A while back we had the great pleasure to interview Digic Pictures after the release of their triumphant Warhammer: Mark of Chaos cinematic. Not a company to rest on their laurels, they’ve been quite busy ever since. After the release of their newest trailer – this time for the hotly anticipated Assassin’s Creed 2 – we knew that another interview was in order.
Although extremely busy these days, they kindly consented to share a great deal of information about themselves and their work – not to mention some artwork that you’re unlikely to see anyplace else! (Click all images to see full-sized version.)
Last time we interviewed you was when your Warhammer cinematic came out. What has developed since then? What projects have you worked on and how has your company grown?
Since 2006 we have gone through some 15 projects including Warhammer:BattleMarch, Universe at War, Darksiders, The Secret World, Alpha Protocol and of course the Assassin’s Creed 2 trailer. Furthermore, we created special effects for a major Hungarian live action movie, we did a full CG commercial for an anti-virus software and a CG film projected onto the ceiling of a mall in Shanghai, China. We were busy in other words, despite the fact that the company also underwent some serious structural changes. Our staff of 15 grew to 40 people, we implemented major changes in our pipeline and of course developed more of our own tools while the project management system was also upgraded. Our ultimate goal with all the changes was to be able to work on more projects simultaneously, achieving the highest quality possible and minimizing the need to compromise.
Some of the projects we have worked on have not yet been revealed by our clients. In the following weeks and months several Digic films will be released, with some very cool ones among them.
What do you feel makes you stand out as a studio?
If I was forced to select one word, it would be “detail”. We are paying attention to the smallest details and consider the seemingly most insignificant parts to “make or break” the success of the whole film. Naturally there is a point beyond which we cannot go on, perfecting some detail, even if we are not completely satisfied with it, which is not easy.
How does your location in Hungary affect you? Do you find that it gives you any advantages or special challenges?
Having our studio in Hungary is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. We have managed to assemble the kind of team that could compete with any animation studio around the world. As an advantage, the cost of production in Hungary is significantly lower than in the U.S. or in other western countries of Europe. However, instead of offering the same service for less money, we rather work for the same price and provide a higher quality product. In the beginning we’ve had clients initially questioning our prices, but once they saw the final product, these issues disappeared. It would probably be accurate to say that our company re-invests large portions of its savings into our films. The setup of our business allows for thinking in long terms and consider our films as investments.
As a drawback, our partners have to deal with sometimes 9 hours of time difference when considering a conference call or other real time communication. Based on where our clients are from, arranging their visit to our studio also isn’t simple at times. Of course once somebody experiences Hungarian food and hospitality, Digic’s location converts into an advantage or bonus to a business trip.
How was Digic created? What was the inspiration that made you say, “We should do this!”?
Digic began as an integral part of the game developer: Black Hole Entertainment. In the beginning the Digic team created CG films for the Armies of Exigo game developed by Black Hole. As time went on, other companies recognized Digic’s talent and the team was commissioned more and more to work on outside projects. Eventually it became clear that Digic has outgrown itself and should become a separate company. Our original inspiration was simple. We felt that not only we can achieve the existing highest quality out there, but with passion and a lot of hard work we can go beyond it. There are a few studios around the world of course that we look up to. We extensively study their work to stay on top of our game, but always believing that it is possible to do better or create something new.
What has been the most challenging project that you’ve worked on to date?
It is always our last and finished project that seems to have been “the most challenging”. Naturally we always try to push boundaries further and delete the “good enough” expression from our dictionary. This is not only a necessity to constantly improve our films, but a fundamental stimulant for our employees as well. Animation cannot be done as a routine… or I rather should say it shouldn’t be done if becoming a routine.
