The Beast of Possibility: Building the 1/1 Unicorn Gundam

On September 24th, 2017 the life-sized Unicorn Gundam was unveiled where its predecessor, RX-78-2, once stood. Throughout the months during its development, photos were uploaded all over the internet, but thanks to Dengeki Hobby we have an interview with the staff of the Nomura, the company tasked with creating the beast of possibility.

Original Dengeki Hobby article here

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— What were your thoughts when you first heard that Gundam RX-78-2’s successor would be Unicorn?

Kawahara: Honestly, it seemed like a pretty high bar they raised. First off, it’s bigger than RX-78-2. While the original Gundam was eighteen meters tall, Unicorn comes in around twenty-two meters [actual size: 19.7-meter]. We already had to re-examine our groundwork from square one, so that size was another layer to investigate. We also worried about the difficulty of making the whole statue transform. Would we be able to make all of it transform, or would we have to scrap the idea? The color of the body was also a big change. The thought of constructing it onsite made flashes of worst-case scenarios constantly light up in my head. Obviously, we were equipped with the knowledge from building the first Gundam statue, but this was a whole new beast.

Nakagawa: When I thought about how Gundam Unicorn was a story about drawing the world’s outlook of the future through Gundam, it felt appropriate. Of course, it was huge, and it needed to transform, but I was more interested in how Kawahara planned to cook this one up.

Terasaki: The plan was to keep Diver City Tokyo Plaza open during the construction, so I was considering how to keep the guests safe. During busy times we would have to keep our work area small and our enclosure as conspicuous as possible. That was probably the most worrisome for me.

— It seems like each of you was worried about this project. Certainly, for onlookers, the Unicorn felt like a difficult project to take on.

Nakagawa: Our starting point for the statue’s construction was studying the perfect grade (PG) Unicorn Gundam for materials, frameworks, and proportions. There were so many parts, and the assembly seemed so complicated — we were already bending backward and hadn’t even touched the transformation yet.

Kawahara: When we first sorted out how many parts we would need for Unicorn, there was 1.7 times more than the RX-78-2. On top of that, when we commissioned out parts for the RX-78-2, we used one construction company in Thailand. With the number of parts required this time around, one wasn’t going to be enough — we needed to split up things. We had the larger parts manufactured overseas, while the smaller details like the face and wrist were produced here in Japan. We were on a tight deadline, so during the peek of production in July and August of 2017 we were running back and forth between the Japanese and international factories. It was grueling.

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A Publicity Battle of Sorts

— Were the big parts made abroad pieces like the legs?

Kawahara: Yes. The biggest part was the smooth back cover of the lower legs. That alone was seven to eight meters tall. The boat-shaped pieces next to the calf were big too. No doubt about the Unicorn is big enough for someone to pilot. When we were cleaning it up, it legitimately felt like we were cleaning a ship.

— At that size, transporting it must have been a huge undertaking.

Kawahara: We had the experience of transporting the first statue behind us, so it wasn’t that big of a burden, but we had to deal with the problem of the storage containers. No matter how well produced our fiber-reinforced plastic was, the temperature inside the storage containers gets so hot that the pieces warp. We took countermeasures beforehand, but even then, not everything stayed as according to plan.

— Did you have somewhere you collected and arranged all the parts once they were completed?

Kawahara: We had time to do that with the first statue, but this time our delivery date was so tight we temporarily built parts in a tent on site (Diver City). We set it up so that no one could see in from the outside, but the Unicorn is so big, and the horn was peeking out from the top that it was quickly discovered and photographed by bloggers (laughs).

— There were pictures uploaded almost on a daily basis of the progression.

Kawahara: One of the Sunrise representatives that came to visit us laughed it off and said, “They aren’t hurting anything.” Once when I gave a progress report, I was told they had already seen it online (laughs). What a time to be alive.

More than just a reproduction, a design that connects the 1/1 statues

— Returning to our discussion on the parts: When you split the production locations, wasn’t there worry that the parts accuracy would differ from the original?

Kawahara: Of course, that was something we had anticipated happening. As a preventative measure, we talked with Katoki (Katoki Hajime, designer of Unicorn) and had him come up with a new production design plan or rule. Let’s say for a Katoki design there are points A and B that are prominent design aesthetics. In-between those defining characteristics we have point C. We set regulations around attaining point C so that even if the factories had to make changes, it wouldn’t change the quality or accuracy of the design.

