Making Ancient Demons with Modern Tools: 3D Modeling and Printing Masks in Stagecraft

Masked Theatre is one of the oldest traditions in stagecraft, allowing actors to transform themselves into ghosts, caricatures or mythical beasts.  To stage Four Japanese Ghost Stories by Eric Coble, middle school students in Stagecraft explored traditional Japanese theatre and mythology. In particular, the play features three demons known as Oni, which the students had to create for the performance. Drama teacher Meleesa Wyatt describes the Oni as “really ugly,” and in theatre they are traditionally depicted by actors wearing grotesque masks. As a result of her recent three-year professional development experience in theatre stagecraft technology, she planned to take the students through the process of mask-making. She knew some limitations of traditional methods of mask-making, though, and wanted an alternative for her students. “Masks are a powerful theatrical effect but are often time-consuming to make and uncomfortable to wear in performance,” she explains. Drawing on her students’ expertise, as well as U Prep’s Makerspace, Ms. Wyatt gave three students the challenge of creating the masks with a 3D printer. 

7th grade students Julian Allchin, Rick Beaufrand and Nathan Naness researched Oni masks and sketched out several possible designs before selecting their final models. They then scanned the sketches into Maya, a professional modeling program. With their hand-drawn sketches imported, they turned their drawings into 3D models. As they built, they consulted with Ms. Wyatt and Director of Academic Technology Jeff Tillinghast on how to create something that would best serve their actors. They built the model to scale, knowing the size of their actors’ faces. They realized that they had to add in eye, nose and mouth holes to make the mask usable. Once the mask models were complete, they were too large to print on the school’s 3D printer. The students chose places to divide the model into four smaller parts, which could be re-assembled after printing. This sent them to research more software to help them break up the model in a way which would still result in a whole mask.

The group had to think critically about the limitations of their tools and design. In design, they eliminated parts of their original sketches which didn’t come out well on the 3D printer. To complete the ogres, the class painted and decorated the printed mask frames. “The 3D masks were thin and lightweight; a few small pieces of foam on the inside lifted them off the actors face enough to be quite comfortable. The end result was three unique masks that conveyed the demonic nature of the Oni and worked well in performance. This process was a great introduction to the use of 3D-printed items on stage.” Modernizing an ancient theatrical practice, these students helped bring the Oni to life for their audience.

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