Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Design and production of the Effigy of Nabu Incarnate

Note - there are spoilers within so do not read if you intend to play in the campaign.

I was really quite thrilled when Paul Maclean contacted me practically out of the blue and asked me if I would consider being a sketch artist for the’s (YSDC) next recorded Call of Cthulhu campaign playthrough, the Curse of Nineveh by Cubicle 7.
He’d seen my recent interpretation of the Strathmorn map from the 80’s ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ Britain sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu and thought I’d be just the ticket. I gleefully agreed, having been a fan of the YSDC recordings for years and was absolutely delighted to be involved in even just a small way.
Now, I’m a digital 3D artist by trade and my 2D skills are really quite rusty and I was looking for an opportunity in the project to put my 3d skills to use. I’d recently discovered P3D - a website that allows you to upload 3D models and then link to an online viewer - and to my delight discovered that the Nineveh campaign itself revolved around several artefacts. I suggested to Paul that I might sculpt these artefacts digitally so that the players could examine them virtually on their tablets or phones.

The campaign has four objects that the PCs need to collect and a primary object that they start with. The primary artefact is the figurine of Nabu Incarnate and is described thus:

The statuette given to Neve Selcibuc by Archie Glossop, which in turn is given to the investigators at the start of this scenario, is known as “Nabu Incarnate.” It is approximately 20cm (8”) high and made from pure gold. The statuette is of a bearded king who appears to be transforming out of a second, plainer humanoid figure. The effect is to suggest some form of divine conversion or god-like birth. There are no marks or inscriptions save for a small sigil carved on the base, which looks like a rune of some kind: it is in no human language and requires a successful Cthulhu Mythos roll to decipher that it means “Yul’huthris”, a being with a link to the coterminous blasphemy that is Yog-Sothoth.

Designing the Beast

I thought that maybe I could sculpt this in high detail in ZBrush, and from that, extrapolate the assets I needed to display it in real time in the P3D browser. Paul was quite keen on this idea also and so I set about Googling images of Assyrian sculpture and pictures specifically of Nabu himself and then started sketching the figure.

Initially I thought that both figures could be offset equally in a sort of Y shape, but it made more sense that Nabu (or Yul’Huthris) himself, should be upright, unharmed and un-phased by his emergence into the world. The other, ‘plainer’ figure should appear to be in great distress, so I sketched a new version that was more in line with that.

The Initial Sculpt 


I liked this idea and set about sculpting it in ZBrush. I originally wanted the victim character to be utterly featureless. The implication was that not only could it be any person, male or female, young or old but that it was also now devoid of every facet that made it an individual, having been utterly subsumed by Nabu.

Once sculpted though, I wasn’t happy with it. I was pleased with Nabu as he had been taken directly from genuine sculptings. The other figure, however didn’t look Assyrian, really. In fact it looked like Nabu had possessed the children’s animated character, Morph and looked unintentionally comical. So I decided that it needed to look more Assyrian but significantly plainer and less impressive looking than Nabu. I noticed that on some bass reliefs, common foot soldiers were often depicted beardless and with fairly plain garments and braided hair. That seemed to be an ideal fit.

The Assyrian sculptures that I’ve seen all depict people with blank, expressionless faces but I really wanted the ‘victim’ character to look distressed so I hollowed out his eyes and raised his eyebrows to give him a look of despair.  The robes may very well be uncharacteristic of the period too but I wanted a simple, featureless base to the model that would stand easily.

The Rune of Yul'Huthris 

The figure also has a rune on it's base that is clearly from no known human language. My original design felt a bit Japanese 


So I went back and drew some new designs and the one that stuck out was one that was based on the shape of the figure. So I went with that.

Adventures in virtual viewing


Once the figure was sculpted I used it to create a low resolution real-time mesh and also sample bitmaps for creating the textures with.

I put them in P3D but was disappointed with the results. The basic shader fell far short of the quality I wanted and whilst the advanced shader that comes with the paid subscription to P3D was better it still wasn’t quite good enough for what I wanted. This combined with the fact that I didn’t want to ask Paul to subscribe long term to something he had little interest in just so my work would look nice.
So I looked into other options. One was to use the Unity game engine and an embedded web-browser designed to work specifically with it. This would allow Paul to take ownership of the files and host them directly at - Sadly, the Unity browser model viewer has recently ceased to be supported by the big browsers so it no longer works.

