Modeling How-To: Detailing, Part 1

This is the first part of a series of posts where I describe how I go about detailing a scratch built starship. Detailing usually doesn’t happen until after the model is boxed in or shaped by plastic. Roughing out the intended shape is my least favorite part of the whole process, but if you don’t have a sound platform to start with, your model will wilt and become unstable under the weight of all the stuff you will be adding when you detail it.

Detailing has three major types: Panel lines, greeblies and scratch building. Panel Lines are achieved by inscribing the plastic base shapes with lines and shapes, greeblies are all the tiny model kit pieces or interesting plastic bits and scratch building new and interesting shapes is done with extra styrene that you always have on hand.

Here is a smaller starship model after it’s boxed-in with plastic. It has a solid RenShape core with a set screw mount and a few pieces set on top of it to get ideas going on what to do with the greeblies. The main gun turret is from a German destroyer kit and those squarish pieces behind it are keys from a kid’s computer keyboard. Everything else is just .060 styrene sheet or PVC tube.

The model is basically a clean slate right now. I have to decide what parts will have more detail and what areas will just have panel scribes or raised panels on it. What guides this decision process are two primary things: the purpose of the starship and the age of the starship. If the ship is an old scrap heap, it will have more details exposed if it is old, it probably has undergone a lifetime of refits and structural changes to keep it space worthy.

In the case of this particular model, the SS Weippe is an old, corvette military ship. I happen to know that it’s over fifty years old and is used primarily for escorting shipping lanes to protect them from space pirates. Although it’s military they are not currently at war with anyone. So no battle damage is needed.

I usually have to purchase at least a couple of model kits for each build. This time I got a German destroyer model. Trumpeter kits are excellent overall and this destroyer was perfect for naval inspired greeblies. It’s also the same scale as my model – 1/350. Always a bonus although not required. The gun turret I’m using for the Weippe was actually from a different warship kit.

At this point I’ve refined the bridge area, the top deck including the cannon and the engine area. I’ve also used all three techniques! I’ll start with the bridge and work my way back, explaining how and why I did what I did.

All I had was a blocked out shape from sheet styrene. For the bridge I was after a nautical look. This ship is featured in a novella called Corvette and its basically a naval story set in space. The ship is small, just like the WWII British Navy Flower class corvettes.

I used mostly naval parts from destroyer models. Because this is pre-war starship, I couldn’t use some of the design features found on ships at war. So there are no reactive armor blocks or anti-starfighter guns. But we do have a suggestion of comm antennas and other similar types of gear on top and to the back side. I used an engine cylinder head from a car model on the very back and detailed around it with strips of styrene.

 

Moving on to the top of the main body and I start to integrate model parts with strips of styrene and some raised panels. I have another circular piece ahead of the gun turret but I’m not sure what that exactly is. I just like the way it balances out the detail on the top. I also added fire control towers and some deck plates from the destroyer kit.

For the stern or engine area I was constrained to follow the detailing I have done on a slightly larger destroyer model. So I tried to mirror what that model did for the entire engine area. Whereas the destroyer had two star drives, this one only has a single drive. Below you can see the larger destroyer model built to the same scale. Not exactly the same, but similar enough to be related.

Next came the sides of the starship. I used mostly sheet styrene of various thicknesses and strips for this area. That’s a ship’s main smoke stack in there too. Sometimes you add pieces for eye interest. That was the case for the grilled piece on the bridge area. I drilled out the port holes, but won’t be installing Fiber Optics in this build. I think they help give you a sense of scale though. I also added some square tube and a round tube to the side. I tried to make it look like modifications to the base design have been made. Because this is an old starship.

Along the side of the body I used a big old car muffler that was chromed. Rather than bleaching off the chrome I just scraped it off so I could add details to it. Glue doesn’t stick too good to chrome. Car model builders can attest to that. I also used the destroyer’s torpedo tubes here. Most of the rest of it is layers of styrene shapes and plates. The grooved styrene strips of various sizes comes in handy here to suggest beams or girders. The one pipe that sticks up by the gun turret is kinda cool. No real purpose.

The back of the Weippe was kept pretty clean. I mostly just used sheets of styrene for raised panels. Eventually I’ll paint a registration number on there or use a decal. So I wanted it to be flat.

