Adding Detail to Spaceships (Part 1)

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One of the biggest giveaways that a spaceship has been created in a computer rather than as a practical model is the lack of surface detail that is nearly always apparent.

If you look at the ships from great model-based space scenes, like those in Star Wars (the original trilogy) or Starship Troopers (the movie), you will see a huge amount of detail on the surfaces of the ships. This is made possible because of the sheer scale of the models (the biggest version of the Rodger Young from Starship Troopers was eighteen feet long as you can see here.)

A lot of this detail is created by hacking apart smaller shop-bought model kits and gluing bits from them onto the ship. Other parts are made by sticking small polystyrene chips onto the ship's panels.

When creating spaceships in a 3D animation and modelling package on a computer, we don't have the luxury of being able to pop down to the local model shop for some pre-built parts to attach to our models, and the result is that most CG ships are woefully lacking in surface detail. This problem is confounded by the luxury that CG artists have with texture maps. All too often, a texture map is used as a lazy alternative to real detail, and although this can look okay in distant shots of your ship, it is no substitute for real detail in the mesh itself for close-up shots.

This lesson will teach you some quick and easy techniques for adding detail to your CG ships.

1) Previous Step | Next Step

Begin by downloading this object and loading it into your version of Modeler.

Download Object 'tut6-detail-object.lwo'

This is a very simple object, but it has some challenging surfaces to detail, with a sloping surface and a curved surface.

2) Previous Step | Next Step

The first thing I want to do is get rid of those nasty sharp edges that the object has. Sharp edges are often a big giveaway that an object is computer-generated, as practical models rarely have perfectly sharp edges. While adding-in all the slight imperfections that a practical model has would be too costly in terms of computer resources, smoothing-off those sharp edges is a good start.

An absolutely superb tool for this purpose is KW Edge Smoother, which is an awesome little plugin from a Japanese Lightwave user. You can download a free trial version of this plugin by following this link.

This free version is limited in the number of polygons it can work with, but it will be fine for this particular task. I'm sure that once you have seen its capabilities you will want to pay for a full version anyway.

I'm going to run KW Edge Smoother on this object using the default settings, except I will use an edge width setting of 2m.

object after edge smoothing

If you check this with your OpenGL preview you will see that it has nicely added a bevel to all of the edges of the object.

3) Previous Step | Next Step

We will now start to add a little detail to the top surface of the object. This is a nice flat surface, oriented perfectly perpendicular to the Y axis, which makes our job all that much easier.

Begin by carefully selecting the top polygon of the object.

top polygon selected

Now choose the Bevel tool by pressing b and make three bevels with the following settings:

  • Bevel 1: Inset = 6m, Shift = 0m
  • Bevel 2: Inset = 1m, Shift = -1m
  • Bevel 3: Inset = 0m, Shift = -3m
after three bevels

These bevels create an inset panel, which we will use as a base for the top details we are going to add.

Before we continue, let's apply a new surface to the inset panel, so that we can play with it later. With the polygon still selected, press q to apply a new surface and name the surface Details Panel.

setting a new surface

I also applied a darker colour to the surface so that I can easily tell the difference between this surface and the main surface applied to the rest of the object. Additionally, turn on Smoothing for this surface with a smoothing angle of 15 degrees.

4) Previous Step | Next Step

Here is a cool trick you may or may not be aware of. With the polygon still selected, press Shift+a to zoom the display to fit the polygon. Now, in the top view, use the Box tool to draw a small 2D box within the polygon... what do you notice? You will see that the box is created on the same plane as the inset panel... which is very useful to us.

box created at the same Y position as inset panel

We didn't really want to create that box, as it was just a demonstration of a technique, press u to undo the last action, deleting the new polygon.

5) Previous Step | Next Step

Select a new Modeler layer and put the first layer in the background, so that you can see the main object showing through.

Now, in the top view, create a few 2D boxes so that you have something like this:

top view: new boxes created.

These boxes will be the basis for our first details.