Bereft of realistic options, I suggested a simple video turnaround. Not as fun or as unique as my original suggestion but it’d have to do.


Adventures in 3D Printing

Whilst I was lamenting all this to Paul, he suggested 3D printing the figure. He felt it would, itself be quite a unique thing to do.

I was initially reluctant. First of all an 8” tall figure would likely be very expensive and also, I was not terribly impressed with the quality of many 3D printed objects I’d seen. I feel that 3D printing is still in it’s infancy and is still too low res to really produce anything worthwhile without a lot of cleaning up work. Paul remained quite interested, though so I said I’d look into it.

I began by cutting the figure in half down the centre and then hollowing it out. I had never 3D printed anything before but I understand the process. It builds up the object in fine slivers and struggles with overhanging elements that are unsupported. Support columns are often added by the printer to aid in this but I felt it would benefit me to help the printer as much as possible. So I reasoned that it would be better to cut the figure in half and lay the halves flat on the printing surface. This would also help me hollow the figures out. Hollowing them uses less material and is therefore cheaper. I removed a large portion of the inside of the figure, making sure to leave a fairly thick wall that would not collapse during printing. This wall often needs to be a couple of mm thick. I think I made mine at least 5-6mm.

ZBrush has built in tools for exporting objects in a 3D printing file format so it was a simple matter to extract the files.

I uploaded them to Shapeways, the online 3D printing service who have their own browser-based software that allows you to resize, re-orient and check the pieces for printability in all the various materials that Shapeways offers.
I only wanted a basic printed shape that I could work on top of so I opted for the cheapest material, hard, white plastic. To my delight, the piece passed the printability test with flying colours and the price whilst not cheap wasn’t quite as terrible as I had feared. I contacted Paul with the quote and he said to go right ahead.

So, the next day I hopped over to my Shapeways account and ordered the pieces. This was when I got a bit of a shock. Once I started the ordering process, the price went up considerably. Confused, I backtracked slightly and discovered that printing is more expensive if you live outside the USA. Not shipping, printing. No idea why. I stopped and went back to Paul, who despite a sharp intake of breath agreed to proceed anyway. To try and help, I volunteered to cover the cost of finishing materials if he covered the printing costs.

A week or so later the pieces arrived and they looked fabulous but, as I feared, there was a noticeable ‘wood grain’ effect in the upper, shallower surfaces of the model due to the printing process. This is, I hasten to add, no fault of Shapeways who’s service was superb, it is merely a shortcoming of the process at present. Still, it was much cleaner than all the home prints I’d ever seen to date.

Fill, sand, fill, sand, fill, sand, fill, sand.


Next came the finishing process.
I decided that what I’d do is sand down the ‘wood grain’, fill the figure with something heavy and then spray it gold.

First I sprayed the two pieces with standard grey primer to highlight the ‘wood grain’ effect so that I could see it more easily.
Then I began sanding with 40 and 60 grit sandpaper on the larger areas. In retrospect, this was way too coarse and I should have used something more like 120.
That said, the sanding took more elbow grease than I thought and the grain proved to be more stubborn to get rid of than I hoped. Also to my dismay, in the meantime I’d managed to inadvertently damage and remove some of the fine detail.
I persisted, however, a little more carefully. I used some needle files to work into the nooks and crannies around the face. I used layers of high-build automotive filler/primer and just kept working and working at it and the grain finally wore away.
I also managed to recover some of the fine details with a scribe and in the end, the two halves cleaned up reasonably well.

Making it heavy

Next came the issue of weighting the thing.
I initially dismissed the idea of filling it with lead (the ideal filler) as I assumed it would be too expensive. I toyed with the idea of mixing something like sand with filler but it never really felt like it would give the statue a decent heft.
I idly googled lead fishing weights and discovered that it’s really not that expensive after all so I ordered 1.5kg of them (not knowing how much in volume I really needed) I guessed that that would be enough and if it was less volume than I needed then 1.5 kg would easily be enough weight. Either way it was a win.

The weights arrived and they were quite a size.

I managed to fit most of three in to the figure and gave it a weight of around 800 grams. Not as heavy as I would have liked but still gave it a respectable heft.
Two of the weights fitted into the base but I needed to chop one of them up to fit into the upper part. That was a challenge. I started off using a hacksaw but it was very slow going. I tried drilling holes in a line to make the task easier and killed two drill bits, I’m guessing because it got too hot! In the end I found a hammer and chisel was adequate to crudely chop the weight in to pieces and I was able to make small enough chunks to fit inside the figure.

