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Mechanical Concept Design: Suspension of Disbelief


My name is David Moretto and I am a digital artist for 2D and VFX and I am self-employed with my company “Jollycat the art department” since 2001 in Sankt Augustin near Cologne, Germany. With this background, I did a lot of jobs on different projects including compositing and 3D animations, concept art, and designs. Shortly after graduating in 1994, I created the first pixel graphics for computer games, including advertising games for the Swiss Bank.

At my first permanent employment, I started my career in a small postproduction and film house. There I created motion graphics, 3d animations, and concepts as well as supervised green screen scenes and 2D graphics. Later I switched to postproduction in Frankfurt and created VFX animations on a “Smoke” system from Discreet Logic. At the then still young “Animago Award” in 1998 my own 2-minute animated short film was awarded a prize. It was a completely funny 2d animation about a spot in the face.

Since the beginning of my freelance work in 2001 as a motion designer, I have developed steadily. In the meantime, I’ve trained employees for the then company Discreet on the high-end system “Smoke”. Even when I was a little boy, I dreamed of a job in the film or games industry. The film industry in Germany was still in its infancy at that time, but I never moved to Hollywood.

Introduction to Hardware Design

Why is it important to use perspective when designing your vehicle concepts?

Each drawing consists of different shapes, such as triangles, squares, and circles. All objects in our environment have a three-dimensional shape. In order to be able to draw these graphically, one must be able to draw these correctly. Only when you have this knowledge can you approach more complex three-dimensional drawings. And most importantly, only through a correct perspective are drawings readable. After all, our brain or eye should be faked out based on a drawing from a real object – only to find that the vehicle or flying object does not exist!

What was your expectation for this course? How did it surprise or challenge you?

At age 45, it’s a bit harder to get into the feature film or game industry. Hoping to gain new opportunities, I decided to perfect my existing drawing talent at the Computer Graphics Master Academy. Especially in the film or games area, designs for vehicles are used again and again. I just wanted to do something new, but getting into the movie would be very hard on all the young talents. So a few years ago, I decided to perfect my talent in drawing and possibly get an introduction to the cinema or games industry. So I enrolled and perfected my concept art skills in Drawing & Rendering Techniques for Hardware Design. Before this, I already participated in the courses Environment Concept DesignAnalytical Figure DrawingCostume Concept DesignCreature Design for Film and Games, and at the moment in Keyframe for Production Illustration.

Among other things, Michal Kus has asked us to design a Mech. He works often for the game industry and he likes drawing armoured vehicles, most notably Mechs – I think everyone has heard of these things. But have you ever tried drawing one? It sounds easy at first, but it’s very hard to draw if you’ve never done it before. A Mech is not real, no real references, but there’s a lot of concept art on the internet.  Actually, such a device does not work– at least, one that should run on 2 mechanical legs and stand correctly. It is based only on our idea of what is right and what is wrong. I think that anatomical knowledge and a good imagination also help here.

Using Effective Reference

Tell us about your design. How did your references help you create a design language?

Through the 8 week course, I slowly developed the idea of creating something fantastic. However, my piece of hardware would not be a full armoured space ship. No, it would be something really crazy.

During the first two weeks I studied animals, airplanes, and how their shapes could be integrated into my own piece of hardware. I got stuck on turtles and spent some time gathering references – thanks to the internet that was the easy part. The hunchback is special on turtles and I included this idea in my first drawing.

One scribble shows an airplane/spaceship combination, the second one a ground-based vehicle. But in both ones, I included some turtle elements. After spending some time gathering the reference and scribbling around, I slowly found my own line and design language. Also, feedback and exchanges with the other students formed new ideas. During the second week, I focused on what assets would be made, my basic shapes, and I also was inspired by my classmate’s projects.

Introduction to Mech Design

How did exploring animals/ animal poses influence your designs?

Michal wants us to draw variations of a mech walker with strong poses. As I mentioned before, it is not easy to create something as unreal as a Mech. In my opinion, the silhouette of a mech came closest to that of a chicken. Michals mechs, which he created for games, are mostly combat robots with very wicked weapons systems, inspired by WWII tanks.  My research, therefore, looked at chickens for the silhouette as a reference and Russian military driver from World War II as a form language. The crude mechanics, the thick screws and rivets in combination with a chicken … crazy! My first attempts would hardly exist in the real world, as the focus was completely disregarded. References with spiders came a little closer.

In any case, I realized how important it is that the objects conceived really work. So shape, design, and function must always be consistent. Above all, it must be clear that shapes should repeat themselves in design. As Michal pointed out, for example, when square and round screws are used as rivets for bolting, it speaks against a cohesive design. Tanks are constructed for effectiveness, not to look good, but they still have their own design details.

Form vs. Function

What form did you choose for this week?

I knew what I wanted to do as final work in this course. I wanted to create something that could exist in a fictional world. Inspired by Jurassic Park, I designed a transporter to capture dinosaurs, a sort of giant mousetrap– dinotrap. I wondered how a hunt for really big animals could happen. And since my actual transport vehicle is rather slow, and serves the transport, this vehicle had to get support from smaller vehicles. So I got the idea for SUV, which serve the hunting with different constructions. These smaller SUVs should be small, agile, and yet robust. So a kind of armor or protective construction around the vehicle had to be created, without however restricting the mobility.

