Pixels to Polymers
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 5: (Sep/Oct 2014)

Pixels to Polymers

Artists are creating increasingly complex and highly innovative virtual worlds thanks to advances in computer-aided-design (CAD) software. From films like Avatar, to online community games like The Sims, virtual design is becoming an increasingly popular medium on movie screens and computers everywhere. However, as Gavin Rich, professor of Game Art at Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD), points out, "everything always has to lead back to the real world."

Virtual worlds are filled with mythological creatures and characters or realistic depictions of human beings. But what would such computer-generated images look like in the "real world?" Would the level of detail created using 3D computer programs be visible? Would the hunched back of a villain cast the ominous shadow the artist intended? Is there a technology capable of accurately producing handheld objects that mirror their virtual counterparts' complex designs?

Laguna College of Art and Design alumna Ariel Fain with a laser-sintered reproduction of her award-winning Mayan Mask design. Fain’s entry was additively manufactured by California-based Solid Concepts on an EOSINT P 700 series system from EOS.

Thanks to additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing, six Game Art students from LCAD were able to see their creations in the physical world for the first time and address such questions.

Designing for 3D

LCAD's Game Art program founder and chair, Sandy Appleoff, was eager to introduce the artistic potential of additive manufacturing to LCAD's Game Art students. Her colleague had spearheaded a workshop titled "Pixels to Polymers," where students imagined and developed 3D characters with elaborate masks. The masks alone, designed to be 3D printable, were judged by industry professionals, and the six winners were chosen to have their projects printed by Solid Concepts, a custom and additive manufacturing service provider based in Valencia, California.

Appleoff originally approached Solid Concepts about printing, or "growing," only one mask. But once Scott McGowan, vice president of marketing at Solid Concepts, heard more about the project, he agreed to print six masks, one for each of the additive manufacturing technologies the company provides. He sent a team member from his company to LCAD to advise the students on design techniques. After the contest, Solid Concepts was sent STL files of the winning masks and determined which technology was best suited to produce which mask.

One of the technologies Solid Concepts has at its disposal is plastic laser sintering, provided by an EOSINT P 700 series system from EOS. "Laser sintering is always good for complex geometries," McGowan explains. "We often steer architectural models and anything artistic toward it."

The laser-sintering process begins with a thin layer of powdered plastic (or metal, depending on the type of system) on a build platform. An STL or 3D CAD file of the model to be manufactured is uploaded to the system. A focused laser then traces the outlines and contours a cross-sectional slice taken from the 3D digital model, melting the layer of powder at high heat. Fresh powder is then reapplied, and the next layer of the model is traced by the laser, fusing it to the first and slowly creating a solid replica of the digital data with each new pass. Because laser sintering is an additive rather than subtractive process, the technology "grows" parts one 60-micron layer - about half the thickness of a human hair - at a time.

(top Left) Sketches Fain created for her mask-wearing character, Quetzalcoatl. (top Right) Full virtual design of Quetzalcoatl, from which the mask alone was 3D-printed via laser sintering.

The accuracy of this process is already well recognized in industries such as aerospace and medical device manufacturing, where it is used to produce everything from turbine test blades to customized brain surgery fixtures. Laser sintering can also create complex geometries, even objects that could not be made with any other manufacturing process.

The contest winner whose mask was produced with laser sintering is Fain. Her intricate mask design was based on the legend of Quetzalcoatl, the Mayan god whose name in the Nahuatl language means "feathered serpent."

"My idea was that Xolotl, Quetzalcoatl's twin, gave his brother a cursed mask out of jealously because Quetzalcoatl was highly loved by the Mayan people," Fain explains. "In the end, the mask corrupts Quetzalcoatl and turns him against his people." Fain's mask, complete with intricately detailed feathers and a prominent headpiece, is characterized by deeply etched, raised texturing. Due to the complexity of the mask, the Solid Concepts team determined that the EOSINT P 700 series system would be the best technology to use to grow Fain's design. 

