“If you’re a leader, every day there is something new that you didn’t count on that comes up and smacks you in the face.” That’s the opening line of Print The Legend, a documentary that follows the race to put 3D printing on the desktop and casts a telling light on the complex nature of start up culture and building a successful business. Print The Legend’s co-directors Clay Tweel and Luis Lopez, with producer Steve Klein, talk to TCT about their time behind the scenes in the competitive desktop industry.
“The story we were trying to tell was one of the challenges it takes to build a business and the trade offs, the compromises and ways in which you have to adapt in order to grow your business,” explains Tweel. “A deeper almost philosophical layer would be the shadow of Steve Jobs looming over start up businesses. We read the biography of Steve Jobs right before we started filming and that kind of inspired us to analyse into ways in which he was a leader and how that was kind of either a inspiration or cautionary tale for a lot of these entrepreneurs.”
The influence of Apple and the legacy Steve Jobs left for this generation of entrepreneurs is clear in the 3D printing start-up world. The film opens with dialogue from former MakerBot CEO, Bre Pettis about the inspiration Jobs had given him and the parallels he saw between Apple’s story and the rise of desktop 3D printers.
“What if there had been a film crew with Steve jobs when they made the Apple computer – could we be that film crew for the next Macintosh moment?,” asks Klein. “As the story emerged it added these themes of exploring the American dream and how its influence on the world has some darker sides too about the sacrifices that success in the market place takes from the people who achieve it.”
Though 3D printing might be the focus point of the film, the real driving force behind the narrative is about the disruption a new technology can cause and the challenges those possible leaders face in getting that technology out there. During the team’s research phase, 3D printing was really starting to emerge as an interesting player in that arena. The crew focused in on the stories of two major upcoming contenders in the field, MakerBot and Formlabs.
“Our previous experience with 3D printing before we went into it was non-existent,” explains Lopez. “We were looking at other sorts of technology as well like augmented reality, just different things that might have that potential to explode as the next big thing. There was a lot of conversation about it being the next big thing and there was a lot of aggressive growth and moving and shaking in that space so that really caught our attention.”
“Start up culture was something we found interesting,” Klein adds. “It was around the time that Bre was on the cover of Wired with a MakerBot saying ‘this machine will change the world’ and we were already out in the field. We scheduled to go to MakerBot’s original offices and when we walked in I think we had a moment of real jaw dropping – just one of those moments where you see something that’s like magic being caused by technology. The vibe of that office with seventy people crammed into a tiny space, everyone staying late excited and working hard that vibe felt like what the garage mythology is all about and so that was really exciting.”
Bre Stratasys Announcement
Bre Pettis features prominently in the film
There is a romanticised idea about the notion of start up culture. The image of the hacker, tinkering from a humble workspace to eventually move to a Google style office where employees arrive on skateboards, is an appealing one but difficult to maintain when a start-up suddenly becomes a real business. Bre Pettis is the poster boy for those challenges standing at the front of a growing business when issues like privacy and competition come into play. As Bre puts it: “We can’t live in a fantasy world and run a business sometimes.”
“People are very protective about their ideas and it’s a competitive arena so people are private about their making and developing and so it took some time and trust to build access so we could be around,” explains Lopez.
Opening the doors of an industry
The crew are renowned for producing documentaries on niche and indie subjects such as video games in King of Kong and young magicians in Make Believe. Yet there was a contrast between the openness of these fairly unguarded circles and the 3D printing world that proved more conscious of opening its doors to a set of cameras.
“This is totally different, this is a group of people who are very for smart reasons saying we have to be very careful,” says Klein. “Each of the CEOs that were featured had a chance to see the movie at an earlier stage and have some dialogue with us about it and each of them in their own way influenced things that were in the film to help make them more accurate.”
In the last couple of years, 3D printing has experienced a media buzz as a direct result of a dotted timeline of defining moments. Some industry names, whilst not quite household, have made themselves celebrities in their own field and have utilised this increased interest and relationship with the press to put this technology into the spotlight.
