Thursday, 23 February 2017

The build-up to building buildings

I've talked a lot about my WH40K Imperial hive city project on here – and I've shown a handful of the robots, servitors, denizens, vehicles and scatter terrain that I'm going to use to populate the thing – but there's always been one vital ingredient missing. The city itself.

And that's because I've not actually started constructing it. The buildings have not been built.

So the other day I cleared some space and started putting some tin cans, foamboard, MDF and plastic parts together to see what would happen.

And what happened was, I ended up spending a lot of time working out which bits went with which, and a lot less time actually building any models.

So I'm afraid I still don't have any buildings ready to share.

But it became apparent during these preliminary fumblings that I was subconsciously drawing a lot of ideas from a single source. A source that was so brilliant, yet so rarely mentioned, that I felt I should probably dedicate a blog post to it.

It was a series of articles published in White Dwarf issues 260 to 263, back in late 2001, written by Paul Rudge.

He gave us a multi-part guide to making foreboding, semi-industrial scenery for the 54mm game Inquisitor. And, although the scale was different to the regular 28-32mm of WH40K, most of the techniques he discussed transferred very comfortably.

I suspect many long-term hobbyists will remember the articles fondly, and just might like to take another look at them.

So, entirely without any kind of permission whatsoever, I thought the best possible thing I could do would be to present the collected article here, scanned and collated directly from the original pages of White Dwarf.*

We had to wait for issue 264 and the Paraelix Configuration campaign scenario to witness the awesome power of the fully operational battlefield

My planned pieces probably won't look anything like Paul Rudge's incredible scenery from over a decade ago, but a great many of the finished elements will owe almost all their existence to it. With a little luck I'll have something in a fit state to expose itself to the world within the next couple of weeks.

*Games Workshop, I did it out of love. Please don't sue me.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Paint your wagon

Last year, while watching all the robot cowboys slug it out on HBO's excellent Westworld reboot, I was inspired to dig out the old wagon you can see below. I still had it in its ziplock bag, completely untouched, after buying it from an independent trader at a Salute exhibition about 15 years ago.

Although it's got a wild frontier look to it, I figured I could get away with it for my Warhammer fantasy terrain if I loaded it up enough to look like a heavy goods cart. In fact, even better, if I made it look like it had been abandoned, it might just slot neatly into my walled town Chaos terrain project. It would add a bit of interest to an otherwise empty street – just another item that was given up when the settlement was overrun by crazed bad guys. It's kind of the Old World equivalent of those rusty cars I knocked out a few weeks ago.

I've mentioned my Chaos fantasy terrain a few times on this blog before (and even mentioned mentioning it), but I still haven't put up any photos. It's becoming a bit of a running theme: constant reference to something that I never adequately describe. It's like an accidental version of the orphaned joke trope, sometimes seen in movies, books and TV shows, where a viewer or reader repeatedly hears either the set-up or punchline to a gag, but never gets the complete story. Tyrion's honeycomb and jackass joke from Game of Thrones is a popular example of this, where his inability to finish the joke is played for humour in its own right.

There's a tiny little coincidence here too, as Westworld itself featured a take on the orphaned setup trope when Lee Sizemore, the head of the park's Narrative Department, wrote what he thought was his best speech, only for its delivery to be repeatedly cut short by a bullet.

Aaaanyway... when I've quite finished comparing myself to two of the best programmes on television, I'll see if I can deign to get back to what I'm supposed to be talking about.

And I promise I'll try not to mention any more TV shows.

While painting the cart I thought I'd have a crack at painting a couple of bolt throwers too. They had the same kind of textures – old wood, rope and rusty iron – so I figured I'd benefit from a bit of batch painting. It's the hobbyist's equivalent of economies of scale.

The ballista on the left was an old Games Workshop model, part of their Orc and Goblin range back in the late 80s, while the one on the right was my attempt to convert an even older model to look a bit like the first one.

These days they'll just lend themselves to whatever fantasy army or terrain is in need of them most. Bolt throwers for hire. Like the siege engine version of mercenaries. Soldiers of fortune. So if you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The B-Throwers!

