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Steel Wings

Inspired by 'The Expanse' and 'Flight of the Navigator', here's a detailed look at how a new story came to life with the use of 3ds Max, Zbrush and Vray.


An sudden emergency occurred for the Prime team. The tail section of their flying ship is destroyed and the controls have failed. A huge breach gaped in the manoeuvring engine's place; pieces of the engine, all the provisions, and the remains of the warehouse flew out into the oblivion of the Red Desert. The technician was the first to rush to the alarm. The captain ran to his backup and spied out the details of the accident. The whole thing happened so suddenly that the ship's helmsman thought he had made a mistake in the steering. In bewilderment and fear, he turned to the captain. The technician and the captain of the crew knew that an attack had been made - the UFO ships flashed behind the hole in the compartment.

This is how events unfolded in my art project about the crew of a technologically advanced ship, facing imminent disaster.

Design of the ship and composition

Shape of the ship

In "The Expanse" series, the main characters roamed through space on the Rocinante.

I liked its design very much and I applied some of its principles to my project.

- Interior diamond shape

- Digital monitors showing infographics that are rich in detail

- Contrasting illumination

- A lot of interactive panels

Minimalism, simple shapes, and light from narrow strips of strip boxes are associated with futurism. I used this in the interior design of the ship and made it a two-deck layout.

The lower deck houses the engines and a variety of crates. The upper deck has a command center and the pilot's seat.

Scene composition

The ship's crew pictured here consists of three people in force armour and an exoskeleton. They are caught in the middle of an enemy attack. They are in dynamic poses.

The composition builds in a spiral. The starting point is focused on the fighter on the second floor against the background of the red monitors. The direction of the characters' gaze leads from fighter to fighter towards the enemy.

Prime fighter
"UFO" ship
"UFO" ships, final version

For the design of the enemy "UFO" ships, I decided to use smooth shapes and sharp edges. The reference point for me was the movie "Flight of the Navigator", which helped me to develop their image. Here I laid down the idea of an encounter with the "UFO" and an unattainable standard of perfection.

Ship interior
Ship interior

My intention was to show how technically advanced the "Prime" ship was, so I've equipped it with multiple digital monitors. The panels on the walls and the interior of the ship were a low-polygon model and imitated all the details with sci-fi panel textures.

Color choice

Color palette

I did a color search using an online resource called Adobe Colour. At first, I defined for myself the initial colour that would set the tone for the entire composition. It was a dark blue colour. I applied the rules of colour harmony from the list in the window (composite scheme), and the result is shown visually in the bars and its text code for quick copying values.

Choice of colors in Adobe Color

The predominant colour blue has widened the space of the ship's narrow corridor, and time seems to flow more slowly in its presence. It looks as if we have caught the climax of an event.

Adding red accents to the ship's interior in the form of alarm-blazing monitors and lights at the corridor's edges further heightened the tone of the impending event.

The Prime fighters are brave warriors and prefer to wear a monochrome navy blue to match the SWAT operatives.

Camera and surroundings

I tilted the camera so that diagonals were formed in the scene, and the interior of the ship became active and alive.

The scene uses a 36mm camera paired with a 32mm lens to create a sense of perspective.

The battle takes place over the Red Desert, in a high mountainous location. The top of the mountain curves towards the sky and emphasizes the spiral of the composition.


I started modelling the initial shape in 3ds Max using simple pyramids. Estimating their location and scale with the view from the camera, allowed me to determine the shape of the future landscape.

3D modelling of the mountains, camera view

I continued in ZBrush, where I detailed up to 800,000 polygons. Then I transferred the model back to 3ds Max and used Freeform to correct the shape so that it was included in the frame of the camera.

High-polygon 3D model of the mountains, camera view
3D scene
3D scene
Fighter jet

The sky in the scene is a plane with self-luminous material and sky texture.

Sky material

This plane should not project shadows in the scene, so I disabled "Receive Shadows" and "Cast Shadows" in the object settings.

Plane settings for sky


On the light sources I applied colour shade fluctuation to diversify the lighting and make it more realistic. It was made with the texture node VRayMultiSubTex.

Material for color fluctuation

There are 40 light sources in the scene, most of which are located in different parts inside the ship. Some illuminate the soldiers, others are meant to add light accents on the walls of the ship and to illuminate the upper deck. Some of these are lights from displays. They are not bright enough to illuminate an object, but they add atmosphere to the scene.

The main light sources for the environments are V-ray Sun combined with VRayDome and HDRi.


3D scene with textures and materials

Using footage I overlaid a self-luminous material with an explosion texture on a black background on a standard plane. My textures didn't have an alpha channel to crop the black background, I just used the same explosion texture as the alpha channel. It was bright and sharp enough to take it for this purpose.

Explosion materials

I enhanced the dynamism of the scene in 3D with Motion Blur, moving the characters and animating the flight of enemy planes with shrapnel particles. By scaling the footage I made a simulation of the increase in the explosions.

VRayAerialPerspective helped me to achieve the volumetric atmosphere effect.

VRayAerialPerspective settings

Shards of the ship are made on the basis of 5 form variations and made with the tool PFlow.

Three sources of particles in PFlow allowed it to further diversify the flow of particles.

PFlow settings

These were a group of large particles and two groups of small particles.

Particles in PFlow 

I combined 5 shard objects into a group, set the "Shape Instance" node in PFlow, where I specified the created group as the particle source (see picture above: PFlow Settings).

5 options for ship shatter

The direction of the particle's movement and character was set with a "Gravity" spherical shape (In the top menu Create->SpaceWarps->Forces->Gravity). To each group of particles a different "Gravity" was applied.

Gravity settings

One of the UFO fighters hit the opponents with laser shots. This small but nice detail in the composition was in the form of a low-polygon drop-shaped geometry, shaped with self-luminous red material.

Laser shot
Laser shot

The hull of the ship didn't take long to model. It consists of several objects of simple shape, repeating the hull of the ship and with the same cladding material. Only to simulate punched holes I additionally applied a black and white sci-fi panel texture in the Opacity slot.

Unwrapped lining and lining material

Similar textures were generated with the JSplacement program. This is a tool with random generation. On the main screen, you can select a preset. For my project, the "JSplacement: 2" setting worked for me. Then I tightened the contrast of the resulting texture in Photoshop until I got pure black and white with no grayscale.

Interface JSplacement for texture generation
Example of the texture, lining of the ship after explosion


Finally, I colour-corrected the image in Photoshop by enhancing the blue color, as well as adding Lens Flare to the stair railing on the left and the ship's ceiling on the right.

The ship dived and the crew fought desperately to save themselves. With such a large hole in the hull, they miraculously managed to escape the enemy fighters. They flew right into the sandstorm, making a hard landing, but they survived. A few hours later, the storm left, revealing a clear sky ... and the horizon of an endless red desert.

World of Design


Professional 3D artist specializing in visual ideas and 3D modeling.