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3D-Printed Mistakes Are Inspiring a New Kind of Glitch Art

From accidental masterpieces to 'Doctor Who' special effects, 3D-printed glitches are the biggest thing since 3D printing.

The latest bad guys to wreak terror on British sci-fi favourite Doctor Who were 'the Boneless,' which a dedicated wiki describes as "two-dimensional beings from another plane" that somehow learned to become three-dimensional in a human-like form.

So how do you make a character look like it's going from 2D to 3D? If the disfigured zombies and the way they segue between dimensions looks familiar, visual effects website FXguide explains the unusual inspiration behind the creatures: 3D printing gone wrong. It's perhaps the most high-profile example of unintentionally sloppy prints being elevated to a whole new creative genre; a 3D printing inspired version of glitch art.


Grant Hewlett, the visual effects supervisor at Bristol-based avisVFX who worked on the Boneless baddies, told me he'd used 3D printing on other projects and that the method itself seemed to suit these characters.

"It sort of made sense when we saw the way that 3D printing looks in layers; it was a good transition between them being two-dimensional creatures and being three-dimensional creatures," he said. "It kind of made sense logically that they might do it in that way, first of all: to make themselves 3D they would use layers of 2D." There was the additional fact that at one point in the script it was imperative the bad guys couldn't catch up with the heroes, so they couldn't move too fast.

Image: Fred Kahl/Flickr

Having seen lots of images of "stuff that had gone a bit wrong" with 3D printing, the effects team settled on a glitchy look for the 3D characters. The faces look a bit deformed, a bit twisted, a bit offset—like when you try to print something on a hobby printer and can't for the life of you figure out which settings are making it turn into a mush of mismatched strata, random gloops, and strings of ABS.

In fact, a growing movement of hobbyists is bestowing these apparent mistakes with their own sense of beauty. Flickr group "The Art of 3D Print Failure" has been around since 2011, back when desktop printers were really riding the wave of hype.

In the group, contributors show off their failures-turned-art, which range from nearly-finished models with slight defects to total plastic spaghetti. Somewhere between those are glitched prints that carry a real aura of artistry.


Image: Tim Regan/Flickr

If you squint, you can perhaps find a resemblance between an unintended shiny globular squiggle and a polished Jeff Koons sculpture, while an abandoned print that cuts a human figure off at the kneecaps could fit into a wide-ranging catalogue of disembodied limbs in art. And does not a Buddha figurine with an accidental hole in its head somehow command a deeper response than its perfected counterpart?

As well as the Flickr page, there's a Pinterest board dedicated to "3D Printer Beautiful Errors," and no shortage of enthusiasts proffering images of their not-quite-there prints on forums and subreddits. Often, they're looking for advice on how to fix things rather than appraisal of their disfigured results—but it's often the fact that these works are unintended that imbues them with glitch art charm.

But as 3D printing becomes more common, bringing with it all kinds of aesthetically interesting errors, there are a few established artists who, like Hewlett with his Doctor Who antagonists, are purposefully trying to cultivate a sense of glitchiness.

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, an artist we've spoken to before when he used his appreciation of glitch art to hide 3D-printed gun files—has made 3D printed vases and teapots with intentionally glitchy designs by corrupting the files before sending to print.

Image: clf cool/Flickr

Just recently, artist Mathieu Schmitt made 3D-printed dioramas that use the odd glitch in the design file to create trippy, ever-so-slightly-mangled scenes.

Recreating a glitch effect without incorporating an unintentional or intentional-but-unpredictable corruption in software or hardware, as Hewlett and his team had to, is no doubt the most difficult way to go about achieving the look. "It's rather complicated, is the short answer," said Hewlett. He explained that effects artist Joe Thornley-Heard started with 3D models of the actors and used animation tool Houdini to drag different points of the model into a curve with noise algorithms.

"Basically it was just a question of experimenting with sort of glitchy, random curves, and plugging that in to various different areas of the volume and moving things around," said Hewlett.

They didn't actually have to 3D print anything for the Boneless; their monsters pretty much reverse the whole process of 3D printing by taking a finished physical model as a starting point and ending up with a computer-generated effect.

Next time you despair over a failing print, know that it's a lot more difficult to actively seek out that melted-and-misshapen finish—or just call it glitch art and give it a whole new sense of worth.