Objet is a company that specializes in rapid prototyping. They produce machines that use inkjet print-heads to spray layer after layer of a UV curable liquid that hardens into a solid. Using a software developed by Laica (not to be confused with camera-maker, Leica), animators were able to create scenes in 3D animation software like Maya and send the results directly to the printer.
Unfortunately, the cheapest printer at Objet will set you back $40,000. Probably out of the range of most props shops. And by “most”, I mean “all”.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use this new technology. Bucknell University, where I got my BA, had these kinds of machines for their Small Business Development Center. If you work at a university theatre, or are still in school yourself, you may find another department has one of these. You may even be able to gain access if you develop a good relationship with that department.
This is where this may become useful. One day, these machines may be inexpensive enough to sit on every desktop; but for now, they’re expensive. Not to mention the time it takes to draft an object in three dimensions on a computer can easily be as long as the time it takes for a props artisan to sculpt it. Most props shops don’t have 3D drafters in their employ either. In a university setting, however, if another department has a rapid prototyping machine, you may find a way to barter for access to it. You can also find a student in another department, such as architecture, industrial design, or computer graphics, to draft the objects you need as an independent study, or credit for another class. It’s an exciting technology, and worth investigating if you think you have a use for it, or even if you just want to file it away for future reference.
If you do not have access to one of these, there are any number of businesses which offer this service. Some will even let you email a file and receive the printed piece in the mail within a day or so. I’ve never used any of these, but if you do a Google search for “rapid prototyping on demand“, or some other set of keywords, you can begin to see what companies are out there.
Finally, if you want to see some more photographs of Coraline sets and models (because they’re pretty cool), you can check out some photos from the opening night after party.