3D Artist

Model a mech with 3ds Max and MODO

Tips & Tutorials
Carrie Mok

Develop an art style, kitbash pieces and set up materials for KeyShot

Model a mech with 3ds Max and MODO

This tutorial was written by the amazing Matthias Develtere and appeared in issue 97 of 3D Artist

Tools used

3ds Max
Substance Painter

The main focus of this tutorial will be how to keep a consistent look and feel for your design without making it look too strange. You will learn the complete pipeline of how to design and model a robot from scratch.
We will also cover how to make your own kitbash pieces so you can use them throughout your model, and how to prototype different body parts of the robot until you get something you feel comfortable with.
The tutorial will also include some modelling tips and tricks and we will end it with setting up the scene in KeyShot and teaching you to make a dramatic marketing shot with custom lighting. We will also make some materials in 3ds Max and KeyShot. Once the scene and render is done, we will take it into Photoshop and apply some post-production effects.


Step 01 – Come up with a function


When you start a new project, try to create a backstory around it: why, when and where will this robot exist? It’s all about giving the design a function. Once you get this figured out, it will be easier to come up with good designs. This backstory doesn’t have to be a full page of information, for example our idea is based on a gigantic security robot that could fit into a retro industrial universe. It will look like a beacon of light from a distance, like a lighthouse. As you can see, it’s still a really brief description, where anyone could still could come up with their own design.

Step 02 – Search for your style


It’s important that you feel comfortable while you design your model. A way of doing that is by searching for a style you like. Let’s say you wanna make something for a retro sci-fi universe. We’ve got two good universes to compare here. Wolfenstein likes to base itself on Maschinen Kriegers. It’s realistic, grungy with a lot of bolts and so on. Fallout goes for a Jetson look: cartoony, with not too much detail in the main shapes. Another good example is Call Of Duty versus Halo: realistic/sharp sharpes against sci-fi round shapes with a lot a of bevel. So observe/compare game universes before making something for them.

Step 03 – Design a visual language


To keep a consistent style, it could be useful to make some small assets or detailed pieces that we can keep coming back to in our model. For example the small bolt, fuse box, attachment points, springs and so on. This is something that is really easy to spot in just normal industrial designs. For example, an object will never have over two to three unique bolts. Same for materials – keep things simple, don’t overdo the unique parts, otherwise it will be hard to keep your focus on the big picture.

Step 04 – Set up your material list


Work on your material list before applying colours to your model, as this makes it easier to see how your model will look in the viewer. Try to set up three metals from the start: shiny, bare and rough metal. Setting up materials is really easy; if you don’t know how it works, here’s a quick explanation. Diffuse is the base colour and spec is the reflectivity and index; gloss is the shininess. Next to this, just set up some plastic, painted metal, rubber, cloth, copper and so on. Again just don’t overdo the amount of materials, keep it simple and clean.

Step 05 – Use human body references


Most of the robots that you see in movies have probably some resemblance to the human body, with two legs, two arms and a head. And if they don’t resemble human, there’s a big chance that they look like animals. The reason why we are doing this is so that we don’t distance ourselves too far from the audience. It also makes it easier to read how the robot works, where the joints are located and how they are moving or rotating. In the image for this step is an early prototype, where we put a lot of emphasis on the foot silhouette.

Step 06 – Make some kitbash pieces


We like to call kitbash pieces back-up pieces. These are just models you fill up holes/gaps with or use when you are out of inspiration. It’s really important that the kitbash pieces have the same consistent style so make sure that every piece has a clear purpose. What could be really interesting is making sure that your pieces have different entry and exit points, that way they will be easier to stitch together, so make it look believable. If you make some good kitbash pieces, it’s really easy to prototype some different designs in no time. But that’s something for the next step. This tutorial comes with a 3ds Max file that contains some kitbash pieces.

Step 07 – Experiment and prototype


Never expect to come up with an amazing design from the first trial – it takes trial and error. One way of doing this is by making a rough blockout. When doing this it’s important to ensure that all the silhouettes are different. The bigger the difference, the easier it is to show to others and ask for their opinion. The moment they have to search for the difference you know that you failed. Another way of prototyping is by using kitbash pieces and making different silhouettes. Notice that every kitbash piece has the same function but has a different position.

Step 08 – Use decals and floaters


With decals and floaters, you can quickly see if you need to add a detail pass to your model without having to model them into your mesh. Just put a nice extra polygon loop around the model, so when you add subdivisions on your model it nicely blends into the main shape. Of course it will be noticeable for some angles, so just change the camera angle or fix it in Photoshop. This is the same for decals, just stick them against the model.

