21st century zoetrope is a 3D printed delight

How Jo Ratcliffe used 3D printing and animation to bring her signature fashion illustrations to life for one day only, at the Pick Me Up graphic arts festival.

Somerset House invited Jo Ratcliffe to create an installation for its Pick Me Up festival. The illustrator teamed up with engineer Sam Zealey, the waterMelon animators collective and 3D printer store iMakr to devise a 21st century take on the zoetrope that enabled people to interact with her signature fashion inspired illustration style.

Somerset House asked me to create a one-day installation for the Pick Me Up graphic arts festival. It's not the kind of project we normally do, although I had set myself a challenge at the start of the year that I would do three personal projects.

The brief was simply to make sure the public could interact with me and my work in some way. I've been working a lot in animation recently, and the loops are what seem to seduce me the most. I'm intrigued by the things you can do with a handful of drawings, and by the whole idea of a GIF – I was part of the GIF exhibition at Paddle­ in 2012.

I felt a 3D zoetrope would be a sculptural version of what I've been working on recently, and I thought it was a bit of an ambitious thing to do. I had seen the Pixar zoetrope at the London Science Museum in 2006, which was in turn inspired by the one at the Ghibli Museum in Japan, and found it mind-blowing.

We didn't have an agenda – there was no strict vision from the outset. I simply wanted to make something that was animated and printed well, and nicely built and crafted.

Jo Ratcliffe walks through her creative process in more detail.

01. Character references

I'd collected lots of reference images, so there were all sorts of little things I potentially wanted to include in my new character. I did some less stylised pencil drawings and imagined how she might look when we made her in 3D – thinking about what would work well in terms of the character and movement.

02. Catwalk inspiration

I'd been looking at catwalk pictures of girls in oversized jumpers with extra long sleeves that reach almost to their knees, and I wanted to bring that in. It's useful as it means she looks cool when she walks. We don't see her hands, so it's simpler to print and paint her, and it's another part of her body that swings as she moves.

03. Zoetrope template

I took the drawings into Photoshop and cleaned them up. I then worked in Illustrator to create textures, copy the figure, and put her onto a plan of the zoetrope. This became instructions for engineer Sam Zealey, who helped us build the sculptures and put together the zoetrope's drum, motors and bearings.

04. Print and destroy

Animator Klaas-Harm de Boer from waterMelon rendered the character as a 3D model and had her printed. He then tried to break her. We found out that her neck was too thin, so we put a pin in it. We got a batch of test models in, then iMakr printed the full set of 32 models for us to colour and attach to the base.

05. Making the numbers work

In one second, the strobe flashes 16 times and the wheel spins round once – creating the illusion that the models are moving. We wanted two sets of girls to walk in opposite directions, which wouldn't work with two lots of 16 models. Klaas figured out that we needed 15 on top going one way and 17 on the bottom.

06. 3D printing

The models are printed in white resin. Originally, we were going to stick lots of objects and shapes on the zoetrope, which is 3.5 feet in diameter, but once we had the models and saw an animation it seemed like there was enough going on already. We were wary of not just chucking everything at it.

07. Final figurine

A zoetrope is a simple thing in many ways, but there are so many tiny adjustments you can make. Everything we used to make ours move was adjustable. We were at Somerset House for one day, and we also made one of the models available to download and print.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 227.