Yo, ‘chevsky here.
This post is gonna be about me dissecting the design process of the previous image on display, featuring ship girls. Let’s do dis!
Step 1: …the fuck is a “ship girl”?
That was pretty much my first question when Scribbler hit me up with that one. According to him
“Shipgirls (Japanese: ‘kanmusu’) are the returned spirits of ships that were lost, sank, or sometimes put out to pasture as museums. In the source material, they’re all war ships specifically, generally from World War 2. Older ships are sometimes in there too.”
Apparently there’s this thing called Kantai Collection, which is anime, basically. Representations of ships that are girls. In particular he wanted me to draw up two particular characters from a quest called Kanto-O-Celle Quest, Terror and Erebus, which leans on said Kantai Collection to spin its own story.
Step 2: Oh. Ok. Can I have some examples?
(Japanese kanmusu. Left is the IJN Kongou and next to her is one of her “sisters”, the IJN Hiei.)
It’s basically what it sounds like. Ladies with vehicle parts bolted to them. Visually speaking, in this story they apparently have multiple forms at the same time. Both human and ship. Often hybrids, too. But pretty much always girls. I don’t think anyone has told me about shipboys yet.
(An eel abyssal, I think. A Re-Class Battleship.)
Additionally they feature the concept of Abyssals. In the original they seemed to be mere eyecandy enemies to deal with. In KCQ they appear to be a bit more complex, being characters.
Step 3: Knowing that, what do?
So at that point I was facing the question of “how to design these two characters”? They’re existing characters with some design predefined, like color schemes, the ships they were based on, their nationalities and what their personalities are like. So I had to make characters that were recognizably (to the fanbase) as the ships they represent.
(Japanese ship girls. The IJN Shoukaku, IJN Zuikaku, and IJN Akizuki, all carriers. Kantai Collection uses archery to represent launching planes.)
There’s a trend here: Kanmusu are typically girls with ship parts bolted to their backs, around the waist, wearing outfits typical for their nationality. Often they also have things just sticking out behind their back with no real idea how they connect. I found that… unsatisfying? Incomplete? Not quite sure how to describe it. It’s two entirely different things poured into a glass, but then no one did any stirring. These fluids just wobble around each other in this metaphorical glass, like a lava lamp. Some designs are better than others in that regard, of course, but the trend is noticable.
(One bolted to the other)
Abyssals have similar things going on, but have some additional design patterns. Namely, black armor, pale skin, blue lights and teeth. So pondering the design of Erebus and Terror it quickly became a design goal to …not do the “A Bolted To B” thing, as much as possible. Turns out that this is not easy, if you want instant recognizability! I imagine this is the main reason for why it’s typically done in the way it is. Recognize the ship; recognize the girl.
These are the two ships in question, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. They’re bomb ships from what is commonly referred to as the Age of Sail. They were lost for a little more than 100 years. They’re Abyssals, but unlike the source material, have coherent thought and more humanoid shapes. After careers in naval warfare and then exploration, the pair were refit with iron plating and steam engines for the Franklin Expedition to find and navigate the Northwest Passage. Both were lost with all hands.
The expedition was launched in 1845, and only 3 years later did someone start to search for what happened to them. The HMS Erebus was found in 2014 and Terror in 2016.
Let’s go over Erebus first.
Step 4: Erebus
According to my notes Erebus, in her human form, is “five foot five inches”, which translates to roughly 1,65m. Pretty middling as far as people go, but she has twice the tonnage of Terror, meaning she’s pretty bulky. Even bulkier, that is. So seeing how she was outfitted to explore the arctic regions the first thing to get on here was a damn snow coat.
Something like this.
It’s cold out there, y’know?
Next was the military part of her history. I went for epaulettes as shorthand, together with military insignia. They give off this instant “regal military” vibe.
Note how the insignia on her lower sleeve is ripped off, however. According to the story both of them hold no love for having been called back once more to serve. (“After everything we gave, you want more…?!”) Her personality is described as hot and brutal, so off the insignia went with violence.
There’s also the rigging/netting on her arms up top. She has not a single rope on her entire ship. Instead it’s all chains for everything. They wanted to avoid burning their own rigging whenever they fired their guns, I hear. So putting these there added more “ship” to her, visually speaking, and the implication that her arms would act as masts.
