Design and create impressive mechs

3D generalist Lee Souder shares the techniques design theory and processes adopted in the creation of his sci-fi image Chinese oppressor drones

For this tutorial I am going to focus on design theories that can be used in any software. I am providing a step by step tutorial on how I created a believable mech from scratch.

Inspiration

Since you can go in any direction design-wise, I like to set goals. I tried to keep one thing in mind - what would a commercial security mech look like?

Initial inspiration came from real world robotic companies such as ABB and Raytheon. Every time I see ABB's robotic arms building cars or entertaining in trade shows I can't help but wonder what it would look like if they were used for combat.

Those robotic factory arms move as though they are from a sentient life form. These details found in current robotics are perfect for military mech inspiration. Raytheon also has some awesome stuff going on in their defense division too.

Ground yourself and find some inspiration related to your subject - stay focused and do not go overboard with conceptual ideas

Ground yourself and find some inspiration related to your subject - stay focused and do not go overboard with conceptual ideas

3D sketches

Since I am more 3D-oriented than 2D, I work better if I sketch in 3D. For quick form studies I use ZBrush, but by all means use whatever you want to generate unique concepts. In ZBrush I use the ShadowBox to start, and then I add some larger details with the Slice Curve, Move, Planar, Insert Cylinder, and Insert Box brushes.

Once I am satisfied, I bring the mesh into Marmoset for a quick understanding of what the forms look like in a lit environment. After I find something with a decent silhouette and proportions I decimate the mesh and bring it into Maya.

Use whatever means necessary to create concept art - photo-bash, sketch, overlay images. I used ZBrush to find forms

Use whatever means necessary to create concept art - photo-bash, sketch, overlay images. I used ZBrush to find forms

Basic shapes

To kick things off in Maya, I trace the ZBrush mesh with basic shapes - mostly boxes and cylinders. Now I get to see the Mech with perfect geometric forms. I analyze the form and decide what should go and what should be added. I do this while looking at references from ABB and Raytheon.

One thing I have learned in the past is to not go overboard with detail. Pick a handful of different design elements, but not all of them - it's easier on the eyes. In this case I don't like the thin blade foot - I want the robot to look more menacing so I add a hoof design to mimic a satyr/devil creature.

Start with clean simple geometry to see if the mechanics work well - if something's not working; it's the time to experiment

Start with clean simple geometry to see if the mechanics work well - if something's not working; it's the time to experiment

Edge quality

Now it's time for detailing to add believability. First off, remember to guide the viewer with these details and leave some areas with less detail so the robot doesn't become over whelming.

In this case the head has the most detail and the chest and torso are simple circles and rectangles.

The most important elements for machines are edge quality and circular forms. Use different edge treatments. For example: round beveled edges, chamfered edges, and sharp edges. This is very similar to the different types of line quality created for stunning figure drawing. Nothing says mechanical more than perfect circles, cylinders and spheres. These perfect circles help the mech look manmade and help the viewer with the perspective.

Details become very pleasing when you use different edge treatment - just like figure drawing!

Details become very pleasing when you use different edge treatment - just like figure drawing!

Mimic details

Don't forget to mimic other details while designing, this will keep things cohesive and also save time. Whenever I get stuck on detail ideas or a certain area I look to other parts of the model that I can duplicate. These are either exactly copied or squashed and manipulated to fit in.

I also setup some rules for myself to help make quicker decisions. For instance, for any armor plate I will use an angular styling found on sports cars. Then any rotational joint should have a ring of bolts or something similar to ABB robotic joints.

Save time and keep the model cohesive by copying other forms in your model - this harmony will be pleasing to the viewer

Save time and keep the model cohesive by copying other forms in your model - this harmony will be pleasing to the viewer

Asymmetry

To push the form further, I always add asymmetry at the end. These can be wires, cloth, attachments, decals, missing parts, etc. This works well - just like when a character has a scar or parrot on their shoulder.

Anyway most machinery is never perfectly symmetrical and there are usually random functional attachments. One example I love is when sports cars have an offset bulge on the hood. Since the asymmetry will stand out make sure you want the viewer to focus there. You can see this on my mech. There are attachments on the shoulders and an odd number of wires in back of the head.

When you are finished modeling break up the perfection with asymmetry – most military machinery is unbalanced

When you are finished modeling break up the perfection with asymmetry – most military machinery is unbalanced

nCloth

For a quick fix, I use nCloth for areas that are troubled – it's an easy way to save time. For instance if I have two parts that do not connect smoothly I cover them in cloth. For the quick fix I copy and expand the geo around the problem area and then I add divisions to make the mesh dense which will create nice folds. Give the expanded divided mesh an nCloth attribute. The original mesh should get the collider attribute. Add about 200 key frames then let the CPU take over. The covered joint will also add some interest to the mech by breaking up materials.

Don't be afraid to cheat by covering up areas with cloth. Cloth will add realism to your all-metal robot

Don't be afraid to cheat by covering up areas with cloth. Cloth will add realism to your all-metal robot

Shader balls

Before we render, we need to set up the HDRI lighting. I limit myself to four materials with four different colors because any more than that tends to look overdone. I do use a couple of accents, for example a matte black and a glossy black. These materials should be used in a hierarchical sense so the subject is not perfectly balanced with color.

For this drone I mostly use a dark gun metal and then silver/grey for the secondary parts, chrome for bolts and finally red for small details. Most importantly, make sure to test your materials with shader balls in your selected HDRI setup first. Then if they render well and look good together, start applying materials to your drone.

Look at your materials in your HDRI environment with shader balls before final rendering setup

Look at your materials in your HDRI environment with shader balls before final rendering setup

Top Tip

To save time with small bevels use V-Ray's Round Edges. Select your mesh and go to the Attribute Editor, then under Attributes go to V-Ray and check the Round Edges option. Then to change the bevel size, go to Extra V-Ray Attributes. Unfortunately you have to do this with each individual mesh.

I use Maya with V-Ray and my favorite new rendering tool can be found at hdr-sets.com. The Hdr-Sets tool quickly builds a HDRI rig. To start they provide three high resolution scenes. The tool comes with the corresponding back plates too, which saves so much time.

Related links

Have a look at more of Lee's work at his website
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