In 2023, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the classic tale “Pinocchio” was brought to life on the big screen. This new version is a darker and more mature take on the beloved tale, as is typical of del Toro’s filmmaking style. The film is a stop-motion animated feature and is set in Fascist-era Italy during the 1930s and 1940s. This unique approach adds a historical and political dimension to the story, exploring themes like power, control, and identity.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio has an impressive voice cast, featuring actors such as Ewan McGregor as Jiminy Cricket, David Bradley as Geppetto, Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, and Ron Perlman, among others. But it was the film’s intricate stop-motion animation that caught the eye at this year’s Oscars—Del Toro’s creative reinterpretation of Pinocchio’s timeless narrative and animated style earned it the Best Animated Feature award.
Why is that interesting? Because the little wooden puppet that longed to be a real boy wasn’t made of real wood.
The metal 3D printing at the heart of Del Toro’s Pinocchio
In traditional stop-motion animation, puppets are often crafted from papier-mâché, clay, or other mouldable materials. However, del Toro’s adaptation took an unconventional approach by employing metal 3D printing for the construction of Pinocchio and other characters. The designs were built through a collaboration between Del Toro, Mackinnon & Saunders puppetmakers, and LPE.
But why? And why, in particular, for a puppet that’s famously made of wood?
Key to the choice are the qualities of metal that other materials don’t allow. Metal is stable and rigid—ideal for posing a stop-motion puppet. This rigidity is complemented by a fluidity of motion possible through the printing of interlocking metal parts, allowing for the creation of anatomical joints. While these joints were made to look crude and obvious, as if made by Geppetto himself, they were expertly made with 3D-printed parts.
Another reason was the level of detail. 3D printing allows for exceptionally fine levels of detail that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with traditional metalwork; Pinocchio’s front, for example, was printed in wood-effect so accurate that it could pass for wood both on Netflix and on the big screen.
How does metal 3D printing work?
The metal 3D printing process that LPE used to build the Pinocchio puppet is fascinating. Utilising a technique similar to metal welding[EM1] , metal parts are produced layer by layer to an incredible degree of detail. They are built according to CAD files, similar to resin 3D printing, but the qualities of metal make it more suitable for projects such as these.
In a ground-breaking collaboration between LPE and talented puppet-makers Mackinnon & Saunders, the puppet’s torso was thoughtfully designed with a hollow interior, accommodating advanced mechanical features that allowed for seamless limb movement. A meticulous design analysis was conducted for each component to be printed, including the main spine, rear torso shell, hip clamps, hip joints, feet, ankle clamps, legs, arms, and shoulder clamps.
The team carefully planned the orientation and support structure to optimise the properties needed for the soon-to-be-printed parts. Prototypes were created and tested by Mackinnon & Saunders to ensure interconnectability and aesthetic accuracy.
LPE went the extra mile, developing custom supports for the largest component, the rear torso, to guarantee that the support material wouldn’t compromise the wood-like surface appearance. The final parts were printed in stainless steel—a strong, durable, yet soft metal—ideal for drilling the fine threads and holes necessary for assembling the components.
Utilising a high-resolution Mlab machine, the unique details of the puppet, such as the nails in his back, were impeccably defined despite the small size. The repeatability of the process enabled the team to print 32 exact copies of each armature part.
A team of five modelmaking experts meticulously finished the parts, smoothing the surfaces of threads and holes to facilitate fluid joint movement. They even managed to refine printed holes as small as 1mm. Finally, the parts were assembled and combined with a plastic-printed front torso, completing the puppet’s extraordinary body.
This remarkable collaboration demonstrates the power of creativity and technology, resulting in a truly unforgettable character that has captivated audiences worldwide.