Big3D captures depth and animation, along with the viewer's imagination.
When people talk about images that “pop” off the page, they’re usually talking about bright or saturated colors, special ink effects such as varnish or white, or simply bold typography within the design itself.
But as Big3D in Fresno, California, shows, there’s a way to print images that appear to pop off the page literally. The technique is called lenticular printing, and it enables Big3D to produce graphics that escape the paper they’re printed on to reach out toward the viewer, change from one image to another, or even appear to move as the viewer does.
Lenticular graphics achieve these effects through the placement of a plastic or resin sheet on top of the printed image. The sheet is manufactured (extruded) with built-in “lenticules” or tiny lenses on one side. These lenticules show the viewer different images, or different versions of the same image, depending on their angle to the printed piece. By showing different images, a variety of effects can be created.
Big3D has been producing lenticular graphics for more than 12 years, says marketing director Bradley Fitzhenry. The company’s president, Tom Saville, started in the printing business making courtroom graphics and expanded into all sorts of wide-format output. But around 12 years ago, Saville “caught the lenticular bug,” in Fitzhenry’s words, and decided to devote his company solely to that technology. Big3D now operates out of a 50,000-square-foot plant in Fresno, and has 20 full-time employees plus part-time staff.
How lenticular works
Lenticular images are popular for marketing and eye-catching displays because they don’t require special glasses or lighting to make the illusions work. Anybody walking by will see the effect. The image can be printed on paper, on a translucent substrate for backlit uses, or directly onto the lens sheet itself. And, lenticular graphics can be as small as a postcard or as large as a wall mural.
The most basic lenticular graphic—and the easiest kind to explain—is a flip, in which one picture changes to another as the viewer looks at it from different angles. The graphic can alternate between two images (called a two-flip) or cycle through multiple images.
Flipping through multiple images enables a lenticular graphic to create a morph, a zoom, or an animation. A morph uses multiple images, but rather than having the images be disconnected, separate subjects, they show one image slowly transforming into another—imagine a movie poster with the hero turning into a vampire. Similarly, the multiple images can show increasingly close-up views of a subject, creating a zoom effect, like a car coming toward the viewer. And an animation uses multiple images of a scene to show a short flipbook-like movie.
Most complicated is a 3-D graphic. These rely on multiple views of the same image to separate the foreground, midground, and background planes of an image. This enables it to present the viewer with the illusion that some elements of the image are in front of other elements.
Creating lenticular images is not a push-button process; it requires mathematical calculations to create the graphic and precise placement of the lens sheet to make the illusion work. A look at some possible applications will illustrate just how complicated the procedure can be.
Let’s start with a simple two-flip for a point-of-purchase display—say a poster that shows one image of a cold, full bottle of beer with the cap on and another of the empty bottle sitting on a table next to a full glass. The process begins with the client supplying both images to Big3D.
Prior to every job, Big3D does “pitch tests” of its lens sheets in order to determine the exact frequency of the lenticules. Similar to calibration, the pitch tests involve printing a test pattern and then laying the lens sheet over it; the interaction of the test pattern and the lenticules reveals the exact frequency of the sheet. A common lens sheet used with large-format output might have around 15 lenticules per inch.
The Big3D operators then enter the measured frequency of the lens sheet plus other data—for example, the number of separate images in the graphic and the angle of the sheet’s lenticules—into the company’s SuperFlip! software. This software combines the two source images, interlacing a strip from the first image, then a strip from the second image, then a strip from the third image, and so on, basing the size and frequency of the strips on the data input earlier. The result is a single TIFF image of the interlaced strips.
“It’s not as simple as a strip of each under each lenticule,” says Fitzhenry, “and the software’s calculation isn’t always correct. Sometimes we have to tweak the numbers a bit to get the effect to come out right.”
The interlaced TIFF image is printed on photo paper on Big3D’s Océ LightJet printer. “If you looked at the printed piece,” says Fitzhenry, “it would just look like a blur, since the strips are so narrow.” The magic happens when the clear lens sheet is placed over the image, with the lenticules side facing up and the flat back side against the print. “When we place the lens onto the interlaced output, it’s precisely registered by hand to the point where all of the strips of one image are seen from one view, and all of the strips of the second image from another view,” explains Fitzhenry. The result is that, when the viewer stands to one side of the display, they see the full-bottle image, and from the other side, the full-glass photo.
