Aztec Hull Pattern.

NeoTrinarty asked what Aztec hull pattern is, and I figure the best way to describe it is with a post and pictures. Basically, Aztec, Aztecing, Aztec pattern, whatever you want to call it, is a blanket term for the hull panel patterns done on Star Trek ships, to show the individual plates that comprise the hull. It first started appearing way back in the late ’70s.


When they were making Star Trek: The Motion Picture, one thing they had to do was decide how best to represent the Enterprise on the big screen. They’d already scrapped the model being built for Phase II and had done some tweaks to the design to give the model more detail needed for the size at which it would be seen. Finally, someone came up with the idea to paint all of the individual panels on the ship, thus giving it a sense of scale and more detail. (I’ll go into why this isn’t necessary for scale in a moment) They came up with a pattern that is now known as “Aztec” and painted it on the hull in paints that varied slightly in color and shininess. Here’s a great screen capture from TMP showing the pattern on the hull, thanks to Trek Core:

Now, that’s the Aztec pattern in all its glory. As you can see, it’s very subtle. In fact, it’s so subtle that it only appears clearly in certain lighting conditions and up close. In wider shots, it’s still there, but harder to make out:

Now, as far as the older stuff with physical models, TMP is where you best see the Aztec pattern. FGC (Future General Corporation) did the effects for TMP, and they shot the model against a black background. ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) took over the effects starting with Star Trek II and, unfortunately, one of the first things they did with the model was spray a duller coat over the pearlescent paint, so that the hull wouldn’t reflect the blue screen they used for filming. Other companies that “borrowed” the model also dulled the paint for the same reason, and by the later films the Aztec pattern was very hard to make out:

Later Use

Aztec became the norm for Starfleet hull paneling after TMP, because everyone loved how the Enterprise looked with all of those shiny panels. When they built the Reliant for Star Trek II, they definitely wanted it to look like it was from the same fleet, so its paint job was done very similarly to the Enterprise’s:

Other ships in Starfleet would have similar patterns, including the Excelsior. The Grissom is an early example of an exception to this. Later, on towards TNG, they did this type of paneling on the ships for that show as well, including the Enterprise and the Nebula class:

Now, both of those models had their paint jobs touched up for Generations, but you can see how they were always represented, though spotting the panels on screen can be difficult, especially if you watch the show in Standard Definition. The Enterprise-E also had Aztec, as did a number of other “guest” ships, though there are a few exceptions to the Aztec. The Enterprise-C is one. Instead of Aztec, they painstakingly cut all of the little panel lines in:

In my opinion, this is not an improvement over the painted panels, as it’s no easier to make out on screen:

It’s there, but only really visible in extreme close ups, just as the little painted panels are. Voyager is another ship to get away from the Aztec look:

All they did with Voyager was subtly vary the colors of gray used on the sections between the grid lines. No individual panels were painted, unless those were supposed to be the individual panels. For some ships, they went more to the extreme with panel patterns:

Now, obviously, the Defiant doesn’t have an Aztec pattern on it, but rather various cut lines and different colors of panel sections.


Switching to CGI, the Aztec pattern was carried over. In some cases, it’s way more heavy handed than others. The NX-01, for example, has a very heavy handed look to its paneling, as does the Enterprise-E from Nemesis:

The Kelvin timeline has a mix of Aztec styles. The Kelvin itself has heavy handed paneling:

While the Entrprise’s paneling is done more like TMP:

So, it’s a mixed bag of styles. With Discovery, we’re back to more heavy handedness:

Now, there are a lot of things that will affect how the paneling shows up with CGI. Specular settings (make the hull shiny) will make a difference, as will lighting. I’ve noticed a tendency in modern games, films and shows to overdo the specular settings, as well as lighting things in a way to make the panels pop more. Is this a bad thing? You be the judge.

By the way, I don’t think the Europa is supposed to be that much bigger than the Discovery, so this is a case of the panels not indicating scale, as the Europa’s panels are much smaller on its hull than Discovery’s. If we use that for scale, than the Europa is positively huge, as the Discovery is over 700m long.

Personal Use

Now, getting on to how this all applies to me and my current project. In the past, I’ve done Aztec:

And, there are times where I haven’t done it:

So, to use it or not to use it. While it looks cool, I question its intended use. Allegedly, the panel pattern was added to the ship to give it a sense of scale. That’s fine, if you think painting little panels all over the ship really helps give you the impression that it’s huge. One thing Star Trek ships aren’t stingy on is windows. Now, you can guesstimate the size of the ship quite quickly, if you think about regular windows. Taking a quick measurement of a window I have in this room, it’s roughly 38 inches wide, or just under 1 meter. If you look at Star Trek ships, the round windows have a diameter of around 1 meter. The rectangle ones (TOS, TMP ships) have a vertical height around there. Use that as a visual cue, and you have a rough scale. It’s that easy. And, if you’re unsure on the size of the windows, no problem:

Other visual cues include the hatches, ports, etc. Also, they stick other things in the scenes to help us. We know the size of the travel pod, because we have two grown adults standing up inside it. So, there’s always these:

Then there are these shots, where we have people against the ship for scale:

So, painting little panels all over the ship isn’t really necessary to give it scale. I think someone literally did it because it looks cool. That’s not a bad thing, but that’s why I’m also not sure I want to do that on my current ship. In my opinion, a ship built in the future wouldn’t necessarily be made of tiny panels, like modern ships are. After all, it’s the future. For all we know, the hulls will be poured into giant molds or they’ll use some gigantic variation on 3D printing. It’s the future, not the past.

2 responses to “Aztec Hull Pattern.

  1. Thank you for the explanation. I now understand. I can see myself become a bigger star trek fan in the future. Certain things in Dr Who don’t sit well with me. I agree with your though process. A smoother finish makes more sense. I tend to think a lot about the models I work on. I never realized just how big the star trek universe is

  2. 2 years late in replying but there will probably be others like me that take up the Model building hobby. I do like the Astec patterning, its a great way to break up what would be a block of off white on the screen and was clearly an artistic choice in terms of adding that sense of scale as you said. However if you look at pictures of large ships like the air craft carriers and even some of the larger airplanes, they all have the uniform colour block as the hulls are painted to give extra protection from elements the idea of it being used to show scale seems a tad flimsy in reasoning. However that is not to say that it doesn’t have a plausible reasoning. Whether it is something they had thought of but never mentioned I have no idea but my thought would be – stealth, in theory using paints with different properties (there are some out there with iron balls that have a absorbing and dissapating, some that outright absorb various energy waves and even others that just bounce it back. Potentially protecting the ship from various background radiations and even helping it to remain undetected from budding civilisations who are looking to the stars but haven’t quite the technology to reach out further than their own solar system (such as ourselves)

    Admittedly I am debating whether to paint the patterning or not on my model (1:500 scale Enterprise NCC-1701 from Into Darkness) If I do I’ll have to work out how without buying a masking kit that costs more than the model was….

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