— By solidifying point C’s design you were able to control any variations that might arise, that makes sense. It’s like the parts of a plastic model.

Kawahara: It really was. Not many construction companies have experience with making such aesthetic designs. That’s why it was vital to have those point C rules. With them, we could contract out to multiple companies and still be able to maintain quality control.

— How else did you enlist Katoki’s help?

Kawahara: I had many meetings with Katoki about anything from the general structure to how far to take his design. There was a lot of fine-tuning to the design that needed to be taken care of so we talked it over a lot. I was most thankful to him when he told me, “It should be more than just a reproduction of my design, it should be a design that connects with the first 1/1 scale Gundam statue.”

Using his idea, we decided on building with both of the Gundams’ shared parts. This was especially true for the small square holes and fastener parts here and there, but we used the data from the RX-78-2 to liken the two designs. The Unicorn was made using an extension of the technology created for the RX-78-2. That’s its backstory.

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— The details are strikingly similar.

Kawahara: Yes. All that was left was the LEDs. In the first statue, there wasn’t a single color for the eyes, but a complex sensor system installed. Katoki mentioned that he found it amusing. We wanted to try something similar this time, but it wasn’t consistent with the transformation to destroy mode. That’s why we kept the eyes blue and green.

— You decided to keep it simple.

Kawahara: That’s correct. We held off on adding in other shades. The Unicorn stands out the most with colors everyone is familiar with. It would be better off not adding in other colors. With the first statue, we had this concept that it was a humanoid shaped aircraft fighter and added red and green lights to the tips of the shoulders. We thought about doing the same with Unicorn, but again, it seemed like it would be inconsistent with the colors of the rest of the design. The weaponized real robot design of RX-78-2 and the heroic design of the Unicorn were too different from each other.

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Making the non-transforming parts cohesive in the design

— I’m a bit surprised you would say that Unicorn, with its lack of color, is the more heroic design. The color difference is a significant change but, was there any part that was particularly challenging?

Kawahara: Of course it would be great if the whole statue could transform, but structurally speaking some parts simply couldn’t transform. The psycho frame would be out for all to see during unicorn mode and I had to rack my brain for answers. There was no way we could have the pink visible during unicorn mode.

That’s when we decided to build a PG to study and discuss ideas with the Sunrise representative. The gray parts are the sections of the psycho frame that would be exposed during unicorn mode.

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— Oh wow, it might be rude of me to say, but surprisingly, it doesn’t look off at all.

Kawahara: Parts like the chest, in particular, we had originally intended to have armor slide to uncover it, but it was physically impossible to add in such a mechanic. Katoki was very forgiving for shortcuts like this. I’m sure fans were looking forward to a full transformation, but it’s not so easy. There are plenty of limitations, so we made a great effort to capture the essence of the Unicorn without making anything look off.

— You wanted destroy mode to be a visual knockout, but unicorn mode alone was enough of a struggle?

Kawahara: Exactly. If we were only dealing with destroy mode, we would have figured out something with our knowledge from working on RX-78-2. Oh yeah, we also were stumped by the eyes.

— The eyes?

Kawahara: When you think about the eyes during unicorn mode, you imagine the green light, right? Well, we had a difficult time deciding what to do with them to make them stand out. We intended to add them in, but after three attempts of trying, we settled on the current design where its faceplate is covering the eyes. Looking from below it turned out just right.

Nakagawa: When it came to fine-tuning the faceplate, we had already finished up with the mock-up model, so we had to arrange everything on the 1/1 statue. With something this big, data’s usefulness can only go so far. Just because the data said we were able to put it together didn’t mean we could.

A Cuckoo clock transforming face

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— So the eyes transform along with the faceplate, I see. Were there any other parts that proved to be a hurdle concerning mobility?

Kawahara: Definitely the horn. I was stuck on how we were going to put such a complicated mechanism in that narrow space. For the faceplate, we planned to have it tilt up slightly so it could be stored away in the upper part of the head. However, with the mechanisms required to make the horn transform there was no room for the face to transform that way. After mulling it over, we finally decided on the unicorn mode faceplate storing in the torso. This was the model we used to research.

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The mechanisms used are the same as seen in traditional bunraku puppet theater performances, which is actually something our company started out making. During the Meiji period, our company specialized in automaton mechanics for stage plays and Cuckoo clocks.

— You based the head transformation concept on Cuckoo clocks? What an amusing way to engineer it!

