When I’m writing a story I build up a collection of images that act as references for what’s in my head. Much of the time these are things I find on the web, but as I write science-fiction sometimes I just can’t quite find anything that looks right. Or sometimes I want to work through how something might work if it were real.
When that happens I often build the object in 3D. This allows me to get more of a feel for the object in question and can help solidify my ideas and furnish me with details I otherwise might not think of. Many times very little of this detail makes it into the actual writing–it’s really background for myself. But sometimes these designs see the light of day in my book covers, such as the Three Lives Of Mary cover and the additional “character image” of Ben.
With Ben I had something very deliberate in mind. He’s a cysapien total conversion. His brain has been installed inside a ship and–much augmented–acts as the ship’s main computer. Essentially the “ship” is his body and I wanted a design that reflected that to some degree.
My idea led to a design with a central body a little like a human torso. This was where I imagined Mary living, along with providing any storage space required, for samples or transport. Then I decided he’d have four wings and engines. These would take the place of Ben’s arms and legs.
I felt that Ben should be very maneuverable. So I decided that the four main engines would be mounted on rotating joints, allowing him to point them in different directions for control in a kind of vector thrust arrangement. These engines were only for sub-lightspeed flight so I also decided to add in a thickened section in the middle that would house the Jump drive. At the end of all of that I had a general layout like this:
As you can see my sketching skills are pretty basic, So I did a quick model in Blender, rendered a scene and that went in my story notes as the Ben character.
When I was ready to release the story I decided to put out an early preview. Usually I would add in the cover and leave it at that, but I felt Ben was so important to the story that I wanted to include him.
I dusted off the original 3d model and took another look at it. Although good enough for my internal purposes it was clearly not good enough to render an image for public consumption. I only had a couple of days to pull this off if I was going to do it, so I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in.
First I rebuilt the Ben model completely, adding in extra details and also making use of the better modelling techniques I’d picked up since the first attempt. This gave me something that would render well once textured and lit appropriately. Lighting in 3d is often a time consuming fiddly job, but I made use of Andrew Price‘s excellent Pro Lighting Studio plugin to quickly get the lights rigged how I wanted them. So there it was except…
I needed to “set” the ship in some kind of scene. I could have knocked up some kind of space scene with a sun/planet set-up like the one above fairly easily, but sometimes my insanity overwhelms my sense of timeliness and I decided I wanted to try and create a full scene of Ben in the Haven repair bay.
Back to my model of Ben, I “deconstructed” some areas to simulate him being damaged and under repair. Then I created the main repair bay using modular segments that I could repeat to make the full length of the bay. To minimize working time I made use of some “greeble” packs to add detail (some of my own, some downloaded from BlendSwap.com).
More tweaking with Lighting Studio and some additional lights gave me a good basic render. But as anyone who works in 3d will tell you, the results straight “out of the can” are rarely good enough.
I brought the image into Gimp, tweaked the curves, and played with the lighting. I also added in a few extra “volumetric” effects to add in more atmosphere and composited a star-field into the background. All this could have been done in Blender, but working in an image editor like Gimp is quicker (for me at least).
Add in a couple of text elements and a final rinse with Sudso and there you have it. Ben in the Haven repair bay. It was a busy two days, but fun and I was pleased with the results in such a short time frame.