Is the Future of Cosplay 3D Printed?

Felicia Day in Dreamer Regalia - Photo by Eric Anderson
Felicia Day in Dreamer Regalia – Photo by Eric Anderson

Felicia day, radiant empress of a dork empire, recently posted a video about some rather spectacular armour designed by Melissa Ng at Lumecluster. Check out her blog. It details the incredible work that went into it as well as the entire process.

I’m starting to see this more and more, and I have some very mixed feelings about it. Not awesome armour. I have the warmest and fuzziest feelings about that. I mean 3D printing in costume and prop work.

On the surface, it’s all good. 3D printing is just another tool in the arsenal of the creator of physical things, right? I certainly won’t say that it’s a bad thing. It opens a world of possibilities for creating new and exciting things.

My concerns come from a selfish place, a place where I find myself in the company of the generations before me scowling, and muttering, “kids today.”

3D printing has the potential to entirely replace huge portions of the solid prop making world. It is faster, more reliable, more repeatable, and usually cheaper than almost any of the alternatives. It allows you to turn designs into finished objects without any intermediate steps. As the machines become more consistent, cheaper, and versatile, these facts will only become more true.

Moreover, it’s easier.

You can learn basic 3D modeling in a weekend, you can grab and modify any of thousands of existing models in minutes, and you can get the tools you need for free. As someone who has spent a good portion of my life trying to master the physical arts, this makes me feel… threatened.

I, and many I know, have worked very hard to learn our tools and materials. We’ve spent countless hours practicing our craft and honing our skills. Now, many of the most challenging aspects of those crafts can be done more easily, and often better, by what is effectively a computer controlled glue gun.

Take for example, symmetry. The human eye is extremely adept at picking up on asymmetry. Crafters learn to work very carefully with measurement tricks and tiny adjustments to get things as close to mirrored as possible. 3D modelers can just hit the “mirror” button and get a perfect result.

Not to say that 3D modelling isn’t a skill. It is, and masters of it create things that boggle the mind. But I’ll be honest, most props don’t require high-end modelling skills, so some kid with a printer at their local library can now prop circles around me.

What this says to me is another branch of creation falls to the technologically inclined, and another skilled trade falls into redundancy.

I can already see my sculpting skills going the way of so many other theatrical trades: hand-lettered posters, matte paintings in movies, and a multitude of visual effects. They’ll be turned over to the CG teams, who will do it faster, cheaper, and better than their predecessors could have dreamed, and the old guard will tell themselves that they’re superior to these upstarts because they had to really work to master their obsolete craft.

My father used to tell me a story: as a student, he was forced to learn to use a fountain pen. It was already an obsolete technology and nobody was actively using fountain pens in a professional capacity. Ball point pens were just better. However, the powers that be couldn’t accept that a skill they had spent so much effort and frustration mastering could be of no real value, so they wasted a generation of children’s time teaching an anachronistic skill.

I suppose this is what he was trying to warn me about. I have a choice here, I can keep up with the times and learn the new tools, or become a museum piece.

Enough with my griping. Let’s go watch Felicia Day be delighted with her armor.

Felicia Day in Dreamer Regalia - Photo by Eric Anderson
Felicia Day in Dreamer Regalia – Photo by Eric Anderson



Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. I read it took the artist over 200 hours to create the 3D models for this armor.  How many hours would it take to make it by hand?  Yes the physical making of the object is now taken over by a machine, but it still takes time and skill to make the model for the computer to print.

    I don’t doubt the software will improve and make models like this faster to create.  Illustrators have had to learn computer graphics, but hand made paintings and drawings still have a higher value in peoples minds.  I doubt sculpting will completely loose its value, but it may become less common.  You may have to get with the times and learn the software.



  2. I don’t doubt that it took 200 hours to do that model. The neat thing about 3d printing is that once the model is done, so is the end product. And they can make another dozen with little added work (not to downplay the effort in finishing in painting). In traditional arts, once the design is done, the work is just starting.

    There’s no way that 3D printing will completely replace sculpture, but I think it will take a huge share of hard props. In props, the material doesn’t usually matter, nor the functional durability. It often just has to look right.

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