Wardrones: 3D illustration techniques (part 1) – conceptualization & basic modeling


This project will focus on the full production process required to create an original 3D sci-fi concept illustration including designing and modeling the drone using freeform ZBrush sculpting techniques, detailing the model, setting up the scene, rendering it in KeyShot in several layers, and compositing the final shot in Photoshop.

The first part of the tutorial will focus on the initial modeling of the drone. This tutorial will cover many different areas, but will be limited in the focus of each independent element in order to display a larger picture of the process. The image will be focusing on a limited environment featuring one character (possibly with several instances) but the techniques can easily be scaled to a much larger idea.

The final shot will include fighter drones in action, mostly serving the purpose of illustrating the drone concept in action, presenting a polished, yet time effective result meaning neither a rough draft design, nor a final polished model, but lying somewhere on the border between the two.

wardrones 3d machinery
Wardrones: the model


Every project has a preparation phase. While it is possible to simply go completely freeform when expressing your design ideas, and is even encouraged when exploring creative ideas, it is good practice and quite mandatory to know the underlying functions of what you’re designing if you’re working on something that’s meant to be an interpretation of what is realistic, or exists in the real world as a functioning technical or organic element.

Since this project is focusing on assault drones, which in the case of this tutorial is a preset choice in order to streamline the content, a good start would be looking at some real drone designs online, and getting to know their structure and elements. While there is an extent of creative interpretational freedom, depending on what kind of project you’re working on, I believe that real and consistent designs communicate better than simply winging it, and that real engineering principles should be the fundamental layer to your design.

Just like with modeling organic entities, you should be focusing on the shape of the skeleton as the base. If you can provide your design with a good and fundamentally realistic “skeleton” whether it be an actual skeleton, or technological and industrial components, and then apply creativity in utilizing the base principles of its function, you can then create an innovative and piercing, yet believable design. This is why it’s good to understand how things work, way before you actually proceed with the modeling steps.

air force flying drone 3d
Research & study


As far as this tutorial goes, I will not show intense scrutiny when it comes to realism, as I would with a bigger project and I’ve already chosen a thematic design for the drone. With that said, exploration is a great way to quickly learn what works from a visual standpoint. Once you think you have the grasp of the fundamental elements of the structure you are assembling, now is a good time to quickly assess what will work and the best way to do that is through trial and error.

3D concept art using sculpting apps is great for this, since you can immediately see the effect of any change, so you can move quickly through thousands of decisions and find the optimal route for the shape formation. This is my preferred method of design, however it is hard to capture this project in such a limited environment as is this tutorial, so instead I have chosen a preset route in assembling the drone.

The main idea here is that the main body will resemble a skull extending into the wing section, with an assault weapon coming out of its mouth. Sounds pretty corny, of course the execution is what matters here. A good practice in design is using familiar shapes, shapes that occur in nature and that we associate with having an important and mandatory role in life. Simplicity and familiarity helps us instantly connect to the design instead of having lots of different random elements bundled up together into a meaningless mess.

Less can be more; sometimes the less you communicate, the more you’ve said, and hence the better the design. Not saying that a design has to be simple, but if your design is complicated, it better have a lot to say. A good example would be Dan Luvisi’s Last man standing, having lots of elements that add to the story in a different way. In the end your design should always look to express the most truth/story. That’s why I emphasize realism and good research of the subject at hand. The value you deliver in the visuals will always translate to the audience.

I have a particularly good visual mind from working with 3D software for over a decade, so at this point from all the previous trial and error experiences, I can do a lot of work in my mind and come closer to the final design, just by exploring ideas in my head. If you have a good visual mind it can save you lots of time, however you can also do this by sketching out ideas beforehand or doing very rough sculpting sessions before the actual modeling.

shape formations 3d
Exploring different ideas

Where do we start?

You can really start anywhere, mostly you should look to create the core areas first and the largest most fundamental shapes. In this case that would either be the drone wings, or the front body, however it makes more sense to start with the center of the weight meaning I will start to define the skull body and the front of the drone.

You can start with a sphere, turn symmetry on and use the Move brush to define the somewhat elongated tilted shape that I will demonstrate in the images. You don’t have to worry too much about the precision of the shape and feel free to expand it a bit further as we will mostly clip this shape into an accurate, hard surface form of it. What’s important is to define the direction/tilt of the main body and focus on how the weight will distribute.

