Monday, March 25, 2013

Thoughts on 3D Printing and Gaming Miniature Production.

From the first time I heard of 3D printing, rapid prototyping, or whatever you want to call it I have had a dubious wonder about it. The first time I heard it mentioned was in the early 1990s when rumor had it that Steve Jackson Games was considering using an early form of the process to create new OGRE miniatures. Since by this time I had become friends with Jeff Wilhelm, one of the best mechanical sculptors in the miniature business, I was unimpressed by this idea. How could anything sculpted in this new format match anything that I'd seen Jeff create from razor thin pieces of sheet styrene? It sounded like the eternally sought for Philosopher's Stone, a magical device that allows absolutely anyone to create whatever object is currently swimming around nebulously in their imagination without the requirement of time and practice. Like I said, I was dubious.

As the technology progressed however, I have had to reconsider my overall opinion about the process. It's obvious that some creators have embraced this new form of sculpting and are doing amazing work with it. Stunning, beautiful work. The problem that I see is not that such work is being created. It's that it seems effortless to those who don't understand the process.

When I first wanted to learn how to sculpt miniatures, I dreamed of working for Citadel Miniatures and cranking out space marines until my fingers fell off. I had all these great ideas! Ideas are important right? Sure! And then I mixed my first batch of green stuff and started prodding it and pushing it with a dental tool that I'd been given by miniature master Steve Lortz ( I think he said it was a +2 dental tool). Then suddenly my dreams of miniature sculpting fame fell away like the waxen wings of Icarus. Sculpting was bloody difficult! There was no quick way to build up a miniature and it seemed glacially slow compared to the speed of my fevered eighteen year old imagination. I kept at it on and off over the years but never really devoted the time to learning to sculpt that I needed to to become truly proficient.
Early sculpting. Although it's embarrassing to look back on these they remind me of how much better I've become through practice. 
If you can afford to have miniatures that you've sculpted cast you'll learn a ton about what works and what doesn't. There is a difference between the original model and the final castings that's important to see.
3D printing gets past a lot of this drudgery by seeming to be instantaneous. Of course it's not and sculpting a great piece in ZBrush can take just as long as sculpting a green from epoxy but perception is the thing here. And unfortunately in the expanding world of digital miniature sculpting perception, or a lack of it, can cause frustration and failure. In photography there is the term "parallax". This is the visual difference that exists between what the lens of the camera sees and what the eye of the photographer sees. In 3D printing there exists a form of parallax caused by the differences between what the 3D program renders and what is actually printed.

Take a look at the digital render of Crissy Hot-rod from my first attempt to create new Zombie Plague miniatures.
Even though the sculpting is not that great at least there seems to be a good amount of detail on the face. This is what it looks like once it was printed and cast in metal.
The detail pretty much disappears. And although the detail has been softened the strata caused by the printing process is still visible. The loss of detail is not because the casting process can't hold onto detail but it's because of the visual difference between what the rendering program shows and the reality of the actual digital information.

This is effectively explained by Jeff Rodman of Fortress Figures. Jeff has been working with 3D printed miniatures since they became a reality and has seen time and again the problems that can arise from digital parallax. 

"The problem is the traditional sculptor is sculpting in the scale the figure is in so he can adjust in real time so to speak.  The digital sculptor is sculpting much larger than the actual figure will be and has to imagine what it will look like at the ultimate size.  The renders are also a problem.  A render engine will add shadow to accent detail even if the detail is very shallow.  The renders are very deceptive and will not look like the ultimate castings.  

A lot of the problem is the natural inclination to use the default focal shift of the brushes.  Zbrush tries very hard to smooth your deformations into the current mesh.  Problem is, you don't want it smoothed in.  You want it to stand out.  This problem can be mitigated somewhat by using less focal shift on your brush or just making separate sub tools and sharpen the edges.  

This is the typical rivet added by a 3D sculptor:

It is smooth and the edges are blended into the larger mesh.  If it weren't all a shadow color, you could hardly see it. 
This is more like what you want if you want it to stand out:

This has hard edges but also notice it is taller and also notice the draft.  

If you need a round top, you still want to add sides:

These rivets will not just disappear in the prints.  

Here is an example of how most belts and bands are added by most 3D sculptors:
Notice the tapered edges just blend into the mesh.  

You want distinct hard defined edges for your objects more like this:

Try to leave no ambiguity as to where one object ends and another begins.  Remember that miniatures are by their very nature distorted caricatures of what they are depicting.  If you do them true to scale, heads, hands and weapons are very tiny and much of your detail is just too fine to see let alone cast."

So many of the problems that arise from digital to physical come from the rendering program's attempt to smooth the visual image of the render in a way that is actually detrimental to the final physical form. This problem must by compensated for by the digital sculptor if they hope to have miniatures that look anywhere close to their renders.

As this new form of miniature sculpting evolves it is necessary for beginning creators to understand that they are not using a magical device to create miniatures but are instead bound by even more circumstances that can determine if a project succeeds or fails. Basically before you launch a Kickstarter based on some cool 2D artwork that you want to have rendered in 3D and then printed and physically cast learn the process and know what you're up against. There seems to be an overly optimistic sense of what can be down digitally by people who are not yet aware of it's limitations. And all of the positive thinking in the world won't help you if you can't produce good looking miniatures in a reasonable amount of time. Stay inspired and creative but learn as much as you can before you start asking for other people's time and money.

For another take on some of these same issues check out The Eclectic Artists Resource Page by master eclecticist Kevin Contos: