Three approaches in designing a mecha

The three approaches to mecha design this blog uses is based on their role and function within fiction rather than in-fiction. The first archetype is the Protagonist, a mecha that functions or acts like any human character and is treated as such within the narrative.

The Protagonist mecha as a character serves an integral role within the narrative. Initially they may seem like simple machines, like the eponymous Mazinger Z, yet they exhibit clear-cut human characteristics in actions and behaviour. Mazinger Z sunbathing in the original series Mazinger Z-series is this exact human-like behaviour the mechas are written with.

Here, the symbolic action of shaking hands is not represent the pilots themselves per se, but the relationship and role of the mechas

These type of mecha can also be explicit characters unto themselves, as it is with the The Transformers and Brave-series. These mecha are only separated from their human co-characters is their nature as giant mechanical beings. In cases like Beast Wars, there is no distinction between characters as such, all of them simply are the characters, but share the main characteristics of being human equivalent in different form.

The Protagonist has a unique role within the story. Not necessarily the main protagonist in itself, often sharing that role with another human character or another mecha. The same categories of heroes and villains apply to these as much as they apply to human characters.

In visual design, Protagonists more often than not share a humanoid body with strikingly human face. Heroman, by all intentions, shared all the previously mentioned points; a human-shaped mecha with human face and sits in a prominent role within the fiction as one of the main characters next to the main human protagonist.

American made in Japan

However, there is extremely wide variety of Protagonist mechas which toy with the concepts and ways to realise the main role. GaoGaigar, for example, in itself has no characters outside as it is an extension of Guy Shishioh; it less piloted as it is a giant piece of armour for Guy.

It must be mentioned that most Protagonist mechas are found in media aimed at younger audiences with healthy amounts of toys, and tend to have connections to the Super Robot side of mecha. This is not to degrade from the fiction itself, only an observation.

Naturally, the opposite of human-like characters would be the lack of humanity, as it tends to be the with the second archetype, the Machines.

The utilitarian approach to mecha design has always been there, though it gained most of its popularity in the 1980’s. While Mobile Suit Gundam certainly paved the way for Real Robot as a sub-genre, shows like Armored Trooper Votoms and FLAG have taken the concept to its more natural direction due to lack of needing to sell toys as much.

FLAG‘s HAVWC, High Agility Versatile Weapon Carrier, is equipment.

Unlike with the Protagonists, a Machine has no nature to speak of. To make a blunt comparison, they are toasters. Their use is largely utilitarian. The form is made and designed for a purpose first and foremost, following the necessities over flavour.

The mechanical design is far more industrial as opposed to organic contours, than anything else among the Machines. Take Heroman above for an example. Most of its shapes are round to further accommodate its humanoid visual. While at a first glace HAVWC would fit this as well, its shapes are equivalent that of a car, lines made to increase aerodynamics. Heroman is not exactly an aerodynamic character, and its not supposed to. That is a tertiary concern at best. In order for it to be more aerodynamic in its forward position, it would require some sort of wind-breaking apparatus around its chest to lessen drag.

However, FLAG is an example of the more more adhered end, similar to Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, which has been described as equivalent of mechanical pornography due to its attention detailed opening.

The Machine comes in many varieties, all of which share multiple characteristics. Mass production is one, where the mecha can be or is mass produced. Scopedogs are a dime in a dozen in Votoms and are easily replaceable. Round Vernian Vifam is another example of a show, where mechas are tools, and the cast goes through numerous units during the course of the show.

Valkyries from Macross, despite often gaining a prominent role as a single unit or a customised main character vehicle, are all from a production line of similar units. While later entries in the series have made an effort to give most characters their own unique snowflake Valkyrie, in the end all of them are more or less faceless machines that showcase no human characteristics, outside the genre-defining four limbed humanoid shape.

Specialist roles are not exactly uncommon among Machines. Full Metal Panic!’s Arm Slaves, while mostly consisting of non-unique units, the units used by the protagonist Sousuke Sagara deviate from this mould in form of Lambda Driver, which allows the pilot to turn their willpower into physical force. This specialist position, be it due to extra equipment, prototype role or simply because the mecha is a protagonist’s unit, is a common trope. This position does not change them into Protagonists per se, unless human characteristics are applied. It is not uncommon for people, fictional or not, humanise their devices to a large degree and treat them accordingly.

Vehicles technically fulfill this spot,

However, it’s not uncommon to see the the aforementioned archetypes mixed either.

The Hybrid approach takes characteristics from both sides of the fence in a happy mid-ground. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this would be the Evangelion units of Neon Genesis Evangelion. While treated as equipment and something that can be mass-produced, each EVA-unit exhibits overt human-like characteristics from in-universe and in their role. EVA-01 is effectively one of the main characters while still serving the role of a toaster. Its design goes for utilitarian, but only in terms how the EVA-unit itself allows this in-fiction. The base design idea was, after all, a monster barely controlled by humanity.

