May, 2015 Issue

Late Night Musings from the Chair




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3D Printing for Costumes: A Student’s Perspective

by Kathleen Martin; Student at the University of Minnesota, Duluth

            Before attending USITT’s annual conference this year, I had never seen a 3D printer in real life.  Sure, I’d heard a lot about these K Martinmarvelous machines and seen some simple 3D printed objects at the 2014 conference, but the closest I’d come to seeing a 3D printer in action was a YouTube video about the 3Doodler (a pen which can create 3D drawings).
            While at the conference, I attended a session titled 3D Printing for Costume Design and Technology.  The session featured Joe Kucharski, an Assistant Professor from Baylor University Theatre, and Lisa Hanusiak, an engineer for The Walt Disney Company.  Kucharski began the session with an overview of the history of 3D printing, then discussed the software options available for sculpting 3D models that could then be printed.  He also described about some of the ways in which he had utilized his theatre’s 3D printing (my favorite was bean-shaped buttons and little mushrooms for the witch in a production of Into the Woods).  He then gave some examples of how 3D printing had been used in the fashion world, such as the iconic black dress created for Dita Von Teese in 2013.  Then Hanusiak took the stage and shared some of the techniques and objects that had been created for the Walt Disney World Resort’s Festival of Fantasy Parade, and I was completely blown away.  All of the pieces that Hanusiak showed were incredible—seeing the photos of the items and being able to hold the pieces that she had brought was like candy for my eyes and hands.  By far my two favorite items were the gold filigree headpiece for the Raven costume and the Sea Shell Headdress, which is literally a giant seashell adorned with gold and pearls.
            I left the session thoroughly in love with 3D printers.  However, several days later I began to wonder—are 3D printers too much of a good thing?  An article I read last fall titled “My Role in De-skilling the Arts” came to mind.  In it, J. E. Johnson, a faculty member at The University of Texas, Austin, describes how over the years he has witnessed a decrease in his incoming scene shop students’ “understanding of the manual arts.”  At the same time, technology such as the CNC router allow faster and more precise work, at the cost of decreasing opportunities to practice valuable hand skills.  Johnson brings up David Pye’s concepts of “workmanship of certainty”—where the quality of an object has been determined beforehand and is out of the workman’s control—versus “workmanship of risk,” where quality is dependent on “care, judgment, and dexterity.”
            Although Johnson’s article deals with production in an academic scene shop, I can see how the issues he discussed could transfer over to 3D printing.  Instead of figuring out how to make something by hand, a costume technician might pass on a costume piece to instead be digitally sculpted and printed.   Jewelry, headpieces, armor, shoes, wigs—all could be printed instead of built, leading to a loss of valuable experience to learn and practice skills of the costume craft. 
            I am by no means an expert on 3D printing, but it seems to me that a delicate balance must be struck in the use of 3D printers.  Setting aside logistical factors such as budget and timeframes, I think that 3D printers should be embraced not as a replacement for existing construction methods but as an additional option.  Many of the methods that shops use to build costume pieces were at one point in history a new technology themselves.  I believe the best example to be the sewing machine.  Nowadays sewing machines are the first and foremost tool of the costume technician, yet the first widely used sewing machine model was not patented until 1830, long after the rise of elaborate costume.  Sewing machines do not invalidate hand sewing; rather they provide an alterative to sewing seams by hand.  In fact, sewing machines require just as much hand skill as sewing by hand does—instead of de-skilling, the sewing machine re-skills.  3D printers work much the same way, re-skilling as oppose to de-skilling, as those who wish to utilize them must learn a whole host of new abilities—3D model software, digital sculpting, assembly and finishing of printed pieces, to name a few.
            3D printers have the ability to push the imaginations of costume designers and costume technicians alike.  Mirena Rada, the costume designer for Disney World’s Festival of Fantasy Parade, has said that although her designs for the parade came before her introduction to 3D printing technology, she will “absolutely approach any future design with the 3D process in mind.”  Both as a costume designer and technician, in the future I would be glad to have a 3D printer in my arsenal.

Further Reading

The Dita Dress

The 3D Printed Costumes of Disney’s Festival of Fantasy Parade

My Role in De-skilling the Arts