Building A Babylon 5 Style Crew Transport... Part 1

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By: Alexander Shareef

Babylon 5 was a great show. It had good characters, spunky music, and a superb storyline. But, what I'll always remember most about it were the special effects. Done completely in Lightwave, it was the the first show to spearhead the use of CG rather than models on a weekly television series. Though some of the shots in the earlier episodes may seem outdated by today's standards, they can still hold their own - due mainly to Ron Thornton's (Foundation Imaging) keen eye for detail and realism.

Among the first models created by Thornton for the show was the Earth Alliance Crew Shuttle, which is what we'll be making in this lesson. It's a nice simple model, composed mainly of boxes and tubes, and perfect for beginners. In future lessons, other Babylon 5 style ships will undoubtedly be covered, and you can follow along to build a complete B5 collection.

This tutorial is intended as a starter for novice/beginner modelers to BetterSpace. The skills described will help jump-start you on your way in Lightwave, and you'll be creating your own ships in no time.


1) Previous Step | Next Step

The first thing any Lightwave animator/modeler does before starting a project is to amass some form of reference material. This could be in the form of blueprints, sketches, or - if you're copying an existing object, as we are - stills or pictures.

I've found when building B5 meshes that the best resource for reference material can be found on the net. Hyperspace is a superb website run by Lars Joreteg, and which catalogues every existing B5 ship out there. I downloaded the following images from the website as starters for reference material - however, I also watched a few episodes to get a feel for the shuttle. I advise you to do the same.

reference material

With that said, let's get on with the fun.

2) Previous Step | Next Step

Begin by opening up Modeler. First lets make sure we're all using the same settings. Open options, (Display\Options), and set everything to the following:

Modeler display settings

Now, according to the Babylon 5 Technical Manual, the shuttle is 36m long, so we might as well make it accurate. Press a to center the screen to 500mm, then use the < button to zoom out six times, so the grid is set to 5m.

3) Previous Step | Next Step

Now that we had everything set up, lets get down to the modeling. Click on the Box Tool located under (Objects), or press Shift+x. Open the numeric requester using n.

What we're going to do is create the main bulk of the ship. An important point about making spaceships - or indeed any type of craft - is to always build it so that the front/nose of the ship points up the z axis. The reason for this becomes apparent in Layout, in that the ship will now move and rotate correctly.

Back to our ship, and lets put in the following options:

  Low High Segments
X -8.5m 8.5m 1
Y -4.2m 4.2m 1
Z -18m 18m 2
settings for base box

This will create a box facing up the z axis, made up of two segments. Click on points at the bottom, then select the four points in the middle of the box.

selecting points

With the points selected, move them 7.5m up in the z axis. You can either do this manually, or by using the numeric selector, n. I came about the figure merely out of guesswork as to what would look right, so by all means experiment and don't be afraid to do your own thing.

4) Previous Step | Next Step

Now we have the basic box, it's not exactly very exciting, so let's do something about that.

Make sure you've deselected the previous points, and now select the top four. We're going to stretch these into the middle. Select stretch from (Modify), or just type h. Bring up the numeric requester using n, and input:

  Factors Center
X 50% 0
Y 100% 0
Z 100% 0
stretch settings

This will give us something that looks like this:

stretching the box

It's still not very interesting. Time to add the final touch to the basic shape. Deselect all the points, and then select ONLY the ones on the top right. What we'll do is use the info command (press i) to find out the position of the points on the x axis. On my model, the points were located at 4.25m, but it may be different on yours. Simply substitute whatever number you have in the following steps.

Deselect the points again, and it's time to use the knife tool. Select it from (Multiply), or press Shift+K.

Now you can either do this manually - here's a tip, hold down the ctrl button while dragging to restrict the axis - or use the numeric requester. I'll use the requester, since it's easier for you to follow along that way. Set the axis to Y, then put in the following:

  Start End
X 4.25m 4.25m
Y 0m 0m
Z -20m 20m
first knife settings
  Start End
X -4.25m -4.25m
Y 0m 0m
Z -20m 20m
second knife settings

The values for Z don't really matter, as long as it covers the entire box. Since we set the box to be 36m, anything greater than that is fine.

Do this again, but this time replace 4.25m with -4.25m. This will create a segment on the left half of the box too. What you'll end up is a box with 3 segments.

Select all of the points on the outside of the box. You should have 8 points selected. Now, we'll stretch these down to conform with the shape of the Shuttle.

  Factors Center
Y 35% 0
shaping the box

Now that's a bit more like it. It's finally beginning to look less and less like a box, and more like... well.. something else.

starting to take shape

5) Previous Step | Next Step

It's never too early to think about surfacing!