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Giant Robo Alphabot, part seven

Due to my love of gritty, military design styles with a sci-fi twist, my robot alphabet has lots of thematic overlaps with 28mm model ranges. Many of the walkers and 'bots I've featured look like they'd be right at home in the middle of a miniatures-based wargame.

But only a few have actually come from that arena. These next two armour-plated entries are each lifted from bona fide tabletop battle games.

The first is a walking Nazi Panzer tank from Paulo Parente's alternate World War II game, Dust; and the second is one of the stunning Leviathan mechs from Mark Mondragon's Iron-Core game, released by his company Dreamforge Games.

These dangerous looking robots are therefore each available as model kits in a roughly 28mm-32mm scale*. And in fact both of these kits are currently sitting dejected among my other unfinished projects, waiting forlornly for their chance to appear on this blog as finished models or conversions.

Looking at these brutal vehicles makes me want to abandon all my other projects and immediately go to work on them. But surely in that way madness lies? Or if not madness, then at least a desk that's so cluttered my already meagre output would probably cease altogether.

So many projects, so little time.

*The Leviathan Crusader is also available in a 15mm scale, which still makes it nearly 5" tall.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Brushing up on a rusty technique

In a totally unprecedented turn of events, I've finished a project that I only started in my previous post. Instead of getting halfway through and then losing interest and going off and starting something completely different (like I normally do), I've managed to stick with it and produce three finished pieces.

What with this being my first post of the new year, perhaps I've been inspired to find a new, more productive way of working?

The pieces are all meant to be scatter terrain for my slowly expanding WH40K city project. The bigger plan is to produce a variety of models that you could add together to create a realistic section of an Imperial hive city in the 41st millennium. From the civilian inhabitants, their motley vehicles and the once-grand architecture to the abandoned lost-zones with scratch-built shelters, unsanctioned street vendors and labyrinthine, crumbling ruins.

In short I wanted to create a city that has clearly seen better days, and whose very appearance reflects the slow collapse of the over-stretched empire that built it.

In many of my recent projects I've been experimenting with painting rust, and I wanted to try my hand at painting something that was completely worn out. Not just showing wear and tear around the edges, but utterly ravaged.

At least partially because I'm lazy and I thought it would be quick.

As it turns out it probably is quicker if you know what you are doing, but I spent several evenings trying to work out how to give the rust more depth than just a simple, flat, reddy-brown colour. Each vehicle was lightly dry-brushed all over with a silvery, metallic Citadel colour, then liberally coated with inconsistently mixed light brown and dark brown artist's oil paints. The blotchy intensity was added by washing the recesses with either a bright orange oil paint or a heavily-thinned turquoise.

I left this a couple of days to dry, then switched back to my Citadel paints to add traces of the cars' previous paint jobs – little patches of primer, clinging to the larger flat areas, stubbornly refusing the advance of the rust.

The little patches of paint were applied using stippling and small sponges to create the mottled look. When dry, I blended some of the edges back in with thinned versions of the original oil paints.

Not only does this technique nicely represent the decay and dilapidation found during daily life in the 41st millennium, but I think it could also be appropriated to create fairly unique-looking vehicles for a Death Guard army.

I've got a couple of old, unfinished Death Guard models in my collection, so I wouldn't be surprised if you saw something along these lines in a future post. I've got plenty of projects on the go right now, but I can already feel my easily diverted nature resurfacing. So I guess that new way of working I mentioned has already become old and out-of-date. Roll on 2017.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Rust buckets

Today's post is a quick, pre-Christmas update on the rusty vehicles project I mentioned in my silicone moulding article a couple of months ago.

You may remember the goal of the project was to create some scatter terrain, reminiscent of the abandoned cars found at the beginning of the video game Destiny. Have a look at these stark and moody screenshots if you don't know what I'm talking about. Or even if you do.

The wall in the background is also rich in dilapidated detail. Worth noting for any city projects

At the end of the previous article I had just given up trying to cast new vehicles, and instead found some cheap toy cars in a pound shop.

At least three of these were not just cheap, but quite nasty too

The first thing to do was to take them apart and remove any details I didn't want – like the wheels, the emergency lights, the crane and the decals.

Once finished I put all the chassis back together again and filled any major gaps with green stuff.

