If you haven’t seen California Crisis, it’s worth watching at least once
It’s the middle of the summer in the Northern hemisphere and the streets indeed are hot to the point of the asphalt burning the feet and tar boiling in the cracks. This time of the year should be for relaxation for yours truly, but of course it isn’t. The past months have been hectic and stressful, to say the least, but at least I managed to keep my two posts per week rhythm, despite the quality being every which way occasionally.
Much like with previous months, there are no plans for the blog. I haven’t had the time to come up with anything. Plus, I’ll be busy creating a programme for a local convention about Iczer-1, which will take most of my attention away from other matters. I’ve only got few weeks to build it from the scratch, but at least I have my own posts from which to pull information from. I’ll be throwing other 1980’s pop-culture material in there as well, and as such it’ll be slightly more expanded view on the whole phenomena and the cultural situation during the era in Japan. However, due to this, this summer won’t see a massive thematic post like I’ve been putting up during the past few years, unless something extraordinary turns up that I can tap for information.
That is not to say I’ll be using this forced vacation I’ve been thrust into only doing something I should consider extra work of sorts. I picked up a pen digitizer Huion GT-220 v2 relatively recently, but haven’t had the time to sit down hours on end and draw with it. Plans are to spend notable hours per day with it and trying to find some way to produce images I’d be somewhat satisfied with, commentators be damned. With this I hope I’ll gain enough experience with it to give a proper view on the thingamajig and do a sort of review, but that’ll have to wait until the end of the month. You already saw some scribbles I threw together with the previous mecha design post, because I’ve ran out of paper to scan. Well, this should force me to concentrate on the digital side of things and further encourage me to step away from just pen and paper whenever possible.
Speaking of mecha designing, the rest of the year will probably become unique examples of transforming mecha. We’ve covered the core basics, and rather than trying force terrible doodle on everybody, I’ll be resorting on existing designs. This is just a thought for now and the end result will probably be something else. I still need to talk about Super Sentai robot designs and contrasted to e.g. Macross‘ Valkyries due to the core difference in the target market.
Summer is also a time when things tend to die out a little when it comes to news and such. It’s not the best time to release certain kind of game titles, though summer blockbusters are at their peak. The upcoming Spider-Man Homecoming is an example of this, though I have to admit I have reservations for the flick and will have to wager whether or not I’ll be seeing it in the theatres. If I do, I might as well go watch the latest Transformers while I’m at it. I’d rather see movies myself and make up my own opinion on any movie rather than rely on Internet reviews, because ultimately only I can say whether or not whatever fits my tastes. The same goes for you, which is why I quit doing game reviews as such and moved unto related stuff. At least with controllers and similar stuff I can review their ergonomics and function relatively objectively without getting stuck on whether or not I or someone else likes it.
Rather than forcing myself to remember the last subject I was supposed to cover in this post’s last four hundred words, I’ll just recommend you all to go out and enjoy the sunshine or rain. I’ll just go fix my summer bike and go take a stroll across the town, it’s such a good weather to break my knees open again.
And oh, remember to sharpen your kitchen and tool knives, and to oil them afterwards. A well sharpened and oiled knife will last more than a lifetime.
Unfolding, folding, opening, twisting, turning, exposing areas and revealing hidden parts is basically what mecha transformation is all about. There is no one way to do it, and the sheer amount of examples there exists eclipses the scope I’m willing to work for free. To tackle transformation schemes in general requires part problem solving and part puzzle making in a nice balance, where a irregular shapes can be turned into e.g. a humanoid and vice versa. By first introducing this sort of base idea of categorizing transforming mechas into will give some foresight how I’ll tackle the subject down the line.
Much like Three approaches in mecha design (which will be rewritten at some point this year,) I tend to employ a similar template for transforming mechas specifically. These three are not necessarily connected to the three initial approaches as some sort of rule, but they do work under them if you’d wish to make a transforming mecha. These might help you to lock down your approach better. This post can barely scratch the surface of it all with the given limit I’ve set to myself.
The three approaches in transforming mecha design are Fantastic, Toyetic and Realistic. As with previous, there are overlapping elements with each of the three and can be even split into sub-categories if necessary. Examples of Fantastic transforming robots are all the outright impossible ones in any form outside animation and movies. Getter Robo and Gurren Lagann are probably the best examples, where thing just fall into their place and morph into new shapes. Mass shifting is nothing short of expected and even mandatory.