How did you express function in your design?

I created vehicles that could be used in the fictional movie “Primal World”. And since it is concept art, various functional ideas were integrated. I created these as if under real workplace conditions– like for presentations or deadlines of a feature film. The vehicle of my dinosaur trap once had an oversized cage with a transport crane. The crane could also be unloaded.
The second design was more of a traditional transport cage for high altitude creatures. My main idea was a trap that was secured with a laser electric fence that could adapt to the size of the captured animal.

Were there any designs you rejected? What was the reason?

I always try to design something that is not armed with weapons or just a model for the war machines. Whenever one thinks of spaceships or flying objects for concept art, they are mostly armed objects that come out. It is a challenge to design something for salvation or transportation and so I do not like my armed machines so much.

How did the limitations of one setting challenge your design process?

By default, limitations allow you to focus on the essential. Without limitations, I would probably have tried to implement many ideas at the same time and would not have achieved my goal. Michal has put us on the right track. Now it’s up to me to take the idea further and you can already start to recognize my own style and design.  The Dinosaur Transport Helicopter (I called the vehicle “Götterdämmerung”) was mainly inspired by the feature movie Iron Sky. I wondered “what if the Germans had the knowledge to construct helicopters and go searching for dinosaurs in the Amazon jungle. A really confusing story I know.

I developed this piece of hardware design during Michal Kus course through CGMA. For gathering reference, I took a trip to the local airbase and took some photos of helicopters and machine parts. I got my first impression of how the mechanics worked. I tried to take photos from multiple angles focusing on the mechanics. For the transport boxes, I was inspired by wildlife documentaries and how people were catching really big animals like elephants. I also remembered the big enclosures in the movie Jurassic Park.

Introduction to Rendering

Tell us about your rendering process. What tips did Michal provide and how did you incorporate them?

One of my friends has a big collection of combat airplanes from the second world war. That was exactly what I searched for. Combining the design of airplanes with a helicopter that had never existed. After spending some time gathering the references, I started to make a style guide.

One technique I like to use to create really fast scribbles. One of my favorite concept artists, Bobby Rebolz (creature design for film and games) told me, that the best inspiration is to let the ideas flow. So I started scribbling some ideas, spending not much time on each. I think it was about 5 minutes on each idea. So I did up to 30 sketches. Then, after I filled out the sheet, I took a look and selected the best ones. That doesn’t mean the best drawn but rather the best ideas that flowed.

I returned to some of the first ideas and developed them with more details and spending some more time on them. After some sketches, I draw line art of my idea. The line art is the best step before continuing to develop the idea because no color or shadow distracts my eyes. And in this step, I can easily correct perspective and details.

My setup is a helicopter in the deep jungle, so the color palette will be green. But also my flying object reflects the green world and thus was also given in this color scheme. I started to color the helicopter and of course, took advantage of the layers of Photoshop to try other colors.

However, I realized very quickly that it makes sense first to create the environment since that is where light and shadow influence the main object of my design. So I collected references of jungle pictures for my environment and studied light and shadow on the clearings in forests. As my object is made of metal it not only reflects the floor and its surroundings but also reveals color changes. Thus, the brownish soil at the bottoms of the wings is mixed with the green of the metal. The sky does not appear completely blue in the glasses of the cockpit, but there are interesting color mixtures. Finally, a few rays of sunlight came through, which shines through the tall trees on the clearing.

After this design, I tried in the last 2 weeks to use my experiences feedback to create another machine. Again, I wanted a draft without weapons. I thought, Ok, let’s combine a race car with a robot. As always, I tried to imagine a little story in which my design might occur. I imagine that in the future the race cars will race against each other on two legs.

To get the first idea, I looked at different prostheses from runners. These come very close to my idea for a racing mech. I let my ideas run wild― page by page, scribbles were drawn and discarded again. To get the perspective right I created a very rough 3D model. With that, I was able to work better and also rotate my drawing 180 degrees. I use cinema 4D for my 3D modeling and animations because I grew up with this software.

Final Thoughts

Is there a design you have done that you are most happy with?

I most like my transport helicopter to the dinosaur. I think that it’s something I could see in a movie.

How did you apply feedback from Michal to your designs?

I think there is no specific week, Michal helps me to move forward. Every week I saw progress in my drawings, largely due to Michal’s clear messages and great feedbacks. As a result, my drawings could be adapted directly in the homework assignment for the following week, or sometimes I had to completely rebuild them.

Would you recommend this course?

My experience with classes at CGMA has been fantastic. Maybe I have a talent for drawing and concept art, but it’s hard to finish some own ideas without a goal by myself in my own rooms. The CGMA courses give me an incentive to finish my ideas. And on the other hand: to get one-on-one feedback from industry professionals every week is absolutely priceless. For every single course, I have learned new techniques and was inspired by the professionals. Also with the age of 45, I never stop learning and discover something new. Over the years I have developed much further and I hope I can join the world of a feature film in the near future and get my first gig.


You can see more from David in the links below:
Digital Painting Kurse und

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