Design Tutorial: How To Create “Shuttle Launch”

Design Tutorial: How To Create “Shuttle Launch”

Our Low Poly 3D Design Contest Winner, Skye White, took some time to create a tutorial to walk us through how he conceptualized and created his first place 3D design, “Shuttle Launch.”

Yo! I’m an animator and motion capture specialist. I’m 22 and recently graduated from Savannah College of Art & Design. While modeling isn’t my focus, I still enjoy it and use Maya and ZBrush as my primary tools.

For my recently awarded ‘Shuttle Launch’ model that I did for Pinshape, I used mostly Maya and Photoshop with a little bit of ZBrush to apply color to the model. I’ll dive more into my process.


Coming up with a design was a spontaneous process. I’m very much a space geek, so I knew that I would probably have the most fun working with something there.

I’d recently been reading the Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield’s book and crossed over a chapter in which he talks about his first orbiter launch in 1995.

Capturing the energy of that seemed like it would be great, so I started to gather a small reference library of the schematics for orbiters.

  references_02 references_01

This was a great way to understand the proportions of separate pieces and lay them down in Maya’s orthographic views. I created image planes in the front and side views to get ready to start. I knew the shuttle was going to be the most detailed part of the piece so I started with that.

Design – Orbiter

I decided that I would focus on just getting the general form of the shuttle down first and not worry about the low poly stylization right away. I’ll explain that decision soon.

I started with primitives and inserted edge loops and beveled as needed.

Shuttle Orbiter

After getting a model that read well as an orbiter, I used the Modeling Toolkit to stylize it with new shapes over what I just created. This is a great tool I’ve used for other purposes as any new vertices are constrained to whatever existing model you like.

I went through a couple iterations and would tweak vertices, add/delete edges, until I was happy with the look. I knew I could use Maya’s ‘triangulate’ function, but wanted to be a bit more purposeful with my use of tris and quads. It looked a little less solid and more like crumpled paper with triangulate.

Design – Rocket Boosters

Shuttle Booster

The rocket boosters were an easy part. I simply started with cylinders and scaled them and extruded to get the right shapes. Six sided cylinder for the secondary boosters and eight sided for the main fuel tank as that would allow the boosters to attach to a flat surface as well as the orbiter. Used as few edge loops along these guys as possible to really keep it geometric while still having them read well.

Design – Exhaust & Smoke

The exhaust started as an eight sided cylinder and formed to be a bit of a cone. I added some subdivisions and then triangulated as the exhaust felt like it could be a bit more chaotic and disorganized. From here I just did small tweaks to get the shape looking right.

Shuttle Exhaust

The smoke was pretty straight forward. I started with 2 variants of low poly spheres with some twisted quads and tris. Duplicated a bunch, scaled, and rotated them to add variety. But I knew that if I wanted this to stand upright it couldn’t have a jagged bottom. I grabbed a selection of the bottom vertices in the side view and just scaled them to all be at the same point on the y-axis making a flat bottom.

Shuttle Smoke

Design – Coloring/Texturing

I probably could’ve approached this step a little differently, but after looking at a lot of low poly art, it looked like most texturing was done by filling individual faces with different colors.

So I created a variety of shaders and filled different pieces in with a base color. I then selected different faces, and assigned them different the various shaders to add color variety. I turned to my reference photos to get an idea of how the coloring should look and this helped immensely with understanding how the bounce light the exhaust emits would affect other pieces.

In order to print in full color, the design needed to have a texture map so I took the models into Headus UVLayout.

Shuttle UVs

Once I had solid UVs, I baked out a diffuse map based on the various shaders and continued to tweak this in Photoshop till I was happy.

Shuttle Variations

The smoke was the only real challenge since it’s UVs had a lot more parts and you wouldn’t really know what you’re painting in Photoshop. So I brought the smoke into zBrush, divided it a number of times without smoothing, and polypainted.

Shuttle Smoke Variation

Exported my polypaint to a diffuse map, tweaked in Photoshop, and voila! Textured shuttle!

shuttle launch

This was a fun project. Feel free to contact me with questions on any part of the process at [email protected].


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