Then I cut some rough cardboard bases (out of the sides of cereal boxes – proper old skool style), which I reinforced by adding concentrically smaller layers in the middle, like a tiny model hill. This added a bit of much-needed strength but kept them as thin as possible at the very edges.

Then I simply glued car to base and set about detailing the leftover space – mostly with offcuts of whatever old junk I had within arm's reach.

Now I just need to get them painted – hopefully while I'm off work over the next couple of weeks. Speaking of which, have a very merry Christmas, and maybe I'll see you back here in the new year.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The King is dead. Long live the King

I've wanted to write this post for some time. One of my favourite writers passed away a few years ago, and if I'd had this blog back then I probably would have written something straight away. Instead, as it turns out, I've had to wait until now, when I've finally had a chance to read his last book.

Iain Banks died in June 2013, but left a legacy of some 27 novels for the rest of us to enjoy forever. As with any great and prolific writer, it could be argued that this legacy gives him a certain degree of immortality. Certainly in the eyes of his many fans. Those of us who loved his writing can console ourselves that it will always be there.

But could there be significantly more to it than that? We'll come back to this in a minute.

This being a science-fiction blog I'm going to be looking at the books he wrote under the name Iain M. Banks. The M. makes a world of difference. Probably a galaxy. Under this name he writes the stories which fall most squarely into the science-fiction category.

And among his sci-fi stories it's the tales set in the Culture universe that are undoubtedly the most enigmatic.

It was clear from the first book, Consider Phlebas, set against the backdrop of a devastating intergalactic war with an aggressive alien race, that there was something special about the Culture. With their utopian, post-scarcity, seemingly-anarchic society, spanning much of the Milky Way, with no need for money, little need for physical work, no disease and no crime, it's easy to see the attraction. But for me, and I'm probably not alone, an equally compelling aspect of life in the Culture is their governance by advanced Artificial Intelligences, known as Minds: Super smart computers with a knack for comedy, and a benign compulsion to ensure freedom and equality for all. Indeed, coupled with the population's liberal inclination, it's the leadership of the Minds which make most of the Culture's achievements possible.

In The Hydrogen Sonata, the last book Banks wrote before he died, elements of the Culture are focussed on an alien race preparing to move into a higher realm of existence – a kind of heavenly state – when they discover their entire transcendence may be based on a lie. It's a somewhat poignant tale, given the timing.

But now that I've finished it I'm feeling a sadness I wasn't expecting. Does this last book mean Banks' relevance has come to an end?

Banks was not just a fantastic writer, but clearly showed an affinity with social science too. The Culture novels aren't just loved for their technology, their plots and their understated wit, but for the potency and robustness of the very fabric supporting their future society.

Maybe Banks' real legacy was not the books, but the possible roadmap they've laid out for our future. It may sound ridiculous, but there's good reason to pursue this line of thought.

Back in 1994 Banks wrote a paper entitled A Few Notes on the Culture in which, among other things, he laid out the problems that his fictional sci-fi super-race would likely have had to face and overcome in their ascendance from something like us to their near-utopian existence. And although he felt the human race, our human race, was too immature and self centred to ever complete a journey like that, he as good as signposted much of the route.

From describing the necessity, when dealing with the vast distances of space, of some level of self-governing anarchy over centralised rule, and the need to be less wasteful than a free market economy relying on blind whim and the superfluity of excess product to stabilise itself, he goes on to talk about the really big one: The development of those benign Artificial Super Intelligences.

It could be the single largest obstacle in the whole process. The Minds are the cornerstone of the Culture's incredible society, and without them, that society wouldn't have amounted to much. With these artificial, yet so-very-active intelligences able to accomplish feats unthinkable to the collective sum of human consciousness, they would clearly be able to achieve things we could only dream of. Or, perhaps more accurately, things we can't even dream of.

As throwaway as that sounds it's actually part of an important concern that is becoming prevalent in the world we live in today. After all, the human race appears to be hurtling towards a point where real, high-level Artificial Super Intelligence could become a reality. No longer the stuff of science-fiction, low level AI's are already part of everyday science. And science is making rapid in-roads on the development of their high level cousins.