Make sure these polygons face upwards by selecting them and checking the direction of the surface normal. If it is pointing down rather than up, press f to Flip the polygons to face upwards.

polygons facing upwards


We will use another new surface for these details, so press q and give these new boxes a surface called Main Details with a colour of R.200, G.200, B.200.

6) Previous Step | Next Step

Select the two larger boxes and use the Bevel tool to bevel the selected polygons with a shift of 1m and no inset.

polygons bevelled

The advantage of using the bevel tool rather than creating 3D boxes in the first place is that using this method, there is no polygon facing downwards, which would never be seen and is therefore a waste of memory and render calculation time.

Now select the two smaller polygons and perform a bevel with a shift of 2m and an inset of 1m.

second polygons bevelled

Our first details now have some depth.

7) Previous Step | Next Step

These details we have built so far are a good start, but they themselves are rather plain, and could really do with a little more detail. Let's add some more now.

Create a box with the following settings:

new box settings
When the box is created, select every other polygon from the box as shown here:
every other polygon selected
Press z to delete these polygons. This will leave you with four equidistant polygons in a line, like this.
four polys left


Select these four polygons and use the Bevel tool to bevel the polygons with the a shift of 3m and an inset of 500mm.

These new boxes add a nice extra level of detail to the boxes.

polygons bevelled

8) Previous Step | Next Step

Let's add some detail to the larger boxes now. Select the large polygons on the top of the large boxes and press Shift+a to zoom the view into them.

polygons selected

(NB: this image does not show the new details on the smaller boxes... ignore that fact)

Now, in the top view, draw a few very small boxes as shown here:

new boxes created

Because we used Shift+a to zoom the view to the larger polygons, our new boxes should have been created on the same plane as the large polygons themselves.

Select the new polygons and bevel them with a shift of 1m and no inset.

new boxes bevelled

These small boxes will help to break-up the surface of the large boxes when we render them.

all layers merged

The above image shows our progress on the model so far.

9) Previous Step | Next Step

We are going to create a detail in a different way now, using the Pen tool.

To make sure that we draw the shape in the right plane, select the inset panel polygon (the dark grey one) and press Shift+a.

Now go to Layer 3, keeping Layers 1 and 2 as the background layers. (To do this, press the button for Layer 3, and then shift-click on the lower part of the buttons for layers 1 and 2).

Now in the top view, use the Pen tool to create a polygon like this one:

polygon created with Pen tool

Select the polygon you created and bevel it with a shift of 2m and no inset.

10) Previous Step | Next Step

When the bevel is done, the top polygon should still be selected. Press Shift+a to zoom the display to fit the polygon.

Create a few new boxes on the same plane as the top polygon, as shown here.

new boxes added

Select each of these boxes in turn and bevel them with various settings that you feel look good.

bexes bevelled

The image above shows how I bevelled my boxes.

11) Previous Step | Next Step

Next I'm going to add some detail with the Disc tool.

One of the luxuries that practical modellers enjoy is that they never have to worry about the polygon count of any particular detail that they choose to stick onto their model. Working with computer graphics, we do not have this benefit, and we must carefully monitor the amount of polygons in our details to prevent the object becoming unmanageable.

Using the disc tool to create rounded details, the polygon count can sky-rocket very quickly, so we must be careful not to use over-detailed discs as the basis for our pipes and outlets.

12) Previous Step | Next Step

The first thing I'm going to create is some outlet-style pipes. We will begin by creating a base for the pipes. This helps to prevent the pipes from looking out of place.

Start by creating a box on the same Y plane as the main inset polygon.

pipe's base

Bevel this box with a shift of 1m to add some three-dimensionality, and then press Shift+a to zoom in to the top polygon.

We will now add the base of the pipes. Select the Disc tool and create three discs as shown. To avoid unecessary detail, set the discs to have 9 sides. (Press the n key to access the options for the Disc tool.)

3 discs

Now select these three discs and we will proceed to bevel them.