Consider your hand. You control all those 27 bones through muscles and tendons. The nerves give you feedback and send your commands down the like, commands that you are not even conscious of. Twist your hand, and you see it twisting. The large muscles come through the skin, but all the fine motion is lost unless we specifically look for it. It can grab and hold things in a wide variety of positions and ways, some that we don’t even know before someone else teaches that. These hands can build and destroy in equal amounts, they are our the tools of our creations.
Transferring that to a giant robot is a bit of a hassle.
Much like with a lot of other direct transfer elements with human body and giant robots, adapting hands 1:1 is an easy concept for sure. The idea of similar multi-use manipulator is attractive from the get go, but depending on the setting, human-like hands might not be the best option. A human-like hand requires far more parts, development, maintenance and simple tech than a say a pincer or more simple manipulator. Of course, the main argument for having a hand for a giant robot is its versatility, especially when it comes to weapons. However, that’s something that could be easily done with hardpoints where weapon is being mounted. We should also question how versatile does the hand of a giant mecha be, especially for a war machine.
Broadly speaking, all human-like hands with mecha follow the same basic idea, there isn’t much deviation. It’s either smooth or cubic. Using this example from a VF-19 serves as a good showcase.
While it looks complex, it’s more about the layered elements that make it look complex. Inner functions are of course barely thought, they’re not important. The fact that it looks like it could work and has plausible design elements, like the knuckle guard and fingers’ segments layer on top of each other when bent, is more than enough. Studio Nue has always preferred rounder elements to their design (sometimes dubbed as Bubble hands), especially with their older works. In Gundam, Sunrise and Bandai have preferred using more cubic hands, although exceptions are aplenty.
The above generic Mobile Suit manipulator was designed for the models, but seeing how Bandai and Sunrise design their mechas models in mind nowadays, it’s a good example of a hand that’s more or less designed for wielding a gun and a beam sabre. It’s a bit more straightforward than VF-19’s, less well-rounded. The question of course is, if this hand is largely made for weapon carrying, why isn’t it designed as such?
The answer is, of course, because of Rule of Cool. When mechas are designed as characters, they’ve almost always given large amount of human characteristics in order to showcase dramatic events. Hands are no different in this. Beam sabre battles would be less dramatic and interesting if the manipulator would be specifically designed holder than a hand.
Controlling a hand like this has basically three options, direct 1:1 input, control macros or brain wave input. Variations and combinations do apply. While a “glove controller” would be idea, that’s pretty much what you do then with that arm. It’ dedicated for that arm, and the rest of the controls are either automatic or left other arm or legs. We discussed control macros previously, and this is most likely the best option overall, if brain wave scanning tech is not available in your setting.
Designing mecha’s hand really isn’t anything hard; just look at your own and mechanise it. Give it details for something to grab attention and some panels for easy access.
Giant robots don’t really have a need for similar level of sophistication when it comes to their hands, a simple grasping arm should be enough with some level of modification to suit the needed purpose. Hardpoints add a lot of versatility as well.
Of course, fiction doesn’t need to play by the rules of reality all that much, and if technology is advanced enough in a fiction to produce these things, why not? They could of course build better and simpler manipulators, but sometimes you do seek more complex solution for the sake of all the options it could give you. A gripping manipulator above doesn’t really offer many ways to grasp a thing.
Some franchises mix human-like hands with specifically designed manipulators, Muv-Luv popping to my mind foremost.
Another one would Mobile Suit Z Gundam‘s The O with its assisting manipulators underneath its skirt. These manipulators question why would The O even need human-like hands, when the three-prong manipulator does everything they do. The answer to this is, of course, because the human design does not use that sort of hand. In a way, mecha in general should always be contrasted to armoured knights of legends, but that’s another topic.
Hands are ultimately something that Japanese inspired mecha design does. For giant robots, America has always preferred more built-in options. MegaBot’s Mark II is a good example of this.
American vision usually attached the weaponry onto a pre-fixed arm that may have some freedom of motion to it, but is always more dependent on the movements of the main body. Compare this to Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s Kuratas and the difference in approach is notable.
