Concept Design Production: Tips and Tricks

Jan Urschel, Creative Director at Hendrix Design, talked about the concept design, shared his favourite tools and workflow.

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Introduction and Career

My name is Jan Urschel, and I am currently a freelance concept designer working mostly in the movie and video games industry. I was born in Germany but spent the last 15 years in places like Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore where I currently live. My path into this industry was anything but straightforward. Starting off as a self-taught graphic designer in my teens, I came to concept design via various graphic design jobs, a master's degree in Japanese and working briefly in the finance industry. So yeah … that might be a bit unusual.

The Workflow

What got me interested in working in this industry was always world-building, attention to detail, strange shapes, and forms, etc. So I enjoy most working on environments, buildings, landscapes. The way I go about it is very much influenced by my passion for photography and architecture. I love to build something in 3D and then use the camera, like a real camera, to explore the compositions, lighting, playing with tools like aperture, aspect ratio, focal length to frame my shots. Composition has been largely influenced by my previous “life”, is very graphical, simple, with clear lines and shapes.

Building the Spaces 

My 2D work is very limited to very quick doodles in my sketchbook to get the rough idea on paper and to post-processing work in Photoshop. Everything in between is largely dominated by 3D. To get a feel of the space and scale of what I’m designing - whether an environment, buildings, a vehicle - I start with simple blackouts and figures for scale. From there on, I quickly set up lighting and a camera, so I can always keep an eye on how space I’m building develops.

Combining 2D and 3D

Coming from concept design, the focus is on efficiency, speed and giving the client something to show at the end of the day. Working with 3D can speed up and slow down your work in various ways. I tend to use any technique that can give me a time advantage while delivering results and hopefully fostering happy accidents that I can take advantage of. That can involve a lot of kitbashing with models I’ve purchased and reusing old ones, using 2D planes, projections, etc. 

I’m trying to stay flexible and work with a simple toolset to not have to rely too heavily on particular tools. I work mainly with Modo, Blender, and Octane these days. But mostly without any plugins. Each of these apps has its own advantages. Modeling in Modo is the most fun for me, Blender has an all-around great feature set and is very easy to learn and Octane is one of the fastest render engines around.

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Working on Materials and Colors

I’m putting a lot of emphasis on experimentation when it comes to materials and colors. One focus for me is definitely photorealism, but I tend to mix it with something graphical or abstract. Therefore, when it comes to materials, I like to use random images that can give me interesting effects, again fostering happy accidents. I’d like to get them to the stage, where they definitely remind me of the real material I’m trying to emulate but also have something glitchy and strange about them. It's not always the 8K scanned materials that have the best effect. Sometimes, a random 500px image from the internet can give you fantastic results. If my work would only consist of rebuilding real materials with prebuilt images, I’d have been very bored.


Regardless of what engine I’m using - these days, it's Octane, Cycles, and Eevee (although that might change tomorrow) - the focus is on creating interesting and cinematic experiences. And all these engines allow you to do that. No renderer will do the work automatically for you. I’m using the simple existing toolsets using each or combination of artificial lights, daylight, and HDRI settings. Whatever looks best, I have no bias to either of them. The inspiration for it comes definitely from photography and well-lit movie cinematography. Therefore taking lots of pictures, looking at famous photographers and movies that are well regarded in that respect is essential.

While Octane lets you experience real-world lighting, the onus is always on us to stylize, emphasize and sharpen the lighting to make it more cinematic, more controlled. We can never let ourselves fall in the trap of letting the software control us.

Jan Urschel, Concept Designer

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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