Friday, 12 June 2015

The Art of Greebling

Greebles are odd bits and bobs that model makers end up with. People deep in the microworld construction groove sometimes have bins and bins of greebles, they can pick them up by handfuls.

Which is exactly what they did in the late 70's and early 80's whenever they needed to add something to a model spaceship for a film, pick up a handful of greebles, sort through them for shapes that seemed appropriate and glue them on.

Greebling is a kind of three-dimensional detailing added to a model to seduce the eye into the illusion of scale.

Greebling is strange. It is like a kind of size-camouflage. It is like an abducted visual messenger. When we look at a cityscape from a roof, lots of tiny messengers run from the gaps between buildings, from the clustered chimneys, from the combination of roads and roofs all seen at once, and tell our brain 'this is a very big thing seen far away'. When we look at a cathedral, the little messages come from the detailing of the spires, the gargoyles, the layered shadows, the gaps between the huge stone blocks and say 'This is a single huge built thing that you are seeing all at once.' Your mind looks at something and without any conscious analysis, decides on a scale for it.

Greebling abducts, or hacks these messages and uses them to send lies about how big things are. The kinds of messages it steals, or fakes, tell you other things about the object you are looking at. They even tell you things about what will happen inside the object.

Here are some kinds of Greebling with some analysis of how they work:


Hivelighting is lights emitted from inside a massive form. The closest relations are to things like office buildings seen at night, or the windows of trains or planes. Hivelighting will usually be used to contrast with shadow moving across the form.

The 'friendliest' form of hivelighting is where liveable internal spaces can be seen inside the form like little rooms.

Hivelighting is difficult to consider on its own, it interacts with various forms of greebling in different ways.


Azteking is the creation of the illusion of sheets of metal bent into shape around a curved form like those of a battleship or airliner.

Azteking is 'good' greebling. In a fiction in which multiple kinds of form contend and only one is Azteked, then that form is usually the one belonging to the heroes. The shapes it relates to are modern, (but not too modern), friendly and positive. They denote efficiency, civilisation, clarity, order, reasonableness and fluid human control. The most common reference is 20th century technology. If the agents of the fiction go inside this form it will be well lit and things will make sense, things will generally exist on a human scale.

When we imagine a form like this moving it is like a ship moving through the sea, strong, directed yet still fluid. The plates bind the identity and energy of the form within itself, it does not interpenetrate the space around it much, you are in or you are out, in is usually safe. Hivelighting is common with this kind of greebling.


In this form, the smooth metallic plates of the azteking have noticeable rivets at their rims. This calls out to very early 20th century or 19th century forms. Iron instead of steel, steam instead of electricity. If something has plates but no very noticeable rivets then it probably runs on liquid fuel or nuclear power. It hums, possibly it roars but the transmission of its energies is smooth. If it has big rivets then it probably runs on coal and steam, maybe on an early oil motor. Its engine goes 'chug chug chug', you can feel and discern each individual rotation of the motor inside it. If it is a steam engine and very large then the chances are high that you will see the action of the engine during the fiction, its highly likely that some part of the fiction will take place inside the action of the engine. Aztek-Riveting carries even more of the impression of friendliness of azteking, it is slower, larger, heavier, more directly-comprehensible. If a person is in charge of running this engine that person will probably be friendly, blunt, simple and good.


Classic industrial greebling

Industrial greebling exists as an emotional and spatial mid-point between azteking and spiring.

The surface of an industrial form looks like nothing so much as a dense industrial landscape, like flying over a very large and varied factory. Every part of this surface is its own particular detail. It seems looking at it that everything on it has a particular purpose, that each is part of a machine and that each is doing something important. Nothing moves, the combination of the impression of purpose and spatial busyness and the fact that nothing can be seen happening makes the experience mildly alienating. Generally, the more clearly we can see the actual movements and embodies purpose of the  forms the more ‘friendly’ and human they become. When they do not move or act they are silent forms, reminding us we do not understand what we see.

An Industrial form is less likely to carry hivelighting than an azteked form, unlike those it generally does not seem like a form full of light in which holes have been poked, instead it may have some 'window' lights but large areas will be dark. It may have some kind of lights that are rare on an azteked form, spire-lights or tower-lights, blinking red or green points on projections from the mass.

If we imagine going inside, there may be parts of it designed for human comfort, but it will probably not be a human-centred space. Like a factory it is there to do something very important that requires people, but is not for people. There might be cavernous vaults, long views, very tight crawlspaces and very dark areas.

Nevertheless, this form of greebling is still human-related, even if it is not human-centred, people can still live there.

Industrial greebling interpenetrates slightly with the space around it, its exact borders are not fully set, you can be next to it, near its skin, mixed up with its industrial projections, or inside it. It penetrates space in every direction.