The idea of having this built-in approach and lack of manipulators is just as valid. While it lessens on-the-fly options and puts some limitations, it eliminates loads of moving parts that would require maintenance. The most prominent film example of this sort of thing would be our good old friend, ED-209.
Unlike with mechas with arms and manipulators, you can see ED-209 guns are its arms with no manipulators, as it needs none. It’s a robust little connector that looks sturdy and serves only to take the beating from the cannon’s recoil and swivel enough to shoot whoever full of holes.
Keep an eye to hands you see in mecha films and shows. Take notice how they are portrayed and how they function. Rarely you will see them doing things outside the capabilities of human hands, and showcasing how they are actually controlled is even rarer. Sometimes they take advantage of what a machine hand can do, like how ∀ Gundam washes clothes by rotating its wrist 360-degrees in repetition.
Recently a question was thrown out there; why isn’t the giant robot genre more popular in the Western markets? The answer to this is both simple and complex, depending how deep you want to go, but also reflects the overall way of things when it comes to popular things in pretty much anything in any given era.
To use the giant robot genre as an example of this, almost every body of work is seen as science fiction. While science fiction itself has always been largely popular, the emphasize on giant robots, or mecha if you want to use just one word, has few stigmas to it that it simply can’t escape due to how world works. Using the Transformers as an example is a very straightforward one; despite it being a franchise that has rather sophisticated stories to it, ever since its inception it has been vehicle to advertise the toys and that dictated to what audience in what way those stories would be told. The genre has been vastly catered to children across in its modern form since the 1960’s, with each show in Japan getting slew of toys. This of course has always reflected back to the US with each of its localised show. Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot, Gigantor, and even Astroboy all were localised shows that were hits, but were children’s television. For adults (and for the whole family really) you had Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, shows that were more than just about robots beating each other or aliens, and Twilight Zone offering other sort of stories to boot.
There is a stereotype of Japan being a nation of technological marvels, and there was a time when it seemed to be absolutely true. The industrial growth Japan experienced after the World War II, and the economy bubble it experienced in the 1980’s, supported the admiration of technology. Cold War pushed technological advanced in both West and East, and man travelling to the stars had become an evident thing. There was a moment in history when science fiction flourished both in US and Japan, which lead the 1980’s to have more adult sort of stories concerning giant robots with the adults who had grown up with Ultraman and Mazinger Z. Similarly how we have people doing things like Pacific Rim with the people who grew up with Voltron, Robotech and Star Saber. Robotech were the first proper taste of 1980’s robot anime in the US, which would lead way to further ventured, and without it things like Gundam Wing would not have seen on US television. Europe was largely a different beast, Spain enjoying Mazinger Z, others enjoying the likes of Grendizer in form of Goldorak, and we Nordics were stuck with Balatak and Starzinger. UK always had its own thing going on and influencing its cultural scheme with Stingray, Thunderbirds and the like, which also were rather popular things in Japan. Hell, if you check UFO’s opening and compare it to how Evangelion’s opening was cut, you’ll see a lot of similarities.
UFO is pretty damn good show, you should watch it
With the 1990’s rolling in Transformers had died out and would see a sequel with Beast Wars in 1996, but it wouldn’t be similar cultural impactor despite it being rather good show and how the toys drove toy engineering and design forwards. The Brave series continued as its spiritual successor, but in the West we saw none of it at the time. Evangelion, despite how much people love to hate it, came around the right time to make one last impact on global cultural consciousness, and when giant robots were to become passé.
The question why giant robots are not popular in the West can be answered simply with Times change. The genre has not innovated itself as visibly as since Evangelion, and as such has served in the role of being the last of mecha shows. Sure, there has been slew of revivals, competitors and imitators, yet none of them have done anything new. Living robots, robots that transform, robots that combine, robots than combine with humans, humans that are robots, robots that aren’t robots at all and so, it all has been done and the storytelling regarding them has not advanced. The best examples of mecha as a genre have always been about the people, but they fall in the same category as any other niche genre within its mother genre by being very specific in their contents. Something like Muv-Luv might’ve been a huge success in the 1980’s or even in the early 1990’s, but in 2000’s and 2010’s its story doesn’t carry have any punch behind it. The same applies to a lot of other franchises, and while you see the occasional show that becomes very popular for a time and may leave catchphrases floating around, like Gurren Lagann did, they’re still in the same old mould.