“For me one of the things that changed since Steve Jobs ascended is the ubiquity of cameras and microphones and things today and press outlets that it isn’t really possible perhaps to do what Steve jobs did,” explains Klein. “It isn’t really possible to mesmerise the whole of the press to such a degree that you really can control the narrative.”
Lopez adds: “Bre is a wonderful storyteller, he’s able to tell a story and people eat story up.”
Though the film has Print in the title its not solely about 3D printing and perhaps those viewing the film in hope of a story about the history of the technology are missing the point of its message. There are many themes that surround this industry be that the media, start up culture, the business world and the film tackles those subjects whilst utilising 3D printing as the vehicle to tell that story.
“If we could visit the living room of everyone that was going to watch it on Netflix right before they watched it, I think we would say – don’t sit down and watch this movie as a movie that is definitively about the history of 3D printing,” says Tweel. “We wanted to look at the people, the name brands, and the recognisable name brands that people were kind of talking about based in the US who at the time we were filming were racing to put this industrial technology on your desktop. 3D Systems, MakerBot and Formlabs.”
If you have seen the film you may have noticed TCT’s 10 seconds of fame when a still of the magazine features in the footage. That magazine was found on the desk of none other than the infamous Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed who hit headlines in 2013 when he published plans online for a 'functional' 3D printed pistol, the Liberator.
Cody Wilson Print the Legend
The Print the Legend team were present when Cody Wilson uploaded the files for the 'Liberator' 3D printed gun
“It was sitting on Cody’s counter in Austin, Texas. Among his books on law and philosophy and anarchism there was your magazine,” reveals Klein. “We were right there when he put the liberator out and uploaded it. To see the media spin around it all was fascinating and Cody working that and the media and the story and his agenda into the press and the press eating it up – that was really interesting to see.”
Tweel says: “It’s more about the control and power of information and flow of information on the internet which I actually do believe strongly in and the democratising of information. So I kind of had a reversal of how I thought about Cody and really appreciated the sentiment about what he was trying to do. Now the means in which he did it by taking the most dangerous object that he could find and using an unregulated technology is pretty crazy but its also pretty smart of him.”
Klein adds: “There’s a scene in the movie with Cody that’s one of my favourites where he points out that a couple of years ago if you said to somebody ‘hey have you heard of 3d printing’ they were like ‘I don’t know what’s 3d printing?’. And now if you ask them they say ‘I’ve heard that and can’t you print a gun with it?’ The fact that that stuck so clearly in the public worldwide imagination shows how smart an idea that was from a propaganda perspective.”
Intellectual property is another important issue explored in the film. With concerns like the availability of 3D printed guns and then much more simple questions of how to make money from 3D designs or the protection of patents, the debate about the movement and freedom of information is on-going.
“We talked to Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and he said ‘How many polygons is privacy?’” explains Tweel. “So the copyright and intellectual property debate was something we explored a lot as well. The industry as a whole seems to be so unregulated at this point that it is, in my mind anyway, inevitable that structure and laws are going to be put in to place to try to manage the flow of information.
Room for a sequel?
A lot changed in the time the crew were filming and even more so since the cameras were turned off. Bre is now heading up a new Stratasys project, Bold Machines which interestingly is another blend of 3D printing and film. If all of that can happen in such a short space of time, it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years as the industry continues to grow and adapt.
Klein says: “We’re not by any means business insiders or 3D printing experts but it was fascinating just to see all of it to see that aggressive growth and the change within the companies and the change with the individuals.”
“I want to know what happens and how things change and how things develop,” adds, Lopez. “It feels like its something that’s going through such epic growth that the adjustments are quick and often and id be fascinated to see where these companies are in five years.”
Klein concludes: “There is this moment that sticks out from when we were filming. We were in the New York (MakerBot) store not long after it opened and getting a sense of what it was like there and there was a kid who came in with his dad. He showed us these little Greek columns that he had printed because he was working on a report about Greek architecture and he designed and printed these little things on his MakerBot. That was a moment for me where I was like oh right when kids come up already comfortable in SketchUp and CAD – they’re going to start using it for things we wouldn’t even think of using a 3d printer for - that will be exciting and really interesting.”
Print The Legend is available to watch exclusively on Netflix.