Never in his life has Sándor Alex Rabb given as many interviews as he has this year. And no wonder, as it is this spring that his company released its masterpiece: a joint creation with American-Hungarian producer Andrew Vajna, deceased earlier this year. The project had been in the works for almost two years: The world’s largest video-streaming company, Netflix, had commissioned them to produce this 15-minute episode entitled “The secret war” in its Love, Death & Robots short animation film series. His past relatively low popularity in the general public is understandable. The world of video games is rather closed universe from which it is hard to break out.“Now at least my parents understand what I do”, said Rabb.
Sándor Rabb (who took Alex as his middle name when he obtained American citizenship) fell for IT already when he was a student specialising in mathematics at the Mihály Fazekas Secondary Grammar School in Debrecen. He then took degrees in computer programming and mathematics from Eötvös Loránd University. His first job was with the coding powerhouse of the time, Számalk, but after a year, he realised that if he couldn’t become the best coder in the world, he would try something else. Hungary’s shift to a market economy in 1989-1990 came at exactly the right time for him. The world opened up, and he jumped at the opportunity. For the first five years, he had various businesses, ranging from a car dealership to a magazine publishing house to an insurance company. In search of more adventures, he eventually ended up in the US in 1996 with the plan to make visual effects for films. His dream came true beyond his expectations: Soon, he found himself on the Titanic VFX team, working under star director James Cameron. He learned a lot, and in fact later it was hard to surpass the level achieved on this project. A few projects later, he crossed paths with Andrew Vajna. They worked together for two years of working in the US and then decided to try their luck in Hungary, launching their own visual effects and 3D animation studio, Digic Pictures, in 2002. Their philosophy was to offer extraordinarily realistic visuals, elaborate and highly detailed characters, high added value, and quality—not low prices. An interesting fact is that it was Andy Vajna who coined the company’s name by combining the words “digital” and “magic”. From their initial four employees, they are now up to 320, but Alex still finds their growth rate slow.“We can’t hire 400 people in a month for a new project like we you can in Los Angeles. It takes us longer to grow, but we grow steadily”, he said. The Hungarian skilled workforce is limited, while finding and hiring foreign talent willing to move to Hungary is difficult. At the moment, 90% of their employees are Hungarian. Most of their foreign colleagues are Japanese, but they have staff members from 15 different countries. Another development obstacle is the lack of English language skills still prevalent in the industry. The company is completely bilingual, something that is hard to manage in Hungary, says the owner. Although their workforce is young, with the majority of their employees aged between 20 and 30, fluency in English is not common among candidates. Meanwhile, communicating in this language with key persons is of crucial importance for their major game developer clients. They are now focusing on hiring talented young people who want to learn.
Digic Pictures is the core company dealing with 3D animation. Digic Services, another company in the group, scans and records the movements of people and objects. While they do the motion capturing in the studio of Digic Motion Capture with the help of actors as well as stuntmen and stuntwomen, they do the scanning in their own 3D Photoscan studio where 112 cameras take a full-body image at the same time. They use this image to make a 3D walk-around, rotatable and movable model for the animations. The toughest part of the process is reproducing faces and emotions. This is achieved with photos of 72 facial expressions taken in a 56-camera studio, which material can then be used to produce any animation, explained Alex. Scanning also has other uses besides animation. They can, for example, scan buildings with drones, which allows them to rebuild the Roman ruins of Aquincum near Graphisoft Park in Budapest, where this interview was made.
The recently established Digic Studios will be the main workshop for the afore-mentioned upcoming project: a feature-length film. This is not a spontaneous idea, as the owner/manager has always had the goal of producing their own content and a full animated film. They are already working on the short film, which lasts a few minutes and which will serve as the basis for the feature-length film. What has held them back so far is that they have to create incredible amounts of content within a short time. Large American studios like Pixar and DreamWorks have more than 1,000 people for projects like this, but there is no such capacity in Hungary. Speed is important in this time-consuming and quite meticulous work because what they produce today will get outdated in two years’ time. If a company with 50 employees were to start making a 100-minute film, they would complete it in five years. But because the technology is evolving so quickly, they would then have to start all over again. In order to keep up with the technology, a feature-length film has to be produced in 20 months at the most. And animation is expensive: one minute costs them between $100,000 and $300,000. Still, their prices are by no means high. Disney, for example, works for around $1m/minute. Thus, they are creating a whole world from nothing: everything down to the last blade of grass has to be made from scratch. To illustrate how much time animation requires, the owner/founder cited the example of an employee working on the Netflix episode who spent two months on nothing but Siberian trees in winter.
The future is all about content. One of their plans is to cooperate with Netflix or a major Hollywood studio. To this end they have bought book rights and collected ideas and concepts. They are continually searching for copyrights to built animated content on: comics or even children’s books. Alex owns 51% of Digic Holding, the holding company of all Digic companies, while AVI (Andy Vajna Investments) owns 49%.The latter’s share was transferred to a trust after the producer’s death. “We were friends and partners for 21 years”, says Alex about this. Alex oversaw technical matters and Andrew Vajna contributed his knowledge and experience to the growth of Digic Pictures as they prepared to move towards making their big film. Through a sad twist of fate, Vajna did not live to see their best project so far: the Netflix episode was completed one week after his death in January 2019.
The true American culture of their Budapest office means not only a great work environment—they have, among other things, a cinema, a massage room, a gym, and workplace coaching services—but also intensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. Digic takes CSR seriously, just because it feels good. They have at times been surprised to learn a client had chosen them for a project expressly because of their commitment to social responsibility. They support several charities, collect unperishable food, and paint kindergartens. But their “charity of the month” initiative is perhaps the most remarkable. In this initiative, employees have the opportunity to suggest organisations that the company should support, and present these to all 300 of their colleagues. In this way, their co-workers, and even people outside the company, can learn about these organisations, even if the company chooses another one for that month. They also undertake pro bono projects, making animations for small productions or delegating their professional photographers to various campaigns.
While he was in the US, Rabb not only learned how to make visual effects, but alsoa lot about company management. It is clear to him that they have reached a milestone, and that organic development can only take them so far. Now they will need a significant injection of external funds if they want to buy a company in the region or set up an international network. Moreover, their big dream, the feature-length film, still needs money and is not generating any yet. They are thinking about going public in a few years. Although their present results are satisfactory, Alex wants to do some own-content projects before starting the process. This dream of their own film is one which makes it worthwhile to take the path less travelled.