The people who grow up with mecha, even in the 1990’s, have grown old and so has the genre. It doesn’t attract new blood from the young ones, because there are other, better things out there. Just like Pokémon and Pikachu have become a thing of the adults and has been replaced Yo-Kai Watch and Jibanyan in Japan, these newfangled things have taken mechas spot in the niche spotlight. This is reflected in the West as well, with Edge of Tomorrow enjoying better ratings than Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim itself showscases all the elements a hardcore fan of monster smash flicks wants to see, and almost everything a general audience thinks are petty and childish. Why Tranformers movies have seen the success they’ve had is both because of nostalgia and that they hit that certain cultural spark, and are largely unapologetic about what they are.
The few old franchises that still kick around in the West are for children only. Hasbro still pushes a lot of Transformers toys out, accompanied by cartoons and comics, while Japan has mostly chosen to cater the ever older otaku audience with Schwarzesmarken, Macross sequels, Valvrave and the like. It doesn’t help that outside Africa, Middle-East and certain parts of Asia birthrates have been dropping, significantly so in Japan, which means less quality children’s robot shows outside the few that have been running for an eternity and will most likely run at least to the end of this decade.
It doesn’t help that the current cultural climate also takes technology at its face value. We lived in a time when every single technological leap made a difference in our lives, but nowadays it seems even the greatest findings, like the recent news about over 1200 newly discovered planets that could sustain life, goes to largely deaf ears. Space travel is mundane. Even the miracle machine in your pocket is mundane, everyday item. No, not your vibrator, your smart phone. There is no more marvel in a giant walking robot when Iron Man’s latest suit in Civil War makes them look absolutely archaic? How can Macross hope to impress with its designs when it still uses the same basic shapes and concepts since its inception? Of course Macross was never about the robots first and foremost, yet that’s the first things you’re always shown, the first things that pop to you.
Children wish to stand apart from their parents, each generation does. Admiring technology, and by extension, the fiction using technology to a miraculous degrees, is a thing of older generations. When you have a thing that people have tired of and regard it something worn out, you begin to cater something new, something colourful (or in case of Apple, something black and white) and something that would replace the old. However, as things cycle, we may arrive in an era where things like space travel is of interest again, and we may relive a sorts of new renaissance of giant robots in fiction, but I doubt it’ll happen in my life time.
As a sidenote, if you’re a âge fan, you should head to kiminozo.life and check out Evan’s Kimi ga Nozomu Eien Drama Theatre Vol.3 translation. It’s a good piece.
I’ll be aiming to do a mecha design post once per month. These are nothing major in their nature, as mecha design is really just really industrial design applied for fictional machines. I’ll be tagging all posts as mecha-design, and I’ll go back and tag the old ones as well.
This time I’d like to introduce ten factors that may affect your mecha design, or at least something you should consider about while doodling. Most of these posts will mostly touch on bipedal mechs, but non-humanoid designs should also consider the points in this post.
1; Silhouette size and lowering
Mechas tend to be rather sizable objects. In most cases they are few stories high and making their visible silhouette as small as possible is something you need consider about. Kneeling down often lowers height and silhouette size. Sometimes a transformation is done to lower the mech down and drop its frontal silhouette as much as possible. Lowering your mecha is also important when utilizing large weaponry.
Minimizing the profile of your mecha is not too similar to tank warfare. Certain tanks can depress their cannons ten degrees, and these ten degrees allow them to climb a hill a little bit for further protection, minimizing their visible silhouette from enemy tanks other side of the hill. Having a weapon that can be shot around head height may be a good idea when it comes to shooting from cover. These can range from Guncannon’s shoulder cannons to TSF’s Type-87 Assault Cannon sitting on a pylon.