Coming back to our last finished project and why AC2 was the most challenging? Let’s see. The original game has sold more than 8 million copies. When creating a teaser film for a highly anticipated sequel, one of the rules is: do not disappoint the fans; create something that will earn the respect of even the most hard core gamers. Ubisoft is one of the best publishers, creator of many fantastic games and they commissioned us to create the intro film for one of their most important franchises… talk about no pressure! The given time and tasks at hand are calculated exactly to the day… or rather to the hour to be exact. On the delivery date one of our colleagues arrived at the studio at 4:30 AM with a taxi to pick up the final product on his way to Paris. The final master was completed at 4:40 AM. A 10 minutes final delay for a 6 months project is not bad at all, considering having challenges on a daily basis during the production.
Just to mention a few; cloth simulation for an entire dancing crowd, a huge number of matte paints, large cast of human characters and their variations, issues with missing motion capture data and not having time for pick up sessions and so on. Any of these technical challenges however seem small next to the overall difficulty of organizing 6 months of work for 40 people in order for everybody to give their best, without burning out in 3 months, while at the same time motivating everybody to sacrifice for the project, for each other and the studio.
What other projects are you working on that we should keep an eye out for?
There are multiple projects that we are working on at the moment. We are creating several films for a very cool MMO game from FunCom called The Secret World. One of the films for The Secret World was already published and there are others to be released soon. Another project we’re working on is an intro movie for a game that I cannot name yet, but I can say that it is one of the most popular game brands out there. The popularity of this brand will allow Digic to show to even more people what we are capable of. In addition, our new website will go live soon, where we will try to provide up-to-date information about our on-going projects – as much as our partners allow.
You said you had ZBrush 2 at the time of your previous interview. How has ZBrush 3 affected your work?
We were very happy with the introduction of SubTools - it has allowed us to keep individual pieces of a model in sync with each other. The increased polygon counts were a nice addition too, even though no amount of detail would be enough for some of our artists here.
The new brushes are the other very important feature for us. The ability to use alphas and sculpt details on a multi-million polygon model in real-time without Projection Master has really helped with our work. So in short, ZBrush3 has allowed us to create better and more detailed models in less time.
How many ZBrush artists are on your team? What percentage of a typical workflow would you say uses ZBrush?
We have three dedicated ZBrush artists, who all come from a traditional painter background. They don’t know much about computers or CG, but they are very good at sculpting. Although these people work as texture and matte painters as well, I’d say that for a typical character we generally do 20 to 30% of the work in ZBrush. But this can change depending on how much detail we can leave for the displacements. The more simple the model, the less time we have to spend on the actual 3D modeling - there’s quite a difference between a few thousand polygons and a hundred thousand.
Some of the modelers also use ZBrush for their work occasionally, to create quick 3D concepts or perform some brush-based tweaks.
Could you go into detail about the ways in which ZBrush is used by your studio?
We try to isolate our artists from the technical issues of the workflow as much as we can, so that they can concentrate on the sculpting itself. So we usually prepare the models for them and once their work is finished, we take over again to create the displacement and normal maps.
Most of the ZBrush work we do is adding secondary detail to our character models and props. We do a lot of dynamics simulations and prefer to use relatively complex geometry, so all the larger forms are already there in the base mesh.
But we also do a lot of sculpting on the backgrounds, especially on ground and terrain - because usually when we have to depict a city it’s pretty much destroyed and we need all the detail in the ruins that we can get. In these cases we sometimes build very low resolution models and rely on some custom vector displacement maps and shaders to recreate the detailed sculpts at render time.
We also use ZBrush at the start of the texture painting, by baking several versions of the cavity shading from the model into textures. The new MatCap materials also have options to not only darken the dents but highlight the edges as well, so we’ve replaced the procedural Mental Ray shaders that we’ve previously used for this purpose. These maps are then used as various adjustment layers in Photoshop.
In the AC2 cinematic, what particular challenges did this project represent for you, and how did ZBrush help you overcome them?
For Assassin’s Creed 2, we had to create a large cast of realistic human characters in a very short amount of time, and this involved a lot of different challenges. For example, there was a lot of dynamic cloth instead of the large static pieces of armor on the Warhammer characters. We had to find ways to get it look good without doing insanely detailed simulations, but also avoid making it too static. ZBrush has allowed us to sculpt tiny folds and wrinkles that worked together with the larger details from the cloth dynamics.
