Special Effects was founded in 1982 and initially produced special effects for the film and television industry. Although it started in the film industry, after some time it found itself in the events industry, supplying and renting technical equipment for conferences. So now the question is, how did it found it’s way back into the film and entertainment industry? We spoke to Tamás Szegő, Director of Sales & Marketing at Special Effects.
BpR: How did Special Effects get started?
T.Sz.: The company is turning 40-years-old this year, it originally started in the film industry producing special effects for feature films and television. The current majority owner, Peter Müller, took over the company from his father in 2001 and together with other colleagues, made Special Effects what it is today. As a technical service provider, we have been offering complete technical solutions for events over 15-20 years.
We started working in 5-star hotels and serviced more and more international conferences in Budapest. The satisfied clients became return customers and we started to expand to other countries in Europe, later followed by the US, Asia and Australia, even Africa. By 2019, we were providing technology and services for events in several cities simultaneously on a weekly basis. Not only did the number of events grow exponentially, but so did our team as well. Fifteen years ago we had a team of 10, today we have 105 colleagues.
BpR: How has your growth affected the range of services you offer?
T.Sz.: We’ve continuously expanded our portfolio, moving from AV technology to comprehensive event services to best cater for our clients’ needs. Parallel to organic growth, we made several acquisitions and then established six business units as part of the renewed company structure. Now we offer Event Production, Hotel AV Services, International Events, Exhibition and Installation, Touring and Live Entertainment and Creative Event Design.
The pandemic created new demands and requirements, to which we responded as creatively and as quickly as possible. To give just a few examples, we invested in a luxury private venue for small business events and established a creative exhibition line, focusing more on interactive solutions. We also knew that we needed to evolve our technology. With the XR and the virtual studio, we not only did that, but also entered a whole new industry.
BpR: So entering the film industry was a conscious decision?
T.Sz.: Well, the idea came rather by chance. We participated in the construction of the Hungary Pavilion at the World Expo 2020 in Dubai and purchased the creative technological platform from a company called Disguise. Then the pandemic struck, and we were left with a postponed World Expo and state-of-the-art media servers. AV companies around the world began to offer studio solutions, green screens and virtual production, serving not only events but also movies and commercials.
We knew that XR was one of the next big hits in the industry. We had the opportunity and the equipment: we had the hardware, the media server, the LED wall and we had also bought a camera tracking system. By the way, the manufacturer of the XR technology was going to launch it in 2023, but due to the pandemic, they launched it earlier. It was a good time to start. And as the technology continues to evolve and become more prevalent, I am sure it will be with us for a long time.
BpR: How is the system composed?
T.Sz.: It consists of a variety of components. The LED stage is made up of two LED walls at a 90-degree angle and a LED floor. You can basically think of it as a cube cut in half, but depending on the production, it can also be built with a curved wall. This is the foundation. The media server plays the content on the LED volume and the rendering engines generate the content in real time for the front panel (virtual reality) and also for the back panel (augmented reality).
The AR objects that appear in the space around the talent are not present in reality, but only visible on the screen for the viewers. In XR technology we also work with extended reality, which allows us to extend the virtual space beyond the physical boundaries of the LED wall. Technically, it is a so-called set extension, which expands the space and transports you into this infinite world. The combination of virtual reality, augmented reality and extended reality is called mixed reality.
We have a media server that can play the content, and we have three render engines in our system that can render the content in real time. The third major component is the camera tracking system, which also plays an important role in virtual production. The tracker is attached to the camera and uses markers attached to the ceiling to determine the exact position of the camera.
The coordinates of the camera and the lens data are sent to the media server, which transmits the content from the camera’s perspective to the LED wall. When the camera moves, the background moves with it in real time. In this way, the audience can experience an immersive environment.
BpR: Which industries benefit from this technology the most?
T.Sz.: XR is a widely used technology in both the event and entertainment industries. Think virtual events, online broadcasts or product launches, while in the entertainment industry it is used for TV, film and commercial productions. Although you will probably not shoot an entire movie in XR, the possibilities for creating something extraordinary that does not exist in real life are almost limitless. It’s also practical because it saves money and time.
BpR: Can you give me a few well-known pop-cultural examples where XR has been used?
T.Sz.: There are quite a few impressive international projects, including Katy Perry‘s performance at the American Idol finale in 2020, and Billie Eilish also had a monumental live stream that same year. In 2021 we shot the first-ever Hungarian music video for Zséda in XR as one of our first projects. These are all great examples of the vivid and dreamlike worlds you can create with this technology.
BpR: What were your first experiences with XR?
T.Sz.: We introduced the technology to the market at a demo event, which was our first project with it. We put together a few scenes to show examples of how XR can be used. A few weeks later, we worked with one of the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers who decided to shoot their product launch in our studio. Our next project was a music video for the Hungarian singer Zséda. All of these projects were successfully completed and now serve as great references.
BpR: Virtual production is another technology that has gained popularity in recent years. What is the difference between a virtual studio and the XR studio?
T.Sz.: Virtual production allows creators to shoot in ultra-high-resolution in digitally recreated virtual environments. In VP, you use a LED wall as a background and build the rest of the set with real props. XR, as we discussed earlier, is a combination of immersive technologies where we use LED walls and LED floor and can build the entire set virtually, which is probably more useful for creating surreal environments. Render engines, camera-tracking and real-time rendering are used by both solutions, also VP and XR bring technology from the video game industry.
BpR: So you basically have the technology that allows you to shoot Hollywood standard quality…
T.Sz.: You can definitely shoot scenes for Hollywood movies with it, yes. We’ve just finished setting up our brand new in-house production studio in Budapest, where we can welcome our clients. However, if needed, we are able to build a bigger XR studio. In terms of technical aspects, our studio is the first in the region to have the full package, so it is very important for us to constantly upgrade it.
We have recently invested in high-quality LED walls and floors and also purchased new media servers. However, our main focus is on perfecting the workflow and having a team of professionals who know their stuff when it comes to XR. The technical and creative workflow is at the heart of it all.
BpR: Does this technology help make filmmaking more sustainable?
T.Sz.: Absolutely, since everything is done virtually, you don’t have to waste money, time, energy, and materials building sets that you then throw away after one use. Since you don’t have to travel from one set to another, the environmental footprint is also smaller. We can switch between different locations, seasons, and times of the day. We can change the shapes and colors of virtual objects. We are able to shoot multiple scenes a day. Besides the game-changing possibilities for storytelling, sustainability is definitely another reason why XR will be an important element in the world of production technology.