Only One Week Left to Register, Enroll Today!

All articles

Building a Piranha War Fighter

Hard surface modeler Andrew Grant walks through his approach to building his Piranha War Fighter plane for Jay Machado’s Hard Surface Modeling for Films course.


Hello everyone! My name is Andrew Grant and I’m a 3D modeler who focuses on hard surface and prop modeling. I had gotten my Bachelors in Game Development at the Academy of Art University as a purely online student so I could work full time while learning there. That also made the transition to the class at CG Master Academy was an easy one. I learned a lot about game art there and 3D Modeling and the passion that I have for it while at AAU.

While looking for permanent work, I had worked as a freelance 3D artist and also did some graphic design work. I’ve been a part of several professional projects that are still under NDA, so unfortunately I cannot share the majority of the work that I’ve done since graduation. After about a year of working freelance, I felt that I needed more in my portfolio and brush up on some new techniques along the way. I found CGMA was a great way to do both. And because of my newfound skills and portfolio, I was recently hired as the 3D modeler for J&F Alliance Group, where we focus on AR and VR content for the commercial and government space.

Choosing CGMA

The Hard Surface Modeling for Film class with Jay Machado was the first class I have taken at CGMA. My goal was to take what I had learned at AAU and take it to the next level. I really wanted to learn how to do some really detailed modeling and dive into some of the more detailed functions of Maya. My first and foremost goal was to push myself further than I have been in modeling. I wanted to make something more detailed than ever and I wanted to learn modeling a vehicle at a film detail rather than just a game optimized one. Also I had hoped that I would learn more about using UDIMs. Luckily that was taught! Plus, the fact that I got to learn from Jay, someone who worked on my favorite saga of all time, was just about the most exciting opportunity for me to do.

The Concept

We all had to choose a concept from an artist that met certain criteria, so I chose the Piranha Fighter by Mike Doscher. The mix of a futuristic design twist on a plane of the past really was interesting to me. When I usually start something like this it usually starts as either an orthogonal view laid out in image planes and begin blocking out with primitives. In this class, however, we learned to first take a perspective image in the perspective view panel, adjust the camera depth, and try to line up the grid the best we could to match the perspective of the image. Then we use NURB circles and CV curves to create a construction guide and loft them together and convert to polygons. Coming from a background of blocking to this method was really challenging because of attempting to match the perspective of the image.

The biggest trick is once you find that camera depth, lock it in place and use the perspective panel as your guide to be sure you are matching things up. Keeping an eye on this was crucial in this case, as the wings seemed to be fairly wide at first but then I came to realize halfway through that they were actually closer to the fuselage. This was one of those perspective tricks, and just using the ortho windows and rechecking the reference constantly was the only way for me to decide how it really was.

Here I have the closest match to the perspective I could find, and locked a new perspective camera so that I would have a reference point to see how my block out would match up to the concept.

Here I have the initial blockout finished. I did go a little overboard with week 2 modeling but it helped in the long run!

Geometry and Detailing

There were two methods of working in detail: Zbrush and kitbashing. Once I had the overall basic shape I took it in Zbrush to find the panel lines, which was fairly difficult in lining up since (at the time) Zbrush didn’t have a true camera focal length system. Once I’d matched it up the best I could, I began to sculpt in panel lines and small details. After it was finished, I took that and used the quad draw tool to create the individual panels in Maya.

Fully retopologized and engines modeled out before kit bashing details.

As far as the small details, we created a kitbash set as a class and used those pieces to fit together what would make sense for function and detail. This was something really opened my eyes to its value. While I was taught what kitbashing was and what it was for, I’d never really understood how it was used.

My assigned sets for the class kit bash set.

We were all assigned images of actual model kits and to make the pieces using standard modeling techniques (primitives, extrusion, edge supports, etc), create UVs, and combine everyone’s kitbash assignment so we all had a large library to pull from. From there, I literally placed and deformed them using the lattice and bend tools to create unique details that helped bring the fighter to life.

The cockpit was really fun to do, even if I wasn’t provided multiple views of the concept. So with that, I had to do my research to see how the cockpits of that era were. With that in mind, I began modeling out what I believe this fighter would look like. A lot of it was modeled with primitives and curve extrusions for the wiring. Then I used the kitbash kit we made for some extra detail.

The cockpit.

Challenges and Solutions

I think the common mistakes that I made were simple ones, like somehow accidentally double-exuding without pulling geometry to somehow developing a hole that was caused by unmarked vertices. They were things that really only show themselves when you do a smoothed preview. Thankfully I do that often, so those things are taken care of when they pop up rather than finding a bunch at the end of modeling. However, the one thing that really took me out for a spin was rigging the air brakes.

I hadn’t done a lot of rigging in the past, in fact, most of my work has been modeling and texture, which is then handed to a rigger or animator, so it was still something I needed to brush up on. This was mechanical rigging, which up to this point in the class I have never done. So over and over, I rigged this hydraulic piston and everything seemed to go wrong—the plate would flip around or the piston would twist. After some insight from Jay (don’t forget to use your resources for help!) I was able to finally figure it out. The original issue was caused because after rigging, I have just placed the piston into position with the NURB circle handles I made. I should have nested them one more time into a group and then positioned the group as a whole, and not the individual components inside translation and rotation values. After they were all in a group and I wasn’t depending on the NURB handles for positioning, everything worked perfectly.


The class itself was a fantastic experience and left a great impression on me as it was the first one I have taken at the school. Hard Surface Modeling for Film is definitely a class I can recommend to any 3D artist, especially if they want to increase their knowledge of hard surface modeling. The live feedback and the live Q&A were invaluable in my growth. On top of that, I got to network with my fellow classmates and follow them on ArtStation to keep up with their work.

Learning new things can be daunting but also very exciting. Beyond what I have mentioned above, I got a brief overview about Maya’s MASH system, my first time using the Arnold Renderer (I mostly use Iray), and even used Keyshot for the first time! I used those renders and my Arnold turntable animation in my portfolio up on Artstation.

I know I have said it before, but: don’t forget to use your resources! If you don’t know something or can’t figure it out, ask someone, or do your research. Your friends, coworkers, and especially instructors all want you to succeed, so if they can help they will. I’ll conclude with this last bit of truth: you will only get out of a course what you put in. In this class, there were about 10 hours of homework a week, but I easily put in 15 to 20 hours, about 3-5 hours a day. I loved every minute of it and will definitely be looking at taking more classes soon.