CGA – Szabolcs Horvatth – Digic Pictures

Digic Pictures is an award winning, visual effects and animation studio from Budapest, Hungary, well known for their games cinematics, like Final Fantasy, Assassin’s Creed, Destiny 2, AC Revelations, Witcher 3, Halo 4, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare.
Ahead of the CGA (Computer Graphics and Arts) Conference in Belgrade, we had an honour to talk to Szabolcs Horvatth about the studio and his conference presentation.

Welcome to Belgrade and CGA conference. Please tell us a bit about Digic Pictures?
Digic Pictures is an animation studio that specialises in high-end animation work. Originally the company started as an off-shoot of a game developer studio’s cinematics division, founded in 2001. It grew to be one of the best studios worldwide working on game cinematics, and worked with all sorts of high profile clients. The company grew from 10 people to 250 over the years and worked on various projects from game cinematics to visual effects and commercials.

How was the road to the AAA titles cinematics? 
Digic started with the agenda of producing the highest quality animation for cinematics. So even with the first few projects the bar was set very high and with every new project we were trying to do something even bigger and better. Most of the original team was coming from a VFX background, working on movie visual effects and commercials. The goal was to merge the movie cinematic look and feel with the short story animation format of game cinematics. So it was basically the merging of animation sensibility and movie film-making. And with new and returning clients we had more and more interesting project opportunities, that facilitated the constant growth of the company.

 

 

What kind of challenge brings a 250+ employee VFX studio?
The company went through a few different organization structures and stages as it grew. The workflows and problems of a 20-30 people studio are very different compared to 50, 100 or 200 employees. I don’t think that there is a structure that works for all these sizes, and reacting to the changes is key to keep a studio organized and even keeping it alive. With 20 employees everyone knows the others, all issues are heard and known. As the studio expands all sorts of communication, HR and management layers are required to replace this “face to face” problem solving strategy. Does it work as well? Of course not!, but we’re trying hard. 🙂 Recruiting new talent also gets more complicated as bigger companies usually look for specialists rather than generalists.

What is the advantage of doing the high-end visual effects in Hungary?
Hungary has very strong animation and cinematic tradition. There are many talented artists and technical people in the industry and the quality of film and animation education is high. As in pretty much all countries attracting Hollywood film productions, there is a tax incentive system in Hungary. It seems to be complementing the studios’ technical skills quite well as there are more and more high profile films shot in Hungarian studios.

 

Where lays Digic’s team latest focus?
We’re constantly looking for new technologies and opportunities to try out new things. Beside our motion capture system that we’d been using for a long time now, we also built a photo scanning 3d reconstruction setup, that we’re using a lot lately. Digic uses it for many projects but as a separate entity it also works on third party jobs. Our last favorite photoscan work was scanning stuff for Blade Runner 2049…

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We’re also looking into VR technologies as it looks like a completely uncharted territory with lots of interesting aspects, but its also quite confusing too.
Last year we cooperated with Square on their Final Fantasy Kingsglaive feature animation project, alongside other studios, and we’re always working on things that are not related to the game cinematic business. Its unlikely that Digic would make a typical “talking animal” feature animation film, but there are many interesting opportunities on the horizon.

How would you rate coffee in your office?
Well, I’d say coffee can always get better! I voiced my opinion to hire a barista with a decent espresso machine, but it just did not happen yet. 🙂 Digic is a very easy going place and even with the bigger studio size we’re trying to retain a more casual feel.

As we’re all working with computers all day long, its important to get away from it once in a while. Our office is in a very nice area outside the city centre near the Danube, so taking a walk, going to the gym in the office basement or having a massage are all good options to get off the computers. We have a room to relax, play video games, a pool table, and a few musical instruments to have fun. Its interesting that most foreign CG guys do play an instrument, we have to catch up to jam with them!

