than real ones. I queried the panel about that intersection point; would it be likely that 3D printing could overtake the costs of digital, and would that be desirable?
According to Michael Turner

“It’s an interesting world that we’re moving into. Generally if an actor’s interacting with it, it’s good to have “it”. So anything they hold, or pick up, I think is always good to have it real. Digital is getting so good, they could be picking up a green shape, and working with that green shape.
Like, with the top of the Bullet Train, there was a dagger that was just a hilt that the guys would put on, but the ripping of the metal and the blade is digital. That would have been Lloyd’s job a few years ago, but now it’s all been done. And for the set design, we don’t have to worry about replacements. They’re advancing very quickly. It’s sort of a bit of a grey area as to who’s doing what.
The (3D printed) full Silver Samurai was a sort of vanity project that the production designer fought really hard for. We sort of validated it by saying we could have it at Comic-Con as a marketing tool, but we didn’t need it on-stage, because it didn’t do anything. We could have comped that in, because we’re comping everything else in. ”

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