Death Stranding SD Zaku II MULE Custom
by GSquad Community Blog on Jan 02, 2021
Reading Time: 15-20min
Take a step into the Death Stranding universe with me as I show you how I customized my SD
Zaku II into a MULE, complete with cargo and heavy timefall damage. Let’s take gunpla from sapiens to ludens!
Hey all, Body Hammer here from Heavy Mecha Warfare. I wanted to share a special build with you that showcases many different plamo skills that converged into one amazing project. This project is part of a group build that I started with my wife and brother-in-law on Thanksgiving. We set out to each build and customize an SDCS Zaku II in our personal styles (yes, my wife builds gunpla) and, well, I went nuts with this one.
I had just spent some time with my Death Stranding artbook and decided that I wanted to use that to create a story project with this SD Zaku. Inspired by Hideo Kojima’s “From Sapiens to Ludens” philosophy, I wanted to create a meta-universe for this character to live in that grounded him both within our real-world universe and the Death Stranding universe. From Sapiens to Ludens refers to the concept that what makes us human is actually our ability to see things as play, or entertainment for its own sake. Kojima is famous for incorporating culturally significant themes and references into his games, so I thought a character from Death Stranding who wanted to cosplay a Zaku was a pretty good way to go from sapiens to ludens with this project.
Death Stranding is a cinematic video game experience by Kojima Productions in which you play as Sam Bridges Porter, a courier in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by monsters spawned from tar and acid rain so caustic it ages any organic tissue it touches. In this universe, there are classes of characters known as Porters and MULEs. Porters are pacifist couriers who brave the wastes to deliver packages to distant outposts, while MULEs are… couriers of contraband, let’s say. I wanted my character to be somewhere in the space between pacifism and living outside the law, so I set out to create a story for him to live in. This would really help me sell the image of a man wearing armor that looked like a Zaku rather than a human piloting a giant robot suit. [Spoiler: This was my greatest takeaway - play with scale. This was by far the most rewarding aspect of this build, and opened many doors for me to customize and have fun.]
An otaku for life, Zaku-II chose his name and signature armor style as an homage to his favorite mobile suit from his manga collection - Zaku II from Mobile Suit Gundam. Zaku-II is a MULE, whose primary function is as a courier of black market medical supplies to those in need in the outposts scattered across the American wastes.
Modifications to Zaku-II’s Equipment
- Customizing Zaku-II’s Armor
To tell a convincing story, I had to first anchor the armor of the mobile suit to something that made sense. Inspired by the flat shoulder shield on this Zaku’s armor, I decided that a courier/non-combat class would be the most interesting route. This allowed me to discard the weapons (which proved to be useful later) and focus on what a scout-type armor would feel like instead of combat.
First, I sealed all of the seams on the model kit using Tamiya Cement. I then added small details using PLA plate and superglue. This gave a lot of depth to the model, and while painting it allowed for me to mask and create further color separation. It also looked great when I got to the weathering step. I used a pin vise and a scribing chisel to add some detail to the shoulder pauldron, because rivets on armor are a pretty cool visual motif from the game I wanted to preserve.
This project was my first time using an airbrush, and I was lucky enough to have some great tools to start out with. I can only speak to them from my own experience and have nothing else to compare them to, but I had a great experience despite making a few rookie mistakes and wanted to share with you how I went about it. I used StudioGundam’s core set of GPaints for this project, and while I have nothing else to compare them to, I can confirm that they worked very nicely and I got beautiful results as a beginner. Not having to thin the paint gave me confidence early in the process, and mixing them was pretty easy as well. I mixed a few custom colors for this project, and the ratios are as follows:
Dark Iron (straight from the bottle)
7 parts Dark Iron + 3 parts Blue
6 parts Yellow + 4 parts Red + 2 parts White
8 parts White + 2 parts Dark Iron
To give his armor an authentic and high-tech feel, I used waterslide decals from a Real Grade Zaku II. This is usually my favorite step of the build process on any model, because I love how focused and meticulous you need to be to get them just right!
Chiral Detector Staff
As I mentioned earlier, I ditched the weapons from my Zaku’s kit when I decided to make him a non-combat character. Thankfully, my wife did too, and I was able to combine two of the axe handles to create a pretty convincing version of the chiral detector staff which is pretty emblematic of this character class in the game.
I combined this staff with some pieces of the tank and a hose from a Kotobukiya Water Arms Special Edition accessory to make the power pack for it. This was one of my favorite details in the art book, because it explicitly states that the device’s primary function is for scouting and safety, and it’s secondary function is as a defensive weapon.
By far, the most time-intensive part of this project was researching and executing the weathering effects. I started by observing what was canon to the Death Stranding universe - Timefall itself. Timefall is a form of precipitation that is so corrosive that it ages any biological tissue it makes contact with. In order to protect themselves from Timefall, any scouting character from the MULEs like Zaku-II to the villains to the protagonist must armor themselves heavily.
Selling the effect was critically important to me. It couldn’t just be applied to Zaku’s armor, because that wouldn’t be realistic - I needed to observe the way that other objects (his gear, scenery, buildings) would be weathered in this world. I needed to weather the cargo, the backpack, the staff, the energy pack, the Odradek and the backpack brace itself.
I then sought inspiration from the broader plamo community, and did some heavy research into tanks and Chernobyl vehicle weathering. I found this video from ScaleModelMedic that informed my approach to weathering most heavily, and would be remiss if I didn’t share that awesome resource with you all. I found a great method of slow and patient weathering through acrylic mediums in combination with drybrushing to be the appropriate approach to this project, because this gives you a gradual buildup that feels more realistic.
This is the part of this project people have asked most about, so I want to be sure to spend some time here to hopefully help you get the right weathering effect on your next project.