Always remember to give your surfaces names as you create them. This way it's easier for you to keep track of what goes where, and saves a lot of grief later on when it comes time to texture the model. Imagine having to go in and manually name and segregate each surface when the model was completed - it would be a nightmare, so make sure everything's set up as you go along.

Press q to open the surfaces panel, or click on (Polygon\Surfaces), and name the surface "Hull_Body".

Give it the following properties:

Name Hull_Body
Colour R.200, G.200, B.200
Diffuse 100%
Smooth On
Smoothing Angle 10
surface settings

You may be asking yourself, why are we making this surface smooth? And what does an angle of 10 do as opposed to 89?

Well, the biggest giveaway that something's been done in CG is nasty sharp corners. By giving it a small smoothing angle, we're telling the renderer only to smooth it a little bit, and thus dampen the sharpness of the corner slightly. This is better than no smoothing at all, and adds very slightly to realism later on.

This is further enhanced by what we'll do next.

6) Previous Step | Next Step

There's a little known, but handy plugin which will smooth off corners for you. Kier talked about this in his earlier lesson, "adding detail to spaceships":

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.

Make sure you've got all the polygons selected (tip: use the lasso tool for bulk selections), and run the plugin from the (Objects\Custom) menu.

We'll leave most of the settings as they, except to change the edge width to 0.1m. This should round out the corners nicely.

smoothed out corners

If you go into the surfaces panel, you'll notice that there are now two surfaces - our Hull_Body, and Default. This is actually a blessing in disguise, because what's happened is the plugin has named the new surfaces created Default. This can be remedied in the plugin interface, but it's actually want we want, as we want to have quick and easy access to the main panels without having to select and deselect the corners every time.

Select all surfaces named Default, and rename it to "Hull_Body_2". Give it exactly the same settings as before.

7) Previous Step | Next Step

Okay, the basic shape of the ship is down, now time to add some preliminary details such as windows and so on. First we'll add those weird looking things on the sides of the ship - I have no idea what they're supposed to do, but they effectively add to the realism of the ship, in that they are supposed to do something.

Often when creating spaceships, it's important to think a little about the things you're going to add to it for realism. Cleverly placed boxes can be a lot more interesting than randomly placed ones.

Right, we'll use the clone tool for this job, but first let's create one of these things on the side. We'll call them Dock Cushions.

Switch to another layer, and select the box tool. Hold down the ctrl key to restrict the axis, then draw out a perfect square box, so that it rests just on the side of the ship, and is the same height as the side.

adding dock cushion

Press enter to create the box, then select the surface facing on the -x axis. This will be the surface which can't be seen, since it's effectively inside the main part of the ship. Since we don't need this, it's wasted, so press delete to get rid of it and save us some memory.

You'll be left with a box with one side missing. Select all of the points on the right of the box. Now use the stretch tool on both the y and z axis to bring these points in about 70%.

What we have now is something of a half pyramid, as if it were missing its top half. Open the surfaces panel using q, and name the surface "Dock_Cushions". Give it the following attributes:

Name Dock_Cushions
Colour R.115, G.120, B.115
Diffuse 100%
Smooth Off
surface settings

You don't need to worry about smoothing here, since this is supposed to be some type of mechanical instrument, and you probably won't get close enough to see it in all its splendor.

docking cushion

Lets just add one more thing to the dock cushion before we clone it. As it is, it doesn't particularly look very technical, it's just a box. So, let's add some more boxes on top and below. What I did was to switch to a third layer and create a small box like the one shown below. Using the mirror tool you then create three further boxes - once mirroring the z-axis, then on the y-axis.

adding detail to the dock cushion

You could give these smaller boxes their own surface name and/or colour, but we'll leave them set as "Dock_Cushions". You should now have something looking like this:

the finished dock cushion

Time to clone this little devil. Select the Clone tool, (Multiply\Clone), and it's time for some more guess work. What we want is for the dock cushion to repeat along the side of the ship, with a decent distance between each. I used the following settings:

Number of Clones 5
Z Offset 3.9
clone settings

Perfect. Now, we want the same cushions running down the other side of the ship too, so let's mirror it using the mirror tool. Hit the numeric requester, and set the plane to X, and the position to 0. Hit enter and you'll have a set of cushions on both sides.

Now, simply copy this layer and paste it into the first layer, and you'll be left with:

our ship with docking cushions

Not bad for a few minutes work, eh?

Now save this as "Shuttle_Assembly_1.lwo". You have been saving as you went along, right? Always save often! I make it a point to save my work whenever I pause to think on what to do next - that way, you never loose what you've done should there be a power cut.

8) Previous Step | Next Step

Right then, lets add some windows for our imaginary crew to look out of.

These are really nothing more than boxes booleaned into the side of hull. But, we'll do it a different way - a smarter way, which will give us a bit more realism. It will take a little more effort, but it looks good.