Tim Urban, writer of the blog Wait But Why, has written a shocking and eye-opening piece on the subject of real-life AI development. He has collated thoughts from several hundred of today's top Artificial Intelligence experts, condensing them down into easy to grasp segments and groups of opinion, while also aggregating timescales and dates, to create a probable timeline of the key stages leading to the birth of human equivalent artificial intelligence and beyond. 

The results are a little scary.

And not just the timelines. There are significant risks that come with the development of non-human intelligence. What if the new machines decide organic life is a threat to artificial life? As a theme it sounds like pure science-fiction, but according to Urban and his experts this is something we need to take extremely seriously. A single Super AI programmed the wrong way could be an existential disaster for the whole of mankind.

Banks describes Culture AIs as being "designed to want to live, to want to experience, to desire to understand, and to find existence and their own thought-processes in some way rewarding, even enjoyable." But desires like these will most likely need to be programmed into machines during their earliest design stages.

It's no wonder that people like Elon Musk, technology entrepreneur, sometimes referred to as the real-life Tony Stark (Iron Man), and a top level investor in Vicarious, a company trying to build computers with neural networks similar to the human brain, feel strongly about this. Musk recently called for serious regulatory oversight on AI development at an international level.

With Musk I find it particularly telling that two of his early SpaceX rockets were named after Minds from the first Culture novel. He, or someone high up in his company, has clearly been reading Banks, and it's likely they're a fan. Does this point to the fact that at least one player in the game of AI development is using Banks' benign Minds as part of his preferred end-goal?

Does it mean that real-life is taking its cue from science fiction? Could it be similar to the way William Gibson predicted the rise of the internet in his novel Neuromancer, only for his ideas to influence the way we went on to use it?

Tim Urban's article is unashamedly long form and may take a good while to read, but I can assure you it will be a good while. It's fascinating information that everyone should be made aware of. If Urban and his experts are even half right, our world is likely to change dramatically, in a paradigm shift greater than anything ever experienced before. And it's likely to happen surprisingly soon.

I won't say when that is likely to be, but suffice to say if I start jogging and maybe change some of my naughtier dietary habits, I might be alive to see it.

But why would the invention of Artificial Intelligence be so shocking? Clearly it's more than just an artificial version of something we're all born with. I said Artificial Intelligences would be able to accomplish things we can't even dream of, and Urban's article expands on that, going into just enough detail to make it fascinating without becoming impenetrable. It also takes into account all sorts of captivating, related theories, including human immortality, nanotechnology, the Fermi paradox and human extinction.

I won't say any more for fear of ruining Urban's article. Or worse, making a terrible hash of it.

For anyone remotely interested in human achievement, things like taming fire, inventing the wheel, or landing on the moon, then you really need to read Urban's article, The AI Revolution. I don't think I'm overcooking the significance of the affect this is likely to have within our lifetimes.

For fans of The Culture, who haven't yet read Banks' real world thoughts on the subject, I urge you to read A Few Notes on the Culture . At its very worst its a chance to reacquaint yourself with Banks' gentle, yet politically charged humour.

But when you take Urban's article together with the one from Banks it starts to form an interesting picture of life imitating art, and the challenges our world is likely to face. We get a behind-the-curtain glimpse of the role science fiction plays in determining our future. And if people like Elon Musk can keep things on track, it starts to become clear how Iain M. Banks may well live on forever.

Friday, 25 November 2016

An interview with Jake from Ex Profundis

Today we are talking to Jake, aka Bruticus, from the modelling website, Ex Profundis, which hosts collections of miniatures, art and fiction from the darker sides of the Warhammer universes.

Hi Jake, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Let's dive right in. Do you remember your very first miniature? Do you still have it?

Heroquest and Space Crusade were my introduction to Games Workshop (GW) and the first things I painted were either the Heroquest figures or a friend’s RTB01 Space Marines, back in the early 90s. After that I bought a little of everything, starting with some of the fantastic Kev Adams Night Goblins and Jes Goodwin High Elves – I remember the Silver Helms in particular really got me hooked. After a few happy years of buying all the miniatures, I sold off my collection. And then inevitably about five years ago I proceeded to buy it all back at grossly inflated prices when some friends put together a Necromunda game out of the blue. I tend not to do things by half measures, and so things have since escalated.

