Welcome back to Community Outreach, where we sit down to chat with the movers and shakers in the BattleTech universe. With the release of Tex Talks BattleTech: The Hunchback, we thought it’d be a good idea to speak to one of the artists featured in the documentary. Locust Labs created many of the 3D models and animations seen in the Hunchback video, and she’s got dreams to go beyond fan animations to make a career out of 3D modeling. Please welcome Anna of Locust Labs.
Sean [Sarna]: My name’s Sean Murray. I’m the news writer for sarna.net, the BattleTech Wiki. Maybe you’ve heard of us?
Locust Labs: No, never really. No Sarna. Don’t know about that. Never heard of it. Never, never at all.
Sean: You didn’t go to Sarna for, I don’t know, maybe pictures of the Hunchback?
Locust Labs: I don’t go to Sarna like every day to look up things while I work. No, that doesn’t happen.
Sean: I do, but I also work there.
“I’ve always just loved mecha in general too, but Tex’s videos–more specifically the videos on the Amaris Civil War–were what kind of got me back into BattleTech.”
Locust Labs: No, I obviously know of Sarna, all jokes aside. It’s been very helpful. I don’t actually use Sarna for pictures though, because you guys save the pictures on the site in some really weird format. And they don’t work in my reference image collector software, Pure Rev.
Sean: Sorry. I mean, I guess you could always just save them in a different format. That’s sort of what I do, believe it or not. But enough about me being bad at my job. What about you being good at your job? Tell me about Locust Labs. How did you get started? What is it exactly that you do for anybody who’s never heard of Locust Labs before?
Locust Labs: Well, it’s actually really funny because I mainly work in Blender as a 3D artist. And my first brush with Blender was when I was 14 and I was playing a video game called Unturned, which is a shooter. An artist that made low-poly weapons for the game joined the server, and I was interested, so he gave me a few lessons on how to make low-poly guns on Blender.
I kind of didn’t use it for a few years, and then I started getting into 3D Discords with my friends about 3D art and mecha. And one of my friends that I met there kind of started teaching me about how to use Blender. I started to relearn how to use Blender in general–which is not easy, which a lot of people will tell you–but eventually, you get the hang of it.
And then I started making buildings and vehicles and infantry for animations, and people seem to really like it. And a year ago, I told my girlfriend, “Wouldn’t it be really cool if someday I could work for Tex and work on a Tex Talks BattleTech with my silly little 3D models?”
Then eight months later, I get a DM from the man himself. He’s like, “Hey, do you wanna work for me?”
Sean: All right, so you’ve been watching Tex’s videos for at least eight months. Is that sort of what got you into the ‘Mech side of things?
Locust Labs: So my childhood was actually spent with BattleTech because my father is a huge BattleTech nerd. He probably has like a hundred books of battle texts. Some of the German-only books are there. I have his box of the old plastic line in my apartment as well as the ‘Mechs.
I’ve always just loved mecha in general too, but Tex’s videos–more specifically the videos on the Amaris Civil War–were what kind of got me back into BattleTech. I was huge into [Warhammer] 40K, but 40K was so incredibly inaccessible and expensive. Then I watched Tex’s videos on the Amaris Civil War, and I was reminded of BattleTech, of course. That was right around the time I had made my first 3D thing, which was bases to put figures on. And then I was like, “I could totally make a Locust,” which is my favorite ‘Mech. I was playing MechWarrior Online at the time. Basically only using the Locust “Pirate’s Bane“ and being a huge nuisance to people.
And I was like, I should totally just make a 3D model of a Locust. And then I made a 3D model of a Locust, and people were like, “This is really cool. You should keep doing this.” So I kept doing it, and here I am.
Sean: All right, so, you were into BattleTech from an early age. Uh, What like games and what parts of BattleTech have you engaged with before?
Locust Labs: As I said, I’ve played MWO basically since it was a thing. ‘Cause my dad played it and he was like, “You should play MWO too.” And I did just like when he played World of Tanks, I played World of Tanks and it was just a great time.
I obviously played MechWarrior 5. Of the older games, my dad does own MechWarrior 4 and 3 and 2 in 1, and he basically played all the BattleTech games that are out there. But I only ever had a short brush-in with MechCommander and obviously classic BattleTech that I played with my dad.
That’s really it. I was mainly reading all the books that my dad had. I would sneak in and grab three of them and read them. He’d obviously be okay with it. It would just be like, “Oh, three books are gone.” I’m probably reading them. I even have his original run of the Grey Death Legion trilogy that I stole from him and have in my apartment.
“Tex was like, ‘Hey, I like this. Why don’t you make animations for my Hunchback video?’ I was like, oh God, is this real?”
Sean: Are you admitting to something in this interview then?
Locust Labs: No, he’s fine. He knows I see them. It’s okay.
Sean: So you got into making ‘Mechs and then Tex reaches out after you’ve seen his videos starting from the Amaris Civil War. What does he ask you to do?