Kawahara: If you think about it, the Unicorn statue is just a modern day Cuckoo clock. When the clock strikes a specific time, the whole statue moves.

— Were there any problems with the mechanics of the horn?

Kawahara: I asked the Sunrise producer, “does the horn open like ‘bam!’?” To which he explained, “no it’s more like ‘whooosh’” I reminded him, “no it’s definitely ‘bam!’, in the anime it opens really quickly!” (laughs). For that reason, we tried to put in as much speed in the movement as possible. With any large pieces moving though, you have to worry about safety. If it moves too fast the break mechanisms will get wonky, so we had to do the best with what we had.

— What about the other parts that moved, like the shoulders and knees?

Kawahara: The skirt, too. The skirt was a challenge because the front armor is meant to slide, but the design Katoki gave us proved complicated as it slid uniaxially to the side and tended to get stuck not opening. We thought about having it raise slightly and then sliding it to the side, but that was a whole new can of worms on the mechanism front. After going back and forth, we ended with a uniaxial design that slanted forward. It was a series of trial and error, and it ate up a lot of our time.

Nakagawa: Yeah, if you look at it from the front it doesn’t seem all that bad, but once it’s complete you see it from every angle. Our first prototype had the sliding parts protruding too far forward which made it look terrible from the side. You can’t continue with production if it doesn’t come out right, so we ended up remaking it.

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Kawahara: For the legs, there wasn’t anything too tricky with the transformation, but securing the LEDs for the psycho frame was a bit of an ordeal. The steel inner frame left barely any space to put them inside.

The pain of choosing the psycho frame material

— You’ve brought up the LEDs. Now, the Unicorn’s light-up transformation is one of its key features, do you think you could talk about it?

Kawahara: We had the RGB light spectrum available to us, so we didn’t need to worry about choosing a color. However, if, for example, we wanted to bring out that fluorescent blue-green from the closing fight, how were we going to do it? That was something that worried us.

Nakagawa: Rather than fuss over color, we spent much more time on which material to use. The actual psycho frame was acrylic, but it wasn’t a single transparent layer. We layered one on top of another and met with Katoki many times to capture that same light emission from the anime.

Kawahara: We wanted to get that crystallization effect as best we could by adding diamond cuts and latticework. The acrylic acted as a filter to diffuse the reflection. The exact order was, again, a series of trial and error.

— I see. While it was in unicorn mode, you had to make it appear like it was part of the armor.

Kawahara: That’s right. When it wasn’t illuminated, it needed to look like white tinted glass.

— You really thought about everything down to the smallest details. Speaking more generally, was there any parts you wanted to build or add-on, but couldn’t?

Kawahara: On the whole, we had the freedom to do what we wanted, so honestly there wasn’t anything that we wanted to do, but couldn’t. However, if there was a chance to make another statue from square one, there are some things I would want to do. In every meaning of the phrase, we would have to rebuild. I’d want to start building in a completely different area, but that’s probably impossible.

— I’ve heard opinions from all over the country, but how did it feel to have the Unicorn statue finished finally?

Nakagawa: Putting all the parts together, watching it be built up, and seeing it light up were all part of my daily schedule, so if I’m to be perfectly honest when it was all said and done it wasn’t anything special. Probably the moment that really moved me was the commotion from the guest on opening day when it first transformed. That’s when I finally felt like, “yeah, we did it.” I still get happy when I see guest saving ideal spots to watch the transformation and getting excited when the sequence starts.

Kawahara: Same here, when I heard the crowds reaction I was relieved (laughs). With big jobs like this, the bar always gets raise, and somehow we managed to clear that bar this time. On the day of the opening ceremony, I was so worried that I could cut my tension with a knife and ended up running a fever. I wound up sleeping on the large staircase in the background. When the unveiling happened, I was unfortunately only able to hear everyone’s cheers.

— This will be the last question. What are some details to look out for, for those who plan to go see the Unicorn statue?

Kawahara: This isn’t what most would consider impressive, but the closing mechanism for the horn. When it returns to unicorn mode, the mechanism would take a huge burden if it snapped shut, but it actually stops five millimeters before that happens. Our mech team worked hard on that, so I want people to take note of it.

Other than that, the statue looks especially impressive when viewed from above. When we had to use the crane to work up high, looking at the sight from up above, it felt like we were actually engineers working for Anaheim. Especially at night, it was like we entered an SF world. I don’t think it’s a chance that will present itself to a lot of people, but definitely look at pictures if you can.

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