The Model Shop Part 1: Star Dwellers sculpture by Grant Louden + interview (with Dan McPharlin)
Welcome to Sci-Fi-O-Rama 2014.
So without ado lets hand over the controls to Dan…
Guest post by Dan McPharlin
And now for something a little bit different. Sci-Fi-O-Rama doesn’t normally feature 3D work, but Kieran has kindly handed me the keys and let me loose on his blog to write this guest post on a subject that is very dear to my heart; Sci-Fi model making.
Ever since I first saw that monolithic Star Destroyer swoop majestically into frame in the opening minutes of Star Wars it’s a subject I’ve been fascinated by. While CGI has, unfortunately, all but rendered the model-maker’s craft obsolete in the movies, there are still a handful of talented artists out there burning the torch for this fantastic art form…
While trawling the dark recesses of Tumblr one evening late last year, I came upon an intriguing image. It seemed to be a model of the spacecraft from one of my favourite Colin Hay paintings Star Dwellers. A few google queries later and I discovered that I was looking at the work of artist Grant Louden, who after a successful career in advertising and graphic design has been quietly working away on a series of amazing sculptures based on classic spacecraft paintings by the likes of Tony Roberts, Peter Elson, and Colin Hay. Star Dwellers is Grant’s first finished build, and he has meticulously documented the process over on his website.
(Above right © 1978 Colin Hay)
Painted in 1978 by Colin Hay using gouache and airbrush ink, The Star Dwellers was first used as the cover for a reprint of James Blish’s 1961 novel (hence the title). In 1979 it was published in the Terran Trade Authority book Space Wreck to accompany the story Victims of Space. Although relegated to a corner of the page, there is something about the vibrant colour scheme, composition and spooky atmosphere that draws one deeper into the painting. The ship is typical of Hay’s work at the time; although small in scale it is rendered in much the same fashion as many of the planet-sized behemoths that frequent his paintings, its jutting angular surfaces are plastered with all manner of multi-coloured inlets, panels and graphical symbols. The ship’s lifeless crew seem to be tethered to their sepulchral machine, destined to spend eternity drifting slowly through space, suspended in their moment of expiration. This macabre scene forms a striking silhouette against a vibrant yellow airbrushed sun.
In Space Wreck the ship is described as a maintenance scooter that had been used in desperation to escape a deadly virus outbreak aboard the research ship, Ceres. When faced with the prospect of an agonising death aboard the Ceres the two astronauts elected instead to perish swiftly in open space. I haven’t read James Blish’s The Star Dwellers so I can’t comment on the connection of art to story in that case. It should be noted that much of the art featured in the TTA books was ‘recycled’ from previous sci-fi book covers and generally a story was woven around the art, instead of the other way round.
Anyway, back to Grant’s spectacular model work. What particularly impressed me was his attention to detail in bringing the tiny craft and its crew into three-dimensional space. From the initial drawings through to early mock-ups and final build, there is a level of care and craftsmanship that you rarely see with these sort of projects. Of particular note are the wiring looms, harnesses, oxygen tanks and air hose fixtures; small details that are never seen in the original painting. Grant also consulted directly with Colin Hay during the build which no doubt added to the authenticity of the final product and surely gets him a few extra brownie points. But rather than me rambling on any further, let’s hear from Grant.
Q: Grant, first of all, tell us a bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and what kindled your enthusiasm for science fiction and model making?
I was born in rural New Zealand and raised on a dairy farm. Farm life, though pleasant enough, never held much of an attraction for me. But farm machinery did. As a kid I was always butchering my dinky toy cars and trucks and fashioning them into new mad creations.
I built 1/25th scale model truck kits for a few years. Then 1977 came along, and with it ‘Star Wars’, and everything changed. As Dan said above, that opening shot of the star destroyer opened up new synapses in the brain that led to a lifelong passion for science fiction, and in particular spacecraft and model making. Dreams changed to becoming a professional SFX model maker, but New Zealand in the 70’s was no place to be looking for that kind of work, so I built kit sets and my own creations. Then came ‘Alien’ a couple of years later, and with it The Book of Alien, which featured a load of Chris Foss designs for the Nostromo that were never used, but I fell in love with. I used to browse second-hand bookshops, not for the novels but their cover art. So I was aware of this genre of brash, bold, colourful British SF illustration. The mad-glorious designs and shapes, and the wild industrial/commercial colour schemes. I always thought they would make fantastic subjects for model replicas, but I never had the time, money or equipment to attempt such builds.
Q: How did the Star Dwellers project come about?
Fast forward 30 years and I’m now living in Milton Keynes, England. I’d been working in graphic design here, taken citizenship and settled down with my Irish wife. Sadly she was struck down with MS and I eventually gave up work to care for her full time. In my free time I had begun buying back all my old TTA books from the 70’s on Ebay. Then Chris Foss had released a new comprehensive book of his life work and I had the spacecraft bug back again. And this time the time, experience and equipment to realise that teenage dream of actually building them.
I met Chris at a book signing in London and showed him some artist’s renderings I’d done of his spacecraft as 3-dimensional sculptures. He was, in his words, “wildly, wildly enthusiastic” about my plans to recreate them. I contacted Colin Hay, Tony Roberts, and the late Peter Elson’s sister, who all agreed to me licensing a couple of their spacecraft paintings to turn into actual large-scale sculptures / replicas. (I still don’t know exactly how to refer to them).
Colin’s Star Dwellers had always been an absolute favourite of the TTA spacecraft and was an easy choice for my first build. I sent him impressions of what I imagined a sculpture of his ship would look like, and he agreed straight away.
