Hello everyone, my name is Ali Essa, might also know me as Troublesome, I’m 18 years old, born and raised in Egypt, and currently a Computer Science undergraduate student at the American University in Cairo.
My journey with 3D art started around 5 years ago. I had an interest in game development, back then I used to work on implementing multiple video game ideas I had in Unity. I used to scavenge for 3D models online until slowly I started learning more about them, began modifying downloaded models in Blender, and soon enough I began creating my own. I am completely self-taught, my main strategy is to always open the program, dabble with buttons and see what they do, do that the right amount of times, and it’ll soon click. I have worked with other 3D softwares like 3ds Max and Maya to learn their basic functionality but Blender still remains my true love.
It’s always difficult to find time for 3D work, whether it’s for an indie videogame project or a commissioned art piece. But in the end, I’m at my best when I’m sitting on my computer, listening to music, trying to model that crazy idea I had.
I’d say at the current state, 3D to me is a serious hobby, but I sure hope one day I can turn it into a serious career.
I put my work mostly on my Sketchfab and ArtStation profiles, but you can also follow me on Instagram, where you’ll be the first to know about my latest projects and where I post some WIPs every now and then. 😉
I don’t really recall how the idea came to me, but I knew I wanted to make something hard surface, unique, and different from any other thing I’d done before. I also had the idea of a Sci-Fi Drone that would be a great fit for a game boss, something that makes you think to yourself “Oh god, RUN!”. Then I started drawing the concept in the span of a week or so, in an effort to improve my drawing/concepting skills and I came up with this:
The main objectives were for it to be aerodynamic and to make sense in its mechanics. Of course, it’s sci-fi so there is a bit more freedom, but it had to be within reason in terms of the center of mass and freedom of motion. I added these ring-shaped fans that would pressurize the air from their outer circumference and guide it through the center of the fans.
The wrecking ball is an interesting one. I had had the idea for a while about Sci-Fi weapons being melee instead of some sort of glowing rifle. This one would just smash through whatever stands in its way, and as a last resort, can explode in spectacular fashion.
As it is an autonomous beast, it’s equipped with all sorts of sensors all over, and a hidden turret inside (I would have a lot of fun with that later on). The asymmetry on the head is also a nice touch. Looking at the concept now, it seems to me like a miniaturized cuter version of the final drone, maybe someone can make that into the real deal one day. 🤔
I won’t bore you with every detail as it’s pretty typical for the most part: start with basic shapes, get the proportions right, use modifiers to your heart’s content, tune topology, gradually add levels of detail. For most objects I made them using subdivision, booleans, and maybe beveling any sharp edges at the end.
For some complex shapes, I modeled the secondary pieces separately and then shrink-wrapped the edges to the main surface. While exploring some modifiers, I found something magical, and it’s called the Data Transfer modifier, which can transfer normal data from one surface to another, and make objects look as seamless as ever. Here’s an example of what I mean: (normal transfer off vs normal transfer on)
This can be achieved by choosing the source object, checking “Face Corner Data” > “custom normals” > “Nearest/Projected Face Interpolated”. Make sure to set the modifier to a vertex group of border vertices.
This approach also proved incredibly useful when using booleans on curved surfaces:
Make sure to create a backup duplicate of your object before applying the boolean as well, just in case something goes wrong later on or you decide to alter the dimensions of the surface.
The hardest part for me however was figuring out how the wings/fans would connect to the body of the drone. After sifting through tons of references, I came up with this mechanism:
Not the best-looking thing in the world, doubt it would hold the structure very well but would make a cool weakness point to shoot at. 😉
I also made sure that every piece of the drone looks balanced compared to the other pieces in terms of their curviness, sharpness, and proportions, as if all of them were meant to be assembled together and fit under a specific design language. Here I made a blend between the medical-esque machinery hard surface style and some industrial aspects and bits of aerospace inspiration, as well. Speaking of assembling, I also made sure to keep in mind how the drone was assembled together; there always have to be some panel gaps, rivets, screws, or welding (complementing the design language of course) that add some contrast in detail and contribute to realism. One of the toughest parts was the turret, I wanted it to have a cyberpunk vibe to it, so I took a lot of inspiration from the weapons of that game, especially the smart rifles. To keep it somewhat low-poly, I added most of the small details in the texturing phase. Throughout the whole modeling phase, I made sure to view a lot of references of the design styles I was after.
My plans for the UVs were to hide seams as much as possible and have the smallest number of UV islands possible. Exceptions to this were the fan frames; because of their donut shape, they use up too much of the UV space so I created seams to divide the UVs into 3 sections to make it use that space more efficiently. Another useful trick I utilized is to make duplicate objects, such as the tail segments, share the same UVs to save space.
I of course used the UV Packmaster 2 Pro Blender addon, which is probably the most useful addon I’ve ever purchased. Another crucial step I sometimes forget is that all scales need to be applied before unwrapping, otherwise textile density will be uneven and sometimes distorted.
