2nd C. Sculpture to Star Wars Props: 3D, a Force Awakens?

During a photogrammetry training session with Clara Molina Sanchez, we were recommended to choose objects with a matt surface, small to medium in size, and which didn’t have many holes or occlusions. We settled on a Gandharan Buddha from the Art Collection, a Paolozzi maquette from the Edinburgh College of Art collection and, just to test what would happen, a thigh bone trumpet wrapped in shiny metal filigree from the Musical Instruments collection.

The training covered different ways to capture the photos, how to include targets to accurately scale and join ‘chunks’, and how to process in Agisoft PhotoScan. The Gandharan sculpture was easily the most successful model, although the Paolozzi maquette was also reasonably accurate, with only a small problem area due to the white surface causing the point cloud to scatter. However, the flute proved exceptionally good at showing us how the software behaves with shiny surfaces and holes, producing a very pretty, but unusably scattered point cloud!

Later, when some funding became available, Clara returned to make some more models for us. This time we chose 2 more Gandharan sculptures, another Paolozzi maquette, an artwork by Kyle Nobel based on a wild boar skull and a very challenging baroque guitar. The Gandharan sculptures are the first ones we have uploaded into Sketchfab https://sketchfab.com/openededinburgh/collections/centre-for-research-collections-gandharan and we hope to add the guitar in the near future. Unfortunately, the remaining models have copyright restrictions and can only be used internally. See also  http://open.ed.ac.uk/3d-gandharan-sculptures/

We are delighted with the response to these models, one of them has already been downloaded 16 times and several academics have been in touch to say how useful they are:

“This is amazing and has great potential! […] it would be particularly useful for revealing mason’s marks and documenting the excavation history of individual pieces …” Dr Elizabeth Errington, ex British Museum.

“So glad to see these and a stellar work by the design team. One immediate benefit of seeing the sculptures in 3D is that one can see how these were not carved entirely in the round and that the reliefs were made out of a block of schist, perhaps faced onto a brick structure? The depth would seem to suggest this. The chisel marks to the side are very interesting… Of course the added benefit is that one can see any labels or affixations on the reverse. This is a great resource and I will be using it in class for sure!” From Dr Yuthika Sharma, History of Art.

“This is fab – really helpful for scholars to see all the different angles, and potential for teaching too.” Dr Naomi Appleton, Divinity, New College.

This sort of feedback really helps us to show the value of this work, and hopefully, gives impetus to create more models: 3D is undoubtedly time consuming, so we really need to assess its worth.

I was also lucky enough to attend the ‘3D4ever: Building Three Dimensional Models to Last’ conference run by the Digital Preservation Coalition last week. The emphasis of the day was on building structures and best practice into 3D workflows to ensure long term preservation of the models. The importance of this was well illustrated by Stuart Jeffrey of the Glasgow School of Art. The iconic Mackintosh building had been 3D modelled prior to the devastating fire, and through good data management (insisting on archiving all data, including the RAW unprocessed files) they were able to show that a section of the building didn’t need to be demolished after the disastrous fire.

He also argued that reuse of 3D models safeguards preservation, and good quality metadata is the only way do this- if it can’t be found, it can’t be reused. Furthermore, incorporating contextual data: relevant word documents, images, audio and video in one flexible platform, aids model reuse.

Another excellent speaker was Anthony Corns- from the Discovery Programme in Ireland. He used the analogy of being a Cultural Heritage dentist: heritage is finite and decay needs to be managed! By using annual 3D scans to assess damage and change at archaeological sites, they can help to manage visitor impact, for example, at Skellig Michael, they have had an increase in visitors as a result of the Star Wars film and the scans help to identify the resulting stone slippage.


He also outlined how the 3D models can raise revenue, via the sale of VR – the Skellig Michael models were sold to the Star Wars film crew in advance of filming, to help them work out how to best use the site. Whereas, free use lets people experiment and take the technology in different directions, adding value and preventing both the technology and history of the object from becoming stale.



The Wellcome Trusts’ Chris Moran gave an interesting presentation on IPR by continuing the Star Wars theme- asking whether or not he could scan and 3D print a Star Wars Storm Trooper helmet. The first film came out more than 25 years ago, so design laws have expired. It is not in copyright because it was originally intended as a utilitarian prop, not a sculpture (considered to be of higher artistic merit). A trademark might be on the helmet, however, it could easily be removed. And there was no patent- therefore… it is free to copy! He thought that perhaps this is why helmets in latest films have changed.

Vincent Rossi and Jon Blundell have been busy at the Smithsonian, finishing the 3D model of the Apollo 11 command module https://3d.si.edu/apollo11cm/index.php

They use WebGL technology in their X3D platform as a structure for story telling (back again to the idea of delivering models in contextual setting). This allows for users to annotate, as well as access tools for analysis, hot spots with additional information, the ability to adjust lighting etc.


This technology certainly opens up a whole new range of exciting possibilities, and challenges, for heritage institutions, but it seems that the 3D force is awakening!

Susan Pettigrew, Photographer




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