Mass Effect 1/6 scale Krogan

I guess I'm good for another one.

The "what's next?" mode is great: Collecting and browsing pictures to pick what I like, and assessing what's "do-able". The lure of adolescent fantasies was strong... but no, the world did not need a balloon-breasted 1/6th scale Femshep and oddly, I had no desire to make one. On the other hand, Matriarch Benezia, Justicar Samara, and EDI did catch my attention. Nevertheless, the Krogan won. Go figure.


02/05/16- Okay, it's not "Wrex", "Wreave", or "Grunt": As far as I'm concerned, it's a Frogan, or generic Krogan wearing a composite of armor design elements. It's like the way I cook: I look at several recipes, wing it, and somehow end up with an edible swill that bears some resemblance to the original recipe.

The most obvious issue when considering a project like this is size. Krogans are big and bulky. How big? It depends on whether you go by the in-game size or size references outside the game. Outside the game, they're huge, maybe 25% taller than humans and almost twice as wide. I assume that the folks who make those size comparison graphics are basing them on something official from the game designers. In the game, the Krogan aren't nearly as tall, matching the face level of the other squad members: There are probably practical game-related reasons for that (like maybe fitting through doors, and better framing in close-ups?). The good news is that this happens to align with the practical considerations of home-brew doll-making, where bigger is harder to make and you can't easily scale stuff up like a digital creation. ThreeZero faced the same conundrum when designing their Legion doll. It's huge and appears to match the size of the out-of-game references, not the in-game size. Personally, I wish they'd made it smaller since there's no real-world Legion (or Krogan) to validate the official size: Game-size is the only "real" context I've seen them in.

The project strategy was to do the body figure first, then the headsculpt, and finally the armor. While it would have been more fun to work on the headsculpt first, the body is a more logical starting point: It's easier to scale a headsculpt to fit a body than vice-versa.

The Donor Figure: As with my cooking, I tend to go with ingredients that I have on-hand, unless it's something really special that I care enough about. There might be a donor figure candidate for doing an official-sized Krogan (does anyone make a 1/5th scale articulated figure?), but I'm satisfied with the in-game size. I used an old spare Hot Toys Aliens vs. Predator figure that I'd once thought about converting into Chewbacca from Star Wars. It was one of Hot Toys' early productions, and it's not as well-made as the later TrueType figures: The plastic is thin in some places, some joints are loose and it has the funky vibe of an old Sideshow Toys figure. It's taller than most (13"?) 1/6th scale figures, but not very bulky, with a shallow chest and side profile, probably to give the bulky Predator armor a better fit. Its main nod to quality is that it's screw-assembled, not glued or welded together, which makes it easier to modify.

The first step in modding the figure was to study reference pics and identify what needed to change on the figure. For me it's a wild-assed guess instead of a measuring thing. When I started the project, I only had the impression of the Krogan's relative bulk from playing the game. I had reference pics but most showed the Krogan by itself. Also, since many were made by fans, they varied a lot in the details. They were good for design inspiration and general guidance, but not authoritative references. For instance, you couldn't just measure the length of the feet and scale them up to 1/6th scale. That's the joy (or curse, if you're anal-retentive) of making things that don't exist in real life. I relied on the pics to give me general guidance... and made up stuff freely. However, consensus pointed to the obvious: The figure needed a lot of bulking up to come close to the game-sized Krogan.

The figure's chest needed to be made wider for the frontal view. The most obvious way was by cutting the chest segment into three pieces: The two side pieces that anchor the arms, and the center piece that anchors the neck and lower torso segment. The screw-assembled construction came in handy as it let me see where to put the cut lines to avoid damaging the interior anchor structures. The three sections were then rejoined at a guesstimated width with styrene rods glued across the front and back. Normally, I would reinforce with additional rods or thick styrene and an inner layer of epoxy putty to fill the gaps and rigidize the structure. Instead, I heated sheets of Worbla and formed them to the outside, using its ability to stick and conform to surface contours. This is a quick and easy way of making a stable and lightweight structure. The character design is clearly top-heavy, so any topside weight reduction is a good thing.

Like several other Mass Effect designs, the Krogan has dogleg shins; unfortunately, they make the figure slightly shorter. Making the dogleg shins was easy with a heat gun: Heat and bend. I thought about doing it with cuts and putty, or direct heat sculpting with a soldering iron. Since the figure would be permanently wearing full armor, I didn't see any reason to bother with cleaning up and detailing the body. The body needed only to provide the basic body shape and articulation.

