By John Douglass - images & text © 2002
I was commissioned to build two spacecraft miniatures for a film project. No sketches or plans were presented. Instead I was given a few design constraints. Both ships had to have landing gear as they were both to spend some time in a hangar, but having movable landing gear would far exceed the budget, so the gear need only be two-position. The guns were to be similarly positionable instead of remote-controlled.
^ Top view
Image: Overhead view, weapon extended
Image: Wings extended (top view)
Image: Unpainted model, overhead view (wings closed)
The first ship is a small scout that is actually a spy ship. It has only a pilot and a casket-sized med-bed that, in the script, gets uncomfortably occupied at some point by a passenger. It is fairly aerodynamic and has swing-wings. It also has a hidden gun.
The second is a "destroyer" with a crew of six, manned turrets, and a number of missile batteries. Its crew has augmented the ships performance by oversizing the engines and adding armor plating. In the story both ships land at either end of a battle-damaged mile-long space station. In actual size the scout could exceed 18 inches in length, 12 in width, or 24 in height, and the destroyer must be no more than 24 inches square, as the hangar miniatures in which they're to land had already been constructured. This is all I had to go on, at first.
The scout I built first.
I wanted the swing-wings to be easy to build and operate, yet somewhat unusual, so I started with a cheap Monogram 1/72 scale F-14, sans nose, and turned upside down and backwards. Atop it I put a 1/72 A-10, rightside up, but backwards. I elected to make both miniatures 1/72 scale, and although I could have used the A-10's canopy, I felt it would make the scout ship look too small, so I used a smaller canopy, suitably darkened inside. The legs are wire and narrow-gauge gift-wrap elastic with tank-tread feet.
At first I thought to build the gun into the nose, but decided it would take up way too much room. I decided then to put it where the A-10's cockpit had been, since I was going to have to put something there anyway. I had no idea where the destroyer was going to be when the scout tried to shoot at it, so the gun had to be able to shoot anywhere. To get around the vertical stabilizer I put the gun on the end of a swingable boom, which in turn pivoted and, as it was attached to the ship with a narrow piece of solder (think "soft wire"), elevated.
Image: Detailing on the bow.
Image: Main gear, in-flight postion.
Image: Main gear, in-flight postion, viewed aft looking forward.
Image: Main gear in landing configuration
Image: Main gear being put into landing postion, lexan shaft exposed.
Image: One of two missile pods, all hatches closed.
Image: One hatch open.
Image: Nose gear ramp aimed at slot in fuselage. Note flanking sqare holes.
Image: Removable (for shipping) nose guns
Image: Swiveling a turret by rotating an attached part.
Image: In-flight stand mounting point.
The destroyer was much more challenging to build. I started with a fairly standard "h" design - two cones coming back from a triangular central hull, with a cylinder in front. Several years ago I bought some large plastic cocktail shakers that I thought at the time might make good engines. I started with them and, although I used them and I think they contribute to the ship's distinctive shape, they proved to be a bit of a problem both because they were so large and because they were made of rather thick, hence, heavy plastic.
As the ship was supposed to be customized by its crew, the landing gear could not be part of the replaced engines, but had to attach to the central hull. But the weight of the engines shifted the center of gravity abaft of the central hull. That is, simple legs extending straight down from the back of the main fuselage would still be too far forward to keep the ship from leaning back on the engines.
I could have added weight to the front of the ship but I decided not to because then I would have to beef-up both the legs and the part of the fuslage where the in-flight mounting point was. Instead, I did two things. First, I shortened the engine cones by slicing two lines, one an inch from the base, and parallel to it, another an inch or so from the top. Both slices extended about half-way around each engine, but on different sides. I connected the slices lengthwise, thus separating each engine cone into to "L" shapes. Putting the smaller-diameter end into the larger effectively truncated each cone, shifting the center of balabnce forward slightly, while adding an aesthetic ledge in several areas and a square area ripe for detailing.
The second thing I did to keep the ship from tipping back was, obviously, angle the legs back. That is why the main geer sticks more back than down. To get the gear back, yet have it strong enough to survive filming, I used legs made of disposable razors, just like the Brit SFX artist Martin Bower (The right-center ship in his "logo". I remember it being featured in a modeling magazine many years ago). The legs have lexan ("flexible plexiglas") shafts inside, which in turn stick into the fuselage either straight-back for in-flight, or angled upwards for landing. The two-position effect I accomplished by drilling one hole for each shaft in the aft, visible bulkhead, and two holes each in an interior bulkhead, one hole above the other. The lexan shafts have just enough give in them to affect a slight sag when the ship lands.
The front landing gear was at least as much trouble, but for entirely different reasons. It turned out I was supposed to provide this ship earlier than I'd planned so that the live-action sets could be built to mimic the landing gear. Thus, access to the ship's interior was to be near the front landing gear. So I built something with a ramp, even though an elevator would have been easier for me to build, but much harder for the set-builders. The ramp has a notch that fits into a slot in the lower fuselage. Flanking the slot are two square tubes into which the landing gear are placed. The legs have stops on them that keep them from extending all the way into the ship.
Behind the legs is a hole for the 3/8" screw that is in turn attached to a stand. The hole leads to a large, shape-filling balsa-wood block. Its the only mounting point I planned on, and it anticipated belated instructions to include it. The balsa wood adds miniscule weight, yet allows a snug fit on any threaded armature.
The turrets were a challenge, and not just because they went through two revisions. The initial design, long guns, but with no gunner compartment, were why the turret mounts rotate from the bottom of the fuselage, out, then up. I had wanted the guns to "fold-up" during landing. But, as the customer reiterated a desire for gunners, I built to manned turrets, based very loosely on those on the Aliens' Sulaco.
Unfortunately, the gun barrels are nose-heavy, so I had to go to extraordinary means to make them stick in place.
Next time, too, I'll put a whole lot more detail on them.
The missile pods are the rounded-edge square boxes on the leading edges of the central hull. Each of the triangular-shaped hatches covers three missile tubes though only the outboard most hatches are actually removable. Each is held-in by a missile-sized cylinder attached to the hatch and wedged into one of the missile tubes. I included a lone hatch glued to a tiny wire that would hold the hatch out at right angle to the pod, thus, with carful editing, making the hatch appear to open.
I knew that the simple overall design of the destroyer, augmented with extra armor, left areas of deep recesses, as visible in the rear leg shots. And, for film work, I needed extra amounts of shading to add depth to the ship (think stage make-up). Weathering the ship, then, would be tricky and time-consuming using my usual techniques involving washes. What I needed was a technique that would put black in the hardest-to-get-to areas, and high-contrast throughout, and without a lot of paint-drying-pauses. I remembered then Sean Patton's scratch-built Thunderhawk. Following his example, but in green, I painted both ships in black, then dry-brushed different shades of green over-all. I masked-off the stripes, and dry-brushed them, too. I followed-up with a dry-brushed layer of light-gray on the edges of things, and an airbrushed layer of Floquil "Dust" over everything. Again, read Sean's article (and visit his site for more detail on how to achieve excellent painting results with modest effort).
Painting ships is usually my least favorite part of a project, but it was my most favorite here, followed by the construction of the scout. I enjoyed getting to work in a different scale than I usually do, and building something that is not suposed to be IPMS-grade. My only regret is that I can't take them to the Worldcon to show them off with the rest of my ships.
This page copyright © 2002 Starship Modeler. Last updated on 6 March 2002.