Step 1: References and concept
First, I start by collecting references as a source of inspiration and education for such a model. Compared to a character or creature, this kind of vehicle design is much more flexible. It can go in a thousand different directions, depending on the function and intended look of the ship. Hence, besides looking at different references, it is very useful to think and make some sketches first. Think about the technology used to power the ship. How is it moving? What is it’s function? Is it a transportation vehicle, a military ship? Can it be operated by one person or a crew? How big is it? Can it travel through space or just on a planet’s surface?The answers to such questions will give you an idea on how to conceptualize the vehicle based on its function (you have probably heard of the Three-Fs: “Form follows function”). For this ship I wanted it to use anti-gravity technology as a propulsion system. After doing some research, I decided to go for a sphere-like device. By using three anti-gravity (AG) spheres the ship creates small local space-time curvatures that make it move in different directions. Some rough sketches (even though I can’t draw) helped me to get a better idea about the general form of the ship.
Step 2: Sculpting
Instead of modeling the ship in Blender, I decided to try a sculpting workflow in 3D Coat. The advantage of sculpting hard surface objects is that you can very easily and quickly run through different iterations and approaches without committing to a final form. By using the hide voxel tool in 3D Coat you can separate meshes, quickly assign smart materials to each component and thus get a good feeling on the look and feel of the final model.I started with the AG sphere model first, then built the ship frame and added the main ship body on top of that. At the end I added details like the plating on the top part of the ship, some detail (panels, plugs, …) as well as the cannons.The small details such as bolts or fans were partly created as real objects, and partly painted in as a bump map in Substance Painter later.
Step 3: Retopology
In this case retopology was easy. I just ran the model components through Instant Mesher, reducing the polycount from 120 million tris to just about 1 million. Of course its far from being an optimized model, which would have been possible by manually retopologizing the whole model. But for the sake of efficiency I left it at that. Unreal engine has no problem with a high vertex count. More important was to optimize the textures.In order to avoid having a texture set per item, I divided the whole model into only three parts: The main ship body, the AG sphere and the cannon, each part using a single UV. The really amazing thing is, that it is possible to import a complex model with different components and materials into Substance Painter.
Step 4: Texturing
For texturing, I mainly used procedural materials in Substance Painter, adding manually painted details for certain parts of the model. After exporting the model I ended up with over 100 texture maps. Luckily, since the three parts each shared a common UV, I could combine the texture maps into a single texture set per part. I found an amazing free software called TextureSetCombiner which does the trick.Importing the model into Blender and applying textures was then a piece of cake. In Blender I added emission shaders for some components, polished the look of the textures and separated certain meshes so they could be animated by applying rotation to them.
Step 4: Animation and presentation
Finally, I created a short animation. It was fun to play around with the camera settings, applying a fake camera shake, and depth of field. It was very useful to apply the “track to” constraint for the camera, so it always followed a specific part of the model, while it was moving around.By the way, importing the model into Unreal Engine was quick and easy. Using the datasmith plugin for Blender, the model was imported as a blueprint, with all components attached to it, and all the materials already applied. Amazing tools, we have at our hands. And all for free! 🙂