posted on Apr 05, 2020
Interview: Björn Hurri
Björn Hurri is for me one of the best character designers out there. You may have seen the results of his designs on projects like God of War 4, The Division or Alien Isolation. He has been art directing for a long time, and outside of it, he’s currently running the third year of his challenge “Unreal Bjornament” with great success. I had the pleasure of discovering his art a few years ago at a workshop, and I’m always impressed by his combination of style and skill, making his designs look unique and timeless.
Hi Björn, nice to have you here! So, to begin, can you introduce yourself (for those who don't already know you)?
Hello everyone, my name is Björn Hurri and I am a lead artist and art director for an outsourcing studio in the entertainment industry and I specialize in design and IP development. I also help out some clients with freelance sporadically to supplement and hone my skillsets. I've been working in the industry for 15 years and I have had the pleasure of working on well over 70 titles. I am also an online educator for 8 years, I used to have a highly popular character design class over at CG Master Academy which was at full capacity each term for 4 years with thousands of students. I also lecture at workshops all over the world where I share my knowledge with people.
What are the main projects you worked on?
Oh, where to start. I have had the honor of being a part of many multiple award-winning games so I will try to recall some highlights from over the years. I have worked on Battlefield, Alien isolation, Horizon: zero dawn, god of war 4, Wizards of the coast, Days gone, Dishonored, Infamous 2, The Division, League of Legends, Destiny 2, Sea of Thieves, and the list goes on and on.
What is the project you're the most proud of?
I am proud of all projects I am a part of because I always try to inject a lot of myself into the projects. I want to be able to point at any asset and go "I made that!". Some projects stand out more of course due to the accolades they gather. Like the Total war series or Alien Isolation that has won multiple BAFTA's or god of war 4 that won all awards possible one year? haha. One thing that I am proud of though is the fact that I have helped a lot of studios getting their games greenlit by publishers and secure jobs for thousands and thousands of people. I love working together with studio AD's and craft unique worlds for them. Some of these are The Division, Sea of Thieves, Horizon, and Lords of the Fallen.
Can you tell me a bit more about your work on God of War? How do you approach this type of project?
I got to work on God of war many years ago and it was a blast. The art team over there are mad skilled and their art director Rafael Grassetti is great to deal with. I had the pleasure to tag in on the Travellers, a sort of bottleneck gatekeeper in the game. There were factions and versions of them that never made the cut but it is always fun to see your babies realized by a top tier studio. My approach to work like this is to absorb the art direction provided and try to understand it to a point where you can categorize and lump information into clear high-level groups and with that, I'll try to insert my thoughts, twists, and designs into the gaps and hope to strengthen and evolve the product.
Can you tell me a bit more about your personal projects?
I have a lot of them going so I will touch on only a few. Quite a few years ago I made my own pixel art game called The Other Brothers together with my friend Thomas Pasieka. It was a fun little project with a sad ending but it sold moderately well and was embraced and featured all over media. It was a great challenge to design multiple characters with only 30 pixels height and the hand animate it all. That gave me a push and drive to make my second game which will be a new take on the RPG genre. I am currently building a pitch to showcase to some investors already eager to get started.
Another project of mine is a feature film we are pitching and shopping around in Hollywood with my friend, co-creator and scriptwriter Juhani Nurmi. It's a dark dieselpunk take on ww2 with tons of action. I initially produced it as a graphic novel but switched the approach to a lookbook with full illustrations geared towards the movie industry instead. It seems to have been the right move as a lot of Hollywood interest has been buzzing around with some big names in discussions.
I also have to talk about the fact that our own Firestarter Mr. Spiridon and I will be making an artbook together which will contain a lot of monster designs and sketchbook pages straight from my private works. I can't wait to wrap this baby up!
Besides your work as an art director, you've launched "Unreal Bjornament" a few years ago. What motivated you to create such a challenge?
Well, it is a long story but I will try to make it short. It all started many years ago in 2002 or so on a forum called conceptart.org and there was this competition called Thunderdome: last man standing and it was created by one of the users, Cody Tilson. The basic idea was much like Mad Max2 where two men enter and one man leaves, so in other words, it was a knock-out tournament for artnerds and it was a blast. I took part in it as a budding artist and was thrown into the cage with beasts. It was a great learning experience and it stuck in the back of my mind ever since. The feeling of not knowing what shark you will be pitted against if you make the cut was thrilling, exciting, and it made you really put all your chips in and go full out in each round. So the first edition of Unreal Bjornament I wanted to recreate the setup and I approached the original creator and asked for his approval. Not only did he give it to me but he was also one of the judges on UB1 so I was pumped!
