Making of 'Grumman F-14 Tomcat'
This project is the largest I've ever attempted. It's been in development for around six months now, with me working constantly on it for a couple of hours each day. It was supposed to be the leading project for my portfolio, and I wanted to create something big for that.
When I began working on this plane, the only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to make an F-14, or more specifically, an F-14A. In terms of the final environment, or the setup of the scene, I had no firm plans. The in-flight render of the F-14A was my main goal and it turned out to be one I filled almost completely - the only major change being that my plane's engines ended up belonging to a F14A+/B.
I used a number of reference photos for this project, most of them take from the truly excellent site http://www.anft.net - a very complete and wonderful reference work for all things related to the F14 (Fig.01 and Fig.02). I can't overstate how helpful this single page was in the creation of this project! Other useful sites were http://www.airliners.net, and lastly, http://www.primeportal.net.
I realised early on that this project would be a challenge. Looking at the mere insanity that was the nose landing gear bay (Fig.03) was an intimidating sight for sure, but in the end it was quite fun working with such a detailed model. 3D Studio Max performed admirably in this difficult environment and I didn't run into many modelling-related problems.
I began by setting up a set of high-res blueprints, given to me by a friend (two 4096 sheets with all the standard views), which proved to be very helpful in outlining the general shapes of this plane. As I was outlining the basic shape, I kept looking for reference images, both for the overall form and for small details. Primeportal.net supplied those images, but I didn't stumble across that one until the modelling stage was almost completed. I had to make do with smaller images for the most part and do a little bit of guess work for small details every now and then, especially for the landing gear bays (Fig.04 and Fig.05).
UVW Mapping and Texturing
Unwrapping this plane was a simple task for the most part, since I could planar map large regions and assemble them into nice, big UV shells. However, Max decided to throw me an extremely nasty surprise once I started to create textures! It turns out that mesh smoothing can wreak havoc on UV seams, wildly stretching the UV verts along the seams for no apparent reason (Fig.06 and Fig.07). This caused me a major headache and several days of delay while I collapsed the meshsmooth in the modifier stack and fixed the seams by hand. (Even after a thorough search on the web, this was the only way I could find to fix the problem.)
The textures themselves are several 4096 sheets (Fig.08 and Fig.09) and pushed the limits of my machine, using dozens of layers and vector shapes. Still, this was one of the most fun phases: watching this project come together. For the squadron markings, I decided to use those of the VF-84 "Jolly Rogers". The reasons are simple: the squadron is one of the most famous ones, they fit the era of the F14A, and lastly, their colours and symbols are strong and vibrant, especially on the early era paint scheme. I wanted authenticity as much as possible, so I looked up the Federal Standard colour codes and their RGB counterparts, ensuring the plane would look exactly the way it should.
Rendering and Environment
At this stage, I had to decide upon an environment for the plane. I opted against a mid-flight scenario and decided to park the plane on an airstrip somewhere, which would let me show off more of the detail on it.
I chose to create a composited image, using pictures I took myself at the local airport which formerly served as a Canadian F104 Starfighter airbase. Some of the old hangars are still well preserved, and I found the perfect spot for the final shots. The limiting factor was the rather low-quality camera I had at my disposal, but in the end the results were satisfying enough. As a side note, I didn't put down any measurements, but rather took the photos guessing where the plane would be depending on my position (Fig.10 and Fig.11) - when assembling the cameras in Max later on, it turned out I was pretty damn accurate with my guesses, too!
Rendering was done with V-Ray, using a lightprobe I created at the airport to ensure realistic lighting. I added a weak direct light to enhance shadows on the ground, and after a bit of calibration and material testing, I rendered out the final images, each rendered at 1024 resolution and taking between 1:20 and 1:40 hours (Fig.12and Fig.17).