Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Runabout Run Around

I have always been drawn to the real artistry of the Star Trek models from Dutch designer, Ninjatoes.  While some people I know have been critical of his hand-drawn approach, which can be frustrating, as it makes assembling his models more difficult, I've been able to look beyond that and appreciate the thought that goes into engineering his model designs.  That's what led me to create my own version of his Danube-class Runabout, the USS Rubicon, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. 

Early Cockpit with hard angled profile
Once I had built his original, I felt that Ninjatoes' basic design was worth the time and effort it would take to turn it into a really accurate version of the studio model.  I began working on parts based on the build sequence for the original model, so the forward cockpit section came first.  Changes here included correcting the overall shape, adding panel lines and creating a short, vertical, center section where the ship name goes and where the phaser/RCS thruster module mounts.  
Revised cockpit with smoother profile

Later in the project, I realized that I really didn't care for the abrupt angle of the bow above the forward ports, so I revised the cockpit with a much smoother transition above the main windows, which were made a bit smaller.  I also rearranged a few surface details, added a few missing bits, finished the cockpit's panel lines and corrected the placement of the forward registry number.

Underside of cockpit

Underneath the cockpit, the photon torpedo launcher/ front landing pad was shortened and got new detailing, as did the area behind it.  To add depth to the surface details, I utilized multiple shades of each base hue to emphasize details and heighten the illusion of shadowing on the flat surfaces. At the rear of the cockpit, the "wing" of the phaser module was reshaped, I added the details of an RCS thruster and added changed the ribbed look of the thin section between the cockpit and the ship's center section to look more prototypical.

Ninjatoes' original design integrated the wing/engine pods into the center section of the model, requiring a rather complicated build sequence.

Wanting to make final assembly easier, I decided to modify these 
parts, enlarging the impulse engines and adding new surface details while redesigning the wings and engines so that they could be added as separate parts.  The changes resulted in an assembly much closer to Rick Sternbach's original design for the ship.

In shaping the wings, I took one of my AMT plastic runabout kits out of mothballs for use as a reference.  The wing's leading edge doesn't look like it would be difficult to design once it's built, but the math involved made it a challenge, and as difficult as the leading edge was, the trailing edge was ten times worse.  The runabout wing is a complex shape for a paper modeler, especially for a Luddite like me, that works without 3D modeling software.  It has complex curves from just about any angle, and a mistake in any one of them has a negative effect on the whole part.  While my finished part isn't a perfect replica of the studio model's wing, I think it's as close as you'll ever find without building one in CG.  That one small part of the model consumed a lot of time and energy, and caused a LOT of frustration, but by the time I was done with it, I knew that my skills as a model designer had taken a big leap forward. 

Revised Warp Reactor
After the wings, I needed something simpler to focus on, so I started on the warp reactor on top of the fuselage.  I replaced the original model's stacked rings with a cone shape, and changed the sides to taper inward as well as down to get closer to the look of the studio model.  I also added the boxes at the sides of the reactor, which had been flat and indistinct on the original version. The rear section of the fuselage was a fairly simple shape, so I was able to have some fun greebling the surfaces and experimenting with texturing by creating layered details.

Close-up of layered surface details
Once that was done, I moved on to the warp engines. During the design and test building, I was asked by another modeler if I had rounded off the bussard collectors on the warp engines, as Ninjatoes' original design had a sharp corner at the top and bottom edges of the bussards.  The simple answer was no, I did not.  I played with the idea quite a bit, and looked at Paragon's repaint of the runabout, where he had eased the corner with a multi-pieced bussard, but I had a really hard time building his version.  The problem with rounding the bussard is that the shape of the prototype is a tight, flattened sphere that fades into a rectangle where it meets the hull plating.  Even if I worked in CAD or a 3D modeling program to design it, the actual parts would be horrendous to build.  In the end, my own version of the bussard uses Ninjatoes' squared edges, but with corrections to the shape and a few changes to the assembly of the forward ends of the warp engines, which make the hard edges stand out a bit less.  

Revised Fuselage Clamping Strap.
Getting down to the smaller details, I decided to tackle the clamping straps on the sides of the fuselage.  On Ninjatoes' original version, these were just two layers thick, with a tapered box shape at the top. To achieve a more prototypical appearance, I changed this to a three part assembly, separating the anchor points from the strap, and giving the whole part some depth.  The result is a part that looks good, and has some real heft to it at full size, but is still so thin that I can't imagine building it as is in a smaller scale.  How modelers like Mick Muller and Loenf built these at half scale for their builds of the finished model still baffles me. 

A few of the "unsuccessful" test builds...
As the redesign progressed, I was constantly building and rebuilding the different sections of the model, as each new change had to be tested for the best fit.  So much so that the collected test builds of all these different sections filled a large bankers box by the time I finished the project.  Modeling the clamping strap and the warp engines revealed an issue that required reworking every section of the model I'd already designed.  Up to this point, all of the larger assemblies had attached to the upper parts of the hull, but checking the fuselage against the original, and against the AMT plastic kit, showed that my version was "pot-bellied".  It was a bit over an 1/8th of an inch too deep in the lower sections, so I had to put everything on a diet, and whittle it down.  This was important for the final fit of the warp engines, and for the clamping straps.  It took the better part of a day to redo all of the skins and the inner supports.  It also required me to build another new fuselage for test fitting the final parts.

Sometimes, things just DON'T work out...
Building and test fitting parts during the design phase was important both for correct fit and for developing the best assembly sequences. Some sequences resulted in the parts warping out of shape, others left glue points inaccessible.  So, I did what I wish all paper model designers would do, I built the same section over and over, dry-fitting, then gluing, until I found a sequence that resulted in a finished part that was straight and had no gaps or other tweaks that would show on the finished model.  Through the process, I was able to identify and correct problem areas, move a couple of glue tabs, and reshape a couple of bits.  

Early test of the unfinished Sensor Pod
One aspect of my original goal for this project was to design a sensor pod, as was seen on one of the original ships on-screen.  Unfortunately, I just didn't have the math skills at the time to design a finished pod that I was happy with, so I shelved it so I could move on with the rest of the model, but it's still something I intend to finish.

The finished model, including all of the different registries, is 33 pages, and includes parts for either a simple or a more detailed model.  The size of the model, and the scope of the project was a real challenge, and looking back at that time, when my wife and I were both dealing with job issues, losing our home to foreclosure, and a serious health crisis for my mother-in-law, I sometimes wonder why on earth I was wasting my time with such a large, time-consuming project, but then too, I realize that having this to focus on during all of that drama really helped me deal with the strain I was under back then.

Finished model and photo by Micky Muller
Response to the model after its initial release was impressive, flattering even.  A lot of the attention the runabout has gotten was due to an absolutely mind-blowing pair of builds, both by German modelers, the first from Micky Muller and another by a modeler who goes by the name "Loenf".  Thanks to their work, The project received a lot of notice from some very serious folks in both the modeling community.  It was also very flattering to have my work being talked about by from the people who had created the studio models for the Star Trek TV shows, and gave me an opportunity to get to know some of the artists, like Rob Bonchune, Doug Drexler, Rick Sternbach, and John Eaves whose work I had been a fan of for years.  
Finished model and photo by Loenf

I hope that you'll like it, too.  You can download it here:

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