What can we expect to hear or see from you at the CGA in Belgrade?
In my presentation I’ll talk about some of the complex issues we face working on our animation projects and the solutions we came up with, to solve these problems. Conferences like CGA are a great opportunity for both the presenters and the audience to get a glimpse of different kinds of projects, approaches and production techniques. I’m always interested in meeting CG people from all around the world, with different production background and experiences, to find inspiration and new ideas. With the democratisation of accessible 2D and 3D tools the big CG development companies like Autodesk and The Foundry are both creating the basic tools to make these projects and helping such conferences getting people in the CG field together.

What was your entry position in Digic?
What I started working at Digic in 2004 I was working on all sorts of technically challenging problems as a TD. I did hair modelling and simulation before there were suitable tools doing it, FX setups, shading, including shader and tool development to solve all these issues. Back then there were a lot more unsolved problems in the CG field, lots of solutions were just in-house tools of big companies, and we were trying hard to find new ways to bring movie quality visuals into our animation work.

What made you switch between film and gaming?
I was tricked into it! 🙂 I applied to Digic right after I saw the Terminator 3 article in Cinefex magazine. Digic worked on a few sequences of that film and I thought to myself that finally there is some high profile VFX work happening here… The VFX work was not really taking off back then, but working on high-end animation was also a challenging area for me, so that’s how I moved from VFX to animation. And by working on rendered game cinematics you don’t really get involved much with game development and gaming in general, its more about making animation films. I think what kept most of us entertained here at Digic, is that we treat these works as short animation films, rather than simply being part of a game or franchise. I think our best and most beloved works are short films that tell a story on their own, that happen to be related to a game.

Hungary is extremely successful in attracting international productions to shoot there. Do you see any correlation between that and gaming/VFX industry? Has it been influenced in any way?
The film industry is pretty strong in Hungary and historically Hungarian film crews are very capable. It also applies to traditional animation, even though its a much less visible and exposed field.
As far as I know the current big budget Hollywood film productions in Europe don’t really use local VFX talent, there are just a few areas that are better done on location. The UK is obviously an example here, but the big UK VFX studios worked very long and hard to get into the global VFX market.
I don’t see a big influence of film productions on animation and game work. From a technology point of view, there was a big convergence of tools and technologies over the last few years, so there are more production similarities now than simply one field influencing the other.

What is the recruiting potential in Hungary? Have you experienced any challenges in recruiting talents? Do you have internationals in your team?
Recruiting for a middle sized or bigger company is always a challenge. Most of the experienced local talent was already hired, so we have to look at alternate solutions, like reaching to to schools and doing some education ourselves. And also hiring foreign people, although being outside western Europe makes it slightly harder. Its hard to find talent and even harder to keep them at the company for a longer period. Right now Digic has around 10-15% foreign people, coming from all around the globe. We have a pretty good reputation because of our projects, so we have lots of applicants from everywhere around the world. And as it turns out most of the people actually willing to relocate to Budapest and working on the stuff we do are adventure-loving and fun people!

What level of experience in playing Assassin’s Creed you required from your team before they were assigned to do the job?
Exactly zero. 🙂 I know that some of the team played with AC games before, but it was never a requirement for anybody. When we’re making cinematics we’re thinking about stories, visuals, characters and not about games and gaming. We get the client’s directions about things to communicate with the animations, but that’s all we incorporate into the work. Sometimes, when we’re working with a new brand, we have a kickoff meeting where somebody from our team or the client, with more in-depth knowledge about the story and the universe, does a presentation about it. Asking questions about the world, character motivation, design can be useful in avoiding some misconceptions in the story and design phase.

Is there a game you wished you worked on? Or any wish list for future projects?
I’m not a gamer myself, I haven’t been playing anything beside adventure games for many years. For me television series became a lot more interesting lately than most movies with VFX, so if I had to pick something, than I’d choose a project like Game of Thrones, Westworld or Star Trek.

Thank you Szabolcs for your time. See you on a cup of coffee and your presentation on CGA conference in Belgrade.

 

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