Building the USS Ares Part 2: “Light Her Up!”

By August 24, 2015 Blog 10 Comments

Michael Payton is a dedicated starship modeller, and one of his recent builds was Axanar’s very own USS Ares. Michael’s kindly offered to share how he modelled Starfleet’s first dedicated warship.

The advent of computer modeling in cinema has been both a blessing and a curse for the hobbyist modeler. A blessing first, because of the sheer number of different designs that have been produced due to not being as limited by materials, budget, and mostly time. But it can also be a curse, since digital models are not limited by the constraints of physics, gravity, materials, or model building technology. Fortunately, the Ares is a relatively straightforward design that lends itself well to the physical aspects of model building.

But, in designing and building the digital model of the Ares the Axanar team took full advantage of the technology at their disposal – which looks beautiful by the way!  To my mild frustration this included a lot of lighting. Navigation lights, strobe lights, formation lights, running lights, interior lighting, the deflector, impulse engines, intricately blinking nacelles, shuttle bay marker lights… Due to the physical limitations of the available space in the model, and my skill limitations as well, I had to choose which lights I would include, and which I would have to forgo for the sake of feasibility.

I decided to forgo all the running lights (the spotlights that light the exterior of the ship) save for one: the light that illuminates the ship’s name and registry on the upper hull. I decided to keep everything else. I also decided to run everything at 12v and to buy all my lighting prewired for that voltage to save time.

First up, the interior lighting. This was by far the easiest part of lighting my Ares build. I used single-density LED tape I bought on eBay. I cut it into sections and placed it inside the ship where there would be exterior windows.

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This included the saucer rim, the lower secondary hull, the aft upper hull, and the B/C decks just under the bridge. I used different gauges of wire (depending on my needs in each circumstance) to hook them all together and run them to the 12v power supply. The windows will be filled with a product called Krystal Klear, which will simulate the glass – er, I mean, the transparent aluminum. 

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Up next were the impulse engines. Red in color, and covered with little grilles that are very similar to the refit enterprise or the enterprise B in their appearance. This effect was achieved by using a scribing tool to scrape parallel grooves in some clear plastic. The plastic was then painted black. After the paint dried it was sanded until only the black in the grooves remained. These plastic pieces were then placed over light boxes with red LEDs inside. These boxes helped focus the red light where I wanted it, and at the same time, kept it away from places like the nearby windows. 

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The deflector was fairly straightforward. A single blue superbright LED in a lightproof cone I fashioned from styrene and then painted to function much like a flashlight. This covered with some super thin white styrene sheet gave me that nice blue glow I was looking for. 

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The spotlight on the upper hull registry area was achieved with what is called a tophat LED. Installed just in front of the bridge, that little bugger was a royal pain to get aimed right! 

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The white formation lights on the front of the upper and lower saucer and the bottoms of the nacelles were plain old 3 mm white LEDs.

The shuttlebay landing lights were a special challenge. So many little lights in a row! I ended up drilling the holes where the lights were and putting short 2 mm fiber optic in the holes.

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After sanding it flush, it was lit from below with 2 superbright white LEDs and covered with black styrene to where it only showed through in little slits. 

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The Blinking green, red and white navigation and strobe lights were also 3mm LEDs controlled by a Tenacontrols Navigation board originally designed for the USS Reliant model. This board is housed in the tightly packed aft primary hull just behind the bridge. The covering over this part is held on with magnets to allow for easy access to do repairs – which I have already utilized more than once.

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This left me with the front of the nacelles, or the bussard collectors as they are called. Whoo boy. I was able to determine the number, color and blinking pattern of the nacelles after watching, rewatching, slowing down, and zooming in Prelude to Axanar (which I didn’t mind in the slightest, although the lines “Garth just went for it” and “It was like a Klingon maneuver” are stuck in my head forever). I mapped these out and made myself a guide.

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I then ordered the appropriate blinking and non-blinking LEDs from lighthouse LEDs.  I opted to get random blinking LEDs rather than try and match the pattern exactly, as it seemed to be quite random anyways and the general effect could be achieved without an exact match. I mounted them in a styrene circle and soldered the leads together.

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Typically LEDs don’t get too hot, but let me tell you that when you get that many, that close together in a confined space… It gets mighty toasty!

Running all this wiring required several gaps, spaces, and holes in the framework of the hull so that I could run it all easily, and it was still a tight fit in many places!

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All the lighting that was constant (engines, shuttlebay, running lights interior, deflector) was wired together to two leads that ran down the stand to the base to be controlled by a switch. The navs and strobes ran to the lighting board, which was powered by 12v and had the power leads running down to a second switch on the base.

All in all, there are over 100 LEDs in this model, one Tenacontrols lighting board, and about 20 yards of wire.


  • Rod says:

    Wow, truly this is incredible to such talent and skill applied to the Ares! Wow

  • Scott Voigt says:

    Most excellent work sir.

  • What amazing attention to detail. I was hoping there would be a video of the finished product, just turning the lighting on and off or panning the camera around the model.

  • David Hernandez says:

    Your work is amazing!

  • Jay says:

    Just guessing by the appearance but is the saucer from an AMT light up Enterprise kit?

  • Rick Newton says:

    Now that shows dedication to a craft. You may consider yourself to be not at the top of modellers, but you are definitely miles and miles ahead of anything I’ve ever done (or considered doing). I love the work and the thought that went into how/where/what in the completed model.

    I can only say: Wow! Nicely done. And, thanks for giving us a look into the process you used.

  • Ben Willis says:

    I can only echo the previous comments made by others, you are truly gifted and dedicated to your craft! It’s really interesting to read the process of how you built this up, alot of work but a beautiful effect, I’m sure! Thank you for sharing this highly detailed description, it gave me a few tips for some of my projects!!

  • Alex says:

    Beautiful! I applaud your craftsmanship and await the finished product with bated breath.