We are now in the third year and we got 10 of the meanest, badassed artists out there as a panel of judges. How does Ben Mauro, Even Mehl Amundsen, Jana Schirmer, Maxx Burman, Mark Molnar, Lip Comarella, Bastien Lecouffe Deharme, Jama Jurabaev, Rafael Grassetti, Erik Staub sound? o. m. g.
I can't wait for next year edition and see what we have to offer the participants
What has been the response to Unreal Bjornament? What stood out for you in people's submitted work?
The response has been great! Each year it has been growing and growing. The first year we were just shy of 50 artists competing and in the second year, we annihilated that statistic with 112 artists taking part. This year I decided to cap entrants to 100 artists and all the seats were taken within 48 hours. Absolute mayhem. Each year the artists participating are going on an amazing journey of learning, evolution, and competition. One of the fantastic aspects of a competition like this is that there is always the "punchers chance" of going up against and destroying your opponent regardless of skill levels.
After years of doing 30 minutes warm-ups, how do you manage to keep the motivation intact with those?
My pet experiment? I am currently on my 5th season of 30-minute warmups and it is a lot of fun sharing the morning explorations on twitch. The idea stems from work where I introduced a mandatory creative 30mins at the start of the day to shake the cobweb of the artists in the morning and also to allow them to explore things visually. It has been a great motivator and educational tool for a lot of artists that take part in it. One recent success story is Henry Wong who just left us for a freelance career but his mornups have made him blossom and helped to find his own style. Those kinds of things really drive me to continue as I see one regular on twitch after the other, get hired and find the "fun" in being creative. The evolution is palpable.
You have worked as an art director for quite some time now, do you feel that there are important skills that you learned by doing this job? Do you think that your experience as a concept artist has prepared you for that, and how do you approach giving feedback to your team?
I believe that being an art director is a very tricky job and it has a lot of challenges. It is a great opportunity for an artist that has reached a certain point to bring a product to reality without having to paint a single stroke. That means a lot of planning, guidance, overseeing and making decisions. Sometimes that alienates you from the team though as it puts you in a difficult position of making cuts, alterations or orders. Of course, those are the calls you have to make to please the project as a whole, all at the same time as striving for a strong art direction and keeping artists pumped. Being an art director isn't really a measure of artist mastery but more of a pragmatic starting point backed by artistic skills so it has helped me to be precise in feedback and communicating where mistakes occur all while herding the art being produced into a certain direction. There is a lot of problem-solving involved.
Okay, I know it’s a really often asked question for artists, but who influenced you in your art? Which artists have been the most important in the development of your style?
Oh, where to start. There are so many artists out there that absolutely destroy me. Some of the names that pop into my mind are Craig Mullins, Jesper Ejsing, Marko Djurdjevic, Piotr Jablonski, Chuvabak, but the list keeps going on and on and on. I think the biggest drive is that they are mastering their skillsets and really pushing it hard. I never really wanted to draw like someone else but respected the act of mastery a lot. I have always had the habit of breaking their art down and analyzing what parts constitute their whole so I guess all of them have influenced me and my style but I have always enjoyed escaping into my own fantasy worlds and envisioning strange things moving around.
Do you feel sometimes exhausted by your work? If so, how do you proceed to change your mindset and find back the motivation?
That is a tricky one, hard to really find a good explanation for it but one way to see it as breaking art down into pieces, much like lego blocks. If you understand each part and how to use it you can start putting things together in indefinite ways. Sit down in front of a pile of lego you can either look in a guidebook on what to build or just start putting things together and have fun building "something". If you combine that mindset with doing studies and practices on the side you don't really have issues with productivity or drive as you limit the sense of pressure of performance. Then again, somedays you just have to put the pen down and go for a walk.
Finally, besides your personal projects, is there a specific IP you would love/ would have loved to work on?
My all-time favorite movie is Blade Runner so anything Blade Runner and I am a happy boy!
Portrait by Ayan de Choudhury