I am by no means a rigging expert—I’m currently at the “this’ll do” stage but I’m getting there. All the rigging was done with the native Blender tools. I just parented the separate objects to each bone and worked with the bone constraints, which took me some time to explore and dabble with but I got some cool results in the end.
This step is the most important as it is responsible for most of what you see on the artwork, and frankly the most fun. Before starting the process I had already determined that I wanted a color scheme composed of mainly pearl white and gunmetal, with a cold, machinery kind of vibe to it.
I used Substance Painter to texture this model 😍. I first began with assigning the main colors to the body parts to get the feel of the contrast of the materials, I also did not want to use material repetitively, particularly metals. So after experimenting with various materials, I settled on carbon fiber for parts like the fan arms and the inside of the fan as it makes great contrast and reflects light in a special way. It also makes sense as it is a very lightweight and stiff material, which would make it appropriate for a drone aircraft.
For the panel gaps, I created a fill layer with negative height and dark AO, created a mask on that, and started painting the panel area then using a “mask outline” filter and maybe following that with blur and levels filters. To keep things from looking bland, I began adding decals. After browsing my alphas collection vigorously, I used a variety of interesting shapes and symbols as factors of asymmetry, which turned out really interesting. Another interesting thing I found out is that decals do not always have to be in the albedo. If you look closely at my model you’ll find some text in the height map, for example, and others in the roughness map. The only rule is that it has to be noticeable, so any form of decal in any of the channels can add interesting contrasting details.
For hard surface models I like to add all sorts of model numbers, fictional brand names, labels, instructions in the appropriate places and for that I like to (you should have seen this coming…) use my Alpha Text tool for Substance Painter which allows me to put in curved, skewed or even bordered text. In fact, I updated it a while ago to contain 28 different fonts along with different styles. There’s also a 50% discount just for you. 😉
An unexpected challenge in the texturing phase was the rifle/turret. I found it pretty damn hard to make it actually look like a sci-fi weapon. After experimenting for a while, I learned that it’s mostly about the small details.
Putting a lot of height detail on that thing while making sure areas are not too dense with detail made it scream “Sci-fi”. The trick with that is to make sure it looks “assembled” in some way, and to add height details that you want to just reach out and feel with your hands.
The turret cavity took heavy inspiration from real-life plane landing gear wells, with the goal of making it look dense, structural, and industrial. I also added in some rust as well as some blurred noise to give some imperfections to the metal panels. There’s also spray paint of the drone’s unit number, ‘cause why not.
Imperfections can go a long way in reflecting the object’s fictional reality, this is supposed to be a life-threatening, cold-blooded killing machine, so it might as well have some scars. And for that, I chose to project a very harsh grunge map with scratches on the underside of the feet as well as the wrecking ball, as a way to indicate that this machine was some history, and also hints at what kind of terrain it operated in.
I also decided to put in some stickers and graffiti on the wrecking ball—I like to think of it as a signature for those who like to take risks coming close to this thing. They also bring some chaos to the design that attracts the viewer’s eyes.
And as a final polish, I added some subtle surface imperfections in the roughness channel and a couple of scratches here and there.
Lighting and presentation
I thought to myself, there’s no better pose to present this beast in other than it swerving in the air, full wingspan and ready to exterminate. I set up a small snowy rooftop scene in Blender (didn’t make it to Sketchfab, sadly, but you can check it out in the ArtStation project). I then began experimenting with the lighting in EEVEE. I started with a main warm-ish white directional light coming at an angle to the front of the drone, and a low warm yellow light from the back of the drone imitating a street light, which also complements the snow pretty well and gives off a Christmas-y vibe. I added 2 main spotlights as the projection of the scanner in the wings and made them purple to give a cold, threatening look. In addition to that, I added a cold blue light from the opposite angle of the main light to add to that cold/warm lighting theme and also added some point lights as needed to brighten the poorly lit areas and make the model fully visible. The positioning of these lights is with the goal of showing the contours of the model and making these shadow highlights on the surfaces of the model.
Here’s a turntable that should give a better idea of what I’m talking about:
Taking this model to Sketchfab, I did my best replicating the lighting I had in Blender. I also used one of the standard HDRIs to aid with the lighting and show off some cool reflections. The ambient environment feature is my favorite—it makes these good-looking gradients and keeps all the focus on the artwork.
The post-processing filters also proved very useful with this project, I used the screen space reflections and AO as well as a very slight grain effect and some sharpness to make all the imperfections and metallic surfaces pop. I also put in some vignette to keep the viewer’s eyes more focused on the model and finished it off with some tone mapping to give more energy to the colors and lighting.
Aaand here we are. Hope you learned a thing or two after all this reading, or at least that it inspired you to create something awesome.
Feel free to check out high-quality renders on ArtStation.
Writing this has been great fun, looking forward to reading your comments!