A some sort of purple mom bot

Another method to give mecha character is by keeping the core mechanics itself intact in terms of its role though the use of Artificial Intelligence. Jehuty from Konami’s Zone of the Enders series of games is exactly this.

Jehuty in itself has no conscience or awareness within fiction, no character to speak of. Its actions and behaviour are determined by its pilot and support AI, A.D.A. In principle, A.D.A. could be embed into whatever Orbital Frame would support the addition.

These three approaches are more or less starting points, more or less. While at first it may seem arbitrary to make a category of three, one of which is effectively just combining the first two, they serve their role in setting the proper mindset for design work. That is, the nature of the mecha rather than the end-visual the designer ends up making. That is up to the designer’s own style and research into the subject materials.

For further reading on expanded subjects, such as combiners, basic design tips, controls and similar, please visit the Robot Related Materials section.

Mecha design; made for production

Because I’m currently in a moment where I have no access to my books and most of my materials for a TSF comparison, I just have to pull this one out for now.

I have discussed mass production of mecha in some of the previous entries in the mecha tag posts, but never really touched upon the idea in itself and how it usually reflects back to designs. Usually in mecha stories, especially those from Japan, the prototype unit is usually stronger than its mass-produced counterpart for numerous reasons, be it higher output or better weapons. This, of course, makes little sense in real world to some extent. Often mass production models, or MPs from now on, are optimised versions of the prototypes. The cost of production has been taken down with material and design choices, unnecessary elements are removed due to them being too complex, or too complex elements have been streamlined for maintenance and production.

How this is reflected in design? Let’s take a look at RX-78-2 Gundam and its MP counterpart, RGM-79 GM.

The similarities between the two are instantly visible, outside the stance. The legs largely the same, with GM losing openings under its knees. The skirt armour is largely simplified due to the removal of front compartment and whatever those yellow squares were. The torso is largely the same, carrying that iconic shape with yellow vents on both sides of the cockpit. Shoulders are the same as are the arms. However, only one Beam Sabre is visible and the head has seen the largest overhaul in terms of the silhouette. GM lacks the V-fin and eyes have been replaced with a singular visor. There is no mouth guard or vents on the sides of the head either, so I’d assume it shows that GM has lower temperature inside its head than the Gundam. A lot of those little assumptions could be made on the GM based on the idea of streamlining a prototype.

Outside those, the dull gray and use of red is another cost saving measure, as there’s no need for white and blue, two colours that are iconic in Gundam design. White isn’t technically a colour, so take that as you will. For another example, that has more detail, let’s take a look at MSZ-010 ZZ Gundam and its MP variant, MSZ-013 Mass Production Type ZZ Gundam.

In terms of Gundam design, the ZZ follows basic Gundam design; vents on both sides of the cockpit, a V-Fin and the three-colour scheme with the eponymous Gundam face. The MP variant here is a bit more clear how ZZ’s complexities were trimmed down. It lacks the Core Block System and all the transformation functions, so it drops all those extra wings from those. While technically being a Gundam, it lacks the V-Fin and now resembles head of a Nemo to an extent. The cockpit seems to be better armoured and has an extra cannon installed above it. The side skirt has something that looks like a  missile pack and the shoulders’ Beam Cannons are straight from the base ZZ itself. You can see your run of the mill sabres on the right side of the skirt armour. The thrusters’ sizes in the legs have been adjusted and the knee things have been adjusted in size.

These two examples show two ways that mecha seems to deal with its MP units. GM is very stripped down Gundam with worse weapons. MP ZZ, while still stripped down, is a formidable unit with comparatively as heavy weaponry as the base ZZ, just with more finesse in the design and weaker generator output. While Core Fighter gimmick is something that still persist in Gundam, and for a good reason, its removal does make sense in-universe when wanting to make cost cutting procedures.

Most MP units share the base core with each other. If you start looking for GM variants, you’ll find out that all of them use the same base GM and bolt shit on top of it or change some of the geometry to fit a new element to fit a niche need. There is about eleven or twelve base variants, that all have further variants and redesigns. Zaku II has three times that amount.

As it has become apparent, the MP models are more or less stripped down versions of the originals, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. ZZ is a nightmare to maintain due to its Core Top and Core Base forms, not to mention its G-Fortress formation, not to mention the wear and tear its far larger surfaces would cause to the unit. The MP variant probably costs significantly less than the base ZZ, especially considering Anaheim had to roll out Full Armour parts to maintain structural integrity, but the question is whether or not there is a need for this sort of Heavy Assault Mobile Suit in-universe.

Both are still thick in build and design, making them a bit of a large target. Then there’s the FA-010A FAZZ, but that’s another story altogether whenever I get to discuss mechanics of Gundam Sentinel.

This really plays back to the idea game in designing a mecha; the purpose and role. If you follow this overused trope and intend to use MP units as your main designs, thinking back at the background and the world overall would serve you well.