13) Previous Step | Next Step

With the discs selected, press q to assign a new surface to these polygons. Call the surface Main Details Smooth and give it the following settings;

Name Main Details Smooth
Colour R.200, G.200, B.200
Smoothing ON
Smoothing Angle 44.5 degrees
surface settings

Now perform the following eight bevels on the discs.

Bevel Number Shift Inset
1 1.0m 0.0m
2 0.0m 0.5m
3 2.5m 0.0m
4 0.5m 0.5m
5 0.5m 0.0m
6 0.5m 0.5m
7 0.0m 0.5m
8 -5.0m 0.0m
bevels to be made

When all the bevels are completed, delete the selected polygons (shown below)

delete these polygons

You should be left with this:

finished outlets

You will notice that OpenGL is struggling to achive the smoothing between the polygons on these pipes. Don't worry about this, as the Lightwave renderer will do a much better job, and we will probably never get too close to these little details in rendered shots anyway.

14) Previous Step | Next Step

Time for some longer pipes now. Begin by creating two boxes that will act as mounts for the pipes.

two boxes

Note that these boxes have two segments, we will use these in a moment.

Select four new polygons that make up the two boxes, and press Shift+f to activate the Smooth Shift function. We will use smooth shift here, because it allows us to bevel several polygons together, whereas the Bevel tool would bevel each polygon separately.

Lightwave [6]

With the smooth shift tool active, click the right button once.

This will create a smooth shift with an offset of 0.0.

(This means that although new geometry is created, it is not moved away from the parent polygons.)

When the smooth shift has been performed, do not deselect the polygons.

Now press t to access the Move tool and move the selected polygons up by +5m in Y.

Finally, select the points shown in the image below and move them by -3.5m in Y.

points moved down

Assign these new objects the Main Details surface so that they are not smoothed, and these objects will form the bases for our pipework.

15) Previous Step | Next Step

Create three discs, each with seven sides as shown below.

three new discs

Select these polygons and assign them a new surface called Main Details Pipework with the following settings:

Name Main Details Pipework
Colour R.180, G.180, B.180
Smoothing ON
Smoothing Angle 89.5 degrees
surface settings


Press b to activate the bevel tool and bevel them out with a shift of around 27m.
discs bevelled out
Next, deselect the two inner discs, leaving only the outer disc selected, and move it so that it goes through the wall of the inset, as shown here.
pipe extended

Delete the polygon at the end of this pipe, as it will not be rendered. You may notice that the pipe sticks through the top of the main object, so let's deal with that. Create a box and bevel it upwards so that you have a kind of housing for the rogue polygons. Assign the polygons of this box the Main Details surface.

housing box created

This box conveniently hides the polygons sticking through the main object.

16) Previous Step | Next Step

Now we will get the two other pipes to turn a corner. Select the end polygons of each of the two shorter pipes and press Ctrl+v to set their absolute position. Enter a Z value of -5m and press OK.

setting the position of the polygons

Press f to Flip the polygons' orientation so that they face back into the pipe. Now press Shift+L to activate the lathe tool. Press n to access the numeric controls for the lathe, and enter the following settings:

lathe options


If you check your OpenGL preview you will see some smoothing errors around where the straight part of the pipe meets the bend.

This is caused by two things.

smoothing errors

1) the polygons of the bend have not yet been joined onto the straight pipe, and 2) the polygons at the ends of the straight pipes have not yet been eliminated.

Select the polygons shown here and delete them.

polygons selected

Next, press m to merge the points in the pipes, joining the bends to the straights. This should eliminate the smoothing errors.