Locust Labs: Tex asks me, “Hey, we’re working on the Hunchback video.” I had just started making animations. I first kind of worked on just 3D models and I sent him an animation I had made of my second attempt to make a locust.
Basically, after a year, I was like, “Hey, I should totally make another Locust model.” And then he is like, “Hey, I like this. Why don’t you make animations for my Hunchback video?” I was like, oh God, is this real? But of course it was real. So first I have to make a Hunchback and then I have to animate it.
And then the project just kind of kept growing. First, he only wanted me to make four versions of the Hunchback, and then they were 10, and then he wanted the Hunchback IIC as well. It just kept getting more and more and I was like, okay, more Hunchbacks. Here you go, boss.
Sean: And there are a lot of Hunchbacks out there, so he probably could have gone through dozens of them.
Locust Labs: I made 19 models or color variations. Some of them range from little alterations, like there’s a different gun in where the AC/20 goes, all the way to redesigning the entire torso or actually just changing the entire ‘Mech around ’cause it’s the Clan. It was a lot of work, but I also had a hell of a lot of fun.
Sean: So these models are full 3S models, but also they’re fully animated. The torso moves, the legs move, and the arms move. It looks like a running Hunchback. How long did it take you to make the first Hunchback and get it fully animated so that we have this running gif here.
Locust Labs: So my workflow starts before I even get to the animation. As you said, I obviously have to make the Hunchback. Depending on the complexity of what I’m working on, it might be a day or two for, let’s just say a tank, but because obviously this was for Tex Talks BattleTech, the big man himself, I put a lot of effort into it. I think it took me about a week just to make the base version of the Hunchback.
Starting from a very simplistic block like this where I just kind of box in the shapes and then slowly working my way over the details till I obviously arrive at the final result. In my process, I first paint them in Blender–hopefully in the future in Substance Painter, which is just a lot more sophisticated.
And then it comes to the rigging, which depending on what you’re doing, can be very sophisticated or very simple.
Since these Hunchbacks were only supposed to run, all I really needed to do was make a humanoid rig that fit onto the Hunchback, which is very simple. All you really need is two legs, feet, a torso, hip separation, and then the arms. So there’s nothing fancy, like if you were animating let’s say an animal or a dragon and you had to animate the wings or whatever.
Then it’s on to actually animating the thing, which is rather difficult in Blender ’cause it’s not sophisticated animation software. Blender kind of does everything; that means it might be good at everything, but it’s not the best. It takes a lot of effort to get good at rigging in Blender
I wouldn’t say I’m good at all, but I make it work. First of all, you basically set a time, which for a full walk cycle I need 60 frames. And then you set up your walk cycle. You obviously need to set up the middle, like the start and the middle of the walk cycle, which is one full cycle. Like a 60-frame, two-second thing, one full cycle. And then you need to make it so that in between those three frames–frame zero, frame 30, and frame 60–it actually looks like it’s walking.
And that takes two things. First, you need to animate the model, and then you need to animate its surroundings so it actually looks like it moves.
Sean: And then also the shadows too.
Locust Labs: Yeah, you have a light source. In this case, there were actually three light sources to light it up evenly. There’s a little bit of a shadow, but it’s also supposed to kind of show everything, because if you only have one light source, sometimes the shadows are very dark in Blender.
It’s kind of necessary to have multiple from different angles. At that point, it’s just about kind of tweaking things. ’cause if you just had a running ‘Mech that’s just running straightforward or walking, it wouldn’t look very realistic. You need to have the torso balance and the arms shake, and maybe the hips are rotating along and bouncing as well.
Sean: I’m sure as much as Tex would like to, he can’t pay all your bills. What would be your goal beyond just making these kinds of 3D models for really cool internet videos?
Locust Labs: Currently I kind of have three main avenues. One of them is I simply continue doing this. I work on my portfolio. And eventually, my work is good enough to actually get hired by like a video game studio or for actual filmmaking or just in any kind of animator 3D model designer role at an actual company. I could be lucky and make enough of my animation commissions and so on to just live from it, or I might end up going to university because I am only 21 years old.
But if I had my way and I could make all my money just from the animation and so forth, I’d eventually want to actually come up with my own kind of setting, like BattleTech.
That’s been in my head for a while. I’ve even made a ‘Mech for it and a bunch of written lore for it. The problem is just there’s tons of systems for tabletop games and video games and books out there that nobody’s ever going to read. Because the person making them and writing them and working on them, nobody knows who they are. Why should people play your “homebrew” system that you developed when they can just play 40K?
Sean: Yeah, that’s kind of a similar problem with a lot of RPGs. There are a lot of really great tabletop RPGs out there, but because Dungeons & Dragons is so well established, a lot of people are like, “Well, why bother doing any of these when we could all just be playing Dungeons & Dragons?”
