What Is Kitbashing, a Kit, and a Prefab?
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Oct 2nd 2022

So when working on a film or videogame, you may hear the word kit or Prefab thrown around. So what do these terms mean? Simply put, these terms all relate to the practice of using pre-existing pieces or items to assemble or model a brand new object or environment. That's the short answer, now let's dig a little deeper.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.



Traditional Kitbashing

In the 70s and 80s in film, spaceships like those of Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, or Alien were built as practical models in the real world. But rather than building every little detail from scratch, the big parts would be built from scratch, and the little details would be taken from pre-existing model kits. So you'd go to the local model shop, purchase 10 World War 1 or 2 tank and airplane kits...



remove the little pieces from the sprue (which is the frame the kit pieces were attached to)...


JZ Hobby Store

Then glue the little pieces to your model, and then paint overtop. Voila, the ship from alien...


Jon Sorensen Pics

This technique became known as kit bashing, since you were taking bits of a kit and bashing them together to form something new. Think of it like Lego, you are using pre-existing pieces to make a new design.


Lego Spaceship by Ninja 5

Setdressing In Live Action Films

In a similar fashion, the earliest scifi films didn't have the budget to build everything from scratch. And so while a few props might be manufactured specifically for the film, most of the objects come our own world. A good example, the futuristic chairs in the film 2001 were actually the Djinn chair by Olivier Mourgue, which you could purchase for your home or office.


2001 Space Odyssey, Djinn Chair

So there's a long history in film of getting a bunch of props together, and using pre-existing props or parts to make new things. This is where the term prefabs come from, standing for "prefabricated", you're building something new from stuff that's already been fabricated.

Digital Kitbashing

So now we do a lot of stuff digitally for films, including making spaceships. But the old techniques don't die, they just transform. Most artists make kits of their own, for example, here's a personal kit of discs that can be used as details when creating a new spaceship.



I modeled all of these from scratch, but they have shown up on countless of my spaceship models. Another nice thing about digital is I can start with one of these kit discs on a new spaceship, but then edit it to maybe look a little different, or add details to it to make it work better with whatever design aesthetic I need for the final project. But having something prefabbed helps speed up the process.

Plus, if you don't want to spend the time modeling your own kit, there are countless kits available to purchase online, from tiny details to entire buildings. While using these prefabs means your work won't look as unique because you're using models that other artists can purchase as well, how you use them and where you put them can still reveal a lot of your own artistic style.


Unreal store

Prefabs and Kits in Videogames

In videogames, even now, having a game run efficiently is tremendously important. And there's a lot of tricks to do that, from keeping your polycounts low, to reusing textures. But another technique is using kits. Basically, a concept artist will design an environment, but then 3d artists will break down that environment into repeatable chunks, and then place those chunks all over a level. Here's an example from Bungie, many of their Witch Queen environments are actually a set of 20-30 pieces repeated again and again to form complex environments.


Aaron Cruz @ Bungie

The art is avoiding something that looks repetitive. You can do this by breaking up repetitive areas with a unique object, but by doing this, you save on texture and geometry memory, because each repeated object will be loaded only once.

Even at a concept level you can think in kits. When I worked on the Pixar film Wall-e, I was tasked with modeling and texturing all the satellites that surrounded earth.


Pixar - Disney

The art department, rather than designing 20 or 30 completely unique satellites, designed maybe 20 pieces of satellite, and then placed them together to make different combinations. So when I did the final 3d modeling and texture, I built the individual pieces, and then bashed them together to make the final models.

Conclusion

So whether you call it kitbashing, a kit, prefabs, or any other of a dozen other similar names, the basic idea is to take pre-existing pieces and build something new with them to save time and money. A really common practice in the film and videogame industry, so hopefully you can find a way to incorporate the practice into your workflow.


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