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The Perfect Geek Marriage: 3D Printing and Cosplay

Oct. 17, 2014
At New York Comic Con, we talked with 3D Systems and Geek Fab Lab about 3D printing and how it has affected cosplay design.

From October 9th to the 12th, the Javits Center in New York City hosted New York Comic Con (NYCC), which saw an eye-popping 151,000 attendees1 come through the gates. While the four-day event is known for its panels and major news from the head honchos of the comic-book realm, the number of those who came dressed in cosplay increases rapidly every year. The textbook definition of cosplay, short for costume play, is “to portray (a fictional character) by dressing in costume2”—but in reality, it’s so much more. Just check out the guy at this year's Con who dressed up as Johnny Depp (or more fittingly, all of the Johnny Depps).

One technology that’s benefited the community is 3D printing, especially in terms of mainstream access. From masks to swords, just about any aspect of a prospective costume can be printed in one’s own living room. At NYCC, I sat down with Keith Ozar, director of marketing consumer products at 3D Systems, and Sean McCoy and Natasha Spokish of Geek Fab Lab, to discuss 3D printing’s impact on cosplay.

In its booth at NYCC, 3D Systems was scanning attendees who had come in cosplay, sending them their scan for free so that they could print figurines of themselves. Ozar, who is also a member of the Maker Movement, spoke of the “I can make anything” attitude of both makers and 3D printing. The company’s Cube printers, in conjunction with Cubify, take the complexity out of the process. Ozar says it makes it more about personalization than customization.

1. With Cubify, you can print an official Ghostbusters figurine with your very own face.

Thanks to licensing agreements with the NBA and a number of studios, 3D Systems enables users to print figurines with their own faces as characters from Ghostbusters, The Walking Dead, or as a member of their favorite basketball team. They’re also a big proponent of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, bringing 3D printing into schools to make math more tangible for students and to get them excited about potential applications.

Ozar went on to say that 3D printing isn’t just the future—it’s the now. The technology will only become easier to use and have more options regarding printable materials. He also believes that eventually, everyone will have a 3D printer in their homes, it’s just a matter of which room they’ll put it in.

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Printing Your Own Halo Master Chief Helmet

2. McCoy (left) and Spokish (right) donned the full-size, 3D printed Halo Master Chief helmet with six matching LEDs. The helmet is printed in 11 pieces and printed with polyactic acid (PLA), a thermoplastic aliphatic polyester—the most common filament used in 3D printing.

At the “3D Printing for Costumes and Props” panel, Spokish and McCoy spoke with the same enthusiasm, showing off pieces they had printed from a variety of video games. They even printed a mini-Superman emblem during my time with them. With Geek Fab Lab, the duo offers printed and painted models and props as well as custom commissions. After the craziness of NYCC died down, I asked Spokish and McCoy a few questions on how they got started with 3D printing and what they thought the future held for them and the cosplay community.

Sokol: When did you both start doing cosplay?

Geek Fab Lab: We both started with overblown Halloween Costumes in 2012. Natasha was Moxxi [from Borderlands] and I was a psycho, and we just decided to take our costumes to a convention. They were well-received and we got hooked.

Sokol: When did you start 3D printing and what effect did it have on how you designed your costumes?

Geek Fab Lab: Sean bought the TAZ [a LulzBot 3D printer, disclaimer: Spokish works for the company] in April of 2013 and I was really bad with it for months. It’s not like you can just… click print. We had to learn how to model, what was realistic to print, learn the intricacies of the machine we had, and then learn when it made sense to print a prop instead of using another, more traditional method.

Sokol: How did you break into the 3D printing “world”?

Geek Fab Lab: …Slowly. You’re “in” as soon as it sparks your imagination, in my opinion, because you’ll never stop thinking of ways to use it. When I couldn’t think of how to design a helmet for the character of Zero from Borderlands 2, I paid a 3D designer $100 to make me a model for it and then went to Shapeways to have it printed. When the quote for the print was $1200, I realized I might as well just buy my own printer. It drove me to research printers and eventually make the investment.

3. Shown is GeekFabLab’s original design of Zedd’s mask/helmet from League of Legends. The helmet is printed in four pieces but finished to look like one with a mix of spackle, filler primer, and paint.

Sokol: What’s the best piece of advice you would give someone looking to start 3D printing his or her costumes?

Geek Fab Lab: Start small and simple and see if you’ve got a friend who can guide you. If you jump right into it, it can be extremely frustrating and soul-crushing. When I started printing, I made extremely slow progress. When [Spokish] finally jumped on the wagon, I was finally confident with the printer and she caught up to my ability within weeks (instead of nearly a year). Having help makes all the difference in the world. Also, be aware that printers aren’t magic. They take time, they’re expensive, the plastic isn’t free, and 3D design work is very skilled labor.

Sokol: What are some common misconceptions you’ve encountered about 3D printing and/or cosplay?

Geek Fab Lab: That it’s “cheating” or “too easy.” Every time I hear someone say, “Oh, it’s 3D printed? Whatever, they didn’t even make it,” my blood boils a bit. Somehow, some people take issues with 3D printers but not with sewing machines, or complex two-part epoxies, etc.

I think people also forget about gravity when they think about fused filament fabrication (FFF) printers. It’s not like we make a model, click “go,” and then it appears on the print bed. There’s a ton of planning that goes into each print to ensure it’ll be successful. It’s this area that I feel like my knowledge is actually the most valuable, and I’m constantly looking for new techniques to ensure higher rates of success with larger and more complex parts.

4. On the left is a fully printed Bloodseeker Glaive from the videogame, Dota 2, and on the right, Spokish in the finished costume.

Sokol: What’s your favorite project you’ve printed?

Geek Fab Lab: I really liked the final product on our Bloodseeker Glaives/Swords/Sharp Things. It was the first time we went huge with a part, and I think the end result is fantastic. Natasha had her Bloodseeker costume on at a convention in Ohio (ColossalCon), surrounded by thousands of other cosplayers. This muggle (it’s what we call non-convention goers) family came up and asked her “Are you filming a movie?” They thought her stuff looked Hollywood-level good. It was a huge pride moment for us.

Sokol: What do you think is the future of 3D printing, especially for cosplay?

Geek Fab Lab: [Going more] mainstream. It’s such an amazing technology and nearly everyone I’ve spoken with can think of something they’d do with it. I think it’s empowering for people to be able to think and create within their home. I think it will take a while for [further] adoption in the cosplay world, mostly because people usually operate on shoe-string budgets. The cost of a printer is tough to swallow, but give us time! We’ll keep sharing everything we’ve done and the industry will continue to improve and become more affordable. It’s just a matter of time. Natasha and I aren’t engineers or designers; I’m a psych major and she’s an art history major. If we can get good results out of our printer, anyone can.


1. McNally, Victoria. "The Numbers Are In: New York Comic Con’s Attendance Surpassed Even San Diego’s This Year." The Mary Sue. N.p., 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

2. "Cosplay Definition." Dictionary.com. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

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