Step 09 – Make unique parts


We need to come up with some unique pieces for the robot like an eye, a hand, engines and so on. But again don’t search too far, try to start from a realistic design, for example a camera lens for the eye. Another example is the engines that are based on heat engines from a motorcycle. This doesn’t mean that you have to copy it completely, but it could be a good starting base for your design. The handgun is based on a machine gun on an M4 Sherman tank. Another extreme example is the protection plate around the neck: the main idea for this one was an bomb disposal suit. The front shape is the same but the detailing is different.

Step 10 – Add layers of depth


It’s always nice when characters have different cloth layers on top of each other. Some good examples are Assassin’s Creed character designs. You can do the same with hard surface pieces, for example add cables around poles. Copy the outer shell of a model, apply a shell modifier and give it transparent plastic on top (this also works on cables). Wrap up big interactive machinery pieces in cloth to protect them from weather conditions. Another good example can be found in Killzone designs, where straps of lint connect machinery pieces (this is something they use in their characters). Our cables sticking out is all about making it look like it’s more then an empty shell.

Step 11 – Rotate the model and work on instances


Working on a tilted model can be complicated. Your first approach should be working with edges constrained. What this means is that edges and polygons will move on the existing edge or you could work on a local axis – a screen axis. There is an easier solution: make an instance of your model and rotate it so that you can work on both models while they update themselves. You can also detach pieces, make an instance, rotate it so it’s straight, work on it and then stitch it back to the model.

Step 12 – Edit cloth stacks


It’s always nice to add organic elements to your hard-surface model, such as fabric around the main shape. We know that this shape can still change, so keep the cloth non-destructive. First, make a box, add a lot of segments and an editable poly modifier, and use the existing edges to make the cloth follow the shape. Apply TurboSmooth now and add an editable poly modifier. Select some edges and rotate them locally. Do the same with random vertices and pinch them in.

Step 13 – Paint over renders


Something we try to do twice a week is to test renders and paint over them just with arrows and words, or even blend in photos or sketches. Try to do that just before you stop working on it for the day so that the next day you can start with adjusting these, and when you are done, you will be pumped to make new stuff for it. You could also give these temp renders/shots to some friends so they can give their opinion on them, and then just try to blend them into your design. The main idea is to lose your tunnel vision.

Step 14 – Make it believable


Your main motto for your design should be: the design doesn’t have to work – it only has to look like it could work. A good way of doing that is adding a lot of machinery pieces in empty spaces and breaking up the silhouette with cables. What works really well for robots are pistons and springs. The fact that these could extend or shrink makes it easy to get away with using a lot of them. A good example of this is a silo hatch – there are so many pistons in there that it’s hard to understand the order that they get used in. This tutorial comes with 3ds Max files that contain the two basic springs from the robot.

Step 15 – Get flat models


Some shapes may look complicated, but for most of them you can cheat. For this arm piece we can make it flat and add a slope to it to give it an interesting look. Afterwards, add an editable poly modifier, select all of the polygons and follow it up with a bend modifier. Set the angle at 360 degrees and a direction of 90 or -90 (based on if you want a flipped circle or not). You always have to select the polygons or vertices that you want to bend. A really important note is that bending modifiers will stretch out circular shapes. To cancel this out, you just stretch them in yourself but in the opposite direction, so that the stretching cancels each other out. In the top corner of the image, you can see how the circle is stretched before bending.

Step 16 – Sculpt copies


The MODO sculpting tool adds the sculpt layer on top of the model in a separate layer, and that way you can bake the base layer – you’ll be able to change the silhouette completely but still keep the same sculpt details in it. In the image below you’ll be able to see an example. The rectangle and the cylinder both share the same sculpt layer, if you look close enough you will be able to see the details coming back. This is great for prototyping, so give sculpting in MODO a chance. This method is also really useful for cloth. This tutorial comes with an LXO file, so you test it out for yourself.

Step 17 – Import into KeyShot


When we are done with our robot, we should export it to KeyShot. If you use 3ds Max you should use the BIP exporter, it can be found on the 3ds Max website bit.ly/29JAnPq. Apply your TurboSmooth in 3ds Max and export. You can make use of our script to double-check for double TurboSmooth stacks, which comes with this tutorial. Once we have our model in KeyShot you can apply standard materials to it. Next try out some HDR maps, and keep rotating until you catch them in the correct lighting angle. You can also watch the video tutorial to make your own HDR map

Step 18 – Work in post-production


The post-production process is really important. In the image for this step you can see how the render looks before and after post-production. The maps we render out for projects are always the same: a diffuse render, with normal shadow casting; an ID mask (just so we can mask out pieces); an ambient occlusion map (we always set the gamma value to 1.3 and just go with some more contrast); and a render where the complete model is covered in anodised metal (we use this to overlay the render to mask out some extra reflections). We also use the AO as a mask to add some colour to the shadows. Try to tweak your red, blue and green channels separately from each other, that way you get way more control with the final look.

  • Remo Van de sande

    amazing work! thanks for the tips. I wonder why and when he uses MODO vs MAX.