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Crafting Miniatures for 3D Printing

Bartłomiej (Bob) Płociennik, a digital sculptor and a mentor at Game Art Institute, talked about the process of preparing models for printing, the current state of 3D printing technologies and services. On June 18th, Bob is starting Sculpting Miniatures For Production classes at GAI.

Bob: On June 18th I’m starting classes in Ryan Kingslien’s Game Art Institute called Sculpting Miniatures For Production. It’s a six-weeks live course and in it, I’ll teach you how to create miniatures like the ones you can find in my portfolio, step by step, from scratch to final files that can be sent to a printing company. No prior knowledge is required. Check out the course page for more details.


80lv: Bob, could you introduce yourself to us? Where do you come from, what do you do, what projects have you worked on? You’ve had an amazing career in the field of digital sculpting. Could you talk a bit more about the way you’ve gotten into this industry?

My name is Bartłomiej Płociennik, but everyone has been calling me Bob for many years now. It’s easier for people all over the world to pronounce it, too, so that’s the name I go by now online (and offline for the most part). I’m from Poland, I live in a city called Poznań.

I’ve always been into miniatures – everything started with Lord of the Ring Strategy Battle Game. I’ve been collecting and painting statuettes as a little kid, and if some miniatures were too expensive for me or never produced, I’d sculpt them myself in plasticine. First of them were terrible, I’m not gonna lie, but over the years they got a bit better. Eventually, people who lived around started commissioning me the miniatures they always wanted but couldn’t buy anywhere.

When I was in high school I started taking commissions from companies as well, some small niche ones, and still as a traditional sculptor. That was a big step for me. When sculpting those commissions I had some unpleasant experiences with traditional medium. I dropped some models before they were baked and wasted dozens of hours just like that. I had to resculpt some highly detailed elements over and over due to their size being a bit too small or a bit too large, got prototype damaged at molding and lost it entirely without any means to recover the progress. That was when I realized that none of those issues would ever occur in the digital world, so digital sculpting was the next natural step for me.

All the good tutorials we have today were not around back then, so it took me a few years and quite a few failed attempts, but eventually, I learned to do digitally what I’ve been doing traditionally for years. I love ZBrush ever since. I still grab clay or plasticine sometimes, but never for the professional projects.

As for the projects I worked on, aside from a few indie Kickstarters I freelanced for, I’ve spent most of my career working for two companies. First two years, I worked for Prodos Games. They were producing a lot of miniatures for many kickstarted games, so I worked on many of those. They had NDAs signed, so I cannot get too deep into that. Other than that, I worked on some of their flagship games which were Warzone Resurrection and Alien vs Predator. After two years, I decided to move on to work for a company called Mierce Miniatures where I got to work on many amazing miniatures for the game Darklands. You can see most of those in my Artstation portfolio.

Current State of 3D Printing Technology

80lv: What is the current state of 3D sculpture printing? It feels like even a couple of years ago, the detailing on most of the printed products was rather poor. Now, we can produce amazing super detailed and expensive sculptures that look like something from the production of a Hollywood film. What has changed exactly? Was there a leap in the tech that gave a push to the quality of the models?

I wish I could say that there was an amazing leap in technology that enabled that, but I don’t think there was any, to be honest. I’ve never delved too deep into the history of 3D printers, but the way I understand it is that the technology we use today (DLP – Digital light processing which uses a projector and SLA – Stereolithography that uses laser) was available around 30 years ago as well. The problem was the price though, the cost of the printer was tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollar. So naturally, people used the cheaper and lesser in quality printers (usually FDM technology – fused deposition modeling). But as the technology in general progressed, and demand for the high-quality printers rose, more and more companies started producing them and finding ways to make them cheaper and better. Now you can get a decent printer below a thousand dollars, and an amazing one for a few thousands. As a result of that price drop, many companies now have their own great in-house printers, and with it, the quality of the prints went that much up. These days there’s not really any difference between traditional and digital sculpture, you can rarely tell them apart when holding in hand.

Main Tools for Digital Art

80lv: What would you say is the main tool for the digital sculptor today? I’m guessing that ZBrush is the answer, but maybe you feel there’s some other software necessary?

Yeah, ZBrush is the answer. Of course, a PC and a graphics tablet to go with it, but that’s it really. You need some software to add supports for the printer (it can’t print mid-air, each part that is not in contact with the “printing bed” has to be supported by a tiny pillar), but there are many of those… Most of the printers have their own software for that, and every company I ever worked with had an employee who handled the printer and added the supports. Even though I have done it myself a few times on some free software for my personal projects, in my professional career I’ve never been asked to make supports for printing the model. So, I don’t think as a digital sculptor you even need to know or own that kind of software.

What to Consider When Making a Sculpt for Printing

80lv: What is the key difference between sculpting and sculpting for a 3D printed model? I’m guessing working out different parts is essential, but there are obviously other questions like details, scale, size, and many more. Can you give us some tips as to what to take into consideration when you are building these small scale sculptures?

