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Print the Legend

Year: 2014
Production Co: Audax Films
Director: Luis Lopez/Clay Tweel

The producers or editors behind this documentary about the rise of consumer 3D printing seem to have gone in understanding that while machines and technology make okay backdrops and premises, all stories are ultimately about characters – in this case, real people.

Just when I thought Print the Legend was going to be an interesting if fairly dry primer into the technology and what it can do, industry hipster godfather Brie Pettis and the quiet immigrant engineer Max Lobovsky (the co-founders of MakerBot and Formlabs respectively, two of the pioneers in the desktop 3D printing field) and their colleagues and competitors' personal battles in the business come to the forefront of the movie.

As both men go through the staggering growth of a product class that's exploding across the consumer landscape and wrestle with the wrenching cultural change that goes from inventing in a garage to having investors, customers and shareholders, it almost turns into a thriller.

For Pettis, who graced the cover of Wired as the figurehead of a movement, it's when his company partly closes it's software to the public after being famous for championing open source, leaving Makerbot handling a PR nightmare trying to convince tamp down the narrative of him being a corporate sellout.

For Lobovsky, there are two problems. When Formlabs secures a truckload of financing on Kickstarter and gets a bigger truckload of orders after debuting at a trade show, the company haven't got a single commercial machine to ship and the clock is ticking.

Not long after, Stratasys – a company behind the huge industrial sector additive manufacturing systems (which I was surprised to find had been around since the 1980s) – sues for patent infringement in a lawsuit that could drain all the time, energy and limited legal resources the company desperately needs while it starts production.

Print the Legend is very much an artefact about the time it was made. First of all the consumer 3D printing industry was moving so fast a couple of years back, any documentary that came out in the midst of it couldn't have any kind of end in the traditional sense.

Secondly, you're surprised by how many talking heads seem to be badmouthing the way their employers have done things. It's only later in the film they're identified as former employees who've moved on or been unceremoniously dumped in the various corporate melees.

But the most interesting character comes about when the story starts talking about the rise of a movement to post 3D printed gun manufacturing instructions online.

The young man the filmmakers approach and talk to about it – Cody Wilson – seems every bit the atypical right wing, anti-government, gun-toting Texan nutjob. He makes it a form of political protest to freely distribute the instructions to make guns based on all the usual legal disclaimers rednecks always wheel out, but when you expect him to be a toothless hick in dungarees, he's incredibly well read, articulate and knows more about the American systems of politics and rights than any west coast Prius-driving liberal.

As history shows, the feeling you get in the first half of the movie about which horse you'd back is completely wrong. Pettis ended up completely selling out to the corporate sector by merging with one of the giants (which soon dumped him) and Formlabs, after looking like it would implode under the litigation and crushing deadline, met its shipping commitments, joined them instead of beating them in the lawsuit, and appears to be operating in perfect health today.

But none of it was without a lot of blood spilled, and even if you know nothing about 3D printing, Print the Legend is a good story because that's what it's ultimately about.

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