Plus, the additional chains make her look a bit like a brute, which seems to fit her. Typically in kanmusu images the lower arms seem to be the spot where extra cannons or plating go, but I decided against that. I didn’t want to overload her design.
Next up was the chestplate. She was retrofitted with armor plating, so it made sense to add it over her coat.
Both ships are bomb ships, which meant that they had to be kinda bulky to withstand the recoil from their own mortars. That is some heavy weapons.
Both ships are old, for the time they were in, and even for the time these kanmusu were typically summoned from. So I wanted this to be something old and archaic. Outdated but still effective in its own way. A product of a different time.
So I bolted the chestplate onto her and gave it the shape of her ship’s keel, front and back.
Note the bottom curve on the front in particular. It follows the same shape as the ship itself.
Oh yeah, you might be wondering about the teeth. They’re there for two reasons.
One, they’re part of the “abyssal” part of her design, part history of her crew. You see, they all starved out there in the ice, eating each other to survive a bit longer. Didn’t go so well, but it does reflect in Erebus’ design now.
Two, in a more immediate visual sense, the ship has a white stripe along its length at roughly this height, for which the teeth nicely double as. The armor itself is also black chitin, as it typical for abyssals.
Gotta be efficient in your symbolism and double up as much as possible. ;P
For reinforcement I also doubled up on the teeth thing up top. Or rather, the other way around. She has 4 ear piercings, with human molars dangling off of them. That is part of her original design, before I even got here.
Abyssals feature glowing eyes, always with the icy/electric blue, where visible. I made the surrounding area as dark as possible, adding a “trench”, to draw attention to the eyes (lights in a sea of darkness, so to speak), both for aesthetics and because they act as focus points when looking at the picture.
They also seem to wear these eye pieces with horns half the time. Not sure what’s up with that.
Erebus’ crew eventually died of starvation, so her features reflect that. She’s haggard and drawn, with sunken in cheeks. If she were without the coat you’d be able to see her ribs too.
Next up is her belt.
Originally this was merely a wide leather thing, but later I added the chain over them, to double down on the whole “rigging made of chains” deal. I also adding some more brute chains(tm) here as well, for consistency. It helped balance her overall design, so all the details aren’t just on her top half.
Both ships (every ship?) have a bell, that is said to represent the soul of a ship, since ancient sea-faring. Or so I was told.
(The original bell of the Erebus)
Either way, it seemed prudent to include that bell in her design as a result. I went with a hand bell, with the ship’s name inscribed on it. It filled out the bottom half of her design, made for a good way to sneak her name in directly, and …well, it’s a hand bell that looks like her regular bell. Doesn’t even look out of place. “Looks coherent” is kinda important in this.
Now, what you can’t see below this point are her snow boots. They’re big, fur-rimmed stompers with armor plating bolted onto them. They also feature some additional chain rigging here and there, but smaller than up top.
Here’s also where things got notably difficult for me in the “looks coherent” department. You see, on ship girls this is the space where rudders, propellers or engines go. It looks weird on a person, but they obviously had to be here. Originally the Erebus had a rudder but was retrofitted with a steam engine, meaning it now featured propellers. What exactly they look like is less defined, since they only exist as text in my notes and weren’t relevant for the picture. So theoretically they’re two heavy metal screws with 2 blades each on top of each other.
Finally, the red parts. Erebus apparently has magma simmering in her guts. you can see it glowing red between the cracks of her chestplate and at her throat. Same as her nose, where a constant trickle of smoke comes out when she exhales. I imagine it doesn’t help her mood either.
She also has dried blood splatters here and there on her chestplate and coat, which …I forgot to add. Whoops. >_>
There were a couple details I was also considering, but ultimately decided against. Smoke stacks were one of them, same as cannons and/or mortars. Either could’ve gone somewhere near her shoulders or back, but in both cases they’d have messed with the design of something else (snow coat or epaulettes), either being in the way or overcrowding a spot. Same goes for her lower arms. I can see why many take the easier way out and go for the A Bolted To B look instead, but I specifically wanted to avoid that. So here we are, leaving out details. Maybe some smoke exhausts could’ve been added to the belt, sticking out inbetween the chains at the sides or back. Not sure.