Krogans have big thighs. The upper legs/thighs needed lots of putty additions to bulk them up.

Krogans have muscular upper arms but relatively smaller and tapered forearms and hands with three fingers. It was easy to lop off the Predator's excess fingers and grind the edges to make the curvature more natural. These would be armored, so it didn't matter what they looked like underneath.

Unfortunately, the figure's forearms are long for a Krogan and don't offer any easy sway to shorten them since both ends retain large hinge mechanisms; bulking up the forearms at the top might help create the illusion of them being shorter.

The lower torso segment needed bulking up to transition from the wide chest to the narrower waist. The good news is that the upper and lower torso are spaced at a constant distance by a thick rubber-ish connector in the center, so there's no need for support or contact between the upper and lower plastic outer shells (the exterior). It was simpler to add putty than cutting and widening since its weight wasn't as likely to affect the center of gravity. I'd lost some height with the dogleg modification, so I considered lengthening the lower torso segment to increase the figure's height, but was afraid that it would distort the proportions. Like I said, I rely heavily upon guesstimation, and doing this before knowing what the figure would look like seemed like a bad idea.

The Back Hump: The Krogan back-hump is maybe their most distinctive feature and I couldn't get a good read on the figure's bulk and where the head would fit until I made one. It's a big piece so it needed to be lightweight. Clearly, a solid putty or clay addition wouldn't do, it had to be hollow. There were a number of ways to do that ranging from sculpting/molding/casting to shaped styrofoam coated in wood filler. Once again, Worbla offered a solution.

I built a back hump on the figure made of paper towel wads covered with tin foil and masking tape, then shaped Worbla strips over it. Once the form was removed, the Worbla was spot heated to better fit the figure and to work out some of the undesirable bulges. Worbla's a very useful prototyping material because it's so easy to reshape and conform to a contour. It's not as good as some other materials as a surface finishing material though.

This gave me enough of an idea of the eventual bulk to see that it would be an acceptable game-sized Krogan. The armor would bulk it up even more.

The Feet: My reference pics show many different design possibilities for the feet. My cats tell me that the feet actually begin at the catleg. The ankle begins at the middle of the catleg and what we call the "feet" are actually just the toes. So they have very long feet, but what we see as the foot is actually fairly short. For standing stability, the longer the surface that touches the ground, the better; articulation at the catleg is just one more place for weight-bearing articulation to loosen. So forget the cats and nix on their articulated catlegs: This was going to have long, normal feet.

The feet have one of the most important jobs of the doll: Standing. While I do use a lot of Kaiser doll stands to ensure that they don't topple, I think that dolls should be able to stand on their own two feet without the support of a stand, at least while I'm working on them.

It was a challenge. IMO, Hot Toys made a number of questionable design decisions in their first run of Predator figures: The feet are made of a semi-rigid PVC, the kind of plastic that sloooowly gives when subjected to force and/or heat over time: A shelf-diving timebomb, the bane of jumpy cats. It affects many smaller format "action figures" (with patented Shelf-Diving Action!) too. The PVC's properties adversely affects the standing stability in two places: 1) Where the ankle hinge is plugged into the foot and 2) along the length of the foot. If you tap the standing figure, it vibrates, centered at the ankle hinge. If the figure is balanced with a slight forward lean, the foot gradually bends until the center of gravity changes enough to topple the figure. It usually happens in the middle of the night.

I added a thin layer of epoxy putty in the foot ball socket to rigidize it. The ankle hinge is only halfway embedded in the foot so I built up additional epoxy putty support at the rear of the foot to improve the stabilization. It loses some articulation range, but I think it was a worthwhile sacrifice.

To rigidize the feet, I ground out channels along the length of the bottom of the feet and filled them with plugs of epoxy putty.

The ankle hinge is another important contributor to stability, especially for a heavy figure. The first-issue Predator figure used the same kind of dual swivel-ended hinge for both wrists and ankles (not the barbell shaped ball-socket used in the ankle joint of their TrueType figures).

For ankles, I much prefer the hinge over the barbell design. Both articulation designs rely on the friction of the materials and the force that pushes them together. However, the hinge design can be easily modified with a metal screw, washers, and nut to exert adjustable additional force. Loose ball socket articulation is usually tightened by building up worn material in the socket, often by using superglue-- it's difficult to get it right since it's not adjustable. Superglue is a hard, non-compressible surface coating that may gloss up or wear the socket: The fix may not last long.

