Hey everyone, Steve here! I’d like to shed some light on the process that takes place when designing something like The ‘Flea’ Interplanetary Freighter for Decktechs.

When you have final creative say over your own project, the design process can sometimes be truncated. It’s easy to think of something in your head and just start building it immediately, disposing of the normal steps of creating dozens or hundreds of thumbnails, refining, going back, refining again, etc.

When working for myself, I normally take something and run with it, but there are a few tricks I’ve learned that help make the process efficient and fun. Read on!

The Flea - Initial Sketch

For The Flea Interplanetary Freighter, which was designed in 2008 for the original Decktechs pitch (it was a tentative idea for a class project in my undergrad) I had some design parameters laid out before I started sketching. The Flea had to look like it carried cargo. I thought of trucks, specifically, the way cabs can detach from the trailers. Why wouldn’t it be the same for space cargo freighters? With this in mind,  I drafted an extremely quick basic sketch.

It so happened I liked the direction the first sketch was going in, but deferred to my friend, Decktechs co-writer and Avatar art department veteran Brian Pace for his input. He could see where I was going and expanded on the design.

The Flea - 3D Mockup

However, instead of continuing sketching, he mocked up the craft in 3D. This proved to be extremely useful, as you could rotate the ship around in 3-dimensional space, see how the proportions worked, how the design ‘felt’ from all angles. In traditional model building, a similar mock up would have been constructed; we’re simply carrying the process into the digital realm. One thing we’ve learned to take advantage of is the fact that it’s very easy to open Photoshop, take a rendering of this 3D mockup and draw overtop of it. By doing this, we can go from general idea to detailed rendering very quickly. One can focus on filling in the details instead of wasting time getting the general proportions correct in the drawing.

The Flea - Detailed Sketch

I try to follow this general-to-specific workflow as much as possible. It’s very easy to get trapped in details; before you know it, you’ve spent a couple hours buried in a section of the craft that no one may ever see. The same holds true for things like digital sets – if you know what areas of the set the camera is going to see, you don’t have to worry about the areas the camera won’t see. Having this solid, general idea of your project makes fleshing out the details easier and efficient, and helps make a project on the scale of Decktechs actually feasible for a small team. I can’s stress the benefits of this enough; it’s easy to miss how much time and money is wasted in the film industry today by the people in charge because they can’t decide what they want, and artists are forced to over-design or build many unnecessary variations of the same thing.

The Flea - Detailed Rendering

Once I had a better idea for the construction and details, I focused in on specific areas of the craft to flesh them out even further. At this point, I brought in reference for details such as thrusters, hatches, windows, gears, pipes, etc. A single texture shoot of an abandoned truck pretty much drove this phase – I even added details such as mufflers, external gas tanks, bumpers and headlights to give subtle hints of a 16 wheeler in the design.

With all of this preparation, the actual modeling process boiled down to connecting the dots. The texturing and materials phase was driven by this same process, using a lot of truck imagery. I tried to achieve the worn metal and plastic feel present on truck cabs, and added details such as sliding doors and warning reflectors to the cargo containers.

The final steps are often the most fun! For the Flea, I took a scaled down version of the cockpit digital set and inserted it into the cab structure, so it’s visible through the windows. Added into the cockpit are also cutouts of Don and Albert, just barely visible in wide shots. Warm glow from the cockpit windows and flashing running lights add the final touches of life to the ship.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the design process. Look out for future postings and features on the blog!