There are a lot of things Hollywood doesn’t get right, and since its popular heyday of consumer hype earlier this decade, 3D printing has certainly figured among those things. With more realism settling in among the 3D printing industry itself as the technology matures and is adopted into more real-world applications and global installations, much of that hype seemed to have resolved into a longer-term manufacturing technology suite. 3D printing doesn’t need to be sexy anymore. Except in Hollywood, where everything needs to be sexy and glamorous and over-the-top, 3D technologies remain in the spotlight. While actors are airbrushed and Photoshopped, technologies are glossed over to become their own sort of caricatures, with on-screen renditions only tangientially reminiscent of their real-world counterparts.
While I adore art that makes me think, often I will turn to the movies for an escape, a place to sit back and appreciate the artistry of pageantry and spectacle. Such was the case this weekend when, having just returned home from a week-long vacation on a tropical island, I sought to dip my toe back into everyday life through a trip to the movies back in my own neighborhood. The Ocean’s trilogy, starring George Clooney as Danny Ocean, were playing in a pleasant triple-feature during our stay at the resort, and so my husband and I were happy to check out a matinee of the just-released Ocean’s 8 following trailers and promotions promising a fun summer heist flick. And don’t get me wrong, it was that, the movie was definitely a good time. But it wasn’t long into it before I came perilously close to being ‘that guy’ in the cinema, leaning over to my husband and whisper-bemoaning, “That’s not how that works!”
Light spoilers for Ocean’s 8 follow; trailer to separate for anyone wanting to keep all mysteries intact.
Following the movie’s debut, a slew of reviews immediately followed, as is natural for a star-studded blockbuster building onto an already-popular franchise. A very good many of these reviews focused, though, on an important device used in the heist plot: 3D printing. Are the technologies as presented in this movie feasible? No. No, they are resoundingly not currently feasible.
Such sentiment has been widely shared, including looks from Refinery29, Huffington Post, Bustle, and Vulture. While the last of these also felt the need to raise the issue of 3D printed guns (sigh), it’s notable that audiences are taking notice of movies’ use of technologies. The Guardian pointed out today, in fact, that 3D printing has become a darling of Hollywood, adding a gimmick to near-future (or present day) movies.
With the Star Trek replicator still a go-to visualization for what 3D printing is, media’s depiction of technology offers an entry point for widespread audiences to first become acquainted with what’s out there. Most audiences are savvy enough to recognize that movies are entertainment, often little-related to the real world, but these depictions don’t do us a lot of favors.
In Ocean’s 8, the heist crew uses a pair of glasses with a built-in 3D scanner to get a scan of the $150 million Cartier necklace at the heart of the plot, with the digital file immediately available to send to a desktop 3D printer the team’s ‘fence’ — Tammy, played by Sarah Paulson — had picked up for them. The 3D printed necklace was a visually near-perfect replica that could easily pass for the original Cartier piece all the way up until examination with a jeweler’s magnifying loupe.
I’m willing to let a lot of that slide in favor of movie magic, especially since a too-accurate heist plan wouldn’t really be in anyone’s best interests, but it’s worth taking a look into this movie since it’s playing rather fast and loose, we’ll say, when it comes to depiction of 3D technologies.
So far as the 3D scanning went, I was satisfied that the glasses couldn’t transmit data from the depths of Cartier’s subterranean diamond vault, at least, and it wasn’t a blink-and-it’s done scan, either. Still, the process worked area-by-area in a patterning I personally haven’t witnessed from high-end scanners, much less any that could be included on a casually wearable pair of eyeglasses. No areas needed to be rescanned, which is itself impressive, but all the more so for the shine and sheen of the many diamonds and intricate precious metal setting hardware. The one-and-done scan, taken also only from above without any underside examination of the jewels’ setting, created an apparently perfect digital file that didn’t require any repair, resizing, or filling in of any data holes.
While no photos of the starring 3D printer are immediately available online, I have confirmed that the machine put to use was a MakerBot Replicator Z18. It was a comfort to see the familiar logo alongside high-end brands in fashion and design in the movie, which didn’t shy away from liberal sprinklings of recognizable names, from celebrities to household goods.
“MakerBot gets approached by TV and movie studios all the time looking to add an element of futurism to their set or looking to characterize the story’s tech-guru or hacker. In most cases, the printer just glows quietly in the background, adding little more than its space-age LED hue,” Josh Snider, Public Relations Manager, MakerBot told me.