A Long Digression: Manufacturers tend to use the most production-efficient (cheapest) way to do articulation that they can get away with. Despite the current price of these things, they're just toys and don't require a mission-critical level of engineering. Consumers like lots of articulation, and most will probably be wowed by that for a brief initial period before it's consigned to a shelf on a stand for display... so it doesn't need to be engineered to last. Manufacturers know this.

An example of this is the way that the Predator figure's arms are attached to the upper torso segment: A single plastic pin on the bottom of the piece that does the front-to-back swivel was covered with the remnants of what might have been a double-stick tape or goop "tensioner". This was sandwiched between the front and back torso halves, joined by the a screw located at each arm attachment area. One of my figure's arms was "floppy" because the tape or goop had dried up and fallen off, providing no tension. The other arm's "smooth" articulation mainly came from the pin swiveling in the sticky goop. Once the adhesive inevitably dries out, hardens, and becomes unsticky, the joint becomes floppy.

I don't fault the manufacturer-- it's their job to cut costs and make money, and stuff isn't made to last forever (especially if it's a smartphone). This was probably the cheapest way to produce a smooth swivel joint between two pieces of rigid plastic, and would likely last long after the consumer had gotten bored with the doll. A rubber or flexible plastic tensioner would have cost more and probably last longer, but eventually, the rubber would harden and it too would stop working. What I'm most impressed by is their plastic formulation: Attaching a fairly heavy limb with a single relatively thin plastic pin takes a lot of confidence in the strength of the plastic. Occasionally, manufacturers get it wrong (...kaff, kaff...Medicom...).

The Headsculpt: I sculpted the head in epoxy putty because of its immediacy-- unlike polyclay, it cures rock-hard with no baking, no mold-making, no casting. Because of this, I sculpted directly onto a Dremel-mangled rubber head that plugged onto the figure's neck-- no need to mess with making a neck adapter.

I had to delay sculpting because it takes a committment of uninterrupted time that's hard to find during the work week. Epoxy putty pressures you to work fast because it begins to cure once you mix parts A and B. Later, you can add material, remove material, and refine the sculpture, but I prefer to do the initial face sculpting in one sitting.

I bought a fresh batch of putty for the headsculpt because my old batch was getting stiff, hard to knead, and had crystaline lumps in it. The fresh batch was much softer.

For kneading, the softness was wonderful! Once I started sculpting... not so much. I spent a long and frustrating time pushing the soft putty around, trying to get it to do what I wanted it to do. Lots of aggravation. As it cured, it started getting stiffer, less sticky, and more manageable. I'd forgotten what fresh putty was like: It takes a lot longer to cure and goes through the curing "envelope" much more slowly than old putty. This can be a good thing because it gives you more time-- its softness is good for sculpting large, smooth areas and blending putty additions. But if you're sculpting details and used to working quickly with stiffer old putty, it can be very annoying. It took way longer than I'd expected so I had to quit before I wanted to. Well, that's my excuse...

It's actually only a partial headsculpt, open in the back. It only needed to extend deep enough into the cowl to look complete when the head was tilted forward, or turned to the side. Everything after the front part of the face was done with Worbla, which made it lighter. Sculpting with the head on the figure let me see how the head looked positioned on the body and let me confirm that the neck/head articulation worked with the hump/cowl. Krogans have a characteristic jutting-chin look, so I extended the neck's downward range at the front and sculpted the head to be level with the neck at a craned-forward angle.

Thin leather was used to simulate the large area of under-chin skin. I wanted it to be flexible so that the neck articulation (front-back, side-side, rotation) wasn't restricted as it would have been with a rigid sculpt of the neck skin over the figure's articulated neck.

I didn't come across a definitive reference for the Krogan eyeball, so I took this as giving me artistic license to use pink/reddish beads with a glowing cat's eye stripe. They were jammed in when I was near quitting and had sculpted where the eyes should be-- it proved to me that fresh putty's long cure time and softness did have its good qualities.

The headsculpt was the last piece needed for me to finally see it as a potential 1/6 scale Krogan doll: It fit in nicely with the rest of the Mass Effect gang, especially when posed holding a ginormous weapon.

Mass Effect 1/6 scale home-made Krogan with mask
"I am Longsox of the clan Prolapsed Rectus."

Modeling Unreality in 1/6th Scale: 02/20/17- 1:6 is a good scale for modeling features of a 1:1 scale subject in a compact size. Unlike smaller format action figures, 1/6th scale typically uses a variety of materials to create removeable outfits and working/unseen details-- The stuff that's not evident from the exterior, like underwear, pockets, and socks. If the deeper details aren't known or to save time & effort, the 1/6 outfit can be created directly on the figure, and unseen details ignored. It's not as cool, but it gets you there.