A brief stop at the nose to show off some scanners and such. I went extra heavy on the sheet styrene for some reason. I think I was just trying to add bulk because the Flower Class corvettes were kinda chubby boats. Some of the “scanners” were actually life boats from the destroyer kit.

Moving on to the bottom of the bridge area now. A few larger funnels were used to suggest mechanical complexity. Pretty boring though because I knew it wouldn’t be really seen much. Another great reason to use smaller boat model parts is that they are small and can easily suggest all kinds of industrial purposes.

The bottom of the main hull has the mount pole going through it. So I had to devise a sliding section to cover it if I ever photographed the model from another mount point. Hiding mounts is fun and can determine to some extent what your detail looks like. Sometimes I have sneaky sliding parts and other times I have parts that can be removed to get access to the mount point. Details here are flat and mostly strips of plastic either boat parts or stock.

The back of the engine area is dominated by aircraft fuel tanks or travel pods. I had to follow the design logic of the destroyer model for that. Some larger kit parts under the tubes in the middle. Under the body is a bay door for a shuttle. I chose to keep it closed on this one as there is a solid block of RenShape inside there. The big chrome truck wheel is pretty obnoxious, but again, won’t be seen much.

An import step in detailing is to throw some primer on the whole model so you can see how things are looking without the distractions from all the weird colors. I usually spend some time just looking at it and seeing if there are areas that need more attention before proceeding to painting and weathering. Here’s what the model looks like with primer.

I want to circle back here at the end and talk a bit about scoring panel lines. The only place I did that on this model was on the top of the head or bridge area. I sued a Tamiya scribe for that and stupidly did it late in the build. Ideally you should plan to scribe your model before laying any complicated greeblies down.

Sometimes you can get away with scoring panels before you even put a piece of styrene on the main model. Below you see the tools I used to do this on a Votainion warship model. The toothbrush is used to file off the raised areas and rub finger grease into the cracks so you can see the lines. I use a thin leaded mechanical pencil and a metal ruler to draw out the lines before scribing them. It’s important to use a metal ruler for this so you don’t cut the ruler and your lines stay straight.

Sticking with the warship model for a moment, I’d like to bring up the point that you don’t just have to use model kit parts for greeblies. Just about anything can be used. Below the bridge on this model is a cartridge of some kind, kid computer keys and a fan blade from a PC fan.

I did this crude parts call out to illustrate all the various things I used in this one part of the model.

Heck, I even used a light saber on the bottom!

The biggest takeaway from all this is to have fun and be creative. Don’t just slap parts on willy nilly or you’re going to have yourself a mess, like the models from Star Crash! Where they left model parts on the trees and just glued them to the side of the model. No form follows function or any of that nonsense.

Or you could look like the models I made as a kid!

The ILM Universal Greeblie

If you’re a model builder who likes to scratch build Sci-Fi stuff like myself, you have no doubt heard of ILM’s Universal Greeblie. A greeblie is a piece of plastic, usually a model kit piece, that is used to decorate a starship model or similar creation. This term originated from the Visual Effects shop created by George Lucas, called Industrial Light and Magic. ILM modelers built most of the iconic models created for such films as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many others of that time period.

ILM model makers adding model kit greeblies to the original, three foot diameter Millennium Falcon model. Below is a close up of the six foot Star Destroyer model replant with thousands of model part greeblies.

You can find many references to these early ILM days in which modelers talk about a certain greeblie that seemed to be used just about everywhere. They called it the Universal Greeblie. I’ve heard Fon Davis and Adam Savage, both former ILM model makers, talk about this greeblie but was never able to actually see which part they were talking about. It took some researching but I eventually found out which model kit had the part and exactly what part they were talking about.

There was a model kit of the WWII German Leopold rail gun in 1/72 scale produced in the 70’s by Hasegawa, and this kit contained several dozen of these “Universal Greeblies”. Recently I did a search for this kit and found that they were still making it. So I purchased it for use on my SF models. These kits are never cheap and I only buy kits that have a bunch of parts in them that I can use. So it was with good fortune that this Leopold gun had more than just the interesting ILM parts to use.

Have I kept you waiting long enough? Okay, here’s a picture of the actual part of the real train that the greeblie is modeled after. It’s a journal box, and part of the roller mechanism. Four massive bolts hold on this round metal cap that covers the end of the train’s axle. Now on a model that same scale as an HO train, that part is going to be pretty small and not very refined.