“The most exciting opportunities are when a production team actually wants to portray the printer in action or as a central plot point.”
The 3D printer made its first appearance finishing up a fairly large-scale print of the David, which Tammy grabbed out of the machine immediately upon completion. (This was the point when I whispered, “That’s not how that works!”) The technology at play was clearly, if briefly, shown to be FDM, as the extruder finished up the top of David‘s head. With no supports nor any adhering agent to the apparently unheated print bed, Tammy immediately presented the clear finished print to Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, perfect without any post-processing to smooth out the layer lines. Maybe 3D printed zirconium somehow doesn’t show layering as clearly as plastic does? Or require supports? Or any means of bed adhesion? Or cooling period?
The material used throughout the movie was zirconium, which was… plasticized and extruded into a filament? Pelletized and used on a hacked MakerBot that allowed for pellet feeding? Liquefied and used on a seriously-hacked resin-based FDM…?? With no more than happy quick quips of the use of ‘3D printed zirconium,’ and no shots showing off the material fed into the 3D printer — and indeed, to my admittedly potentially incorrect recall, only that one shot of the 3D printer in action at all — little attention was paid to the actual 3D printing of the faux jewels. The apparently multi-material 3D printer (unless the jewel settings were also zirconium?), magically packaged with a single print head (unless another one was hidden somewhere clever?), followed up the perfect print of the David with a completely accurate necklace ready to fool Met Gala goers and Cartier security guards at a glance.
As we’ve heard before — and as Bustle quoted — technologies for 3D printing synthetic diamonds have been examined for some time now as materials science continues to advance the possibilities of additive manufacturing. The 2016 Lockheed Martin patent noted here, though, offers a realistic approach involves a particular material composition. Poly(hydridocarbyne), a carbon-based pre-ceramic polymer with structural similarities to diamonds, is in the spotlight here, and the process described in the patent wouldn’t work with even MakerBot’s most advanced Smart Extruder+.
If we ignore a few key pieces of tech process at play, the 3D printing of doppelgänger jewelry is a fun premise for a dazzling bait-and-switch heist. That’s ignoring the difficulties in 3D scanning reflective surfaces, the lightweight yet highly accurate 3D scanner, the lack of a need to fix (or seemingly check) a finished design file to ready it for print, discussion of any software at all, the print speed, unrealistic material use, incorrect machinery choice for that material should it exist as such, lack of post-processing… If we ignore all that, along with a few other how-to-tech issues (just a few), 3D printed fool’s jewels offer a bit of faux-tech fun to the caper from the strong ensemble.
I do find it unequivocally delightful that MakerBot internally called the movie’s 3D printer the “MakerBot CZ18” (cubic zirconia, the cubic crystalline form of zirconium dioxide, often being abbreviated down to CZ, fitting in with humorous ease alongside the Z18 name). We’ll hopefully be hearing more soon from the MakerBot team about their involvement in Ocean’s 8 and what brought the (C)Z18 to the big screen.
“When Warner Bros approached us with the pitch for Ocean’s 8, we were thrilled to introduce them to the Replicator Z18 and give our best tips for how to shoot the printer without adding too much CG. That’s always a big concern — especially with the history of hype and media portrayals creating unrealistic expectations of the technology,” Snider told me today.
“We joined them on set to give a crash course on the printer, then sat back and crossed our fingers the studio wouldn’t add some crazy CG effects like fog, sparks, or big tanks of goo. Obviously the Replicator Z18 can’t print diamonds — we jokingly referred to this unit as the CZ18 — but director Gary Ross and his teams did an amazing job keeping the portrayal down-to-earth while still adding that element of fantasy and intrigue.”
I’ll be honest: I’ve personally stayed away from certain movies and TV shows because they don’t offer enough escapism from my everyday life due to their depictions of 3D printing. Any desire I had to see Hotel Artemis left me at 1:43 in the trailer. Some audiences are enjoying high-tech additions to their favorite shows, and admittedly I was a fan of 3D printing’s use in the most recent season of Black Mirror, where it was used to solid, if secondary, effect.
For the most part, though, rather than an on-screen gimmick, most of what 3D printing currently offers best to the screen is in creation of special effects, props, costumes, monsters, and other movie magic.
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[All images/video copyright Warner Brothers Studios]