With the sheer quantity of meticulously designed mechs across a wide range of media, it’s easy to get inspired. But the process of actually creating one yourself is more than simply clicking on a preferred modelling software and getting started. Have you considered that you need to plan the form and shape of a mech first? Although mechs have still, largely, yet to translate to the real world from the fictional sphere, it’s still essential to give your mech a sense of believability, that such a mechanical marvel could exist alongside us. Other than using real-world references, there are other ways to come up with better concepts. “My favourite mechs have a narrative,” says Mathew O’Halloran, environment artist at Ubisoft Massive. “The overall design, texturing or environment can lead you to wonder: ‘What’s this mech’s purpose? What has it been through?’. My favourite artist Vitaly Bulgarov does this so well with his designs. They always look so purposeful.”
O’Halloran is just one of our favourite mech masters for this special guide, giving you top tips for adding more finesse to your machines. They’ve blueprinted everything from design and modelling to rendering and even VR, so you can create the ultimate weaponised mech for your next project.
Concept designer at Kermaco, instructor at ArtCenter College of Design and Otis College of Art and Design
Freelance concept artist in film
Computer Games Arts student at University for the Creative Arts
1) Design with a purpose
The No1 advice I can give about design in general but specifically mech design is to ask yourself “What is the mech’s purpose”. Man-made products are usually designed to do 1 specific thing and doing it well. General purpose products are almost non-existent. I try to come up with a very specific purpose to whatever it is I’m designing. Even if that purpose isn’t apparent in the final design, It is helpful along the way.
2) Busy vs Calm
It’s easy to over saturate your mech designs with all the tools at your disposal, so one important idea to consider is controlling the 1st, 2nd and 3rd read. In my Mechish design, I’ve created a really dense area of detail on the helmet, a little bit less into the chest, and an increasingly lower amount everywhere else, this way, I control where you look first, second and so on. The calm areas are critical for the eye to rest and absorb the busy.
3) Design viable articulation to suspend disbelief
Accurate articulation is critical to a Mech’s believability and portrayal in stories. Design overall shape, limbs and movable parts separately, taking into consideration all ranges and limitations of motion and stability. Consider how the limbs and movable parts are assembled and add necessary mechanical elements to represent the construction
4) Keep your work believeable
A good reference is a key to a convincing design. While choosing my references for mech design I tend to pick objects that already exist in real life. This way it is easier to create authenticity that gives a realistic feel to the final product.
5) Relating with human relative scale
Our perception of imaginary elements such as Mechs or dragons are from a human vantage point. Adding helper objects of human scale relatable elements during your creation process and especially in your final composition helps suspension of disbelief, and establishes our perception of Mechs in our own world.
6) Start low poly
The main tip I can give someone who is starting to use Zbrush is, work with a low amount of polygons. Hardsurface or not. It is very common to see beginners trying to make the mesh very smooth by increasing the polycount, that only hinders the process. Always think about the structure and the silhouete of the character.
7) Decrease modelling time
It’s important to try and keep your modeling time down, it’s easier to maintain excitement and motivation over a shorter project. To do this I rely heavily on Modo’s Rounded edge shader, this way I get to avoid bevels and control loops while the shader makes everything look like it’s been fused together. This also means that I can use Booleans and N-Gons all over the place.
8) Hard surface modelling
Among the large number of software out there, I find Zbrush to be the most satisfying one for my needs. Since I create mainly concepts, I usually start with a relatively high polygon meshes and sculpt the base until I get a pleasing result. In order to create a human-like mech I tend to use basic male or female meshes as my base, this way I don’t need to worry about basic proportions.
9) Helper objects for Mechanical Joints
Most Mechs have hinge, pivot, ball, saddle or universal joints to articulate motion in their limbs and attachments. Adding helper objects such as cylinders for hinge joints or spheres for ball joints can help identify centres of motion and assist in posing the Mech to convey compelling vantage points.
10) Quick accent lighting in KeyShot
For those who are just getting the hang of doing lighting in KeyShot, there’s one really quick way of throwing lights on your model without having to overthink where the light source needs to be. You simply have to create simple floating spheres and apply Area or Emissive lights on them once in KeyShot. Then, just make sure that you uncheck Visible to Camera. If you want to create even more subtle lighting, you can always utilise the Power slider above, which has a drop-down menu selected as Watts and you can change this to Lumens.
A crucial but overlooked aspect of rendering is designing the shot itself. You don’t want to waste all those hours of blood, sweat and tears by neglecting the presentation. Carefully pick your angles, focal length and f-stop to get the most out of your design. Creating a 2D representation that does your 3D model justice can be a challenge in itself, so I don’t take it lightly