Introduction: 3D-printed Zoetrope

Want to animate in 3D? Interested in fun parlor tricks from the 19th century? Love art and science? This is the project for you!

A zoetrope is a device invented around the mid-19th century, and is a spinning vertical drum with frames of an animation painted on the interior. When the drum is spun fast enough, the images animate! This project remixes the classic zoetrope design by 3D printing the frames of the animation, making them come to life.

Step 1: Gather Materials!

For this project, you will need:

  • a record player
  • a record you don't mind altering or a sturdy disk that can fit on said record player
  • a TinkerCAD account or other 3D modelling software
  • access to a 3D printer
  • poster paper large enough to fit around the diameter of your chosen disk
  • scissors or an xacto knife
  • tape
  • acrylic paint and paint brushes
  • hot glue or super glue

Optional materials:

  • pen & paper for sketching designs
  • Adobe Photoshop or other animation software for planning animation
  • pliers for removing 3D printed supports
  • sandpaper for smoothing your 3D printed objects
  • stand light to light up the zoetrope while spinning

Step 2: Brainstorm Objects & Animation

For this project, animating at least 12 frames works best, though you may want to add more if the size of your disk allows. (We used a 12" wooden disk, separated into 12 frames.) We settled on a penguin waddling and diving into the center of the disk for our animation!

Before planning, I looked up some videos of penguins walking and diving to get inspiration for the animation. Even cartoons are based on real-life anatomy and physics, so I highly suggest doing a bit of research.

On paper, I mocked up some possible frames for our animation. We were experimenting with having three "layers" of animation, hence the "egg," "penguin," and "water" rows of images. Ultimately, we decided to just animate an egg cracking open and a penguin diving. When the zoetrope spins, the animation loops, so be cognizant of planning looping frames if you'd like a smooth animation.

If you'd like to test how the animation will roughly look, I highly suggest creating a simple flip book on paper or if you have prior experience, using a digital animation software. I used Adobe Photoshop to create a more polished but still rough mock-up of all 12 frames. Capturing exaggerated motion in drawn frames will definitely help once you start translating them to 3D models!

Step 3: Designing 3D Models

Once you have an idea of the animation, head to TinkerCAD or any 3D modelling software. If you are an absolute beginner, definitely use TinkerCAD as it requires no software download, has multiple interactive tutorials, and several hundred pre-made designs to play around with.

Using TinkerCAD, we modeled the frames of our animation. A good strategy is to design the object you are animating at rest (or their most basic state), copy+paste your model, and edit the duplicated model to the first frame in your animation. You could rinse and repeat for the frames, or copy+paste the last frame you edited for animating sequential frames.

Step 4: 3D Print

When you're finished, select and export each of your models one-by-one into the 3D printing software compatible with your 3D printer.

Depending on the make and model of your 3D printer, these steps may differ slightly. For this project, we used the Ultimaker 3 and its accompanying program, Cura.

In the program, make sure to resize the model to the dimensions you need to fit on the disk. For our project, the tallest penguin was about 60mm tall and 25mm wide. Also be sure to configure the settings correctly for the filament you are using, as well as to add supports. Adding supports for angles above 30 degrees is a good rule of thumb!

Next, send your files to the 3D printer and, well, print! Do not worry too much about the color of the filament, because you will probably want to paint your models.

After your objects have printed, use pliers or tweezers to carefully remove the supports from your models. You could also use sandpaper to smooth rough edges.

Step 5: Painting and Mounting

Whip out those acrylic paints and touch up your models. Make sure to make your paint jobs clean and simple! Contrasting colors work wonders in making your animation legible, but small details will not show up during the zoetrope's quick rotation. Painting your disc is also a good option to help your objects stand out, or to help create an environment.

Once your objects are painted, carefully use hot glue to mount the frames on your disk. Our penguin moves towards the center of our disk, thus the spiral inwards.

Now that your objects are mounted, take a moment to assemble the drum. Use a contrasting color of poster board to create a cylindrical drum that fits around your disc. Make sure to carefully use scissors, a cutting knife, or a laser-cutter to create equidistant slits in your paper. Add jagged edges to the bottom of the drum's paper. Then, take tape and attach the edges of the drum's paper together, creating a cylinder/tube for the disc to sit in. Finally, fold the teeth inwards on the drum to create a lip for your disc to sit on as it rotates on the record player.

Step 6: Spin!

Rest your finished disc inside the drum, and set on the record player. Turn the record player on, take the needle off its stand and rest on the body of the record player to get the player spinning. For increased contrast and legibility, turn off the lights and shine a stand light, hand flashlight, or phone flashlight onto the drum while it spins. You may want to play with the speed of the record player to also increase legibility. Once spinning at the correct speed, your objects will begin to animate! Good luck and have fun!