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MECHANIKA: Creating the Art of Science Fiction with Doug Chiang

By John Lester - © 2010

Type: Softbound, 144 pp, ISBN: 1600610234, by Doug Chiang
MSRP: $15.63 USD (~$15.69 CAN/€ 11.20 EUR) in hardcover available from Amazon
Overall Rating: 10 - a treasure trove of inspiration and tips

Doug Chiang is an Academy-Award-winning artist who has worked for ILM and Lucas LTD, and on such film properties as Star Wars, War of the Worlds, Terminator and Back to the Future. Mechanika is how-to book on science fiction design, filled with tutorials and tips on creating robots, spaceships, ground vehicles, creatures and more.

What You Get

After a Foreword (by Robert Zemeckis) and an author's note, the book starts with a series of quick overviews of the basics for the sci-fi illustrator:

[Cover art]

Sample pages. All artwork © Doug Chiang

[Please click to enlarge]

^ Concept walker tank.

Image: Monopod, in progress

[Please click to enlarge]

^ Flyer concept (finished)

  • Design Tool Kit,
  • Markers And Paper,
  • Sketching Basics,
  • Foundation Lines,
  • Digital Painting And
  • The “Keys To Good Designs”.
This is followed by 25 or so step-by-step tutorials, showing the designs of
  • Robots and Machines,
  • Walking Machines And Transports,
  • Creatures And Aliens,
  • Spaceships and Aircraft ,and
  • Drama and Scenes

An Afterword and Index complete the book.

The reader sees the design progress from quick sketch to finished art in each tutorial. Each illustration is accompanied with text describing what's happening at that stage in clear, easy-to-follow prose. Tips and hints (in sidebars) are scattered throughout the lessons.

What's In It For Me?

So - it's a book on drawing pretty pictures, filled with pretty pictures. What's in it for the sci-fi modeler?

Quite a lot, actually. Inspiration, for starters, found in page after page of nifty designs. I must have spent hours poring through the robot and walker designs, figuring out how he articulated the legs and other appendages. The spacecraft designs make me want to pick up my scriber and some sheet plastic and start cutting out shapes. I'm not one of those people who can just pick up a couple model parts and re-arrange them into something cool (my kitbashes tend to look a mess). But give me a visual reference to start from ....

More valuable, though, is the thought process behind the designs and the way he works through each stage - at least for me. The steps he goes through to finish the drawings, making them come alive, can translate pretty straightforwardly to painting and weathering a model. (The 'Steambot' tutorial on pages 50-53 illustrates this nicely).

The six “Keys To Good Designs” he articulates early on are just as valid for a 3D model as they are for 2D artwork:

  • The design should have a strong overall shape (silhouette)
  • A viewer should be able to understand the design (what it is, what it does, etc) in 3 seconds or less
  • The design should have a readily apparent personality
  • A viewer should be able to determine what it's supposed to do and how it works (in general)
  • It should look believable - as if, under the right circumstances, it could believably do the functions you intend
  • The “cool” factor

The last section of the book goes into some detail on creating dramatic scenes in digital paintings. I found it helpful for laying out dioramas and vignettes, and for ways to finish the elements within a scene (vehicles, people, groundwork, etc) to make them look livelier.


I'm pretty happy that I picked this book up. It's filled with lots of cool eye candy ... excuse me, “inspiration'. I've picked up some new ideas and tricks to try on my models. It's certainly worth the $15.00 or so I paid for it.

Highly recommended.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the reviewer.
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This page copyright © 2010 Starship Modeler™. First posted on 14 October 2010.