All in all Erebus was pretty interesting to figure out and is probably the more blatantly “abyssal” of the two.
Next up is Terror, which followed similar design goals, since they disappeared together in very similar circumstances.
Step 5: Terror
Terror, having been on the same expedition they both disappeared on also features the snow coat, regal epaulettes that Erebus does. They’re both part of the same English military, so it made sense to let both feature the same basics.
Also visible in this image, as a point of difference, are her headphones. She’s using them to operate their broadcasting station. They aren’t part of her original identity as a ship, but a thing later added to do what she does.
She also sports the bolted on chestplate in the shape of her ship’s keel, but unlike Erebus doesn’t have any teeth in her design. Instead she’s got the navigational compass painted on. It’s key feature in that it’s …fake. Not a real compass. Good attempt, but merely a drawing. She has no idea where to go, in the grand scheme of things.
For her as well I added the military insignia on her sleeve, but unlike Erebus she has decided to unceremoniously patch it over.
No frills, no replacements. Just gone.
She’s the “leaner” of the two, with half the tonnage of Erebus and slightly shorter in her human form, so I decided to keep her design leaner as well. Her arms don’t feature any rigging, nor does she carry any extra chains.
The main belt with chains is still there, but that is it in regards to chains. As part of her original design she also carries an ice axe. I’m not entirely sure what it’s for, but it does make for another quick point of “arctic expedition” together with the coat. It’s not a “symbol” in itself.
Oh yeah, on the top right, above the ice axe? That’s her hip flask peeking out. I hear she plunged pretty deep into alcoholism after her return to deal with things. ‘s rough.
On the left meanwhile you can see her bell, which features the same design as Erebus, having her own name engraved in it.
Her eyes are the same “lights in darkness” design as well and she features the haggard facial features; the sunken in cheeks, the drawn appearance. She’s the calmer of the two, for what that’s worth. She seems to project more inwards, as opposed to Erebus’ external rage.
So you might have been noticing something across those images: Ice. Terror is permanently covered in ice and frost, settling wherever it can. It forms icicles, roughs over surfaces and flakes off as snow here and there. She’s constantly cold and her breath fogs. There’s a reason these two are together the way they are. They create a duo of hot and cold, both having gotten screwed over by the same circumstances and decided to duke it out together.
Speaking of screws, her boots are also armor-plated, fur-rimmed stompers, but they’re slimmer than Erebus and don’t feature any brute chains (tm pending). Her propellers are a two-bladed metal screw on the bottom and a wooden 4-bladed screw above that. You can’ see them in the image either. I had very similar design concerns with her, in regards to mortars and smoke stacks, but again, they’d have likely cluttered up her design, so they’re not part of her current appearance.
At the base both their designs are quite similar, with the details changing according to what they’re about.
Step 6: Final words and big picture
Lastly, the picture as a whole. We didn’t want to put too much emphasis on the background itself, since it was about these two together in their base. Lighting was important, not what device was standing where, doing what.
Originally I was playing around with multiple colors. Red, blue, green, orange… a big mixture. But it quickly crystalized that this won’t do. These two are about ice and arctic frost, not disco lights. So instead I bathed them in a blue icy light.
The devices in the background aren’t defined as anything in particular, just that they produced light. To shine upon these two looking at the camera being displeased.
I think their base is deep underground/underwater, near heat vents. Which was a convenient excuse to add just a little bit of red on the left of the whole thing, for contrast. Erebus herself exudes a red glow due to her lava belly, but that by itself wasn’t enough for the image composition. The background had to have some too, otherwise she’d stand out too much.
So that led us here, hinting at things that ultimately don’t matter, to help define the things that do. The background being glowing monitors and machinery was always part of the original plan, too, but the details of what that looked like were something I had to feel out over a couple of iterations. I couldn’t even say that I planned any particular element. I werked away at things, went “that doesn’t look quite right…” and then adjusted them until by brain said “ok yeah, this is going somewhere”. Makes it difficult to explain design processes if it’s all baked into a vague “artistic sense”. >_>
So all in all… this was pretty interesting. It’s not a traditional ship girl design, I realize, but I appreciated the exercise nontheless. It gave me a good excuse to practise lighting and mono-color design (nearly everything is shades of blue).
And now I know what kanmusu is, which is… well, it’s certainly a thing. :O