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Recently, agencies and production companies have started to wake up to the wonders of Hungary. Hungary? What's so special about Hungary? Exactly. The anonymity of the country is perhaps what makes it stand out from the rest of the Eastern European fray. "It's one of the best things and one of the worst things to me about Budapest," notes Jennifer Webster, an American who previously worked at Tatham and Ogilvy in the U.S. and now runs Pioneer, perhaps the best known commercials production service company in Hungary. "On one hand, no one knows what it looks like; on the other hand, that's a key advantage because it's not overused." The country has already drawn directors like Jake Scott, Joe Pytka, Dante Ariola and Jonathan Glazer, who shot both Guinness' "Dream Club" and Levi's "Odyssey" there, via Pioneer.

"Throughout its history, there have been different peoples occupying Hungary, from the Turks and the Hapsburgs to the Russians," explains Webster. "Everyone's left their mark, which means architecturally it's not very pure. It's kind of a mishmash, but for filming, especially commercials where you tend to have just one scene at a time, it's fantastic for a variety of places. For instance, Budapest can look like Turkey, Germany, the States and France, just walking down one street." Jake Scott shot a UPS worldwide spot last year for McCann, using Budapest as a stand-in for France. Even the capital's outlying regions have that pan-European flexibility. Dante Ariola shot the well-known Nike "Elephant" spot there, starring bicyclist Lance Armstrong, with the help of two small circuses 40 minutes outside Budapest. "It had that European film sort of feel where you had these old traveling circuses in France somewhere," notes Kash Sree, the Wieden & Kennedy copywriter on the spot. "The great thing about Hungary is that it's hard to place. It's European, but you can't quite work out where it is."

Hungary, with a climate best described as a cross between Italy and New York, does have some standout sites of its own, including rolling countryside, grandiose architecture and lush interiors, as well as Balaton, Central Europe's largest freshwater lake. This summer, Headquarters director Eden Diebel is set to shoot a European Coke spot in the majestic, light-flooded Keleti railway station, a cathedral-like structure with a glass ceiling. Last year, he shot a visually stunning spot for VW Germany in Budapest's famous Gellert bathhouse. "The interiors of the old spas, the mosaics and the colors are one of a kind, really," he notes. He was also able to close down Budapest's Royal Palace just to shoot the ending car shot. "We had to hold back tourists, but they let us use it. If you wanted to shoot around Buckingham Palace, you'd never get near it. So it's very user friendly in that respect."

Value-wise, the country is comparable to the Czech Republic, which is to say it's a standout. And like other Eastern European countries, Hungary offers accomplished crews and a rich film history, thanks to government sponsorship of the motion picture industry during the Communist years. As for technical innovations, Hungarian native Vilmos Zsigmond, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer, notes that the technicians and electricians are A-rated and the equipment even more modern than that generally found in the States. "The Soviet Union controlled us from 1947 to 1991 and that put us back a little in comparison with the West, but now they're very rapidly catching up, buying the latest lights and cameras." The only drawback is the lack of large stages. "That's really the reason why a lot of people go to the Czech Republic," he says. "Prague has a lot of studios there left over from the Germans and WWII, and they're actually using a lot of warehouses for the interiors. Hungary hasn't caught up."

Nevertheless, some have managed to build their own sets with the help of highly skilled art directors and craftsmen seemingly plucked from the Old World, in terms of both quality and price. Glazer's "Odyssey," and the Enda McCallion-directed "Maze" for Thermasilk were both shot on elaborate sets constructed in Hungary. "It was really the cost of production that had us go there," notes JWT head of broadcast John Garland of Thermasilk, which features a mythological maiden running through a fiery topiary labyrinth. "Although in the end it was enhanced in post, the maze as well as the fire sequences needed to be big, and that tends to cost money. There was only one actress, so it wasn't as though the talent swung us one way or the other."

But when talent costs are a concern, "It's financially fantastic for an American client," says Richard Holling, Diebel's Headquarters producer. "If you have a big crowd scene, your extras are a nominal cost, $30 to $50 a head per day, where SAG comes in at $500. So if you want to fill an opera house or a sports stadium or something like that, you're wildly ahead. And, of course, the client saves money on residuals." The population itself is a major draw, as well. "The faces are so unusual," observes Wieden's Sree. "You get used to Hollywood or English faces, but in Hungary they're just different, somehow more interesting." Pioneer's Webster notes that, as it did with the country's architecture, the influx of immigrants makes it "a little bit similar to the States in terms of being a melting pot. You see blondes, brunettes, redheads, and there are more ethnic groups coming in, too, including a really big Asian community."

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