Speaking of size of your mecha, remember to put up some
Giant robots are a good platform for all sorts of sensor clusters all around. Often these are not incorporated into the visuals of the mecha itself. For example, a 360-degree view requires multiple cameras and sensors to give that visual, for e.g. Gundam often have nothing else but their main camera, “eyes” and second camera in the back of their heads. It’s not too uncommon see a large camera cluster in a mech’s head, but rarely there’s anything that would resemble a sensor anywhere else. However, they are required to be there, and perhaps using certain kind of protective design for them can yield you relatively unique look. Of course, you can go more archaic and have a cockpit that doesn’t have a 360-degrees view. In case of cockpits with a glass dome, like in fighter jets, you may be able to go away with visible cameras altogether.
Having sensors also mean you need instruments in the cockpit to showcase them, from normal camera view to specialized views like IR. Mechas need a mix of instruments to show level of the horizon, energy levels and pressure levels and so on. Warfare units also require ammo count and damage charts visible alongside with numerous tactical views.
Speaking of cockpits, you need to think of
3; Cockpit placement
Where the cockpit is in your mecha changes its nature. Most popular places are in the middle of the chest and in the head. Chest area offers most protection as it is the centre of the mass while head gives smaller pin-point target and supposedly better view. Whatever the placement is, the cockpit needs to accommodate its pilot/s. Often you see cockpits that have a rather straight seat that reminds a fighter jet cockpit to an extent. Fighter cockpits are a good comparison point with mecha in general terms, but seeing how a mecha needs to be quick on its motions, the cockpit needs to have some sort of extra suspension to cushion the shocks. Be it sliding seat that dampens the trashing or suspend the whole cockpit somehow. Evangelion uses LCL to damped shocks and to protect the pilot, as well as give pure oxygen to the pilot. Life support system is important element a well, especially in space, and an emergency ejection system would be a nice thing to have, preferably with a powered armour of some sorts.
Speaking of shocks,
4; Joint reliance
Most mecha have basic metallic joints. Bandai has essentially engineered their designs to the point of replicating their functions in plastic. This is not all that impressing once you start reading on industrial designs and realise that you can design very intricate joints when you don’t need to actually give two shits about reality. Turn A Gundam has beautiful joints that are both well protected and function incredibly well.
However, in-universe you still need to give a reason why your mecha’s joints are not buckling and crackling under all the weight and strain. Having them sturdy material is one thing, something Gundam does almost every time. Another is to have biological component to it and design your mecha to be at least partially organic. Iczer-Robo is mostly an organic mecha, and thus its joints more or less look like pieces of armour. Underneath there is muscle and some sort of super strong skeletal structure underneath. EVA-units do this as well. You can also use artificial muscles that are made of complex composite materials, plastics and rubber to simulate functions of biological components while giving them better shock absorption. One example of this sort of artificial muscle structure can be found in TSFs.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that it all needs to have
5; Stable distribution
While the joints are there to keep your units standing and moving, one thing you need to consider in your design is how stable the design is. Mass is a bitch, and whatever design you have, it requires careful thinking how your mech will be able to stand up. Multiple legs are always an option, and e.g. Ligers from Zoids are very stable because of their four limbs and ability to shift their pose very widely. Bipedal mechs don’t really have this luxury, and this is why you need to consider how much mass can you pack, e.g. into backpacks of your units. If the centre of gravity is too far from the centre of you mecha, it needs to compensate it somehow, either leaning to an opposite direction, to have supports on the extended piece touch ground or opposite weights.
The sensor clusters come into play here as well, as those combined with automatic balancing system should keep the mecha straight without the pilot adjusting it manually. While many say that driving manual car is like piloting a mecha, driving an automatic is far closer analogue because a mecha requires large amounts of automated systems in order to have maximum efficiency. Our walking and running is mostly automated by subconscious, and automated systems streamline the operation to a similar level.
This applies in space scenarios as well, as a motion requires equal or higher countering motion to stop it. In Gundam you have AMBAC, or Active Mass Balance-Control. This system allows the Mobile Suits to shift their limbs and other points of mass to act out as intended. Similarly, your mecha may need some
Most mechas designed have some sort of propulsion system outside their limbs. Some have a secondary mode for wheeled drive, whereas others have thrusters to throw them around. Whereas AMBAC basically allows mecha to act in a zero-G, it can’t move unless something is pushing it forwards.