This is what it looks like on the model tree.

Here is the reverse side of Part 19, from the kit.

Here is where you install it as per the directions.

Now that we know what the Universal Greeblie looks like and what model kit it comes from, we can spot it in the wild, right? The studio scale model of the Cylon Raider from the original TV series had a few of these pieces on the wing attachment roots. Here is a shot of Moebius Model’s kit version that clearly shows them.

Once you know what certain parts look like, you start to ID them all over ILM models. The Cylon Raider was notorious for having highly recognizable greeblies. In this shot of the bottom of the model we can also clearly see other parts from the Leopold rail gun as well as tank treads, and many more. Can you spot the two UG’s on this model below?

Modelers of these SF vehicles often spend hours looking at detailed pictures of these models trying to ID all the parts so they can recreate them to the last detail. That’s crazy, but I do enjoy looking at them for ideas. The best studio scale movie models used off the shelf kits for parts but the modelers did their best to disguise them. There is definitely an art to detailing models. It’s not always done to perfection. Just watch Star Crash, where the modelers laid entire kit trees with their parts still attached to the model. In all fairness to the modelers on that film, they were rushed for time and could not afford to do it any better. Still, this is exactly how it’s not done.

Below you clearly see the model trees with parts and you can even recognize the Eagle from Space 1999 as well as some TIE fighter windows.

Detailing models in a manner that tricks the eye into thinking it was all designed that way from the beginning is much harder than the average person would think. Trust me. I’ve done it poorly and I’ve done it well and I still struggle with it on every model I build. I’ll leave you with some shots of my models, built in the ILM tradition.

Corvette Cover Preview

I thought I’d try something different with this novella set before the start of the Star Saga. I wanted to see what it would look like if it were painted. The trouble is, I don’t have time to paint cover art, so I used my models and then applied a painted filter over them. What do you think? You might have to look at it on a larger monitor to see the paint effect.

 

 

Completed K’nat Fighter

From the model shop this week comes the completed K’nat fighter in 1/32 scale. The finishing touches were done with artist’s pastels in white, gray and black. I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out and it will be featured on the K’nat Trap book cover early next year. I’ll try and postup the build wrap up this weekend.

Scrambler Build, Part 1

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Before Devon Ardel became a hot shot pilot for the Federation Alliance, she was a pretty good Stellar Ranger pilot. The fighter she flew for the Rangers was the Scrambler. When I initially started writing the Ranger short stories I drew this picture of the Scrambler. The design was a bit of a throwback to Buck Rogers and to all metal fighters from the 1950s.

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When I decided to build this model I wanted to try something different. I wanted to start with an actual fighter plane, thinking if these were ever filmed, it might be easy to find a real plane and then alter it into a Scrambler. The fighter that I settled on just happened to be a 1950’s UK fighter the Hawker Hunter. The only kit I could find was a the Revell 1/32 version so I purchased it.

I hacked up the wings first, making the tips bend down by cutting them off and angling them. Then I hacked off nearly a third of the fuselage and installed a bottle cap to be the engine housing. I didn’t use the kit’s tail, but fashioned one in the same shape as the drawing and bingo, I was essentially done.

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The cockpit was built pretty much as the kit provided. I didn’t care how detailed it was, because I’d never get inside with my camera. So while it’s weathered, it’s pretty stock.

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The canopy was masked in using the usual tapes.

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Here are the tops of the wings with the downward bend and all the putty I used on them. It was ugly, but it worked.

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Here’s the finished body with wings. No stabilizers were used.

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The mount was made from RenShape with a standard threaded lock off.

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Rear shot showing the engine which was an electric toothbrush in another life.

 

Coming next: Putty and Sanding

The Alien Minute Podcast

If you’ve been following this blog you may already be aware that I used to be a film maker. I studied film in college and worked on numerous commercial spots and low budget features. Whenever I find a podcast that looks at a film from a technical creation aspect, I dig into it. Lately I’ve been enjoying the hell out of The Alien Minute Podcast. The hosts are both working film makers and they bring on industry guests to help analyze the movie Alien, one minute at a time.

