Whether it is a kit or a scratchbuild, I always research the piece I am modelling to ensure accuracy and realism. This is achieved by studying the original prop or reading as much as possible about the subject to get a good idea as to how it would look. Obviously, this isn't so important if your subject is a creation from your own imagination but it still pays to understand some of the basic mechanics. Besides, spending a couple of hours on the internet looking up movies can be quite therapeutic!
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