An Up Close Look at the Stunning 3D Printed Props from the Live Action ‘Ghost in the Shell’

This week the long awaited, and controversial, live action adaptation of the manga and anime series Ghost in the Shell will finally hit theaters. Setting aside the debate over the casting of Scarlett Johansson, it is worth noting that the film itself looks absolutely stunning. Visually, the film seems to absolutely nail the aesthetic of the flashy, sleek and sometimes seedy future Hong Kong-inspired fictional Japanese city of Niihama Prefecture. And much of the futuristic technology that gives Niihama its distinctive feel wasn’t created by computers, but instead built by master prop makers from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.

Former Mythbusters host and prop maker Adam Savage took the crew from his popular YouTube series Tested to Weta and got a close up look at some of the stunning props that were built for the movie. While the use of 3D printers has become nearly commonplace in the construction of movie props, this series of Tested videos showing off the stunning Ghost in the Shell props highlights just how integral 3D technology has become to modern prop making. 3D printers were used for most of the film’s props, including a jaw-dropping, full-size robotic skeleton, several beautiful geisha androids, and even the series’ trademark Thermoptic bodysuit worn by the Major was made by taking a detailed 3D scan of the film’s star, Scarlett Johansson.

The success of recent films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, both films that notably relied heavily on real stunts and hundreds of 3D printed components, has brought physical prop making and practical effects back into style in Hollywood in a big way. Thanks to the ability to use CGI to seamlessly enhance real world settings and technology like 3D printing, once again real world props can add weight and texture to a film. The director of Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders, decided to forgo CGI to build many of the amazing props seen in the film, including the life-sized prop of the robotic skeleton under Johansson’s skin.

Savage devoted an entire video to several of the props that Weta constructed, but the robotic skeleton prop is simply incredible. The challenging build includes between 300 and 400 individual parts, each hand finished and assembled. Several different 3D printing technologies and materials were used, including clear resin and black resin parts printed with a stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer. The lungs were 3D printed in nylon using a selective laser sintering (SLS) process, and the joints and armatures were 3D printed in steel to add stability and durability to the skeleton.

You can take a look at the full episode of Tested featuring the skeleton prop here:

In total Weta did about a month of testing various technologies and materials before settling on the resin and nylon parts. They would show Sanders several versions of each part made with with different materials and with finishes, and they would even do their own screen tests to see how each one looked on film. Once all of the materials were selected, the skeleton was 3D printed, finished and assembled. In addition to the printed parts, small modelling components, tiny computer screws and dozens of laser cut parts were all used. In total the finished prop required hundreds of hours of 3D printing and several weeks of finishing and assembly to complete.

“We would have struggled to make this movie in the time we had to make it 2 years ago, because neither was the technology around, nor was the chemistry within the technology around. The skeleton that we built… the materials weren’t even in existence 2 years ago, so we couldn’t have built it. But we can build it today because technology is iterating and growing…” explained Weta Workshop Creative Director Richard Taylor.

Resin materials specifically have gotten far more advanced, and combined with new, state-of-the-art 3D printing software and post-finishing hardware, can be used produce some incredibly high-quality finished parts. The clear resin used is almost completely translucent, a finish that simply wasn’t possible until recently. To get the crystal clear parts, once they were taken from the SLA printer the Weta team put them in a curing box that bombarded the parts with UV light, essentially over curing the resin. The Weta painting department then finished them off with a clear coat, which intensified the finish. The skeleton was made to fit inside of a life-sized copy of Johansson’s body, which itself was 3D printed using ballistic gel, a material used to simulate human flesh.

The detailed 3D body scan of Johansson was also used to make the iconic Thermoptic suit, a skintight bodysuit that is capable of rendering the Major invisible by bending and reflecting light around her. The suit is as skintight as it looks, I’m assuming ScarJo didn’t eat much on bodysuit days, and would take several makeup artists and costumers to get her fit inside it. Many of the molds for the suit were designed around Johansson’s body, and various parts were cast in silicone using 3D printed and CNC milled molds. In total Weta created four complete bodysuits for Johansson and four duplicates for her stunt double.

You can see Savage get a close up look at the suit here:

Savage also recorded a fascinating segment with Creative Director Richard Taylor, who is also the founder of Weta Workshop, about the amazing geisha android props that they constructed. The geisha were actually highly detailed masks, built to fit over the faces of real life actors. Weta also created several animatronic versions of the geisha heads and bodies, with working interior gears and functional cybernetic organs. The animatronics and masks were made using a combination of 3D printers, CNC mills and old fashioned modelling techniques. Each individual mask was even made to fit exactly on the head of the actor wearing it using a 3D scan of their face. They even included working fans to keep the actors cool, integrated air vents hidden into the geisha hair and eyes that can be seen through by the actor.

As a longtime fan of the series i’m a little uncomfortable with the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major. Not that Johansson isn’t an excellent actress, she is, but it seems odd to cast a white woman in the role without removing it from the Asian setting. And while the filmmakers went to a lot of trouble to make her look like the character from the anime, that in itself is a little problematic. Had this been a straight up American remake, including a futuristic New York or something, it wouldn’t have seemed so jarring. However retaining the Japanese location, and including several high-profile Asian actors, while casting a white woman as the lead just seems off-putting.

That being said, despite the casting issues, the filmmakers clearly took the source material seriously, and did an amazing job translating it into a live action film. As with movies based on video games, movies based on anime rarely look or feel like the original and usually end up disappointing. However with the use of modern 3D printing and 3D scanning technologies, the makers of Ghost in the Shell have crafted, at least visually, one of the most accurate screen translations that I’ve seen. Ghost in the Shell opens in the US March 31st, 2017.


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