How a Toronto 3D printing studio makes lifelike miniatures of real people
About four years ago, just for the hell of it, Steve Cory, president of the three-dimensional printing company Objex Unlimited, used a new 3D scanner and printer to make a tiny, scale replica of his friend’s entire body. That first personalized, pint-sized statue eventually led to the launch of Sculptraits, Toronto’s first three-dimensional portrait studio, where anyone can have a miniature version of themselves—a “Selftrait”—made for as little as $120.
The quality of the five- and six-inch figurines has improved dramatically since that initial test run. The latest versions capture subtle facial features, creases in clothes and the straining of muscles. Even the colours of skin, clothing and hair are remarkably true to life. Although the process is made possible by a tent-like custom photo booth and an $80,000 industrial 3D printer, much of the work is done by Objex employees, who meticulously prepare and edit the three-dimensional images, and put the finishing touches on the printed sculptures. Here’s the process, from shoot to shipment:
The 3D photo booth is in a facility located on Davenport Road, near Dupont. It’s a white tent riddled with holes to accommodate the lenses of 135 DSLR cameras, which simultaneously capture a person’s image from all angles.
Unlike many other 3D scanners, which require the model to be perfectly still, this one allows for some freedom of movement. It can capture a pose in milliseconds.
Each session produces hundreds of image files, all of which are transferred to a nearby computer in seconds, thanks to custom software and hardware. The photographer picks out three different poses for customers to choose from. A standard five-inch statuette costs $120, but props—customers have posed with things like musical instruments, umbrellas and aerial silks—add to the cost.
Digital sculptors apply finishing touches to the 3D image using a common digital modelling tool called ZBrush. The touch-ups are usually subtle corrections to shadows and dead space introduced in the scanning process, but it’s also possible for a sculptor to make more imaginative changes. If someone wants their mini-me to have a centaur’s body, for instance, it can be done.
The 3D printer uses standard inkjet cartridges to apply a tiny amount of ink to a flat layer of gypsum powder.
The ink bonds the powder into a plaster cross-section of the figurine. Over the course of three hours, the printer creates around 500 of these wafer-thin cross-sections, piling them atop one another until the figurine takes shape.
When the print is complete, Objex model finisher Kate Haines carefully digs the 3D figure out of the gypsum with her hands, using an airbrush to blow off excess powder.
“The most difficult ones are when people have their hands and fingers stretched out,” Haines said. “They’re really easy to break.” The facility’s failure rate is higher in July and August, because of the effect of humidity on the powder—but it’s close to zero in the winter months.
Haines then gently sands the figure, douses it in super glue (which stiffens the gypsum and enhances the colours), and sands the figure again for a smooth finish. “There’s an art in how you take it out and sand it,” Cory said. “You need a lot of touch and a lot of experience.”
Haines lays the figure in a toaster oven to set the glue, dips it in wax, and pops it back into the toaster oven to get rid of the excess wax.
The finished product is then left to cool before being packaged and shipped. The figurines typically arrive in seven to 10 days, but rush orders can be ready to go within 24 hours. (These two statuettes are likenesses of this story’s author, Stephen Baldwin, and photographer, Giordano Ciampini.)