I sympathize with kind of the challenge you have there. It’s not impossible, though.
“First, he only wanted me to make four versions of the Hunchback, and then they were 10, and then he wanted the Hunchback IIC as well.”
Locust Labs: It’s also a problem we have in the tabletop RPG space is that there are a lot of great options, but a lot of people who want to make their own things end up making BattleTech lite or 40K lite. Here’s my grand scale strategy game for the tabletop, but in actuality it’s just the same rules as 40K with slightly different models. And then it’s like, why would I pick up a whole new system? Learn different rules, buy different minis when all my friends already have their Space Marine armies, and their 2,000 point, 6,000 BV list of ‘Mechs for BattleTech. Why wouldn’t I just buy BattleTech?
Sean: Yeah. Another thing, especially with these older, established IPs, is that you’re kind of trying to advertise to an older audience that just doesn’t want that sort of thing. I think maybe the best strategy for trying to gain interest towards a newer IP is to actually go really young–like, single digits young. Try and hook kids on a game that will grow into something that they have that sense of nostalgia for as adults.
Locust Labs: I think it’s also a problem for a lot of people that they’re scared of even trying. ‘Cause. If you had told me that I’d be sitting here talking for a Sarna interview while my Hunchback animation is being shown off in a Tex Talks BattleTech video two years ago, I’d have told you you’re crazy. But here I am and it all kind of happened just ’cause I was like, I should totally model a Locust and that would be really fun.
Sean: Take risks–you can’t really get anywhere without taking them. We should probably also describe where people can find you on the Internet. Where can people see Locust Labs and get the latest and greatest from Locust Labs?
Sean: Does Locust Labs have any particular plans for the future?
Locust Labs: Making more animations–even just by myself making a longer fan animation–would be really interesting. I probably have to buy a better PC first because even the little Raven animation took my computer almost two hours to render and I’m still not really happy with it. But it’s also kind of the problem with my current pc, it can’t really do anything while I’m rendering.
Like I couldn’t watch YouTube or actually work on something else. My computer was basically just sitting there and churning out these video bits. So my first plan, once I have a little bit more money than I have right now, will be to buy a better computer.
So next time Tex hires me, he doesn’t have to wait as long and I don’t have to spend as long just sitting there watching my computer basically load.
“If I had my way, I’d eventually want to actually come up with my own kind of setting, like BattleTech.”
Sean: That’s probably not as fun for you if you can’t play some MechWarrior Online while you’re waiting for something to render.
Locust Labs: Yeah. Like I can’t actually do anything while I’m waiting for it to render on my computer, so, yeah.
Sean: I see you’ve made a Raven and of course, the Hunchback. Have you done any models of other ‘Mechs?
Locust Labs: Yeah. I’ve done a Warhammer. I don’t have anything to show these off, but I’ve done two Locusts. I recently did a Centurion that I think you saw on Twitter. I did a really cool Mackie for the cab team that does mods for MechWarrior 5. They asked me to make them a Mackie and I had a lot of fun doing that.
Sean: Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
Locust Labs: I could show off three of the more interesting versions of the Hunchback I made after the video.
Um, I guess we’d start with the most vanilla one. I don’t know if it’s the 5N or the 6N, but this is one of the painted versions of the Hunchback I made. We have a Free Worlds League Hunchback, and then a little bit more advanced is the pirate Hunchback, which is the one with two LRM-5s, an AC/5, and two extra medium lasers.
Not quite sure why we picked this one mainly ’cause it was the wildest version and it was the last one Tex asked for and I didn’t know what to do, so I was like, why don’t I turn it into a pirate ‘Mech? And it’s actually my favorite of all of them.
Sean: That’s the 4N model.
Locust Labs: And then this last version I have. You can only show off if this is released after the video because technically I’m not supposed to talk about it. And Tex kind of wanted to keep it as a shocking surprise for everybody that watches. But this is the ugliest Hunchback in existence. Oh, yeah. I don’t remember which version this is, but it has a torso-mounted cockpit and a RAC/5 or an Ultra AC/20, I don’t remember [ed. It’s a UAC/10]. And then because it was already so bad looking, we gave it reactive armor after that meme with Ukraine.
Sean: Anything else you want to shout out?
Locust Labs: Yep. I’d shout out the Black Pants Legion and the Aux, which is the kind of fan community for techs. They’re great. I’m really glad that I get to be part of that whole group of really cool people and that I get to work with Tex ’cause I’m apparently really good at getting exactly where I say I would like to be, just by doing what I do best.
Sean: It’s a good skill to have. Alright, well, it was great talking to you. I very much appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about your work and share all these really cool models.
Locust Labs: Alright, peace. Take care. Bye-bye.
Thanks so much for showcasing your work for us both here and in the Tex Talks BattleTech video. Be sure to follow Locust Labs on her social media accounts to see where this up-and-comer winds up next.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.