For this project, only some parts of the outfit would be removeable. There would be no naked sculpted Krogan body underneath to reveal, saving me a lot of work and guesswork. Instead, parts would be removeable to make it easier to design and assemble the outfit, not to show any secret, made-up details of the World of Krogan (like the "quad"). Admittedly, it would be fun to do all that, but it does take time, resources, and motivation to take it to that level.

The Armor: The naked maimed and putty-modified figure looked unfinished and crappy, but I really wasn't interested in spending the time blending, sanding, and painting to produce my vision of what a butt-naked Krogan might look like. I glued a partial fabric undersuit directly to the figure because the doll's only visible flesh would be the face and neck. The undersuit's main purpose was to hide the figure's articulation seams and suggest that an article of clothing was underneath the armor pieces.

This project turned into a learning experience-- an exploration of Worbla, a new-to-me discovery. For the armor pieces, I used most of the same materials that I'd used for FemShep: Worbla, craft foam, and styrene. The main torso base armor was made of flexible craft foam. Worbla armor detailing strips were glued onto it, which preserved some of its flexibility. Front and back torso armor do restrict torso twisting, but don't restrict the forward and rearward tilt of the torso articulation as much. Nevertheless, figures wearing armor always lose a significant amount of torso articulation: That's just the way it is. In this case, the other pieces of armor on top of the torso armor kill any hope of torso articulation. If you must have torso articulation, you can do like the smaller format figures: Sculpt everything onto the articulation frame and conceal the articulation seams as best as you can. That way, the articulation doesn't have to fight overlaid materials that restrict it.

The torso armor was made removeable with quick-release clips to make maintenance easier and so that design changes could be made as I thought of new ideas and improvements. I removed it several times during construction to adjust it, add magnets, and bellows material.

The Worbla backhump/cowl and chest armor/pauldron assembly were also designed as removeable parts. They're held in place by fit, gravity, and magnets. It's easier to work on the parts and the doll when they're not attached.

The non-removeable parts: The limb armor. The catleg shin armor was much easier to build directly on the figure, without attachment straps and buckles. Since the fabric underneath wasn't removeable, there wasn't any reason to make the armor removeable. Likewise for the thigh armor-- although they're simple one-piece springy wrap-around tubes that are naturally removeable. The knee armor are held in place by Velcro. I first used straps and springy strips of Worbla, but velcro held them aligned more reliably without slipping or rotating (but still removeable, just in case). I also used Velcro to keep the thigh armor aligned with the fabric. Velcro works well in situations where the extra thickness doesn't matter and the piece can tolerate a little "float".

The feet are removeable which makes them much easier to work on. I applied Worbla armor over the putty-stabilized feet, forming claw-toes over the Predator claw toes. I later decided that they were too long, so I removed about 1/4" from the middle of each foot. The stabilizing mods appear to have worked since there hasn't been a single shelf-dive so far (knock on wood). Remarkable, considering that it's such a top-heavy doll-- but it does have to be balanced carefully.

Similarly, the arm armor didn't need to be removeable, although that was helpful when refining the shapes during construction.

Mass Effect 1/6 scale helmeted Krogan with black armor. Adding Details: As the figure was outfitted with the basic armor pieces, the project entered the extended phase of fine-tuning: Cleaning it up, dealing with rough edges, and adding details. I was in no hurry. I enjoy the leisurely process of evaluating what needs to be fixed and improved, browsing for ideas, and figuring out how to do it.

Krogan armor and outfits vary within a range of fairly distinctive styles; I prefer Wrex's more traditional-looking armor over Grunt's tech/spacey armor (what's up with that Arc Reactor-looking thing in his hump and chest?). There are detailing commonalities in many of the armors (rondels with concentric circles, parallel strips, and bellows) so I used those to dress up the basic armor pieces. I stayed away from details that involved on-suit lighting effects.

The Helmet: The Krogan head design is distinctive and interesting: Wrex and Grunt didn't ever wear helmets in the game (as I recall). However, I looked forward to making a Krogan helmet after seeing it on some Krogan extras in the game-- it reminds me of the Mondoshawan aliens in The Fifth Element. The helmet is a fun and easy-to-make option, and a good reason for not getting too hung up on trying to make stuff totally faithful to the main characters of the game.