Clearly you are hugely inspired by the modelling and painting side of the hobby, and you mentioned Necromunda, but do you play other games too?
I have played Inq28/Inquisimunda a lot in the last few years but nothing much recently. I’m nostalgic for the classic rulesets – the 40K 2nd Edition/Necromunda style, but also Epic and the various Specialist Games – that I used to play as a kid, but I’m also pretty much exhausted by giant rulebooks. I have been working on a few armies for Age of Sigmar that I hope to get some games with soon, plus I have several Epic armies and I’m certainly going to need at least one Blood Bowl team.

What Age of Sigmar armies have caught your attention? And how will you imbue them with the Ex Profundis style?
Pretty much every army has my attention now, with the exception of Fyreslayers. I like Fyreslayers more than traditional dwarves, but it’s like the Emperor’s new clothes: they are still just little hairy dudes, except now they are naked. I think being able to put a new spin on each faction is really cool, and GW has done a good job themselves – with their background for factions like the Flesh Eater Courts really demonstrating how moving from the Old World setting has allowed imagination to run riot. My primary interest is in creating a different take on factions that have potential, but where I have not liked the studio version – usually because it is too brightly coloured and too clean. My Stormcast were my first attempt at providing a darker alternative – Chaos and Aelves are next.

Stormcasts of the Immortal Tribunal and their distinctive porcelain enamelled armour

Is it true the other model makers and artists involved with Ex Profundis are not all friends from back home and that you’ve never physically met some of them?
The site is a joint venture between me and Rob (Meade). We noticed each other’s work on the Dakkadakka forum and decided we shared a similar aesthetic and mindset. Recently we have added new people to the site like Julian Bayliss, who was one of my biggest inspirations when I decided to take up my paintbrushes again, and Isaac (Weirdingway).

The Ex Profundis aesthetic is quite different to most of the standard miniature lines. But it has similarities with John Blanche’s Blanchitsu look. Have you met him?
I’ve been lucky enough to play a few games with John. Some of my earlier models were in Visions. I don’t try to copy John’s Blanchitsu style, but I try to imitate his mindset as far as I am able – most miniature painting is primarily concerned with painting inside the lines and being technically impressive: competition style or ‘Eavy Metal painting. I think Blanchitsu is more about being creative. Personally I also like to try and use a lot of texture, and darker tones.

The hereteks of House Sinekai with their gholams and chimerics

What was it like having your models appear in, arguably, the world’s most famous miniature-based gaming magazine?
I don’t think I have ever been happy with a finished miniature, and seeing them enlarged in photographs highlighted their flaws. It was exciting – and a great honour – but embarrassing. Mostly it motivated me to want to make better models.

I’ve not seen anything for you to be embarrassed about. How did the Ex Profundis look and feel start to develop?
As a kid it seemed to me that considering the 41st Millenium was mostly about war, the models are often pretty cheerful looking. I used to have a Mordian Iron Guard army that I painted to look like Great War trench soldiers - covered in mud and blood: this seemed far more appropriate than the bellhop uniforms they wore on the box. I think I am just doing the same sort of thing now.

The website name comes from the phrase ‘creatio ex profundis’ which means 'creation from the depths' or 'creation out of chaos'. It is intended to be evocative of Lovecraftian gods of the deep and the Chaos gods in the Aether. This sort of horror aesthetic is what I am most interested in communicating in my models – dark and creepy, and suitable denizens of a universe that is pretty keen on war.

Dissimbre, the Immortal Sword, Lord of Slaanesh

Was there an initial project that made you go ‘yeah, that’s the aesthetic I’m after’? Were there failed attempts before that?
My first Pit Slave gang worked out well: they were sort of a cross between Spartacus and Silent Hill. I tried to use more unusual kits as the base, and I tried painting them using more muted tones – oh and I discovered Tamiya Clear Red blood effects. I suppose this is when I started figuring out how to paint in a way I was happy with, rather than trying to emulate ‘Eavy Metal. Shortly after this, John Blanche got in touch to say he liked them, which I think really convinced me I was on the right track!