The strategy I used was to first determine what areas would damage the finish of Zaku’s armor so deeply that it would go to the bare metal. These areas were mostly the tops of things - his head, his shoulders, edges and highlight areas. By visualizing what the base level should be (raw metal/Tamiya Flat Aluminum paint) I was able to then visualize and eventually plan the dimensionality of what would happen AFTER the metal was worn to its bare finish. What damage or rusting, weathering or wear would occur over time once the bare metal was exposed?
Once my bare surfaces dried, I applied some lighter colors of the rust and darker colors for chipping. This gave me the visual effect that there was depth and dimensionality (and, most importantly, time) applied to each of these damaged areas. In trying to simulate rapid aging but realistic timing, I used Acrysion Russet for older base rust and Tamiya Brown for recent rust. I applied this with a combination of ragged brushes and the edge of a standard kitchen sponge, which I cut into cubes and use for weathering.
Using a ragged brush like the ones in the photo above gives randomness and scatter to the pattern when paint leaves the brush and hits the plastic. Dip your brush tip into your paint and brush it dry against a paper towel until most of the paint has left the brush - this is a critical step to make sure that you’re transferring tiny particles of the paint to the model’s surface and not big globs of uncontrollable paint. Gently tapping the brush against the edges of a model with this technique gives a wonderful chipping effect. In this case I did some chipping on edges as well as some scraping effects, which I achieved with the same amount of paint on my brush but by using a quick dashing of the brush against the surface to sell the effect. This is most visible here on Zaku’s helmet.
I also used the edge of a cube cut from a normal kitchen sponge with the same approach as my brush technique - wiping most of the paint from the sponge before gently dabbing the edge or larger surfaces of the model. You can get great chipping effects on the edges of your model with a sponge surface, but it’s critical that you do this with as little paint on the sponge as you can. A sponge edge is much larger than a brush tip, so be careful not to glop paint all over your beautiful model kit! Using this technique with some Vallejo Thick Mud along the bottom of the boots and backpack gear also sold the visual effect of the black tar that the monsters in the game spawn from, as well as heavy spots of gunk and sludge with Tamiya Brown, Tamiya Copper and Acrysion Hull Red.
Leather Straps and Package Brackets
I wanted to bring the strappy fashion style of Sam’s equipment into the build somehow, and leather can be difficult to make look convincing if you’re not a miniature painting wizard (hint: I am not). I spent an afternoon researching seatbelt creation techniques from the model plane and car communities, and landed on a very simple solution that worked beautifully in practice.
To create a strap that was strong enough not to tear or pull, but would be flexible and movable across my piece, I used masking tape folded in half onto itself. I cut that into thin strips, and then fitted them against the model to see if the length was appropriate. I got this trick from the model airplane community, who occasionally uses it to fashion seatbelts for their cockpits. Once I had the length right, I laid them flat and drybrushed them with Tamiya Hull Red and Metallic Brown, which gave a leathery appearance that looked worn and believable when the tape was draped over the body parts.
Another visual motif that was important for me to include was the triangular metal brackets that are used to magnetically fix cargo to a surface. This was easy enough with some PLA plate and a pair of scissors, and superglue held them all in place.
I couldn’t look at a spiked shoulder and not want to do something that calls back to Fragile. Without spoiling anything for anyone, Fragile is a character in the storyline who, like my character, lives on the edge of the law. She wears a spiky leather-esque jacket which, notably, does not take any weathering or wear from Timefall. I had to do this. This was too cool not to include. Thankfully this was really easily accomplished with some spikes from an MGS supplement pack and superglue. I hit it with a coat of Dark Iron GPaint and once it dried I applied some subtle waterslides and a tiny speckling of Tamiya Titanium Silver for depth and moved on.
Cargo was something that I knew I’d need to include in the build regardless, and I’m awfully glad I did. Carrying cargo (and ridiculous amounts of it) is certainly the most commonly known visual theme of Death Stranding, so I had to get this right.
I took a risk and was able to find some perfect containers on Kotobukiya’s US site (on sale, Black Friday!) on a HexaGear Container Set supplemental product. These were scaled perfectly for the project and required no modification to be appropriately-sized for Zaku-II to be hauling, so I set off to work in beating the everloving crap out of them with a metal file before sanding, priming, and painting them. I used yellow electrical tape to wrap the cargo containers with the iconic yellow safety tape, and superglued it into place to ensure it held. I had the supreme pleasure of weathering them with Timefall damage on stream, and here are the results. Pretty gnarly.
I struggled hardest to build the Odradek, because I was trying to make it accurate to the artbook in some pretty arbitrary ways. My original plan didn’t work out - I was going to use the funnels from a HGUC Hi-Nu Gundam, but they were too big and too far out of scale. I tried to fashion my own using PLA plate and a file - and that sucked too. It just didn’t look realistic to my eye, and I struggled for a week trying to find something new to use until stumbling upon a HGBC Binder Gun kit that seemed like it could work at the hobby store. Luckily, it was perfect in more ways than I could have expected - the modularity of the strange ball joints allowed for a very easy posing method, and the connecting arms proved to convincingly sell the arm that holds the Odradek to the body. Most importantly, though, I was able to cut and file the shape of the binder gun’s… gun things, I guess, and gave Zaku-II a unique Odradek that I think Kojima would approve of.
Thanks for taking the time to check this article out! I was very happy with the final result, and am quite proud of the new techniques I tried on this project. It stretched my abilities in scratch building, kitbashing, airbrushing, weathering, and photography and composition. I feel the concept is quite strong, and I’m so glad to have had this community to share it with! Enjoy the showcase, and don’t forget that what makes us human is our ability to play.