These robo-artisans are creating Hollywood’s most elaborate props

Nick Rochowski

Hollywood is powered by dreams. Its future, however, is being made out of polystyrene. At Robocarv’s studio in Gloucestershire, a robotic arm grinds out movie props – from the very same sheets of plastic foam typically found in store packaging.

Working from digital 3D models created by a handheld Artec Eva scanner, a Kuka arm uses CNC milling to churn out accurate replicas within hours. For filmmakers, it’s a rapid, cost-effective process, with Robocarv having lent a robotic helping hand to the likes of Killing Eve, Men in Black: International and the Paddington films; easing the pressure of tight shooting schedules and spiralling budgets.

“It’s the future of movie art departments, and it’s happening now,” says Robocarv’s Liam Carr. “Productions are cash-rich but time-poor – they want stuff in days, not weeks. The scanner creates the file, which can be pinged to the robot in the workshop for cutting right away. We can go from seeing an item for the first time to having a near-perfect replica in hours.”

Lightweight foam replicas are nothing new in film and television, with casts and moulds usually taken from the original. However, it can be a long, expensive process, requiring expert sculptors. Furthermore, producing a facsimile is made extra-hard when the original is deemed too fragile or valuable to be handled by a production crew. Enter Robocarv’s scanning and sculpting technology.

“At RAF Halton, we 3D-scanned doorways on a Grade II listed building,” explains Carr. “Now, we’re recreating them in the studio – including hand-carved designs which simply couldn’t have been shop-bought, nor replicated using silicone moulds.”

It adds a layer of authenticity to a period piece: antiquities and priceless museum pieces can now be scanned, copied and reproduced – to upwards of 90 per cent accuracy – at the press of a button. “A reproduced wall, for example, is transportable and one-man handleable,” Carr adds. “You can plonk it down, shoot the scene, then remove it without anyone knowing it was fake.”

Robocarv buys the polystyrene in dense blocks. Once it goes through the milling process, it remains lightweight until it’s coated in a polyurethane resin that, according to Carr, is strong enough to be “climbed on and driven over.” In other words, resilient enough to withstand the rigours of a Hollywood blockbuster.

It’s an efficient process, too. Whereas a heavy-duty prop might be bought or hand-carved for one episode, then dismantled or sold, polystyrene promotes recycling. Carr recalls Robocarv’s work on new BBC series The War Of The Worlds. “The material was sent back to us after filming. We peeled off the coatings to the bare foam, then recycled it.

“TV and film has a lot of waste. When we mill, and small bits of polystyrene effectively turn to dust, we collect it all and put it through our compactor that extrudes big, dense blocks of squashed foam that we sell back to a recycling company.”

For art departments, the technology opens up further possibilities. “There are always minuscule differences when objects are created by hand,” explains Lynda Reiss, prop master on mega-hit period series Stranger Things and True Detective. “Robotic creation and 3D printing means I can find one great item for a period film and immediately make 20 copies. It could be of tremendous use.”

Meanwhile, photographs and 2D reference drawings can be rendered into 3D models by Robocarv artists, then milled out by the robotic arm: anything from Roman battle armour to, say, bespoke sci-fi furniture. “We provided a number of sofas for Superman series Krypton,” recounts Carr. “Nine-foot long, five-foot high and 40kg of polystyrene – quick, light and practical.”

The biggest structure Robocarv has made is a towering, 15-metre-tall lion for the upcoming Cats movie, which had to be milled as a hundred pieces, then fitted together (“Moving it from Gloucestershire to London wasn’t easy,” recalls Carr). The smallest it can go is life-size busts. Anything below that requires work by hand.

That means for prop veterans like Reiss – responsible for the relatively minuscule Dungeons & Dragons figurines in Stranger Things – the technology works in tandem with traditional prop making, rather than replacing it. “There’ll always be a need for handwritten books and handmade items on screen,” she says. “But robotics is part of a wider trend in filmmaking. Student filmmakers can shoot using drones; the visuals are so much more interesting.”

The technology has potential beyond movie sets. Digital museum projects such as RecoVR Mosul, a virtual reality reconstruction of artefacts destroyed by Isis, could be recreated in the physical world too. Carr explains that it’s already happening. “There are many 3D models of museum pieces which have been catalogued, uploaded and available for download. There’ll be many museums around the Middle East and places of conflict where they’ll be rushing to get things scanned and documented, so they can be preserved in the 3D space.”

For now, expect to see more polystyrene in your favourite films and TV shows. “Some props will always require to be made by hand,” Carr says. “For other items – near-perfect, geometrically accurate matches – that’s when we call in the robots.”

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