How to de­sign an orig­i­nal sci-fi as­set

Lorin Wood con­cepts a sci-fi craft with his­tor­i­cal ori­gins.

ImagineFX - - Issue 125 September 2015 -

for this work­shop I’ve de­cided to cre­ate a sci-fi ve­hi­cle for a per­sonal IP that I’ve been de­vel­op­ing on and off for sev­eral years. The sub­ject mat­ter – which is close to my fam­ily’s history as it hap­pens – trans­plants a 19th-cen­tury cov­ered wagon into a space­craft for in­ter­stel­lar mi­gra­tion.

When­ever you de­velop a de­sign that has its roots in re­al­ity and real his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tions, it’s im­por­tant to bring in as much of that history to the de­sign as pos­si­ble, to give the fi­nal con­cept a weight and au­then­tic­ity your viewer will recog­nise, even if it’s on a sub­con­scious level.

I’ve found that the best rule of thumb with science fic­tion is to put as much of the real, func­tional world into it as pos­si­ble, then stylise and dis­tort as needed to fit the needs of your story. When you do this, as a de­signer, you’re men­tally build­ing a data­base of plau­si­ble func­tion and be­liev­abil­ity that hope­fully be­comes in­fused into your con­cept. And the more you do this, the more pro­fi­cient you’ll be­come at cre­at­ing truly unique and orig­i­nal de­signs.

On the sub­ject of orig­i­nal­ity, I think it’s achieved by tak­ing an ex­ist­ing ob­ject and look­ing at it from a new an­gle. So will it be with this sci-fi cov­ered wagon. I’m tak­ing the fun­da­men­tal blue­print of a wagon and aug­ment­ing it for use in a new fron­tier: space travel. It will have the ba­sic sil­hou­ette, but ob­vi­ously retro­fit­ted to an ex­treme, to meet the needs of my in­ter­ga­lac­tic pi­o­neer sce­nario.

For the bulk of the process I’ll be us­ing my favourite sketch­ing pro­gram, Mis­chief. I’ll then run a fi­nal pol­ish in Pho­to­shop. So a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of both Mis­chief and Pho­to­shop are re­quired for this work­shop.

Nar­ra­tive break­down

Be­fore be­gin­ning any de­sign process, have a pur­pose for it. An elab­o­rate nar­ra­tive isn’t nec­es­sary, but some con­cept of why this de­sign ex­ists should be de­vel­oped. This step is crit­i­cal be­cause it cre­ates a re­al­is­tic de­sign view­ers will buy into. A back­story gives con­text as to why it was made, who made it and for what pur­pose. This helps you nat­u­rally evolve the de­sign.

Ref­er­ence morgue

For ref­er­ence, cov­ered 19th-cen­tury wag­ons are my start­ing point. Though the fi­nal de­sign will bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to a wagon, I want it to carry the essence of one. I di­vide the morgue into sec­tions, us­ing Mis­chief’s Pins fea­ture. The can­vas is vir­tu­ally in­fi­nite in size, so you can space the groups about, set them with a pin and jump right to them.

Cre­at­ing thumb­nails

This is a good stage to run through, es­pe­cially if you’re work­ing for a client. They’ll want to see op­tions, and so it’s a good demon­stra­tion of your ver­sa­til­ity as a de­signer to show them your thought process. Show some di­ver­sity, but be aware of the stated de­sign re­quire­ments. Each sketch should main­tain the feel of a cov­ered wagon.

Lorin’s rules of de­sign

Here are some help­ful rules of thumb to keep in mind dur­ing the early stages of the cre­ative process. Will your viewer be able to un­der­stand the de­sign’s story just by look­ing at it? Does the over­all de­sign have a good sil­hou­ette that ex­erts an in­tended mood? Can you iden­tify the pur­pose and func­tion of the de­sign in three sec­onds? Does the de­sign seem plau­si­ble? If you an­swer any of these ques­tions with a no or a maybe, then it’s a good sign that you may need to re­think your ap­proach. It’ll save you time later on, too!

