Creating 3D models for CGI the fast way

The purchase of Artec Space Spider 3D scanner saves time and money for a visual effects company working on the Fear the Walking Dead series.

3D scanning has long been part and parcel of visual effects production. Whenever a director’s grandiose ideas cannot be brought to life by the use of special effects alone, visual effects artists are called in. An accurate 3D scan of an actor can be incorporated into an actual scene to show the character being ripped apart, melted down, or transformed into any sort of creature. The same goes for props: it’s not always possible to manipulate physical props or show actors interact with them the way the director envisions it. Here too 3D scanned replicas are the answer.

Several of the CGI props featured in the Fear the Walking Dead series. In each scene, the weapon in use was 3D scanned with Artec Space Spider. In the case of the eye stabbing and the arm amputation, the face and arm, respectively, were scanned with Space Spider as well. Video footage courtesy of AMC.


A great many top-grossing Hollywood blockbusters, such as Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, World War Z and others feature 3D models created with the help of Artec 3D scanning technology. Let’s look into whether it’s more economically efficient to outsource 3D scanning services or use your own 3D scanner to create CGI props and digital doubles.

Hear from Boyd Shermis, Visual Effects Director of fxtc, inc., a studio in Calabasas, California that designs and directs visual effects for film and TV. Boyd has been in the industry for over 30 years, working on movies like Speed with Keanu Reeves, Gone in 60 Seconds with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra with Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Boyd’s studio routinely needs to create or recreate faces, handheld props, and various other objects for use in the visual effects pipeline.

After years of outsourcing, Boyd purchased Artec Space Spider structured-light 3D scanner from Artec’s local partner Source Graphics on behalf of the AMC TV channel. The scanner was needed to work on Season 3 of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead series. According to Boyd, they chose Artec Space Spider because of its resolution, ease-of-use, availability and cost.

A 3D model of an M4 carbine made with Artec Space Spider

Before acquiring the Artec 3D scanner, whenever he needed to get 3D scans of a prop or an actor, Boyd would have to send the prop out to an independent scanning service bureau or bring a scanning company out to the studio for facial scanning.

“Scans that we commissioned and received in the past were professionally done by well-known, high-end scanning bureaus, and were of very high quality,” says Boyd. “However, as this show was based in Baja California, exporting and shipping items to LA-based scanning facilities was not only logistically problematic, particularly as many of our props are weapons, but the time lost and the cost of shipping, import and export… all adds up quickly.”

Thanks to purchasing Artec Space Spider, Boyd no longer has to go the traditional way to obtain 3D scans. Over the course of 16 episodes, he used Space Spider to scan the faces of several actors, a bunch of props, and a forearm and hand.

A 3D model of a telescoping baton made with Artec Space Spider

“Artec Space Spider saves time, saves on shipping, and allows for more precise control over the scan,” says Boyd, who normally needs to do several handheld props on a weekly basis. In order to make the process as efficient as possible, props are placed on a turntable that has graphic marks on it. The marks serve as visual hints for the scanner, which is a great help when tracking a featureless surface. Registering the marks, the scanner “understands” what part of the surface it’s capturing at the moment.

“Our turntable is very precisely marked for the best registration of the scans,” says Boyd. “We also use a soft bounce light in the room so that the textures have a nice, even lighting with proper color temperature.”

Jonathan Levi Ortega of fxtc scans a machete with Space Spider for Fear the Walking Dead


Once scanning is finished, post-processing starts in Artec Studio software. Multiple scans are registered and merged. After the scans are cleaned up, the turntable base is removed, textures are applied, and the resulting 3D model is exported into Maya or 3D Studio Max as an .obj file. The 3D model is then handed off to a downstream visual effects company that incorporates it into an actual scene. “Most often the various weapons are tracked and extended so they appear to penetrate the skulls of zombies,” says Boyd.

If they need to film a scene in which a knife is used, the action is shot with a truncated knife, i.e. a knife with no blade. In order to follow the motion of the knife, the individual pixels of its handle are tracked on a frame by frame basis. “We are able to precisely track the knife handle using the geometry from the scanned prop,” says Boyd. “And then a perfectly matched CGI blade can be added to it with relative ease.”

A 3D model of a knuckleduster knife made with Artec Space Spider

In Boyd’s estimate, the use of the in-house Artec Space Spider has already saved his studio $30,000 to $40,000. “But the really big savings came in terms of time. Not just the turnaround time, but just being able to do our own scans on-site, on our own schedule,” he says. “We were shooting down in Rosarito, Baja California, and otherwise would’ve had to send props and/or actors to Los Angeles for scans. That was incredibly inconvenient, particularly for the actors. Prop scans and actor scans became even more expensive with travel, shipping, hotels, and customs, etc. Just scheduling actors’ scans, arranging their travel to LA and back, very often scanning with make-up was very difficult to organize in the past, but became incredibly convenient with having the Artec Space Spider in-house. And getting the turnaround for both actors and props scans was most often weeks, which is way too long for our fast-paced TV post-production schedule. With the Artec Space Spider as part of our own tool set, we could schedule the scan on any day, and have the scans ready that same day. That was nearly priceless.”

Ask a question