“We have one of the most successful visual design teams in the Hungarian film industry “– Judit Varga, production designer & set decorator
Her name is best known as the Emmy-nominated set decorator for the SHOWTIME produced TV series – The Borgias, but the credits lists testify that Judit Varga has worked also as a production designer, art director on Hungarian and international movies, commercials and photo shootings as well.
She studied to be an architect, then she became assistant of Márton Ágh, production designer, from whom she learned a lot both in human terms and professionally. She started working independently soon enough: first as a set designer mostly on international productions, but she also took part in the production of Hungarian movies, like the Oscar winner “Son of Saul”.
She created Prop Club – now one of the largest, best-known, and most successful visual design and equipment teams in the Hungarian film industry. From visual design to the specific dressing of filming locations to the rental of props, they provide complex professional solutions.
In an interview she said that she only works with directors with whom she clicks. If cruelty or power struggles control a job, she has no desire for it anymore. Then she would rather make smaller movies. Empathy is also important in communicating with many different creators, directors, or visual designers – she believes.
Budapest Reporter: Since your Emmy nominations, how has your career changed regarding international requests?
Judit Varga: The work has not become more as fortunately I had always had a lot of assignments and struggled with what to accept and what to reject. I think what changed is my appreciation, as the business took me more seriously after the nominations. I had quite a lot of jobs with international films and commercials since, but to be honest my priority is to balance between international tasks and keep on working with Hungarian clients. There is a massive need for applied artistic creativity, design skills, precision, financial sense, and the workload is intense.
Bpr: You were the set decorator for the 2016 Netflix sci-fi/thriller – “Spectral”, which was mainly filmed in Budapest. Through this work of yours, could you please tell me about your job? How can we imagine the preparations for such a movie?
J. V.: That was quite a hard one. We started with a huge impulse as we had very little time to prepare. We joined with the thought that we do not have a lot of money to use for the decorations and we had to be really creative to build all the required settings. The film is a dystopia/thriller and we had to create this type of atmosphere through the scene. I quite enjoyed the process of how to build these sci-fi-like pieces from everyday objects.
We had to create the DARPA laboratories from scratch, create realistic appliances, build equipment which can be later seen in the film as laser-technology. For example, we took apart huge printers and industrial tools and played with the parts until it looked completely different. To give you some numbers, we used 16 kilometers of wiring for the lighting effects in only one single set. In this movie it was our job to set, not like in other films where it is the task of the technical staff.
Also, there are huge, coffin-like boxes in the movie, first we thought that they will be made in post-production and we only have to build a few pieces for real, but then we learned that they need 58 of them in about a week. Problem was that we used 428 pieces of metal parts to construct one single box. You can imagine that it wasn’t a cake walk. I have learned a lot throughout the process, but this was also the film after which I had to pull back a little from A-list American/international productions. I had 38-hour days, full of hectic and very intensive moments.
Bpr: Hungarian studio facilities altogether are the second-biggest production hub in Europe, after the U.K. From your professional perspective what is it that makes Hungary an attractive place to come for production?
J. V.: I started working in the business about 19 years ago. At that time there was a huge gap regarding production between Eastern Europe and America. We could not really make the western professionals believe that we are able to fulfil their requirements. But they did bring their productions here and they did bring their own experts and craftsmen, and this gave an opportunity for us to learn and enhance our strengths.
Step by step they gave up on tasks which had only been fulfilled by their crew before, like the set decorator job. And now, after about two decades we can say that there is a very high standard in the Hungarian production. The Korda and Origo Studios are viewed the same as other international studios regarding quality and quantity as well. I believe that Korda and Origo Studios are booked for about 1-2 years in advance.
Bpr: How have the Covid pandemic changed the way you and your company operate?
J. V.: After the first lock-down it was the film industry that opened up first and right away there were very tough actions taken regarding how to defend ourselves in this new situation. The whole system which was created against the spreading of the virus is very strict, sometimes meaning that the whole crew is tested twice a day just to stay on the safe side. This new process surely created an extra expense, but I believe that the whole industry was very quick in adhering to this new ways-of-working.
A-list productions have immediately counted with the extra expenses of this new situation, e.g. quick testing all crew members. Smaller, independent features and commercials most likely are somewhat affected as there are already fewer requests. My company, Prop Club, usually works in mid-range productions both Hungarian and international, and 2020 did set us back a little at the beginning of the pandemic, but right now, because of these strict precautions and constant tests we are back in business, although not as usual, but just trying to keep our head above the water.
Bpr: Can you talk about the current job you are working on? What are your plans next?
J. V.: At the moment I am working on a Kornél Mundruczo movie which is a Hungarian-German co-production. But regarding plans – surely, we have projects ahead of us, but we do not usually say it, as there is no such thig as certainty in the film industry. We are just happy about what has been achieved up until now and keep on going whatever comes next.