17) Previous Step | Next Step

Select the polygons at the ends of the bent pipes, and press b to bevel them. Enter a shift value that causes them to pass through the second pipe base, and stop somewhere inside it. In my case, this value was 25.5m.

pipes extended


We will now add a little extra finesse and detail to our pipework. Using the Knife tool (Shift+k), make two cuts into the pipes we just selected, and then select the polygons between the two cuts.

knifed pipes

Now press Shift+f and Smooth Shift the selected polygons with a small setting of between 250mm to 500mm, depending on your taste. Use a Max Smoothing Angle of 89.5 degrees.

smooth shifted

I continued to add some knife cuts to the other pipes and smooth shifted them in the same way, until I was left with this:

pipes completed

I will now add a little more detail in the gaps where there is none, or where the detail is a little sparse.

upper detail panel completed

Think of the details you add as a kind of 3D doodling, and you can quickly create lots of little details. When you have created any extra detail you might want to add on this top area, cut out all the details for the top panel and paste them into Layer 2, then move onto the next step, where we will add detail to the sides of the object.

18) Previous Step | Next Step

We will now detail the sides of the object. For the moment, we will still be dealing with surfaces perpendicular to the main axes, as we detail the sides of the object.

As we will not be insetting a panel here, our details will need to be a little less pronounced from the edge of the object.

Create a box with the settings in the box opposite.

Assign the Main Details texture to the new box.

box settings


When the box is created, select every other polygon and delete them.

even polygons selected

Press [ to activate the Shear tool and shear the remaining polygons by +29m in the Z direction.

If the polys shear in the wrong direction, press the left arrow key on your keyboard and try again.

polygons sheared


Next, move the newly sheared polygons -6m in the X axis, then press f to Flip their orientation.
polygonss moved and flipped
Now press Shift+e to activate the Extrude tool, and extrude the polygons by -7m in the X direction.
polygons extruded

19) Previous Step | Next Step

Select the large polygon that makes up the side of the main object and press Shift+a to zoom in to it.

Next, create some boxes like these ones using the same techniques as we used for all the boxes in the previous lesson.

new boxes created

Notice that I have used the Drag tool to conform the rear edges of the two large boxes to the shape of the main object.

Now select the four larger polygons and bevel them outwards with a shift of 1m and no inset, then bevel the six smaller polygons with a shift of 0.5m and no inset.

boxes bevelled

20) Previous Step | Next Step

Select the main polygon bottom-rear large box and apply the following bevels:

Bevel Number Shift Inset
1 0.0m 3.0m
2 -0.5m 0.0m
bevels to be made

This will effectively put a dent in the selected polygon.

dented box

Now we will add a few extra details to the large polygons of the other three boxes, as we did in step 8).

I created the following new boxes...

new box details

... and bevelled them all out with a shift of 0.5m.

new details bevelled

21) Previous Step | Next Step

Now create a box with the settings in the reqester opposite.

When the box is created, select all of the boxes' polygons and press Shift+f to smooth shift them.

Shift them out by 1m with a Maximum Smoothing Angle of 89.5 degrees.

Now press b to Bevel the selected polygons and apply one bevel with shift of 0.0m and an inset of 500mm, and the do a second bevel with a shift of -1.0m and no inset.

When the bevels are done, delete the selected polygons by pressing z.

box settings

Finally, in the face / front view, drag the lower points of the new object that meet the sides of the main object down by -1m in Y.

new object built

22) Previous Step | Next Step

I am not going to continue to describe adding detail to the sides of the object, as I would only be repeating steps already described, so spend the next few minutes adding more detail to the side of your object yourself.

my side details completed

Once you have finished detailing the side of your object, press Shift+v to activate the Mirror tool, and then mirror all the side details in the X axis, so you have an identical copy of the details on the opposite side of the main object.

side details mirrored

Finally, cut away all of the details for the side panels and paste them into Layer 3.

23) Previous Step | Next Step

After adding a few more details using the same techniques as described above, changing the specular level of all surfaces to 100%, and with some judicious use of KW Edge Smoother on some of the detail panels, this is how my object is looking now.

my completed object so far

As you can see, this is a far cry from the plain object we started with at the beginning of this lesson, and it certainly has an air of being much larger than when we started.


© 2000 Kier Darby and Alternate Perspective 3D Ltd.