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Tor Robinson hero

Introducing special effects artist Tor Robinson.  

aaron pearson
Aaron Pearson April 11, 2021
April 11, 2021

The world’s leading experts at harnessing the power of PolyJet™ 3D printing are often exceptional at blending scientific thinking with artistic inspiration. Tor Robinson, 3D artist at Weta Workshop in New Zealand, is the prototypical example. Stratasys employees around the world heard her story firsthand on International Women’s Day and the rest of the world recently got a real eyeful of her work thanks to an Adam Savage video on her amazing lifelike eyeball prints.


Robinson got her start with 3D printing as an undergraduate student at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Because 3D prints are essentially “grown,” she very quickly recognized a connection to organic forms that is reflected in the work she still does today. “3D printing bridges the gap between the natural world and the digital world,” she says.


Her Master’s work for her design in innovation degree is called Orbit. It’s a mesmerizing watch.



Orbit | 3D Printed Multi-Material Spinning Tops from Tor Robinson on Vimeo.


“Orbit celebrates the joy of motion by engaging viewers with moving works of art,” she explains. The projects is comprised of a series of spinning tops that transform when spun.  They celebrate the unique quality of multi-material PolyJet printing to essentially go 4D – adding shape changing to 3D prints.

I was interested in using color to create some form of illusion, as we’d previously only had single-color 3D printing.

So she went looking for inspiration. She looked at the moiré effect, where a pattern of dots or lines is superimposed on another pattern of dots or lines, creating a distortion effect. She looked at zoetropes that create “animations” from spinning cylinders. She studied the work of Charles and Ray Earnes who, in 1969, produced a cinematic ballet of more than 100 spinning tops.


The early resulting prints introduced tentacle-like appendages that opened like flowers when the tops were spun. Further experimentations with both form and color fine-tuned the effect.  Some of the final members of the Orbits family have long tendrils, others are oval rather than round, and some change colors as they are spun. They look like living things.


The Orbits experience led Robinson towards special effects and prop work that ultimately landed her at Weta Workshop, one of the leading such companies in the world and a contributor to films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Blade Runner 2049. Companies like Weta Workshop step in and bring things to life in the real world in ways that computer-generated imagery, or CGI, simply cannot. 3D printing is opening up more such opportunities.


For example, one of Robinson’s projects after Orbits was designing “alien fruit” on a Stratasys J750 3D printer at Victoria University. 


“It’s really difficult to create this with CGI, especially when you want to have an actor bite into it,” she says.



Okris Fruit | Colour 3D/4D Printing for Film from Tor Robinson on Vimeo.



As a precursor to Robinson’s voxel printing work, she created her alien fruit, which she called Okris Fruit, using an assembly of STL files. The fruit print-out was dressed up with raspberry jelly and chia seeds to mimic the sensation of real fruit, and then she created a short film to showcase it. In the film a brother travels to an alien planet and brings the fruit back to share with his sister.


Robinson’s magnum opus, at least to date in her still blossoming career, is the eyeball project, which ultimately led to her permanent position at Weta Workshop. She spent six months, full-time, perfecting her eyeball model, leveraging the Stratasys J750 and voxel printing, which was the only way practical way to tackle such a formidable design challenge.

Robinson used Houdini 3D animation software from SideFX to create the voxel printing system, because it is popular in film and gaming industries and used by Pixar, DreamWorks and other studios. Stratasys now provides voxel printing software for J8 series and J55 3D printers. While not designed specifically for 3D printing, Houdini did prove adept at handling the large volumes of data needed for the voxel printing project.

Tor Robinson eyeball image.

She learned a lot of anatomy along the way, as she worked to achieve the task of translating actual human anatomy to a 3D printer. For example, the limbus forms the border between the clear cornea and the opaque part of the eye underneath. As it turns out, it hangs over the iris, requiring a cutback in the 3D printed model hovering over the clear part of the eye to simulate the effect of a transition zone. “The limbus was super tricky to get right,” she says. “Old people’s limbus’s are softer and more gooey, and younger people have very sharp ones. Also, the white yellows with age. And In fact, it’s not really white, it’s kind of baby blue.” Blood vessels needed to thread their way through the depths of the eye model, clearer at the surface, fainter but still visible farther below. 


Robinson is now exploring other design challenges involving translucency, such as with teeth and gums.  And she’s looking forward to getting her hands on a J850 3D printer and Vero Ultra Clear material.


Clearly, Tor Robinson is in the perfect place for a lover of science fiction movies. “There’s a sci-fi film called Ex Machina where they have this science room with different brains for robots scattered around, and oh what fun that would be to do that with 3D printing instead of CGI,” she exclaims. “It just makes the whole world more believable.”


Those of us in the real world can’t wait to see what Robinson’s digital crafting makes for future imaginary ones.