In this case flowing into the direction of the front-end weapon attachment, we should also consider extending the back to equalize the weight distribution, so it will resemble an alien skull more so than a human one. Obviously this cannot be perfect and we cannot confirm whether it is actually accurate given the time investment, however it should give us a good level of consistency in realism, meaning our drone won’t look like it would flip and crash in a matter of seconds if it was real life.

Also let’s talk about the scale. This is obviously not your Amazon delivery drone, we have to make sure both the main body and the wings have the proper scaling relative to the weapon so that the recoil won’t significantly disrupt the stability of the drone. Obviously, I’m not an expert on assembling war drones but using simple logic and making a few assumptions can get you a long way, although proper research is always more favorable.

More importantly, you can see how having the proper mindset and research can drastically impact some design choices, which in turn will result in a more appropriate design, and then as long as you maintain these principles, you can go as wild as you want with your design without achieving the “This is cool, but what is it?” effect, unless you’re inventing new tech.

3d base shapes
Building the base shape

Clip, Clip, Clip

The bulk of my technique when doing hard surface modeling in ZBrush is using curve clipping tools combined with camera angles. This is a very good way of forming your shape exact and precise with no obvious sculpting tells. The trick here is to know your camera angle, and then to manipulate the shape to achieve the 3D look. You can start with the side, front, and top and then move into more specific angles, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

For the rounder areas of the model, we have our perfectly round base that we started with, so by combining these two you can get an accurate shape. Make sure to subdivide the mesh enough so that you don’t get jagged edges due to lack of polygons. Using dynamesh will possibly also be a good idea.

I will define the whole skull front body base shape with these clipping techniques, and utilizing small cuts from half to side angles I will create holes for the eyes, nose, and other cavities, while maintaining perfect form. Additionally, after the hard-cut faces are formed, additional moving via the Move brush can help create finer curvature.

This is the fundamental step to creating your base mesh that we will build upon later with greater detail and more cavities, separations, materials, patterns, and cuts. I like to build a flawless mesh from the ground up, not relying on fixing too much. This is why I usually do a couple of draft models before I actually know what I’m doing, but since I’m already decided with the design, I will proceed with the clean variation ready for the 3D illustration.

zbrush clipping shapes
clipping basic shapes
Clipping to greatness


Moving along, I create another sphere and start extracting the base of the wings and the lower portion of the mechanical beast. Using the same techniques, and the Move tool, I form a rough shape for the rest of the body. I am thinking about where the center of the weight is, and trying to balance the design to not disrupt this balance. Also, thinking how this machine will land, creating a resemblance of legs for landing.

For the inner “mouth” area left for the mobile weapon, the following step will illustrate how we cut this blob into what it’s supposed to be. The design is a bit out there, I must admit, not your regular drone, but it still tries to reserve the functional part, even though you probably wouldn’t see this type of drone outside a drone fashion show – or a concept drone.

wing modelling 3d piece
Wing modeling

Clipping wings

It’s time to define the mechanical parts from the big wingblob. Clipping several areas to further shape the wing area and add some catchy details. Like I said, given the limitation of the project I’m not actually going to make the design TOO reasonable as some of these cuts are for aesthetic or illusory purposes.

Some areas at times you will notice have a harsh cutoff. This is done by masking a portion of the mesh and then curve clipping. The wing area is shaped in such a way to accommodate for two rotor engines to propel the drone, placed strategically on the forward end in order to balance the weight. I can only imagine that if the actual lift was so far back, having a heavy gun mount on the front would totally make the drone un-flyable. Again, the more you study, the better.

The lower portion is the main case for the engine and likewise components, and extends backwards as sort of a bee sting. The lower end is shaped in such a way as to be able to house interior components in a reasonable way and here is where we imagine the bulk of the components coming together and connecting, being powered.

lower body proportions
Detailing the lower body portion

Motor rotor

Another major part of the drone are the rotors. I will do this as a separate entity by making a blank cylinder and applying Radial Symmetry in ZBrush. (Transform > Symmetry > [R]). Radial Symmetry is a great and easy way to shape cylindrical objects and add details depending on how many symmetrical points you use. I used several stages, starting from the maximum number, to shape the cylinder using Clip and Move tools, then further decreased the number to add specific repetitive details all the way to the lowest setting for some additional asymmetry.

