Interview with Alex Unruh, X-Plane Art Director

Jennifer Roberts

Question: When and how did you get started with X-Plane? Do you have an aviation or design background?

Alex Unruh: I have been dabbling in flight simulation for as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure that I’ve been an aviation nut even longer than that! My first exposure was Graphsim’s F/A-18 Hornet 1.0, which I ran on the family’s Macintosh LCiii. I played that and A-10 Attack for years until we finally upgraded to a first generation iMac in 1999. It was during that time that I discovered a demo for X-Plane 5 bundled in with those CDs that you used to get in Mac magazines. Even though you could only run the sim for five minutes in demo mode, I was hooked. My builder self was drawn into Plane Maker early on. It was like throwing the entire Lego bin on the floor every time I opened it up without the problems associated with stepping on loose pieces late at night. I would spent countless hours building, modifying, and testing things that I had created. Could I build a jet truck and get it to Mach 1 by the end of the long runway at Edwards AFB? Could I build my favorite fighter jets? The answer was yes on both! Version 5 tinkering became version 6, version 6 became 7 and I kept playing in the sandbox, building my skillset, and learning all I could about aviation.

During my first and only year of music school back in 2005-6, I probably spent way more time than I should have developing commercial liners for the X-Plane Freeware Project including the Boeing 717 and Boeing 727. When it was clear that music school wasn’t going to be where my priorities were, I went back home and started work on a graphic design degree. I kept up with X-Plane during that time and started working on the Boeing 777 with a good friend of mine. That became the XPJets 777 which we had intended to keep developing post freeware release. After years of trolling around with odd X-Plane projects here and there, and another intensive art degree (this time in ceramics) in another state later, I was picked up by Laminar Research through an old X-Plane Freeware colleague of mine. I am currently serving as art director at LR.

Q: What type of computer set up do you use? Any hardware or accessories you couldn’t live without, or a 3rd party program or tool you find invaluable?

AU: I currently do the bulk of my X-Plane design work on a 27inch retina 5K iMac. I also use a MacBook Pro for development on the go. I’ve always been a Mac guy and I don’t see that changing for the foreseeable future. Blender and Photoshop are my go to tools. As long as I’ve got a trackpad, I’m good to go anywhere (ditched the mouse years ago, never looked back).

Q: What’s the most challenging part about creating for X-Plane?

AU: Two answers: If I’m building aircraft, the most difficult part of any build is modeling the systems to a sufficient degree that they reflect their real world counterparts. In some cases, it’s a one to one… X-Plane just gets it and does it the right way from the get go. In most cases however, real world systems are orders of magnitude more complex. As artists, we’ve got more tools now than we ever have including an in-house LUA scripting plugin and increased flexibility within X-Plane and Plane Maker to do what we need. Even with that, its still a walk down the rabbit hole every time I open up a LUA file.

If I’m building scenery, the real challenge isn’t with the scenery objects or with the texturing, but it is fitting everything within the proper framework, especially in regards to autogen. Good AGBs and AGSs are magic, and it takes such a high level of craft, attention to detail, and creative problem solving that to date, autogen is some of the most difficult work that I’ve ever had to do.

Q: The best or most rewarding part?

AU: This is actually a tough question. Every milestone is rewarding. The first time that you see all of the objects and textures in the sim animating properly is a great moment. The first time you get the cockpit geometry in place is a great moment. The last line of code, the last 3D manipulator, testing the last generic instrument… they’re all great moments. I think that what ultimately does it for me though is the first time that I’m able to see my airplane at night with all of the 3D lighting, billboards, LIT textures, and lighting controls in place, especially in the cockpit. X-Plane’s night lighting is so good, that it really can take you there, out of the simulation and into reality.

Q: What’s your favorite creation?

AU: My favorite creation tends to be what I’m working on or what I’ve just finished. As of right now, my favorite is the 737NG for X-Plane 11. It has been such a terrific learning experience (I learned to code!) and to see everything come together including the new integrated FMS from Philipp, it’s just at the top of the heap for me. Whether or not it stays my favorite remains to be seen. I have a distinct feeling that my next project may eclipse it.

Q: Who or what do you look up to or get inspiration from?

AU: I would say that I draw my inspiration from reality, from the real thing. There is something magical about watching planes come in on approach. Whether it be the noise, the condensation wake, the wings bouncing through rough air or standing in the wake turbulence, I am all about doing justice to the actual aircraft. When I start a new project, I drown myself in images and videos of what I’m making. I study every curve and pour over the details. Pretty soon, I begin to appreciate the character of what I’m working on. Replicating that character, getting the face just right, it is something that takes immersion and a great passion for aviation.

I approach texturing from both a technical and a painterly approach. The foundation is technical, but weathering is different. It tells a story, and I get to decide what kind of story I’m going to tell, until the thing that I’m working on starts to develop a life of its own. Then you just run with it. In the end, it is all about bringing the aircraft to life inside the simulator as convincingly as possible.

Q: What’s the most important thing for new artists or people just get started with X-Plane development to know?

AU: My advice to newcomers to X-Plane development is simple. Start small and stick with it. Begin by modifying existing aircraft or perhaps build something from your imagination in Plane Maker. Maybe you start by giving your favorite aircraft a new paintjob. Perfection is never the goal. The important thing is to build up your skill set so that you can handle more ambitious projects later on.

If you’re already an artist familiar with the 3D workflow and texturing, start with a basic aircraft. Work through the process, work through the tool chain, and go to the communities for feedback and advice. Stick with it until you’re comfortable with Plane Maker, the ins and outs of datarefs, animation, avionics, flight dynamics etc. Once you’ve mastered everything on the small scale, take it up a level. Increase the complexity. Solve new problems. It’s a rewarding process.

I’ve spent the past 17 years using X-Plane in some form or another, and the past 12 years developing seriously. I’ve been using Blender and Photoshop for about 13 years now and am still learning. While I have had breaks due to school, I’ve always come back to it. There are plenty of good resources out there, communities of great people to answer your questions, and worthwhile projects to be done. That is ultimately the great thing about X-Plane. If you can imagine it, you can make it.

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