Create a small box near the front middle of the ship. The normal method would be to boolean this into the ship, but what we'll do is stencil it in.

First, though, let's clone this a few times. Use the clone tool to create four more boxes, each 2m apart.

creating boxes for the window stencil

Right, make sure that you have the ship in the active window, and the boxes in the background layer - this can be done by pressing the ( ') button. Now lets use the Stencil Drill tool, (Tools\S Drill), and select the Stencil option. In the stencil surface bar, write "Windows_Inset" - this will create a new surface with this name, and apply it to the stencil. Press enter and see what happens!

Hit w to bring up the surfaces, and select all the ones assigned to Windows_Inset. Press q and we'll give it some surface settings:

Name Windows_Inset
Colour R.170, G.170, B.170
Diffuse 100%
Smooth On
Smoothing Angle 10
surface settings

With Windows_Inset surfaces still selected, we'll use the bevel tool, button b. We're going to bevel it twice:

Inset 100mm
Shift -100mm
first bevel
Inset 100mm
Shift 1m
second bevel

Now we have some nice insets for our windows, but they need some fixing. Don't deselect the polygons just yet, but instead use the move tool to push them up slightly.

before move


after move

With the Window Insets complete, lets set the current surfaces to be our actual windows. So, press q, and name the surfaces "Windows_Glow".

Give the surface the followings settings:

Name Windows_Glow
Colour R.255, G.255, B.221
Luminosity 100%
Diffuse 25%
Specularity 0%
Transparency 0%
Smooth Off
surface settings

Right, we're looking good so far.

our ship so far

Now lets finish up this lesson by adding the cockpit area.

9) Previous Step | Next Step

Creating the cockpit is a rather complex and laborious process. I'll tell you how I did it, but if you still can't manage it, I'll be providing the end result for download.

You can get it here: Cockpit-Temp.lwo

First, we need to create a box. This should be placed on the top front hull.

the basis for the cockpit

What we're going to do is use the metaform tool to soften the edges, and give it a nice roundness. First, we have to set about cutting it with the knife tool. Using the knife tool and move tool, shape the box using the following as a guideline:

the final shape of the cockpit

Try and see if you can do it yourself first, but if you can't then download the cockpit here: Cockpit-Temp.lwo

Using this object, we'll metaform it. Before that, however, go to (Objects\Options) and set the patch division to 1. Now click (Tools\Custom\LW_Metaform Plus) and use the default value of 1. This will round out the corners and give it a much more defined shape:

smoothed out cockpit

Right, that's the shape of the cockpit, let's call up the surfaces panel, q, and name it "Hull_Cockpit". Give it the following settings:

Name Hull_Cockpit
Colour R.200, G.200, B.200
Diffuse 100%
Smooth On
Smoothing Angle 89
surface settings

So now lets add some windows for our pilots to navigate out of. Switch to a free layer, and create a box near the front of the cockpit. Give this box the "Windows_Inset" surface. We're going to use exactly the same method as we used before to create the windows, so this should be relatively easy. Mirror the box, so there are two boxes at the front of the cockpit, like so:

making the cockpit windows

Now, as before, we switch layers and use the stencil tool under (Tools\S Drill). Make sure the stencil surface is "Windows_Inset" then hit enter. Use w to select all the surfaces under Windows_Inset - this should only be the cockpit ones, since you're working in a separate layer to your ship's hull.

Before beveling, it's extremely important to merge these smaller surfaces into one surface. Press Shift+z or select (Polygon\Merge) and you'll now have 2 polygons instead of 12. With the two polygons still selected, hit z to cut them out. Then hit v to paste them back in. You may ask yourself why this is necessary - it makes sure that when we bevel the surfaces, they won't affect the smoothing on the cockpit hull...

Bevel the surface twice using the following settings:

Inset 100mm
Shift -100mm
first bevel
Inset 0m
Shift -100mm
second bevel

Go back, and try beveling the surface without cutting it out first and you'll see what I mean about the smoothing errors.

The final thing to do is a little clean-up. The merging of the polygons has created a few null points, so lets remove them. Select points at the bottom, then hit w. There should be 4 points with no polygons, so select them all and delete them.

Now the cockpit's complete, let's cut it out and put it together with the rest of the ship:

the ship is looking good

Should you have had problems creating the cockpit, I've provided a number of object files showing it at various stages of evolution.

Before Metaforming Cockpit-Temp.lwo
Metaformed Cockpit-Temp2.lwo
Windows Added Cockpit-Temp3.lwo
quick downloads

Save your ship as "Shuttle_Assembly_2.lwo".

© 2000 Alexander Shareef and Alternate Perspective 3D Ltd.