Models from Jake's second Pit Slave gang

A lot of the Torva Tenebris blog is about finding inspiration to start painting. Where does your inspiration come from?
I get inspired by all sorts of things and then I try to introduce them into the Warhammer setting in a sympathetic way – like Lovecraftian horror for example. I think a lot of hobbyists base their projects entirely on the (excellent) background ideas found in Games Workshop books, but I try to steer clear of that and find ideas elsewhere. I don’t want to do things that other people have already done, particularly if they have done them better than I could! Painting something like an Ultramarine sounds incredibily daunting to me – have you seen some of the Ultramarines out there? I would have nothing interesting to contribute.

Recently – with Age of Sigmar – I have been trying to introduce elements from my favourite fantasy: the manga Berserk, the art of Mike Mignola and some classic Adrian Smith barbarian style. There is a real shortage of dark fantasy fiction out there, but I get inspired by lots of authors from all sorts of genres: Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Steven Erickson… too many to mention. Silent Hill is a constant source of ideas.

You mentioned Hellboy and the manga Berserk. Are there other comics and graphic novels that have inspired you?
There are too many to really do them justice talking about them here. For ideas, Grant Morrison is my favourite, he throws out ideas that just warp my perception of reality, and with such frequency. I love Junji Ito too.

A quick Google image search on the manga artist Junji Ito has just freaked me out, but I'll try to continue. I ask a film question in every interview, so let's run with the manga theme. Which movie is best, Akira or the original Ghost in the Shell?
Probably Akira. But in terms of classic animé, you can’t beat Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Big robots! Maybe some of that inspiration is coming through in your latest project, the Verminlord? How do you plan out a model? Do you start with an accurate idea of what you want to achieve, and work to a plan, or are you experimenting wildly throughout the creation of a new piece?
Sometimes inspiration will hit me when I see a new kit, or take another look through the Forgeworld website. I don’t work to a plan except for a pretty strong idea in my mind’s eye about what the finished thing ought to look like. I have a pretty extensive bits collection, so I get all the relevant parts out in front of me, and then spend a really long time trying things out with blu-tack until it clicks.

One of Jake's most recent creations: Rattendaemon, the mechanical Verminlord

Got any tips you can share?
Well my main goal is to make models that look different to anyone else’s. So I try to find unusual base models and donor kits, or I try to adapt a model in a way that hasn’t been done before – a good one is taking a 40K kit and changing it to a Fantasy model. The quality of the components you use is also really important – starting with something like a plastic Catachan is going to be an uphill struggle.

My best tip is to use lots of blu-tack and spend a long time getting the right pose. The pose is the most important thing in a conversion in my opinion, I often think about how to pose characters in the Marvel Comic style – oh and glue the head last – even a slight adjustment or tilt can totally change the feel of the figure. If the pose is weak then it doesn’t matter how good the bits you’ve chosen are, or how good the paint is, it will be an underwhelming model.

I’m with you on the pose thing, and your models always seem particularly expressive. Ex Profundis feels like a very polished brand. Well put together, clearly defined, occupying its own space within the hobby etc. It’s a strong platform. Do you have any plans to take it elsewhere? Ever thought about releasing your own miniatures? 

Yeah maybe. I mean, at the moment it's all tied in to the Games Workshop IP so there is no question of releasing miniatures or anything like that. I’d love to develop it further though. I think there is increasing awareness of this sort of Lovecraftian horror – and I don’t mean all the cheesy Cthulhu stuff that has popped up everywhere, I mean things that evoke what Lovecraft called existential horror or dread. Kingdom Death tapped into this vein and that did pretty well. 

At the moment we welcome contributions from anyone that thinks their work fits this horror theme or offers something unusual: miniatures, fiction, art, whatever. And I am sure we would welcome another contributor if their style fit.

That’s very exciting for all the horror-inspired modellers out there. I’m sure there are lots of people who would love their work to appear on your site, or to own some twisted Ex Profundis creatures or characters.

Jake, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights, and good luck with all your forthcoming projects.

And to keep an eye out for Jake's forthcoming projects, or check out his and the other contributors' existing ones, including the mechanical Verminlord and all their other dark and disturbing creations, have a look at Ex Profundis here.