Print The Legend


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Print The Legend
"Though its narrative is busy throughout, there's also a lot going on beneath the surface of Print The Legend, and it will leave viewers wanting to go off and watch or read more."

Early on in this documentary from Luis Lopez (who worked on 2010's Freakonomics), the 3D print revolution is likened to the European discovery of the printing press. It's probably a fair comparison. These are early days and most people still haven't really cottoned on to what's happening, but this new approach to manufacturing is already enabling unprecedented advances in engineering and medicine. It will also, sooner or later, change the way private individuals acquire the things they need by moving us from a system in which we acquire products to one in which we acquire (or create) designs and then manufacture the products ourselves, in the comfort of our homes. This film follows two companies that tried to get in on the ground floor, making the machines that would make home 3D printing affordable. In doing so, it combines a snapshot of the revolution with stories about business, commerce, politics, and the human factors that complicate everything.

Politics? That's where it gets complicated. Anything that changes models of trade is ultimately a political act, shifting power from one group to another. Some of those interviewed here are passionate advocates of the open source model, whereby ideas are shared within communities on a not-for-profit basis, the idea being to create a more efficient design process with the potential to benefit everybody. Naturally, this poses a threat to traditional capitalism, though the scale of that threat is debatable. The anarchist perspectives connected with this, however, lead in one case to a different kind of challenge, with designer Cody Wilson convinced he can make the world a better place by enabling everybody to print a gun (there are echoes here of Frank Herbert short story Committee Of The Whole). Colleagues call him naive; politicians call him a terrorist; he defends himself with the argument that this will eventually happen anyway (information, as they say, wants to be free). In its turn, this opens up a much bigger set of questions that the film doesn't address, but it can't possibly cover every aspect of its subject and there's no point at which it's short of material.

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MakerBot and Formlabs are both big names now, but not so long ago they were nonentities. Their sudden growth was as big a surprise to them as it was to the sector's old guard, and it brought with it unexpected challenges and pressures. Bre Pettis' sudden decision to move to a closed source approach, which many contributors interpreted as amounting to theft of their work, was widely seen as a betrayal. Some of his former colleagues discuss their shock but also attempt to redeem him, suggesting that he was led astray and even, somewhat worryingly, that becoming corrupt is unavoidable in that environment. His defence of himself is rather less articulate and seems to amount to him having been too busy to check his moral compass.

The danger of this is that Pettis becomes too easy a villain, but the film shows us enough to suggest that the real problem is something deeper - that these young men simply lacked the maturity of social skillset necessary to handle their situation. Like young footballers or pop stars, they struggle with the consequences of sudden adulation - which is itself an odd phenomenon to observe - and a combination of ego, fear and disappointment interferes with every decision. The viewer is left to wonder how far this extends through the wider business world, with so many start-ups being run by bright young things.

The best documentaries use the stories they tell to illuminate larger phenomena. Though its narrative is busy throughout, there's also a lot going on beneath the surface of Print The Legend, and it will leave viewers wanting to go off and watch or read more. Its microcosmic approach is probably the only way to take on 3D printing at this stage, and its own success at getting in on the ground floor means it's only likely to become more interesting with the passing of time.

Reviewed on: 26 Sep 2015
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The story of 3D printing, told through a tale of two start-ups.

Director: Luis Lopez, J Clay Tweel

Writer: Steven Klein

Starring: Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, Cody Wilson, Zach Smith, Nadia Cheng, David Cranor

Year: 2014

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


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