Con­cept de­sign

I draw a ba­sic per­spec­tive grid. I keep it loose – it’s to guide the de­sign, not shackle it. The point is to in­spire. I then use the Marker tool and se­lect a grey tone a shade darker than the back­ground. I lay out the ba­sic shapes of the craft here, us­ing broad shapes. I don’t worry about de­tails – just fo­cus on pro­por­tion, per­spec­tive and an in­ter­est­ing an­gle.

Ap­ply tone

I use a darker grey marker and so­lid­ify the pri­mary shapes of the ve­hi­cle. In ad­di­tion, I layer in tone to fur­ther de­fine the mass and light di­rec­tion. Just like work­ing with real media, I start light and then add darker tones.


Con­trast equals greater form change, so con­tinue to cut out the de­sign us­ing the darker marker un­til you’re sat­is­fied. Re­mem­ber that the dark­est shad­ing will be in ob­jects closer to you. Re­fer to Scott Robert­son’s ex­cel­lent text­books, How to Draw and How to Ren­der, for more tips on the fun­da­men­tals of both ba­sic draw­ing and ren­der­ing tech­niques.

Def­i­ni­tion through line art

The ship is still a bit of a mess, so we need to de­fine the in­di­vid­ual pieces and shapes into a co­her­ent whole. Fo­cus in on the guts of the ship where all the earthly be­long­ings of the pioneers are car­ried. How are the en­gines yoked to the main craft? These de­tails come into fo­cus at this stage. At this point I’m more in­ter­ested in mak­ing the de­sign look cool. The story of this be­ing a space wagon is es­tab­lished, so now it’s time to fill in all of the fun sci-fi giz­mos!

More re­fine­ment

Next I add in more line-art and de­cide that the ship doesn’t have enough girth, so I drop the front of the main hull down to round the ship out. In my back­story, this ves­sel was put to­gether with used or sal­vaged com­po­nents, which is why nei­ther en­gines are iden­ti­cal.

In­tro­duce high­lights

I’m pretty happy with the de­sign, but it still needs some punch and the best way to do this is adding a nice rim light. This fur­ther brings the ship into three di­men­sions. I also add some LED lights next to the cock­pit. Their in­ten­sity will be brighter than the dull me­tal hull ma­te­rial so they can pop.

Ex­port the im­age

Go to Ex­port Im­age from the File menu. Se­lect the Vis­i­ble Can­vas op­tion to ex­port ev­ery­thing on screen as a PSD file. This en­ables you to have all of the in­di­vid­ual lay­ers when you open it up in Pho­to­shop. Be sure to ex­port at a large-enough DPI value (300 for print and 72 for web).

Clean up in Pho­to­shop

The fun part of work­ing with real media is liv­ing with the mess. I also love the free­dom that Pho­to­shop af­fords me to change an il­lus­tra­tion. To help fo­cus on the cen­tral por­tion of the ship, I want to re­move some of the hap­haz­ard marker. I add a mask on the marker layer and use a pres­sure-sen­si­tive air­brush to gen­tly fade the marker away around the cock­pit.

Post work

To punch up the shad­ing, I use my rec­tan­gu­lar, pres­sure­sen­si­tive marker brush, to pro­duce a smooth gra­di­ent. I push some side de­tails back and add an air­brush­ing of black to the top of the wagon and un­der­belly, to show it’s rounded away from the light source. To pull out sub­tle high­lights I use a marker tool and se­lect a dim grey from the ship side.

Fi­nal touches

I love monochrome marker il­lus­tra­tions. A smart step to take be­fore adding any ex­tra vis­ual ef­fects is to cre­ate a new empty layer, and cre­ate a light ef­fect us­ing Len­sFlare Stu­dio. Be­cause flares re­quire a flat­tened im­age, I’m go­ing to make a du­pli­cate. I de­pict the flares with a blue LED hue. They’re small but pow­er­ful. They serve as the equiv­a­lent to a can­dle-pow­ered lamp hang­ing off of the wagon. I fin­ish off by adding some red bea­cons and throw a weath­ered name on to the craft.















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