Attaching a variety of thrusters should allow your designed mecha to do some nice acrobatics. Larger thrusters allow jumps and flight, whereas smaller thrusters can be used to direct the unit better. For example, a small thruster on the front side of the left shoulder would push back at that point. With the help of other thrusters, it can do a faster turn or complete spin than what it would be able to do with just its basic joints. This effect is doubled in air and especially in space, where three-dimensional fighting requires additional abilities. Secondly, a propulsion system also allows your mecha to get on its feed faster and safer. Attitude control on any design is important, however it is realised.
Positioning of your thrusters is important. To push the centre of the mass carefully requires thrusters in the main body of your mecha. Gundam W’s Leos are good examples of mechas with thrusters in their groins, as this is one of the best places to have a thruster to soften a landing.
Going overboard with the thrusters may be a bad idea, as your design still needs to get some
Be it GN-Particles, G-Stone or any other form of bullshittium, no mecha will move without proper explanation how it gets its power. As a mechanical design at giant robot scale, limbs are very inefficient when it comes to power consumption. Whatever power source you have for them, it requires to be strong in order to move them at a reasonable rate. This can be a crux in your design overall, like it sometimes is in Gundam. Minovsky Particles allow large production of power that can be used in many ways and has some side effects. GN-Particles effectively are magic pixie dust that can be used to power things up as well as create anti-gravity.
You also need to consider why these things are used just for your mecha. Are they hard to produce, do they require certain size that hasn’t been miniaturised, is it an alien tech that normal people don’t have their hands on or is it just power of the soul? Whatever it is, consider how well such energy source could be used in more conventional vehicles, or rather, how would a conventional vehicle act with such a source and where it would be located. Don’t forget about the lubrication and other fuel for thrusters and such, if needed.
All this of course needs to have
Outside superweapons, mechas are large targets. Having a mixed amount of protective systems in your design is a good idea. These range from such simple things as wielding a shield to anti-personal weaponry to active anti-missile targeting systems. There are designs that are naked in this sense, but often they have sturdy armour to compensate, are fast enough to dodge things or have some sort of beam shields surrounding them. Depending on the role of the mecha you’ve designed, you might want to give their design some level of visible protection, even if it ends up being active layer that blows outwards.
These elements can be also made into weaponry or assist in other ways. TSFs’ Type-92 Multipurpose Supplemental Armour, i.e. shields, have a top part that can turn 90-degrees and contains hexagonal reactive armour plating, which can be punched into a BETA’s face and explode it. Sometimes shield have serrated edges to cut things, or house missiles or beam sabres. Spaced armour can be another option.
Whatever protection you have, you also need to consider
This isn’t a huge concern in fiction, unless you are aiming to some level of realism. Having the most complex design may not be the best of idea, as the more complex something becomes, the harder it is to maintain.
Consider old cars. They are rather straight in their approach how they can be fixed, there’s not much high technology in their engines or other systems. They are rather simple things to drive. Modern cars on the other hand have a large amount of tech thrown into them that a normal street walking mook can’t even lift the engine cover off anymore.
The same applies to mecha. The more complex systems, the more time and effort it will take to maintain it. Shape may not necessarily make the maintenance harder, but production of spare parts and the like may be affected. Thus, considering in-universe how certain elements are used and developed may be necessary. Armour panel lining may also showcase maintenance access hatches and the like, which you may have in your design. It’s been a fashion for some time just to fill the surface with all sorts of lines and have them lit up, even thou there’s absolutely no goddamn reason to have them.
Maintenance of course is easier if the mecha has a well-defined
Have a clear role in mind for the mecha. To use a real world example, the F-35 Lightning II was to be a multi-purpose fighter, but it really sucks in every field. It can’t turn well enough, it can’t climb, it can’t run away, it’s special shape and coating doesn’t make it all that stealthy, it’s heavy as hell, its thrust-to-weight ratio is lower because of this and the 20 tons of thrust puts an extreme stress on the engine components. Its fundamental design flaws keeps it being better than last generation of fighters. I love the TSF design, but the real fighter is slightly too fat for my taste.
The same applies to mecha design. Having too many elements to cover on one design will make it a clusterfuck and an eyesore. A transformation elements may give it an edge, but only if the transformation is smooth and well thought out, and we’re not going to touch transforming mecha designs anytime soon, because people have hang me from my balls when they hear me saying how Macross has essentially milked the exact same transformation scheme for thirty years now with slight changes here and there.