The biggest difference is that the model has to exist in the physical world. So naturally, everything needs thickness. Moreover, people will most probably heavily abuse the physical model, so not only it needs some thickness, it needs a massive amount of thickness on every part of it, in fact. And of course, if you took some scanned data of a real person and printed it at a 30-75mm scale, there would be no details whatsoever, because it’s just too small compared to the size of the body. So basically, the smaller the final miniature is the more you have to exaggerate everything. For a model you want to print you are probably better to aim at the Blizzard-like style than photorealism.

Projecting Details

80lv: I’m really interested to learn about the way you’re doing a low-resolution mesh and project all the details on it. If you could give some tips as to how you actually work with the details for these projects,  that would be amazing.

If I understand correctly, you mean the part of the process right before the posing. Just to clarify, I sculpt my models in a T-pose for as long as possible to take advantage of symmetry. At the same time, I use mainly Dynamesh. However, anyone who spent several hours inside ZBrush knows that a mesh like this is not fit for posing whatsoever. Distortion of the details would be far too terrible. The thing about miniatures though, in contrast to games, VFX or any other digital models is that in miniatures nobody will ever look at the wireframe or need it to be perfect. So you can get away with simple Zremesher to get a low-resolution mesh and just use the Project All button skipping all the pain game developers have to go through. It’s really easy and gives you a mesh that is easy to pose using basic ZBrush gizmo.

Printing Intricate Parts

80lv: What are the technical requirements for models prepared for 3D printing? For example, in case of hollowing? What is the way you’re printing stuff like capes, fur, and intricate props?

Basically, most of the problems are not the result of the printing process, but rather casting, in either resin, metal, plastic, etc. You have to keep in mind that a printed model is not really the final product, it’s used for prototypes that are later molded and cast in all these materials. Therefore, you have to think which parts will be hard to cast, and either backfill them to make a more solid piece of geometry or, in case of loose capes you asked about or long weapons strapped to belt, it’s just better to cut them off and cast separately. And it’s, of course, easier to cut it off digitally than physically, so they are cut off in ZBrush and printed separately. The rule of thumb is to cut off the arms and everything that is loose. It’s not always the case, but explaining it in written form without showing the examples is a bit tricky, to be honest.

As for the hollowing, it depends. It’s required sometimes to avoid visible stepping on the model if the layer displayed on the projector in the dlp technology is too big. There are some suction forces that can distort the model layer by layer and ruin the print. It’s also done on bigger models to save both resin and time, especially in sla technology.

3D Printing Services

80lv: Finally, can you recommend us some services where you can bring your 3D model and get a good print? Where should you go if you want to 3D print your characters?

That’s a hard one. First of all, many miniature manufacturing companies have their own in-house printers as I mentioned before, so if you like some miniatures you see online, it might be worthwhile to just email them and ask if they print on commission (there’s a good chance they do). Personally, I mostly just hand over the stls to my contractors that have their own in-house printers. Most of my early models have been printed by Prodos Games when I worked for them, but I think they stopped accepting printing commissions years ago. Most of my recent works have been printed at Mierce Miniatures, and I think they still might be accepting printing commissions. I’m not 100% sure of that though, but as I said before, you can email them and ask.

As for my personal projects, I’ve only used Shapeways a few times to print some jewelry pieces, as they offer to print in metal, If that’s what you’re looking for, I can certainly recommend them. I think they offer regular highly detailed printing as well, but I’ve not used it myself.

I’ve also heard many good words about a company from Asia called Ownage. I believe they specialize in 1:6 scale. I’ve never used them personally, but the photos I’ve seen are amazing.

80lv: It would be awesome if you could also provide some illustrations of the final projects, or maybe some WIP images and photos of the printing process. That would be an amazing addition.

I don’t have any contact with the production process as the miniatures are produced in the UK and I’m working here in Poland. Even if I get some sneak peeks, the companies often don’t want those out for various reasons. That being said there are some photos of the resin casts on the company website for sure, here are a few:

Those are photos of the final products. As for the renders, I show as much as I can in my Artstation, so for that, you can check out any projects in my portfolio. In general, those at the top are the most recent ones, and probably of the best quality.

Some of my personal favorites are:

In some of the projects, you can see the model cut into parts. That’s probably the closest WIP I can give to you in terms of my professional work. Angedern or Banbreca are great examples.

There’s also one project I did completely on my own from sculpting in ZBrush all the way to the printing, a fanart made for a friend. It’s not my usual highly detailed miniature but rather a funny collectible, but I made photos of every stage as there was no NDA holding me back. You can find WIPs, final renders, supports, printing, UV bath and final photos of the print here.

Bart “Bob” Plociennik, Digital Sculptor & Mentor at Game Art Institute

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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