In this case the rotor is done using a combination of two insert meshes from the IMM Spaceship brush. It’s a bit of a low effort but you can apply the same techniques to make a more compelling engine and it still looks quite good with all the details. One thing we will have to work on is the connection area between the rotors and the wing section, but we will do that in the next tutorial of the series that will focus on detailing.

Support rig

Now, before we move on to the gun mount, we should add some sort of supportive rig for both the front panel and the gun mount. The front panel supportive rig starts off as a collection of cylinders placed using the IMM Basic brush, and afterwards additionally modified using Dynamesh and Clipping and Move tools.

As for the gun mount, I thought it would be a good and technically feasible idea to have a sort of cable bundle-like mesh coming from the main case into the gun case that we will model next. The cable mesh is first just a sphere modeled into the desired shape, and then using the Dam Standard knife-like brush is sliced along the route. Make sure to use Lazy brush for precise strokes in the brush stroke settings (Stroke > Lazy Mouse). This also resembles the spinal cord coming out of the brain (the main case) for additional association with the whole skull concept.

model rigging wings
support rig 3d model
Modeling the support rig

Gun mount

For the gun mount, first we will begin with the main case, starting off with a box, and then expanding the area to a wider double breast-like shape, then clipping off the curves into a rigid shape, adding some aesthetic curvature along the way.

In this case we will be using some IMM Spaceship inserts to decorate the case starting with the three rotating barrels and then adding exhaust pipes for supposed heat transfer. Then further adding additional heat vents, a handle and some other fun stuff. Again, for the sake of covering all the areas of this workflow all the way to the final render, some of these elements will have to be make-believe with room for plausible effects, but otherwise it is always a good idea to gather reference, blueprints, and study real weapons and gun mounts, and incorporate as much of the real principles and components as you can in the development of your design.

I would recommend designing something that actually would legit work in real life. Do your homework if you’re a designer by profession. Since we will be moving on to other areas of the production pipeline for these 3D illustration techniques, I limited the time put into making this gun extremely believable.

As for the modeling, pretty much using the mixture of these same techniques, you can get to any level of detail, I am mostly demonstrating the tools here that you can use to whichever extent you may please.

IMM Spaceship 3d model
gun mount 3d model
Modeling the gun mount

Shield and landing gear

Lastly, the gun mount will contain a flexible rig that will serve as landing gear which beside the adjustable landing foot, will also hold the shield for the weapon. Like the previous rig, but instead of using cylindrical structures I am going to use the extended cylinder from IMM Primitives to build the supportive web, and then proceed to model the foot using previously shown techniques mostly modifying and dynameshing a primitive, and using Curve Clipping to shape the object, then insert some detail with IMM brushes. The shield is just a flattened sphere, shaped with the Move brush, then again curve clipped to the desired hard surface shape.

gun mount 3d modelling
Finalizing the gun mount

Top tip - Curve Clipping

The majority of modeling in this tutorial is done via the Curve Clipping tool located in the brush selection menu when holding CTRL+SHIFT. Manipulating the camera, you can direct how the model is being shaped.

zbrush curve clipping
Angular Curve Clipping

To be continued…

The base model is done and is ready for detailing and coloration. In this part of the three part series we explored ideation, conceptualization and various design approaches along with ZBrush modeling techniques to accomplish quick and good looking hard surface models. As you can see, it is quite possible to make clean hard surface models with ZBrush, regardless of whether they are used for production or concept visualization / 3D illustration. Afterwards, they can either then be retopologized and made to be animation ready, or they can be used for illustration purposes that I will showcase in part two and three of this series.

In the follow ups I will focus on detailing the model and separating the various materials and colors that will later be used as indicators for rendering in KeyShot, and compositing the final shot.

Stay tuned for the next part, exclusively on 3dtotal.com.

3d modelling mount
3d modelling mount
Final image

Make sure to read chapter two of this tutorial "Wardrones: 3D illustration techniques (part 2) – detailing & color masks". Part three coming soon...

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