Fast mechas tend to have aerodynamic shape, supporting mechas have big guns and defensive ones are fat in armour. It’s like basic rock-paper-scissors. Role should be your starting point with the basic idea what you want, because all design ultimately stems from a need, to find something that fulfils a needed niche.
This is something that needs to be emphasized; a good mecha is design starts from an idea of something. A character like robot, a hero, a villain, the sniper or the like. These starting points give you a direction you to go, and when you have its role clear, then you can start thinking of the details.
This is the first part in mecha design series of this blog. See the rest of the entries, specialised and not, here.
When we consider what ultimately goes into designing a damn giant robot, we really have three spots to start from; Character, Utilitarian and Hybrid.
First, we have the classical Character type, which is unique in and out of the series its designed for and is most likely used only by the main character. This includes examples like Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, Galient, Voltes V, Godmars, Zeorymer, Iczer Robo, GaoGaiGar and the like. All of these have their unique position in the story and are treated as character as well. Transformers and the Brave series, where the robots are alive. Well, most robots in the Brave series. Most of the times these Characters are portrayed as Heroes as well, which could be described as a subcategory of the approach, where the intention is to make a Heroic Character mecha design. The aforementioned GaoGaiGar is a good example of a character machine, that’s depicted mainly as a Hero. Zeorymer on the other hand is a questionable hero, but is certainly a character in itself. Almost all of monster-of-the-week shows include Character mechs in the opposing side, and Mazinger Z alone is filled to the brim with more or less completely unique enemy characters. Then again, we have some blatant Mazinger clones in their ranks, but why wouldn’t you want to copy your nemesis’ designs? Worked for Dr. Wily, right?
Then we have the second type of approach, which I call the Utilitarian or the Weapon type. Shows like Gundam are basically a good example of this, as most of these type of mechs are mass produced to an extent. They still have that main mecha that is most prevailant in the series, but overall the main mech isn’t all that special. To further use Gundam as an example, it is laster accompanied by the GMs, which in principle are mass produced Gundams. The Gundam monicer is also shared across the board in the series by many different units, and even in-universe they can have Gundam against another Gundam, further degrading the unique status the unit may have. Other examples next to Gundam are Valkyries from Macross, Scopedogs, Aura Machines, Govarian, Dragonar units, those tanks in Godzilla films and so on. These kind of mechs do not exclude the Character approache’s image from their use, but overall they can and will get a beating and in most cases they can be trashed completely like in Vifam. They’re disposable and can be re-used for other things, and unlike the Character approach, these do not really showcase super powers as such. Exceptions exists, like some of the units in Full Metal Panic.
Here you might ask whether or not there are mechas that have no character and are all about the use, and the answer is a strong yes. Macross’ Valkyries are a good example of units that are not characters of any sort. They do not act, they do not show emotions on themselves nor are they treated as characters. They don’t bask in the sun with other Valkyries, like Mazinger Z did with Texas Mac. They’re faceless machines that serve only to be the weapons of the show. It works as long as the design is applied properly.
The third approach, which was and is perhaps the most popular currently, is the mixed approach. All in all, this approach has seemingly become more a staple than anything else in genre, which makes a distinction between series and how they work a bit messy. This is what some people call Hybrids of Super and Real (terms I tend to avoid when it comes to designing the mechs.) Hybrid is a decent term here, but another term I’d like to throw here is Deviants, after some of the giants in Attack on Titan. This is because while a mech might seem like Characters with Utilitarian thing in there, it showcases abilities from both parts and does something on its own. Evangelion units are pretty good example of this, especially EVA-01, where it’s basically the Hero type in definition, but showcases large amounts of being used as a yet another unit in the bunch.
These are somewhat arbitary terms thrown out there, and in reality within the series the mechs usually keep jumping across the board, but these are just to allow the designer an approach when coming up a design for his giant robot on making.