I used Araldite to fix the weights in place. I didn’t want them rattling around once the figure was assembled.
Once that was hardened, I put the pieces together and glued it again with Araldite, applying more to the inside of the opposite half of the figure so that it dripped on to the weights inside and secured it from both sides.
I clamped the figure together and let it dry and harden overnight to be certain it was solidly fixed.

ALAS! I got the alignment slightly wrong. Only by half a millimetre or so but it was enough to create a slight lip down one side that would need fixing.

The Araldite did a pretty good job of filling the join so not much filler was required to close the seam. That said, it is quite a rubbery substance and so needed scraping back in places and sanding down. Then it was a case of breaking out the P38 car body filler and applying to cracks in the join and also to skim over the slight lip down the side of the figure and under the base.
Once dry, I sanded it nice and flat and then primed it.
Once the primer was dry I was able to identify dinks and spots that still needed filler. I applied the filler and primed it again. Now it looked pretty smooth and neat with little evidence of the join.
I gave it one last rub down with some 1200 grit wet and dry to make it nice and smooth. In retrospect, this was probably too fine. 400 would have been adequate.

Gold! Solid gold!

Nabu was now ready for his gold paint.

The next challenge was finding a decent gold paint. There are a lot of options here but it’s difficult to be certain of the final outcome until you have paid for the paint and sprayed something. I’ve had little joy with metallic paints in the past. My Klingon Bat’leth was sprayed with a metallic spray (the name and manufacturer I’ve forgotten now, sorry) that looked like real metal when it was finished but took about 6 months to harden by which time the blade had all sorts of scuffs on it. Just wrapping it in cloth for transport would blemish the surface!
I looked at pots of paint I could spray with my airbrush and tried Airfix gold which looks more like copper-coloured plastic. Tamiya Gold Leaf was a good colour but slightly green tinted and as with the airfix had a white specular highlight giving it a plasticky feel.
I looked at automotive spray cans in Halfords but the golds all looked like gloss browns.
When I made the Save the Queen Sword I sprayed the crossguard black primer and dry-brushed it using Citadel Imperial Gold drybrush paints. The results were impressive but Paul wanted something more realistic and not obviously drybrushed so a spray it had to be.
Finally I came across the Rust-O-Leum range at Homebase. As with all other spray cans, the lid is no representation of the actual finish of the spray itself. The lid on the one I purchased was electroplated gold with a mirror finish. I knew before I even started that I wasn’t going to get a finish like that. Really they should spray the caps with the paint in the tin. That way you’d know what you’re getting, but on the label they had a photo of objects that had most likely been sprayed with the actual paint and it looked pretty good. I took a chance on it and I have to say that it turned out pretty well. It’s not going to fool anyone but short of electroplating the piece, it was as good as it was going to get.

The gold spray unfortunately highlighted some small areas that weren’t as smooth or as finished as I’d have liked and there was unfortunately still a soft and subtle - but noticeable nonetheless - ridge down one side. I could have gone back and sanded these areas some more but time was running out and I decided that it was good enough.


Presentation is everything!

With Nabu done it was time to send him. A few days before finishing the figure I'd visited an Indiana Jones themed archaeology display at the museum here in Cardiff and it occured to me that it might be nice to send Nabu up to Paul in a straw-filled wooden crate.
I set about building the crate using some cheap baton and some panel pins. My carpentry skills are substantially less than adequate but I though that that might add to the overall authenticity of the piece. That's my excuse anyway. I bought some rabbit straw at the local pet shop and filled it up. I then needed a cloth to wrap him in. The local charity shop came up trumps with a rather lovely pashmina scarf that I proceeded to mercilessly shred. The final touch was a British Museum label that I made in Photoshop and printed on to tea-weathered paper. I considered weathering the whole box but felt I was getting a bit carried away. The whole thing looked pretty spectacular when assembled, though.


Final Thoughts

So, all in all, this has been a fun and fascinating learning experience and I am quite pleased and proud of the end results. That said, I would be reluctant to 3D print anything else for the time being. I think once the resolution has improved to the point that very high detail and virtually smooth surfaces can be printed I will probably go nuts, but for now I'd probably tackle something like this in future with more traditional methods and materials.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah I'd look to make this from polymer clay if I were to do it. Excellent work! Quite an arduous project!