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The format of this podcast is freely lifted from The Star Wars Minute, but the hosts talk more about the art and craft of filming more than just fan boy gushing. Each episode they look at one minute of the film. They talk about character motivations and dialogue and music and camera angles and lighting – all the stuff. The best way to follow their podcast is to have a copy of Alien handy and watch the minute they talk about right before listening to their podcast. That way the film is fresh in your mind and you can recall what they are talking about when they explain the director’s genius.

I saw Alien in the theater with my best friend when we were 14. We had both read the novelization before seeing the film because we were Alan Dean Foster fans, and we wanted to know when to duck behind our seats. I spent most of that first viewing behind the seat in front of me. It wasn’t until I was in film school that I really looked at the whole movie and realized how completely awesome it is.

If you’re into how films are made, and really love the movie Alien, you need to be following this podcast. It’s top notch.

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John Ingle and Mitch Brian from The Alien Minute Podcast.

GCU Griffin

This weekend it was cool outside so I busted out the blue screen and a finished model and took some pictures of it. That of course led to some Gimp action with some pretty background images. Since my brother was visiting, he got a chance to watch me photograph the model and then helped me tweak the photos in Gimp. The results are below for your viewing pleasure.

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Star Saga Art

This weekend I’ve been taking pictures of my Star Saga models against a blue screen. I try and capture as many angles as possible giving myself the ability to compose interesting images in Gimp. I don’t use proprietary software like Photoshop or Mac OS, I make use Gimp and Linux. You won’t hear me say that I Photoshop anything for that reason. The first image I created was a formation break of Alliance Swift starfighters. The idea for this image came from a stunning picture of four F-15’s breaking formation.

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I used one model and took four different pictures of it in four different angles. Then cut them out separately and assembled them into one image. I found a dramatic nebula background that further emphasizes the moving forward implied motion as well as framing it off center to the left. The angles of the Swifts are different from the F-15s because this is space and there is no up or down. Kinda more of a starburst formation than a typical echelon.

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The next photo I did was a slow pass of two war fighting starships, a corvette and a destroyer. Both of these ships are from the Starforgers Trilogy of the Star Saga. The models are shot separately against the blue screen and then composited into one image just like the Swifts. Only this time I added engine flares to the finished image. This adds some green color in the flare that I was unable to remove.

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My compositing skills are not as good as my modeling and photography skills, but with more practice, I’m getting better. I’ll have more images like this on the blog in weeks to come.

SS Weippe

This is the principle vehicle of the novel I’m currently writing – Corvette. It is a 1/350 scale model with multiple mount points. (For scale reference, it’s a few inches over a foot long.) It’s the first model I’ve built with RenShape material for the core. RenShape is a special polymer block that cuts like wood and allows me to drill a hole for a mount rod and then drill a hole and tap it for a set screw to secure the rod into the model. The rest of the model is simple sheet plastic and kit bashing. I’ll have a page for this model showing how I built it soon. The model does not have any lights but it does have drilled out portholes where lights would go. I later used Gimp to light some of the portholes.

The model was mounted to a tripod in front of standard blue screen and lit with the Master Key, or the sun. The blue screen material covering the mount rod caused some blue reflection on the bottom of the model. So I chose a blue nebula star field image to matte behind it for the finished image. I used Gimp to assemble the composite.

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Blue Screen Shoot

The sun was out, I had a new model stand and it wasn’t blazing hot yet. All the elements were in place yesterday for a decent photo shoot. For those of you who don’t already know, I scratch build the starships from my novels and photograph them for use on the book covers. My brother Byron does all the compositing required for making the covers shine. We’re a pretty good team in that respect, with him being a graphics artist and me being a modeler and amateur photographer.

My shiny new C-stand arrived on Saturday, so it was a good excuse to go out into the sun and take some model pictures. The blue screen material is the same that is used in Hollywood and it’s clipped to a PVC frame.

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This is a Votainion warship and a corvette from my WIP entitled Corvette. Both models are to the same 1/350 scale and are separated by about three feet.

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This is a Votainion KiV-3 starfighter, scale is 1/32. Not sure how the glare off the gobo head was created. Could just be excessive shine.

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I shot this all in my driveway with a Canon DSLR. I was able to get a pretty high F-stop needed for depth of field.

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This is a starfighter from later on in the Great War. It’s one of my favorite designs.