For a morph, the process is similar: The client could supply intermediate images of the bottle going from full to empty. Similarly, the scene could be animated, with multiple images of the bottle being picked up and the beer poured into the glass.
On a 3-D image, on the other hand, “you’re seeing multiple flip views of the same image,” analogous to camera angles, Fitzhenry explains. “The number of views is based on the particular lens being used, the artwork itself, our experience, and on trial and error. On average, a 3-D graphic might involve 20 views, but sometimes having more views makes it more convincing, and sometimes having fewer views does.” Each view or camera angle is saved as a separate file, and the files are interlaced to make a TIFF as with the other effects.
A hand production process
Big3D has an Océ LightJet photo printer for its wide-format jobs. “The continuous-tone output that we get from the LightJet is very important—the image quality and vibrancy is an important part of the product we sell. We evaluate other available output technologies on a regular basis, but I don’t believe that at this time there’s any plan for a change. But obviously equipment advances and improves, and we’ll keep our eyes open,” says Fitzhenry.
In addition to the LightJet, Big3D utilizes two lithographic presses (a 5-color KBA Genius 52 UV, and a seven-deck 40-inch Mitsubishi 3F) for smaller-format, high-volume jobs, such as postcards. In these cases, it prints with UV ink right onto the back of the lens sheet and register to the lens by tweaking the paper path through the press. “For lenticular litho printing, after you register the CMYK rosette, you have to register to the lens, to the media itself,” says Fitzhenry. “So you need a press that allows some pretty minute adjustments in order to get the file registered.”
If the company has enough volume to keep two litho presses running, why does it have only one wide-format printer? “The reason is that the production process for wide-format lenticular printing is largely a hand production process,” explains Fitzhenry. “We could have five wide-format printers, but we’re still limited to the speed at which we can register and affix the lens sheets by hand. And you can’t just stockpile a lot of printed interlaced images, because there’s so much technology and math involved in creating the interlaced print file to match the particular lens you’re using. If you work too far ahead of yourself, you may end up trashing a bunch of printed output before you can even add the lens because the math no longer works.”
Murals to posters
The demand for lenticular graphics runs a wide gamut. The biggest single installation Big3D has done was in late 2007 for the Las Vegas branch of Starlight Tattoo. “They built a tattoo parlor and retail store inside the Mandalay Bay casino,” recounts Fitzhenry. “While it was under construction, they put up a wall to block off the area, and they wanted to dress up the wall with a lenticular graphic. They came to us with an idea for a 98-foot mural. We said, Sure, we’ve never done anything quite that big, but we can handle it.” [Editor’s note: See our April 2008 issue, “Superwide Graphics: Coming in Loud and Clear,” p. 50.] Also in Las Vegas, the firm produced graphics for a theater lobby in the Luxor hotel for the magician Criss Angel’s show.
Last July, Big3D produced three-dimensional posters for the Ernst and Young 3D Theater at Chicago’s Field Museum. “The museum came to us because they wanted to do a lobby display that would showcase the upcoming films and thought they should use 3D lenticular posters,” says Fitzhenry. “They had some basic artwork that was supplied as promotional posters, and they asked if we could work with the available art to create some dynamic poster imagery.”
Big3D produced three 48 x 60-inch backlit lenticular posters that were mounted on a freestanding backlit lobby display. Two posters advertise upcoming movies—Egypt 3D and Dinosaurs Alive!—and the third promotes the theater itself. Because they’re backlit, they’re printed on Duratrans instead of paper. [Editor’s note: See our November 2009 issue, “Lenticular Lobby,” p. 6.]
The process of preparing the artwork for the posters brought out some of the challenges in creating 3D lenticular graphics. Because such images require multiple “camera angles,” sometimes background elements need to be extended or created to fill in “behind” the foreground plane. “The museum was able to supply us with the Photoshop files that were used to print the flat versions of the posters,” recounts Fitzhenry. “Fortunately, they were layered enough that we could—with quite a bit of additional prepress work—cut elements apart and create additional planes, cloning in behind objects to fill the holes, to create as much movement and depth as possible.”
Being brought in as early as possible
To ensure a lenticular graphics project comes out well, Big3D tries to work with the client from the beginning of the process. “Not every concept is appropriate,” says Fitzhenry. “It’s best to design for the media to get the most impact out of it. We like to be brought in as early as possible, because there are a lot of choices that can be made that can improve the effectiveness of a project.
