Repainting in Microsoft Flight Simulator
By JanKees Blom
Repainting for MSFS, is that difficult?
Well, no, not really. I've been doing it for almost 10 years now, and although my first attempts gave me lots of headaches and took forever, I have now reached a stage where I do it purely for entertainment, and can still produce acceptable repaints very quickly. In these last 10 years I have produced well over a 1000 repaints, for nearly all kinds of aircraft, from GA via tubeliners and jets to my favorite subject, WW2 vintage aircraft.
Recently I was asked if I would be interested in writing an article for FlightSim.Com, explaining some of the ins and outs of what it takes to produce repaints, and I thought, why not? I invented the wheel myself when it comes to repainting, so why not explain the principles and some tricks to others? Who knows, they might be inspired to start repainting themselves, and discover that it can be fun flying around with something you created yourself for the sim.
Let's start with a bit of a background: My name is JanKees Blom, and I'm a Dutchman living in Belgium. I teach geology at a university in the Netherlands, so I tend to be on the road a lot between Belgium and the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe for field trips with my students. However, I do find myself sitting in front of a computer on a regular basis to paint aircraft, although I admit it is slowing down a bit.
I started repainting when I was cleaning out my house, back in 2007, and found a box containing a plastic model of a Mustang (anyone else built the 1/24 Airfix kit?) and thought that it would be nice to fly that aircraft in MSFS. I had at that time just bought the Shockwave (now A2A) P-51D for FS2004. It took me a few weeks, discovering everything more or less myself, but in the end I was flying 'Ridge Runner' in the simulator, and felt very proud. Needless to say, I didn't stop there, but continued painting more P-51's and over time diversified to other aircraft. I started uploading them on various sites, before settling on OZx, and that is where you will find the bulk of my paints (well over a 1000 at the last count). Clearly, it can't be that difficult if even I, a geologist with a full time job, and who travels a lot, can produce so many.
So how do I do it? Well first you need the right software, and second, you need to know what you are doing. So let's start with the software: you will need a graphics program, like Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, or the freeware Gimp, but even Illustrator can be very useful. Actually, I think I created my first 500 paints with Illustrator before discovering Photoshop (PS). Now I know that most people can't afford to purchase Photoshop, so believe me when I say, PaintShop Pro or Gimp work perfectly well too. What you need is a program which works with layers, and both of these programs do. Another piece of software I use is DXTBMP, a very handy little freeware tool which you can download here:
I use it to convert my textures to the dds files FSX understands, and to combine the normal and alpha textures (more on those later). That's it software-wise, so, with these two freeware programs, there's no reason why you shouldn't get started and begin repainting!
So on to the second part: knowing what you are doing
Now, I don't want to turn this into a Photoshop manual, so I'll limit myself to making textures for FSX, and assume that you will find your way around the graphics program yourself (though you will see some techniques and tricks in this article).
I thought the best way to explain the whole process was by giving you an example, and for this, I have chosen a freeware model that I really like, which is the C-47 by Manfred Jahn. If you don't have the latest version, with the vintage cockpit, download it here (douglas_c-47_v3_12_beta.zip).
It is a masterpiece, payware quality for free (who can resist that).
When it comes to repainting aircraft, there are basically three ways to go:
- By adapting the original textures (can be done, but is really hard, let's not go there now)
- By using white textures (Carenado and Alabeo aircraft, maybe we'll talk about that later)
- By using a paint kit (by far the easiest way, which we will do here)
If a paint kit is available (the original textures are available in a file containing layers for the different parts of the textures), it makes it relatively easy to create new paints. The idea is that, in your graphics program (I'll refer to it PS from now on), you can place certain layers BELOW the paintwork, and others ABOVE. For instance, you could have the metal colors below your paintwork, but the panel lines and rivets above. This is why working with layers is so important. Most paint kits come with a series of PSD files (Photoshop extension), but both Gimp and PaintShop Pro can open these too. For Manfred's C-47, there is an excellent paint kit available by Gordon Madison and if you open it in PS, it looks like this:
You can clearly recognize the shape of both sides of the fuselage and other bits and pieces like the wings and engines. Other models may have a far more complicated layout of the textures, or use multiple files, making life a lot more difficult. Aerosoft and Carenado are notoriously difficult in this respect; A2A though, produces nice and easy layouts in their paint kits. This is why I wanted to start with this C-47 (paint kits don't come much easier than this).
If you look closely, you'll notice the different layers in the bottom right corner, including some containing paints I created earlier (RAAF FD-D to VH-BAA). Below those, you see a layer called 'spec', and two marked 'Service skin', giving you two types of metal skin. The top one shows two more layers, one marked 'alpha' and one marked 'texture'. The one called 'texture' is what you see; those are the metal colors. Above my paints, you will see things like 'rivets and panels', 'details', 'wear' and 'mesh'. These are layers that contain the artwork for, yes, rivets, and details like prop blades, the interior, and the dirt you'll see. The layer 'mesh', which is now not visible, will show you the exact layout of the textures and is a very useful layer! So what is this layer 'spec' and 'alpha' I hear you say? For this I suggest you take a look in any of the texture folders of the C-47 (simobjects/aircraft). Every texture folder contains something like this:
There are four DDS texture files, all with similar names, but as you can see, there are two versions, such as: C47_1_T and C-47_1_T_Spec. The C-47_1_T contains the textures, while the spec file controls the color and the type of reflections. Strictly speaking, you don't need them for a repaint (FS2004 did not have them), but they give an extra depth to your repaint, and they are not difficult to make, so keep them in the back of your mind. What about the color of the reflections and where do the reflections come from? Well, they are caused by what we call the alpha channel, which is part of the main textures. If you have DXTBMP installed, open one of the C47_1_T textures and you'll see something like this:
The main image is part of the textures, as you can see from above, although upside down (we'll come to that later), but do you notice the little image in the top right corner? That is the alpha channel, which contains information about which part of the texture should be shiny (the black parts) and which are not (the white parts). So if we want to make a paint of an aircraft with partly shiny bare metal, and part matte paint, the metal parts should be dark in the alpha channel and the painted parts light. This too is NOT difficult to make as I will show you (BTW, the spec file also has an alpha channel that controls the sharpness of the reflections).
So, in order to create a repaint, for each texture file, we need to create the following:
- The 'normal': the actual textures that you will see.
- The alpha: which parts are reflective and which are not.
- The spec file: a file that determines the colors of the reflections.
- The spec alpha: which parts are fuzzy (painted areas, light), and which ones are sharp reflections (metal areas, dark).
For the C-47, with two different textures, this means eight files in all (unless you don't care about spec files, then only four). The main effort will be for the normal files, the rest is easy...I promise!
Now all we need to decide is which C-47 we want to paint.
To be continued in Part 2...