The Woman Behind the Mask

A precocious young woman, Fain has always had a deep appreciation for virtual art, as well as a knack for creating it. As early as age 11, she was using Adobe ImageReady and Flash, and began producing art for a social and role-playing community game at age 14. Much of Fain's inspiration stems from the animated Disney films she grew up watching and video games she grew up playing.

"Being home-schooled, I had a lot more free time because I didn't have to worry about take-home assignments. This allowed more time for gaming," Fain explains. "My favorites were the ones that were fantasy-­based. I love storytelling, and being able to drive the narrative forward with interactive play is something unique that you can't find watching movies or reading books."

A Close-up of the 3D-printed Mayan Mask on display in the student gallery at Laguna College.

This led the student to the Game Art program at LCAD, where she ultimately ended up focusing her studies on 3D design. "There's just something about seeing your designs come to life in 3D," Fain says.

The "life" that Fain is referring to, however, was still restricted to the computer screen. Her Mayan mask project was the first time she had experienced the capabilities of additive manufacturing and designing for 3D printing.

"I really never knew how it worked and am still amazed that Solid Concepts could actually 3D-print something I had made. The whole medium is beautiful," says Fain. "There's a huge difference between seeing something on a screen and then seeing it in person and being able to physically touch it. Now I'm able to hold it and examine it from every angle."

Meeting the Masks

While many LCAD students are entering the Game Art program with an increasing amount of experience in 3D design, 3D printing was a concept foreign to most of them. Designing specifically for additive manufacturing was something none of the contest participants had done before.

"I was in the gallery the day the contest winners all saw their masks for the first time," Rich recalls. "It was like watching kids open up Christmas presents."

Running from pedestal to pedestal, the students analyzed what details came through compared to their digital designs. One of the biggest impacts was how real light played off the physical surface of the models. This is an aspect that is particularly hard to test when working solely on a computer. "You're looking at a flat representation under fake lighting," Rich explains. "So having an actual figure in front of you with ambient light on it can really change your perspective."

Appleoff believes the growing gaming industry will increasingly adopt 3D printing, specifically for avatars and replicas of the creations featured in popular video games. "With the development of new video games come new characters. These characters attract fans, who then demand 3D models of their favorites. This creates a viable commercial market for 3D printing," she explains.

Two examples of ambient light’s effect on the 3D-printed reproduction of Fain’s Mayan Mask. Different background colors and lighting angles create distinctly different views.

Being able to expose students to new mediums and skill sets was one of the main reasons Appleoff set out to establish the Game Art program at LCAD. Having personally experienced the digital shift in the art industry, she is excited to be able to introduce her students to new tools. "We are in the midst of a visual, virtual renaissance, and at the heart of it is games," she says.

The 3D-printed models are not only changing how the artists design and see their work, but also helping LCAD showcase what the Game Arts program is all about. "We usually ink-print 2D renderings of the students' designs to display in the hallway, but when we had the plastic 3D-printed models, they made a stronger impact," Rich says. "Being able to see a physical representation of the work helped show visitors what we actually do in the program."

This isn't only an opportunity for LCAD, but for EOS, as well. "We're experiencing a lot of interest coming from universities and from educational institutions," explains Jessica Nehro, field marketing manager at EOS of North America. "It's a huge initiative for us as an organization to offer our technology to various fields of study, to enable future artists and engineers to realize the power of 3D printing."

Forming partnerships, such as the one between Solid Concepts and LCAD, is one way to affordably add design for additive manufacturing to an educational curriculum. "When I approached Solid Concepts about the contest, it was a real joy to find such enthusiastic support and genuine interest in the program," Appleoff says. She hopes that LCAD and Solid Concepts will be able to build a continuing relationship in order to expose more students to this new medium. "I think there's a genuine magic between what students do virtually and when it becomes reality," Appleoff says. "And that's what 3D printing brings to these young minds."