If we imagine this shape moving it feels heavier and more relentless. It draws much of its sensory information from buildings and cityscapes and these things are not meant to move,  so seeing them do so suggests power and indifference. It forces and thrusts its way into space, slow, looming, indifferent.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a relatively rare example of 'positive' industrial greebling.
The alien ship was well-lit, strange and very other but ultimately friendly and full of light.


Spiring intermeshes with industrial greebling at one end of its expression and with 3D XENOS and ULTRAGOTHIC at the other end.

A spired form is one with several very significant projections from its core mass. This form reminds us of cathedrals and churches more than anything else. A spired form interpenetrates with the outside space even more than an industrial form, instead of having an uneven 'skin' of industrial objects, it is more three-dimensional, you can imagine being in amongst the spires, within the controlling boundaries of the form yet still outside its inner self.

Spiring carries intimations of even more inhuman and indifferent purpose than industrial. It carries powerful intimations of authority. If the spires project along the direction of assumed travel then it suggests a questing aggression, if they cut across the direction of assumed travel then they increase the impression of indifferent power and heaviness.


This is a rarely-used form of greebling which makes the surface of an object look like a natural form. This can range from skin, to bark to the surface of a shell, but in outer-space objects the chitin of an insect is most common. The scales of a fish, despite being familiar to almost anyone, are never used.
I cannot recall a single example of a scaled ship. Despite the fact that it is based on natural forms, an organic-seeming object in space is almost always used to denote SUPER-ALIENESS.

I think this is because we very rarely encounter any living thing bigger than us. When we do it is usually a mammal and the surfacing of skin is also almost never used in the construction of 'large seeming' forms. Insectoid forms, when massively increased in scale, produce an othering or alienating effect, they seem wrong. As our most distant but-still relatable form of life insects signify the alien to us.

(No-one has ever done techno-petals or alien flowers as greebling, which is slightly depressing.)


A sub-form of organic greebling is a surface created to use the complex bio-luminance of cephalopods as hivelighting. This is really rare and often very strange but also often very beautiful.
The combination of organic forms and light coming from within often denotes the 'wondrous other' rather than the 'devouring other'. Going inside this form will often result in some mystical shit, it may not be shown in the fiction but people who do it will come out changed.


Damage is a fascinating kind of greebling that can create a powerful kind of emotional and cultural counterpoint to a form that has already been introduced in one particular way.

If we see the combat occur then it can strip away the seeming surface of an object, enabling us to see 'within'. This powerfully increases a sense of scale if done well. It adds character, the smooth becomes rugged, the perfect, contained and fluid becomes irregular, interpenetrating and industrial.
It tells a story about the consequences of harm and also provides a new kind of scene or spatial set to play with: the gap-within-the-ship. A ship that has been scarred or damaged during the fiction automatically becomes about 10 times cooler from that point on. Physical and moral consequence intermesh in the penetration of the form.

Some forms show combat or action-damage from before the beginning of the fiction, they generally have more character and interest than forms that do not. The likelihood of a damaged space ship performing an exciting story-relevant manoeuvre or action is larger than that of a perfect space ship.

Time damage is a particular form brought about, not by assumed violent actions either in, or before the fiction, but from imagined very-long reaches of time.

This is an extremely powerful storytelling technique and can be applied powerfully to 'smooth' forms to add visual interest.

It draws most powerfully from out observation of stellar objects like the moon and asteroids with noticeable impact damage, together with the decay of ruins and the slow failure of technology.

Time-Damage denotes time and in science fiction and ocean-based travel, time and distance are essentially the same thing, great time implies great distances. The weather-beaten ship has seen strange sights, the scarred black cylinder is space has been strange places, all these call out to a sense of the possible.



I made these up. Well, I made everything here up but 3D Xenos isn’t really a kind of detailing its more a very particular kind of shape. Usually a regular complex three dimensional form, unlike anything you would use or hold in your hands, usually symmetrical along multiple axis and maybe with complex interpenetrating semi-interior spaces. This says ‘cool dangerous aliens that have their own stuff going on.

Ultragothic is just what 4ok ships do. Industrial meets spiring taken to 11.5.


  1. There may be another type of greebling you missed: "active" greebling. That turns up in lots of recent movies with CGI effects. Active greebling means lots of parts that move or shift around. Examples include the alien ships in Battleship, the live-action Transformers, and some of the alien ships in Avengers. I suppose Iron Man's increasingly fiddly suits of armor may also qualify.

    Not sure what active greebling signifies: that this is "smart" technology rather than dumb matter, with little room for humans at all, perhaps. On the metafictional level it signifies "look how big our CGI budget is!"

    1. You're right. Active greebling is a whole thing although, thinking of your examples, I find there are very few kinds of it that I enjoy. So far at least.