Q: I understand that you produced the sculpture with Colin Hay’s official endorsement. In fact, he was a source of information and advice on the build. How did you find the process of working directly with the original artist?
So we agreed an official license for each ship, and a royalty to go back to the original artist upon any sales for use of their work. It was important for me to recognise, celebrate, and remunerate their original – in every sense of the word – artworks.
I chose to build Star Dwellers first, for a couple of reasons. It was always my all time favourite of the TTA illustrations. Solemn, sombre and begging questions, and beautifully designed and rendered. Also it posed a considerable challenge. Just one view to work from, an incredibly complex shape to reproduce, with it’s wild angles merging into a round nose cone, and intricately detailed. And two astronaut figures to model, so in doing this first I would gather and hone the skills and equipment needed to build any of the others.
Colin was absolutely fantastic to work with throughout the entire build. From commenting on prototype paper models, checking plan drawings, and constant enthusiasm and kind comments all along the way. He was invaluable when it came to building the unseen details of the ship. What would the interior look like for instance? Independently we had both been thinking WWII fighters and midget submarines as a look and feel. I asked if we should put floating seat harnesses in the cockpits, and Colin said indeed and wished he’d thought of them when doing his original painting. So it was wonderful to have so much input and encouragement, and it’s made for a far more accurate and sympathetic recreation. Colin will be signing a Certificate of Authenticity to accompany the piece when sold, as well as a signed art print of his original. And I’ll be passing on a two figure percentage royalty when it’s sold.
Q: What materials did you use for the build?
Styrene plastic sheet is my medium. As easy to work as paper card or balsa wood, but solid and able to be fashioned into any shape imaginable. And of course model kitset parts, the “greeblies” that bring such models to life, bond perfectly to the plastic sheeting. Apart from that I used some steel wire for the pneumatic hose support legs, and FIMO modelling clay to make the astronauts and details like leather seat cushions. A few fine details were bought from specialist model shops. Tiny scale rubber hoses and wiring, and the seat harnesses were a set of 1/12th scale F1 safety belts.
The philosophy for it’s creation was always ‘hand-crafted’ wherever I could. In fact I bought a Dremmel hobby power drill, but as yet have not used it once, instead using small hand drills, scalpel knives, files and sandpaper. Isopon car body filler is also an excellent medium for sculpting and carving forms that flat plastic can’t recreate.
I also built a vacuum forming unit for moulding sheet plastic into round and complex forms. I made moulds of the astronaut figures in silicone rubber and recast them in resin, just to learn the skills, and in case I ever build a copy of this ship.
Q: How long was the build time, and what was the most challenging part?
Please don’t ask how long this one took! It was two years from conception to completion, but that is working very irregularly. I also had a recurring eye complaint that left me unable to work for a couple of months! But I would estimate if doing full time would have been about three to four months solid work, with the workshop equipment design and building that went with it.
The most challenging part was extrapolating three dimensions from the single view I had to work from. I did a few rough sketches of what I imagined the top and interior would look like and with a few comments from Colin was able to make paper card models to check the shapes, then onto full-size plan drawings.
The battle damaged wings and fins also posed a problem. How to make the joins neat and tidy, not soldered, but still be robust enough to be handled? I used hollow plastic tubing, 2mm diameter, and inserted copper rods to give them rigidity. That way I got the strength of wire and the neat joins of plastic.
Q: In Colin’s painting, the geometry of the ship is rather strange with some difficult angles. Did you have a hard time extrapolating these into three dimensions?
By far the most difficult part was working out the overall form, and executing the transition from round nose cone to angular midships section. I built three small paper model prototypes till I got it right, with help from Colin in honing the shapes. The nose was made using a flat card skeleton cross-section and filling it with filler and sanding down the shape to match the plans. I then made hollow moulds from these using heat formed plastic sheeting so that I was always working with the same material throughout. Then it was a matter of carefully measuring and cutting and bending panels to integrate the round nose to the rest of the hull. All done by eye and careful measuring. Like a three dimensional jigsaw, where you have to make each individual piece on the go.
Q: Are there any venues where we’ll get to see your work?
I am planning on exhibiting several ships at Loncon 3, the World Science Fiction Convention in London, August this year.
Q: Are there any model-makers past or present whose work you particularly admire?
Martin Bower was always my favourite model maker. I came across his name in ‘Alien’ and slavered over his Nostromo and other models in that movie, and ‘Outland’. And of course unbeknownst at the time I’d been admiring his work on all those Gerry Anderson shows since childhood. (Dan’s note: Also be sure to check out the fantastic Alien Makers documentaries by Dennis Lowe – a must watch for any fan of Alien and model building)
The other is Gerald Wingrove, who has for decades been handcrafting the most exquisite 1/10th scale model cars from metal. Though he works in totally different subjects and materials to me, his work has long been an inspiration and byword for craftsmanship.
Where’s the best place to follow your builds online, and what will be your next project?
I’ve created a comprehensive build diary for this ship at my website. There are 24 pages of the entire process from plan drawings to finished piece. My next build is a Tony Roberts ship, used in OMNI magazine in the 80’s, called From Ruination’s Fires. It’s just passed the paper model stage and about to go into production any day. You can follow progress on that one here.
I also have a Facebook page – 70s Spaceship Replicas – where there are duplicate progress photos and current news.
Many thanks Grant!
Many thanks, Dan and Kieran, for giving me the opportunity to display my first piece to a wider and, in SF terms, wiser audience! (Grant Louden)