A Modern Spin on Vintage Animation

Digital film gets physical with 3D-printed zoetropes


3D printing has ushered in a new era of opportunity for creative professionals the world over. For filmmakers, the freedom it affords for designing and realizing complex physical objects has created entirely new means for achieving their vision – from stop-motion films like ParaNorman to the upcoming Star Wars sequel. But as a relatively inexpensive way to iterate ideas, you don’t need to be J.J. Abrams to take advantage of it.

Digital animator Raymond McCarthy Bergeron’s film Re-Belief, based almost entirely on 3D-printed zoetropes, is a prime example of an inventive use of the technology. It’s a high-tech take on one of the earliest forms of animation, and hard to fully appreciate until you actually see what was involved in making it work.

“It would be considered an archaic form of entertainment today,” Bergeron says. “A lot of people think it’s stop-motion, [where] you move something frame by frame every little time. I’m realizing, because it’s an experimental piece, people are reacting to this thinking it’s a puppet or something, when in fact it’s a 3D-printed zoetrope that spins on a disc.”

You’ve probably seen a zoetrope already. In their standard form, a strip of frames is stretched along the inside of a cylinder. Across from each frame is a see-through slit, so that when you spin the zoetrope and stare through, the images inside appear to move.

In Bergeron’s film, the ink-and-paper images are upgraded to three-dimensional sculptures, the slits replaced by the shutter of the camera running at 24 frames per second. Instead of a simple running horse, the moving sequences are elaborate physical scenes that are as intriguing as objects as they are as animations. Spinning in the real world, they also added a spatial dimension to a typically flat form, offering Bergeron unique ways to explore the scenes.

“You could twist and turn and do all these different things, pan-track a dolly, all that fun stuff,” he says, adding that getting a macro lens up close to these whirlybirds is not without risks. “I don’t want to accidentally clip off one of the baby’s hands.”

Three-dimensional zoetropes have been tried before, as far back as Étienne-Jules Marey’s experiments with chronophotography in the 1800s, up to Peter Hudson’s massive Burning Man art installations.

Part of what makes Re-Belief innovative is its adaption of the format into film, and of course its use of 3D printing. Perhaps most interesting though is the translation of digital animation, normally experienced only on view-screens, into actual physical objects. In the same way that a flip-book is the material instantiation of a 2D animation, these are the physical manifestation of three-dimensional sequences conceived entirely in a computer. They retain the full variety of possible perspectives on the scene, as well as the animation itself, and are therefore much more complex objects.

As sculptures unto themselves, they’re also time-intensive and rather unwieldy — one could barely fit through his bedroom door and required special shelves to display. To keep from wasting time, space and money, Bergeron employed a pre-visualization approach. Using his array of digital animating tools–like Maya and After Effects—to render and test his visual ideas, he could plan ahead of time the precise shots he would use, down to the type of lens.

“Because this is such an experimental film, there is no documented known procedure of how to make a film like this, so I kind of had to invent my own process,” he says.

The precise computer models were then either printed into nylon or sandstone, the former coming in one color but made very strong and precise, the second much more grainy but offering a variety of color options. Bringing these visions into materiality therefore posed challenges to the director’s expectations as much as it did technical ones.

“I learned to understand what art really is in a lot of ways, and to accept a lot of flaws,” says Bergeron. “You’re building stuff to be as close to this perfect idea that you have in your head—the difficult thing is that that perfection does not exist at all in reality. As we know, animation in software does not mean it can physically exist in the real world, and as a result I had to sacrifice some of the designs I really wanted to print, but would not economically or physically be feasible.”

Shooting itself posed its own sets of challenges and creative solutions, from hand-painting elements to using a Back to the Future LEGO kit as the basis for a moving dolly.

Technical challenges aside, the film was conceived as a work of art, drawing on allegories for specific memories and experiences in Bergeron’s life. He describes it as, in part, a love letter to his wife, but people are of course free to take away what they will. The cyclical nature of the objects, direct symbolism, even the name of the medium itself all feed into Bergeron’s artistic vision for the work.

“I wanted to tell a personal story, and I was trying to find the right medium,” he says. “Eventually I realized that zoetropes by their nature– ‘zoe’ meaning life and ‘trope’ meaning motif…I wanted to relate that to this personal story.”

Certain impressions, like the totemic mystery of the Easter Island statues that partly inspired the work, might come across easily. Others surprise even the filmmaker himself, like the audience member who was reminded of the loss of a loved one to cancer. For him, any response the audience has is wrapped up in the excitement of experimentation.

“You’re not sure how audiences are going to receive it – it could be very mixed, people just don’t get it, or people just fall in love with it,” Bergeron says. “You kind of have to trust that whatever you’re doing is eventually going to work out.”