Mobile Police Patlabor is an interesting piece, where we never see the prototypes, just the mass-produced labors, mainly the Ingrams. However, the idea of further developed piece being more streamlined is turned upside down in the first Patlabor movie, where the AV-X0 Type X-0 prototype model is more streamlined than its predecessors with sleeker silhouette and smoother surfaces with less angles.

While we could say that the AV-98 on the left might be cheaper to produce, we can also assume that by the time Zero was rolling out, the technological evolution both in labor tech and its production is at the point that their benefits outweight the rising costs.

A wholesome mecha design takes into account the world setting as well. A reason why giant robots prevail over other options needs to be sensible. Another show where you can see technological advancements between prototypes and MP units, and gives rather interesting explanation why there are invisible mechas jumping around, is Full Metal Panic, but that’s another can-o-worms I’d like to open later down the line.

Of silhouettes and robots

First, as a side note, I’ve put up a separate page that lists all mecha and robot related posts I’ve made. You can access it from the list of pages above the changing header image.

Silhouettes are important and overly visited point in character design. To go directly to the point, a silhouette needs to be uniquely recognizable. This has gone to the point that we all recognize a ball with two smaller balls on top of it side by side as Mickey Mouse’s head, and that silhouette cannot be replicated and sold. This applies to giant robots as well, and if you’re into robots, the following ones should look familiar.

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It’s not hard to decipher the distinct look from the three above. Roundy, blocky and organicy. We recognize Mazinger Z because of its overall body shape, but it’s head and Breast Fire panels is what makes it stand out the most. For RX-72-2 we see the usual Gundam V-Fin, the shield and that rifle. Proportions, beam sabres and legs also give it away. A lot of Gundams share a very similar silhouette and people can make a mistake, but that’s one thing that makes them a Gundam. For EVA-01 the overall shape stands apart from the previous. Those shoulder pylons are a dead give away, as are the legs and the overall lanky pose. The horn is also another element that gives it away, even thou the overall head shape would be a better signifier, but this image hides it into the left shoulder pylon.

To hardcore robophilist, recognizing silhouettes across the genre is not too difficult. Some are head scratchers. To a person who is just glancing at these, RX-78-2 looks like a Transformer.

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There are thousands of giant robot designs out there, Transformers hitting several thousands. All franchises with numerous designs and have run for years, like Gundam, most likely are hitting well over thousand. I’m just throwing these as guesstimates, but it illustrates a problem; not all designs can be completely unique from each other, and often within a series there is a pre-existing elements that dictate certain elements of a design that makes it instantly recognizable. For Gundam, it would be the face or the V-fin, and exceptions do exist. This is also why TSFs look so similar to most people, as they see the silhouettes better than the detailing. A Gundam has colours to make it look different because of their toyetic aesthetics, but a TSF is very mundane in colours in comparison, and due to many factors a lot of them share a similar silhouette by design.

An idea and purpose can dictate the look of the design just fine, but that’s just one initial approach. A method I’ve seen car designers use is start with a scribbled blob of non-descriptive nothing and see what’s in there for them.

 

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Facing left, with a long horn swept towards back. Can you spot what looks like a Robot Bunny and an Orbital Frame to me? There’s also a skater, I think, and what I can only call a mechanical hummigbird

I’m not terribly good at this myself, but it does give some good ideas. A friend of mine showed me this some years back, and he can do some nice sketched renders. Do check his Twitter for neat stuff. Out from all those blobs, I lined out one that could be a neat starting point for a head design. This may seem stupidly easy and nonsense, but it does not negate the points of learning how mechanics works. This is a very useful method to test out shapes, and while I didn’t have no rhyme or reason to these, you can make sharper corners, more cubic or whatever tickles your fancy kind of shapes. Whatever suits your needs. Essentially, this is sidestepping the need to look for a shape, when you allow your subconscious to vomit out everything, and after that you just see what you have on paper. Of course, everything from this would need a large amount of detailing, but that’s later when you’ve locked down what way you want your piece to look in overall terms.

You can apply this to one part alone, or the whole damn thing you want to make. However, do keep in mind that this is just the very barest of starting points, as you’d still need to collect the shapes together into a cohesive whole and make them look right. That head design, if I were to create a whole linework just based on that, it would have swooped main curves with sharper angles to accent it. You can do as many shapes as you want, and often only a handful can give you some idea what you may want to go with. Much like everything else, you train this as you do it, and you can see I’m not the master of this approach due to preference of scribbling lines from whatever visual image I in my head. However, I do see this a more useful and easier way to approach of How do I get shapes?  I guess I’ll use Gundam as an example how to approach a design where there are set rules, thou you could just read the rules in TSF design posts for that.

Try this out if you’re in a block and can’t find the right shape. Sometimes what you need isn’t strict shape and form, but splattered scribble to give you a hand. Y’know, see the forest from the trees.