3D Printers Revolutionize Work of Broadway Scenic Designers

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02 Mar 2014

John Lee Beatty
John Lee Beatty

Scenic designers Kacie Hultgren and John Lee Beatty share with Playbill.com how the new technology of 3D printers has changed their work. 


One of Kacie Hultgren's duties, as longtime associate of famed theatre set designer John Lee Beatty, is to create the miniature models that illustrate to the director, producer and cast of each production what sort of scenic environment they will be dealing with. Typically, in the past, completing the model took one week, and the work was fairly arduous.

"For the most part, you're using foam core and paper and matte board, and there's a lot of X-Acto blades and putting them together with hot glue," she explained. Beatty insists on a model scale of 1/2 inch to the foot, so the work is meticulous and detailed.

"You're putting together a scale representation of what you're going to see," said Hultgren. "Time schedule is pretty tight. You're trying to get as much detail in the model as you can in the time allotted. That can be tough."

These days, however, the job is considerably less tough, as Hultgren's models take considerably less time, and they are made primarily of one material: Plastic.

Making the difference in her work process is the 3D printer, the technology that created three-dimensional objects and has in recent years become available commercially as a professional appliance. Hultgren bought her first pinter in 2011, and the first show she used it on was the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2012 production of the farce Don't Dress for DinnerShe has used the printer on every show she's worked on since, including The Nance, Orphans, The Snow Geese and the current Manhattan Theatre Club production Outside Mullingar.

"It was mostly just timing" she said, explaining the expansion of her set-building toolkit. "The market [for 3D printers] had really changed from DIY projects to machines for professionals."

A 3D printer quickly creates a fully-formed prototype of any object. If a designer wants to make a tiny chair for scenic model, the machine first reads the design and then executes it, extruding layer upon layer of hot plastic until the geometric shape of the chair is complete.

Chairs are a good example of how a 3D printer streamlines a set designer's job. Almost every set of an interior one can think of includes a chair. And usually, it asks for more than one chair of the same sort. (Think of a dining room or kitchen table set.)

Beatty observed that "it's common that we often need to build multiple identical pieces for models. I was so glad we could make pieces all the same, with less suffering. The wonderful thing about a 3D printer is that an object like bentwood chair or staircase can be reproduced in miniature, be absolutely regular and can be duplicated ad infinitum.


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