Then what when you’ve decided how to approach your design? Do you just start throwing lines on the paper of the visage you have? To be honest, this works sometimes, and this is often the way I blow out some steam. However, it’s purely luck if your design will be of any value this way. The best way to do anything is research. For example, let’s say you’ve decided on making a mech based on Greek gods. Character approach works the best here, as you can go all wild how the mech looks and how it works. Naturally, this would also set the mech in the Super side of the argument. The natural step would be to read on the gods and the mythology they’re involved with in order to understand what is expected from the design. There are some gods that work as a great mould for mech designs. A boring example would be Zeus and his thunder, but it just works. By checking the overall Antique design and architecture you most likely would be able to find multiple things to use in designing your Thunderous Zeustron. While designing your giant robot, you might want to start thinking of its weapons. Mazinger Z was designed fights in mind first, thus a lot of things actually serve only to compensate the needs of the fights, like the Rocket Punch. Flying fists are awesome weapons. Nevertheless, depending how you have decided to make your mech look like, you might end up something like the Zeus Gundam from G Gundam. Not terribly inspired design, but it works where needed. G Gundam was a silly show anyway.
The design process doesn’t really change with the other approaches. With utilitarian you need to make more work to get it just right, and if you’re aiming for more realistic depiction there’s a need to further indulge yourself in sciences and physics as well as research outside these, like cars and tanks as they give very good idea what works in real life and what doesn’t. Naturally, giant robots are rather unrealistic thing as it is, but that’s where suspension of disbelief steps in. As such, to successfully design things kind of mech takes both time and effort. To use a Character mech example here of research, most of GaoGaiGar’s science is theoretically sound, because the staff did their research properly. This is further showcased in Betterman, where the science might go all batshit insane, but it all just applies a bit too well in-universe, both from biological and mechanical point of view. It’s creepy because of this. Or you can always go the Gundam 00 route and use an existing template to work on and slap pixie dust magic to make your mech work.
Research is the key on both cases anyway, unless you have intentions of pulling something out of your ass and call it original. Generally speaking, a lot of people out there seem to think that it’s interesting to design your own Gundam and call it day. Unless you’re working to Bandai and your work is to design a new Gundam, it’s somewhat redundant thing to do unless you’re able to do something really extraordinarily good, which happens once in blue moon. Most fan-designs are garbage for a reason, and most often the reason is lack of research or just generic dumbfuckery. Creating an original design takes research and more research what works and what doesn’t. Simply observing and watching mecha anime doesn’t guarantee you that you’d be able to design the next big thing; on the contrary, you’d be involved in a downwards spiral where you only copy and paste existing trends without remorse.
As you can see, industrialised plagiarism exists in this way as well, where designs are basically ripped from existing sources and just tweaked to avoid lawsuits. For every original design there’s at least two or three copies of Gundam and Mazinger. It doesn’t serve any purpose to use someone else’s work, unless you’re trying to assimilate their style and learn how to do things.
Recently I got myself a laptop, a Lenovo X61. It has a Wacom drawing screen, and the machine fit just barely into my monthly budget. Because of this I have tried to get more into this whole digital drawing business people are buzzing about, but I have very little experience with digital drawing, thus I ended up having a a scan of Lemon People cover to practice on. How to do the lines, how to colour, how to work with colours and so on. It was more or less mechanical practising over anything else and it served its purpose very well. The picture I ended up with looks decent for a free-hand trace and I like how it came to be, but that’s just the start. Now I need to step away from that start making my own images with what I’ve learned thus far and further improve myself. Hopefully I’ll be able to draw with this laptop as well as I with normal pen and paper.
In the near future I’ll be going through some Tactical Surface Fighters to further illustrate some of the interesting design choices made in the franchise.
Within thirty days we’ve lost three major contributors of modern fiction from all over the world. First, McQuarrie, then Mobius, and now Ishiguro.
Ishiguro was the co-founder of Studio Nue, which is best known for the Macross series. Before this Ishiguro had worked on the first coloured Tetsuwan Atom series and Uchuu Senkan Yamato. The man always had his own way of directing, and it oozes through every show he has done. There’s this style that can be retraced, but never replaced.
It just happens that I was watching Megazone 23 just now, a movie he as well directed. It’s a bitter thing really, even thou everything about it is so sweet.
Rest in peace Ishiguro, let the young ones arm themselves and and create new classics in your spirit.