Printing Puppets (2022)

Printing Puppets (2022)

Callum Loughnan

From a very early age on Callum had been fascinated by drawn faces and the stories they tell, in turn himself doodling faces and characters in a range of styles, exploring the ability to express emotions through them. This early fascination found an application in stop motion as the tool for movie making where the creation of intricate faces communicating a range of emotions has been a complex and laborious process.

Having modern day directors like Tim Burton and Wes Craven using stop motion proves that it is more than just an old-fashioned style of movie making; rather that the technology conveys a particular story and emotion with a distinct character. But, puppetry and Claymation have always been very labour-intensive ways of making movies and Callum Laughnan’s Master’s research is aiming to improve this.

For this research Callum took inspiration from two contemporary methods which provide superior stop motion production in regards to facial expressions. The first one is the 3D printed replacement method, as used by Laika studio where the incremental changes in a face or body are individually printed in a rigid material and inserted for each 1/24 th of a second to create the illusion of movement. This results in thousands of expensive, non-biodegradable faces and other parts to be printed and ultimately being discarded. The second one is mechanical positioning of faces as seen in Corpse Bride by Tim Burton which involves manually adjusting gears and screws to animate flexible silicone faces. A single character is easy, but a feature film with lots of main and side characters requires a lot of manual work from highly specialized artisans, engineers, and sculptors to create each character. This ultimately restricts access to this particular film making technique.

The research and experimentation undertaken for this thesis explored the possibility of combining these two methods: 3D printing one puppet (-head) complete with the mechanical internals needed to animate it as a proof of concept. However this goal created its own set of conflicting challenges, as 3D printing thresholds and tolerance levels for moving parts needed to be resolved. If the tolerances were too large, the visual quality of changes between each frame would be too extreme. If the tolerances were too fine, the gears would end up getting printed fused together. The culmination of this iterative process led to Callum’s first 4D printed character, Jeffery.

With Jeffery being able to engage dynamically and emotionally the proof of concept is being taken to the next level, where Jeffery can become the star of his own movie and his siblings become accepted parts of society and take on diverse roles in it. This would not only make stop motion film making more accessible, opening it up to budding directors and other creatives, but could also have other applications in the field of pre-assembled mechanics and soft robotics.

Materials and Processes


Fusion360, GrabCAD Print, Blender


Stratasys J850 printer

Project level

Master of Design Innovation (MDI) thesis, supervisor Ross Stevens