Joakim Hellstedt: “I still mostly have my mom to thank/blame for my game industry career”

Good design is and will continue to be more important than ever.

We gave Dei Gaztelumendi, Joakim Hellstedt and SeedSeven, three of Europe’s most talented game concept artists who have worked on projects like Battlefield 3, Alien and Dozer, one mission: to create the best fan art ever made of DanTDM, one of the world’s biggest gaming commentators on YouTube, by using Adobe mobile apps and workflows.

After the release of the videos, we sat down with Joakim Hellstedt for a quick conversation about the project, the games industry and how mobile is changing his way of working. A summary of that conversation is shared below.

What were your main inspiration sources for drawing DanTDM?

Joakim Hellstedt (JH): We all had The Diamond Minecart world and its characters to draw our base inspiration from and I also knew I wanted to have an image with some kind of narrative, since TDM is a lot about storytelling. I had a few different ideas when sketching out the characters on paper: one was having them barbecuing hot dogs over a happily burning Grim, another having them fall through a portal with all cubical shapes on one side and all round shapes on the other. In the end I opted for the one with the most movement – putting them all in an airborne minecart, mostly because it felt like the most fun. Additionally, I’m a fan of Calvin & Hobbes (who isn’t?) and I wanted to try and achieve a similar kind of feeling of gleeful excitement as expressed when they go flying on their sled (and in this case have Dr. Trayaurus slightly less excited about it, for contrast)!

A: Did your characters evolve at all from pen to tablet? Did they take on a life of their own past paper, or did they turn out the way you imagined?

JH: Characters pretty much always evolve, but this time I did some initial exploring in my sketchbook and they actually turned out pretty close to what I first envisioned in their digital transition! And characters often bleed outside the medium for me – like many other artists I often find myself reenacting the emotions and faces of characters while drawing them, but luckily I seem to control myself throughout the video.

As for the design I chose to go with big, clean shapes and surfaces since I knew they were going to be crowded together pretty tightly and I still wanted good readability. The only character I wasn’t too sure on how he would turn out was Grim, since I only did a basic sketch of him and so didn’t really have a plan for solving a stylized skeleton dog going in – I figured I could just wing it and he would just kind of fall into place as it went along (and luckily he did).

Was there a particular moment in your life that made you want to get into this creative field? What would you have been doing if you weren’t a game concept artist?

JH: I’ve always loved to draw, create and figure things out – which are all good traits for the job! But while I did play a lot of games as a kid, I probably dreamt more about drawing comics to begin with. There aren’t any real educations to learn this profession in Sweden and I slipped into the game industry by happenstance around the age of 17, when my mom (having developed a slight worry that her ever-drawing night owl son would never amount to anything) bribed me with a scanner if I applied for an internship somewhere.

That sly bribe just happened to coincide with a local game studio (O3 Games, later Starbreeze Studios) running some ads in the local newspaper – so I applied there, got an internship and suddenly I was in the game industry! Seven years later I went freelance because my curiosity longed for interacting with more creative people and having more varied work (and I got both – just look at this assignment!). But the initial office years were a great base for both experience and contacts.

During those 7 years I also worked as a 3D modeler doing props and characters for a few years, so I guess that could have been a creative option too, but regardless I still mostly have my mom to thank/blame for my game industry career – if it weren’t for her I’m sure I would have become an excellent bum.

How do you think the game concept design industry will adapt over the next 5-10 years? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about?

JH: For a long time what was possible on a technical level (in a game) held back what was done on a design level, but ever since that threshold was kind of blown away I think good design is and will continue to be more important than ever. Personally I love tech stuff and new tools so I’m always excited to see what’s next, regardless if I’m using it myself. I think 3D and the remixing of stock assets (both 2D and 3D) will become even more commonly used than it already is among concept artists, so the quality and availability of those assets is bound to go up too.

Artist and work mobility through new hardware like the Cintiq Companion and Surface Pro might over time give concept artists more mobility in offices – something that has always been possible with good old pen and paper obviously, but adapting the new hardware they can now take their work much further while either sitting beside someone else’s desk or in a meeting than they could before.

With things like HoloLens on the horizon we might actually see some interesting AR used in the future although it will probably take a few generations of hardware before it’s really viable. Then again, 10 years is a long time in technology. And as for you guys at Adobe – get working on multi-user documents already! The ability for multiple artists to work on the same image at the same time would be great (just have the layers locked to the user that’s active on them).

How do you work best? Do you tend to create characters in one sitting, or more gradually?

JH: For personal stuff it’s different. If it’s for a standalone illustration and I’m feeling inspired I will usually be able to sit down and as the character forms in my head it takes shape on screen/paper. Kind of like tuning into a channel – once I get a clear image of the character(s) everything just falls into place, while it can feel like trying to make out a show from static if I’m uninspired. But then I can always fall back on a more systematic approach, or simply choose not to draw anything.

For work I obviously can’t just skip drawing, but there are usually a lot of already set aspects and context to consider about the character, story, gameplay, among others – and those aspects are usually up for change at a moment’s notice so it’s a lot of back and forth. It’s also not uncommon for clients to not really know what they want in the beginning, so this becomes more like a game of battleship, where I try my best to get my inspiration going and create several viable options to show the client until I hit something and then iterate/combine from those until we nail it. In general the development of characters becomes more gradual the more people are involved and the more story and context there is, since there are more factors that are affected whenever a new choice is made!

Which part of the creative process do you find the most exciting while using Adobe’s mobile apps?

JH: At first I’ll admit I disregarded them as gimmicks, but in hindsight I’ll just have to accept my faulty shame because they are really quite handy! I had already been using my phone camera instead of scanning sketches for a while, but saving myself the tediousness of taking a picture, emailing myself or saving to Dropbox, and instead just having it appear in Photoshop is really handy. It feels obvious in retrospect, but to me it was a great ‘the future is here before I asked for it’ moment.

Another one I love is the Color app, since I can sometimes get quite uninspired to come up with new color schemes. With this app I not only have a constant library of personal colour schemes at hand, but collecting them when I’m out and about is way too easy and fun.

Make it on mobile

Mobile is changing creativity as we speak, as professionals rely more and more on their smartphones and tablets to create great work, anywhere, anytime. You can get started too by downloading Adobe’s free mobile apps.

Find out more about Joakim Hellstedt by checking his online portfolio and following him on Twitter @HellstedtJoakim.