But the greatest challenge was the sheer amount of work, and we could only get it done because our workflow was streamlined and efficient, with everyone able and willing to deliver their best. Our long experience with ZBrush was an important factor in that.
We know that Ubisoft used ZBrush quite a bit on the first Assassin’s Creed game. Did they provide you with any of those assets to use for creating this cinematic, or was everything from scratch?
Yes, we’ve received countless numbers of character and background assets and we’ve put most of these to some use, depending on how they fit the requirements of the cinematic. Even though most of our version of Venice in the movie is created with matte paintings, the base 3D geometry has been built using the actual in-game models.
Most of the characters were built from scratch. For example, all the cloth on the hero had to be simulated so we could not use the assets from Ubisoft directly. However, we’ve used them as 3D references and followed them very closely. But in some cases we could also rely on the high-res models themselves, which helped a lot in making the deadlines.
Of course, the reverse might also be asked. Are they using any of the assets you created for the cinematic in the game itself?
We did send them some models and textures, but we don’t yet know how Ubisoft plans to use them. But most of the characters and backgrounds in the cinematic that are also present in the game had already been completed by the time we finished our versions, so there’s not much more use for them.
You mentioned earlier that you use ZBrush for conceptualizing. Could you provide some details on that process?
Yes, we create a lot of 3D concepts, particularly head studies for the human characters. This way, we can separate the artistic and technical aspects of the modeling process. The workflow is relatively simple: we build a very low poly base mesh and import it into ZBrush, where the artist then creates the concept sculpt in any way he prefers. We then export the result and build a new model with animation-ready topology on top of it. We usually don’t project the details of the concept back onto the new mesh though, as various details can change throughout the process. For example we don’t have inner sides of the lips and mouth on the concept, the exact scale and position of the eyes are only completed in Maya, and so on. So we usually have another ZBrush pass on the finished 3D model to add smaller details like skin pores and wrinkles.
We also use 3D concepts for some of the cloth where we need to have specific folds, and for all kinds of complex models like human bodies, or the ornamental sculpted shapes of Ezio’s hidden gun. Or even something as mundane as pieces of rock that you can easily sculpt out from a sphere.
What assets did you use ZBrush for? How much of what’s seen in the cinematic had ZBrush involved?
We’ve used ZBrush on all the characters and on some of the props like the gondola. Basicaly everything that moves in the cinematic has probably been touched by ZBrush at least once during the project.
From a business standpoint, how does ZBrush benefit your company?
With the help of ZBrush, we could invite even those artists into our workflow who cannot or would not want to deal with the technical challenges of computer graphics. ZBrush for a graphic artist is like a chisel for a sculptor. Both should be given total freedom to create, without having to worry about seemingly unrelated technical difficulties. This advantage not only speeds up our workflow and helps us to meet deadlines, but also contributes in a major way to creativity and therefore a better quality end result.
What do you look for in an artist when you’re seeking new talent? How can an artist stand apart from the herd when applying to a company such as yourselves?
It is difficult to pin down the secret formula that makes one artist to stand out from the crowd. Obviously the quality of his or her reference works is key, but we are also looking for individuals with enthusiasm about the subject, creative problem solving skills, wanting to push the envelope, and most importantly enjoying the job.
We often see people asking at ZBC what software packages they should focus on when learning their craft. What advice would you give?
If possible, one should try out all the tools and develop a personal preference. The set of tools and preferences that allow the artist the most amount of freedom and creativity seems to be a good bet. Creative people should worry about what personally works for them the best, instead of what is the trend or industry standard at the moment. Experiencing creativity takes our kind much further in learning this craft than becoming fluent in operating specific software. When we invite artists to work with us, it is of little concern to us how experienced they are with specific tools that we use. When we recognize someone’s exceptional talent and realize their urge to create, we gladly invest in the opportunity to train and introduce the artist to our tools and workflow.
Please join us in extending a big thank you to the folks at Digic for their time in answering our questions – and to congratulate them on a game cinematic masterpiece!