“The biggest problem comes when somebody says, ‘I have this flat image, and I want it to be turned into a 3D image,’” he continues. “That’s a challenge, because the ideal file is a layered PS file with as many elements as possible on their own layer. That allows us to place them in depth planes and create a scene around which we can take these different camera views.
“If we’re provided with just a flat image, everything is on one layer,” he continues. “Sometimes you can cut an image apart and put elements on different layers, but it’s very time consuming. You have to fill in the holes behind the things you cut out, and sometimes the final product isn’t worth the effort it would take. We’re not in business to produce disappointing results, so sometimes I’ve advised clients that lenticular may not be the right avenue for them to pursue, and take the time to make sure they understand why. Producing underwhelming lenticular won’t do the industry or our image any good.”
If all this sounds like a challenging market to enter, Fitzhenry would agree. “Many companies have tried to do lenticular, because it is interesting, it’s unique, it’s fun,” he says. “But it’s also technologically challenging, and the road to lenticular printing is littered with many bankrupt companies. It takes a lot of training to get someone to be able to register a lens properly—there’s no manual, it all comes from experience. It’s not something that you can pull someone off the street, give them a couple of weeks of training, and have them be proficient at. The personnel have to know what they’re doing.”
Not that the situation is hopeless. “Some companies do a little bit of lenticular work—they find an area they feel comfortable with, producing smaller pieces,” he says.
Finding More Information and Supplies
Here’s a sampling of companies branding their own lenticular products and/or offering additional information about lenticular production in general. For purposes of this list, we’ve not included companies that exclusively sell other firms’ branded products.
• FlipSigns! (www.flipsigns.org): Its SuperFlip! 3D Genius software enables the construction of a 3-D image for any 3-D lens; its SuperFlip! software can be used to make flip images, motion, or 3-D lenticulars. Also provides assistance with/information on lenticular.
• Goex (www.goex.com) – PVC lenticular and PETG lenticular extruded clear sheets, 28-in. wide.
• HumanEyes (www.humaneyes.com): HumanEyes Producer 3D is an end-to-end lenticular workflow solution designed to provide digital and offset printers everything necessary for the creation and production of 3D and lenticular projects; the company also offers Capture 3D software for photographers and Creative 3D software for designers and other creative professionals. Its SnapilyPro service (snapilypro.com) is an online 3-D digital print service for creative professionals.
• Imagiam (www.imagiam.com): Spain-based company offers Lenticular Effects lenticular software for print providers.
• Lenstar (www.lenstar.org): Organization sponsored by various lenticular-industry players, dedicated to providing helpful information “that will better the quality and continue the successes within the lenticular industry.” Offers a history of lenticular, a primer, ideas/applications, designer’s corner, and much more. Free lenticular presentation booklet on request.
• LentiClear Lens Inc. (www.lenticlearlens.com): Lenticular lens materials for the 3D/animated printing, advertising, promotional, and packaging industries.
• MicroLens (www.microlens.com): Large-format lenticular sheets up to 48 x 96 inches standard.
• Pacur (www.pacur.com): Offers Lenstar, a polyester resin developed specifically for lenticular applications; in conjunction with Eastman Chemical Company.
• Photo Illusion (www.photo-illusion.com): Its Power Illusion is an interlacing lenticular software program that allows users to create professional lenticular imagery; the company also provides various software packages, materials and equipment for the lenticular and 3D animation communities.
• Pixalen Studio (www.pixalenstudio.com): High-end lenticular prepress services assist print providers in getting the most impact out of their lenticular projects; also offers training and software for print shops that wish to keep their lenticular production in-house.
• ProMagic Software (www.promagic.net): Magic Interlacer Pro and Magic Interlacer Lite interlacing software; 3D Magic Lenticular Designer software for creating 3-D effects with a single layered Photoshop file.
• Spartech (www.spartech.com): VPI series of lenticular lens sheet; APET and PETG lenticular, both designed for digital as well as screen, litho, and flexo.
• Triaxes (www.3dmasterkit.com): Russian-based company’s 3DMasterKit software is designed to enable users to create lenticular prints with 3-D and motion effects, such as flip, morphing, animation, and zoom; its StereoTracer software is for rendering multi-view images out of one picture to create a lenticular 3-D print.