Here, the limitations of Worbla became evident: It's great for forming basic structures and simple details, but not so good for fine detailing at this scale. Specifically, the nostril-like detail gave me trouble: It's difficult to spot heat a very small area for fine sculpting, and very easy to soften and distort material nearby that you've spent time shape-tuning. Another limitation is that the material cools too quickly for fine detail sculpting and precise placement-- epoxy putty works much better for that. If you plan on painting, you can use both, but should be careful not to put the rigid putty in an area that's subjected to flexing.

Pitfalls of Worbla: I love working with Worbla, and am so glad that I learned of it. It's shaved a lot of time off of prototyping and making basic structural shapes. I think that may be one of its pitfalls though: It's made me lazy and impatient. It makes me want to do everything in Worbla. Unfortunately, you can't easily refine the shaping of Worbla except with heat: If a surface is lumpy or wavy, your options for fixing it are limited. It doesn't respond well to sanding either (it "fuzzes"). You can add a rigid finishing compound on the surface (like epoxy putty or Bondo), but you have to be absolutely sure that the piece won't be subjected to flexing, or you'll be repairing cracks and delaminations.

The solution is to spend the time making good-quality shaping forms. There have been some situations (like the back hump) where the Worbla should have been shaped over a proper finished form to give it smoother, more symetrical shaping, but I was too impatient. Making a finished form is a time and labor intensive process-- something that I've done in the past for vacuforming. Worbla encouraged me to take the quickie "just eyeball it and clean it up later" route (form made of crumpled paper and masking tape) because it was so fast. I was able to do some post-forming shaping and clean up, but the result isn't as good as if I'd shaped the back hump over a smooth and symmetrical sculpted form. It's made me much more willing to live with "sloppy, but good 'nuff".

Finish and Painting: A question that I pondered many times as I was making the armor... What should I do about Worbla's and craft foam's rough textures? I learned of several smoothing materials from the Cosplay webpages: Among Cosplayers, Rosco Flexbond seems to be the preferred (though priciest) product for smoothing and priming. It does smooth the surface texture nicely with very few coats, but unfortunately does react to water after it's dried. I don't know if that's a deal-killer, but that's not how doll/toy finishes are supposed to act.

As for color, red (Blood Pack) seems to be the most common/expected color for Krogan armor.

Given my non-canon armor design, I didn't have a strong interest in recreating a Krogan squadmate or named character from the game, so I could do whatever I wanted-- I almost always find that more interesting and fun.

Just for the challenge, I'd be interested in trying to smooth Worbla for painting to model a metal (or smooth composite) armor-- maybe later, or on a different project. As I've worked on the black, rough-textured Worbla, I've come to like the look. Despite what I might believe about the Krogan culture, my exposure to military modeling tells me that shiny and bright armor is not a very smart finish for anyone who doesn't want to announce themself as a target.

I feel the same way about the ubiquitous lighting effects on the Mass Effect armors. Sure, I get that it looks cool (like a pimped-out auto) and visuals rule in a science-fantasy computer game. Lighting is also a cool feature on toys, but in my years of doing this I've come to believe that the short-lived experience of coolness is rarely worth the cost of batteries and risk of leaking batteries. Realistically, these things spend 99.9% of their lives in static display. IMO, the only reason for doing it is because it's fun to install, to show it off in photos, and for the gratification of knowing that the cool feature is there (even if you almost never use it). If you do, just remember to remove the batteries after you've played.

Ultimately, I decided that the mix of textures in black looked good to me-- it was an easy out, but I don't think painting it a flashier color would have been an improvement. I may change my mind...

Mass Effect 1/6 scale closeup Krogan painted head

Mass Effect 1/6 scale dolls Krogan with Shepard

I'd put off dealing with the headsculpt as long as I could. The blurry and crummy teaser pic at the top of the article is deliberate-- The camera can see at least 10x better than my eyesight and it looked really unfinished. Sooner or later though, I knew that I'd have to post a pic of the painted head. I hadn't examined the thing through Optivisors until I reached this point. Yep, it was as crude and crummy as I'd thought.

Job#1 was to blend/soften/gap-fill the tool marks and joints between the sections with some epoxy "slip" brushed on with Q-Tips; this created the epoxy version of painted brush strokes, which I tried to (haphazardly) tame with abrasives. That's a judgement call-- mechanical objects need perfect smoothness, but organic things are maybe more acceptable with imperfections...? That's what I wanted to believe, and you can see the "character" in the face sculpting (it's actually just crummy, rushed sculpting). I had to redo the jaw because the putty hadn't cured (???!).


PART 1   PART 3   PART 4