Hello everyone! I’m Katie Patenaude, Theory’s social media empress. To celebrate SZEN’s release, today we’re featuring an interview I did with SZEN director Szymon Buhajczuk. Enjoy, and be sure to check out SZEN on Steam!
Katie Patenaude: First, I think it’s important we introduce you to the world. Hi, hello, who are you?
Szymon Buhajczuk: Hello! My name is Szymon Buhajczuk and I am an animator, director and team lead at Theory Studios.
K.P.: Obviously the “director” title comes from SZEN.
S.B.: Yes, I am the director and team lead on SZEN. I also hold the title as one of SZEN’s three main developers.
Really? That’s surprising! I knew you were the director and the team lead, but how did you end up becoming a developer too?
When we started working on SZEN, we realized very quickly that we had a limited number of Unreal Engine 4 developers. This necessitated that I became one of them. I ended up having to take a crash course in Unreal Engine 4’s Blueprint, as well as the engine itself, in order to get caught up.
Wow, talk about learning on the job. Speaking of jobs, a lot of Theory artists have day jobs/jobs outside of Theory. What’s yours?
I’m a professional engineer and engineering manager. I work for a company that specializes in structural and fluid dynamics analysis through the use of computer simulation.
It is, but it’s very useful. For example, we simulate things breaking, test objects in virtual wind tunnels, things like that.
I imagine you’d have to have a degree in something science-y to be in your line of work?
Ha, yes. I have a Bachelor of Engineering in Aerospace Engineering and Masters of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering.
Which isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when I think “game developer”. I’m guessing there’s an interest in art hiding in there, too?
Yes, stretching all the way back to high school. I attending a specialized high school with a regional arts program, which helped foster my interest in art.
Was it art or science that brought you to Theory?
Both. Specifically, animation and Blender. In 2014, I was busy learning animation in Blender as a hobby. I’d made a friend through an online Blender modeling workshop I was enrolled in. She had joined Theory a while back and encouraged me to reach out to the studio as well. I did, and several months later I was invited by Theory co-founder David Andrade and the rest of the Theory crew to help animate on the Ray & Clovis animated series.
Ah yes, our favorite iguana and cat duo. You’ve worked on other Theory projects also, right?
That’s right. Prior to SZEN, I was mainly juggling animation, layouts, and modeling on several web and TV series that Theory was involved with. At the outset of the SZEN project, I pivoted to become a team lead and director.
That’s quite a pivot. Since you’ve taken on director and team lead roles, will we be seeing more from you in these areas in the future?
Yes, definitely. I’m already continuing in that capacity by being one of the leads on game, VR, and other interactive media development.
Let’s get back to SZEN. Officially, it’s described as a “musical, meditative, VR experience”. How would you personally describe it?
I think of SZEN as a musical VR safe space. Something where we can leave our hectic, busy lives for a moment. It’s a place where you can enter a world and experience a place of melodic tranquility and wonder.
What inspired you to want to make an experience like SZEN?
It all started at SIGGRAPH back in 2016. After being immersed in several VR experiences at the conference’s VR Village, I began to realize the power of being able to experience anything you want in VR.
In contrast to all the high-strung media and action-packed gaming (as much as I enjoy that too), I was immediately inspired by the notion that VR could be use to calm our lives. In VR, you can experience practically anything, so that should include a tranquil and beautiful atmosphere someone could simply sit, breathe, and relax in.
When I got back from SIGGRAPH, I immediately bought VR hardware and started working on this concept. I ended up pitching the idea of SZEN in the fall of that same year.
That’s almost three years ago now! What’s kept you motivated to keep working on this project for so long?
First was the need to be a positive influence on VR and shape what it’s becoming; to be a counterbalance in a world of high-strung entertainment. VR is such a new technology and form of entertainment. I really wanted to be a part of the process of exploration and to discover VR’s potential firsthand.
And the second?
The second thing that motivated me was the great feeling of collaboration with all the amazing Theory Studios artists that were involved. When the project was no longer “shiny and new” (always a danger zone for any long-term art project), I was always reminded that the people on the SZEN team were putting in a lot of time and effort trying to realize my vision. This kept me going. I wanted all of us to have a finished product we could be proud of.
Did you look to any outside sources as influences or guides for SZEN?
I did. I started with seeing beautiful Quill artworks in VR, superimposed on music. This very simple thing of being surrounded by art slowly materializing around you while in a musical soundscape planted the seed for the idea of SZEN. Later in the process, I recall regularly putting on relaxing music, entering VR, and loading up the community’s 3D artworks in Google’s Tilt Brush for a similar effect.
I also played with, and really enjoyed, Nature Treks VR and Relax Walk VR, both of which I think had much the same goals as SZEN.
Outside of VR, I was influenced by the relaxing atmosphere and calming music of the Alto’s Adventure mobile game and Abzu PC game.
Thinking about the audience is a hallmark of every creative project. Was there a goal you had in mind for SZEN’s audience? Something you wanted them to get out of the experience?
I’d simply like them to feel a sense of peaceful wonder, if even for a minute. I think it’s something we could all use more of in our lives.
Now that people can experience SZEN for themselves, what are you looking to do next?
I’d like to continue to work with the amazing artists at Theory to make more VR experiences and interactive media, and to continue exploring what VR is and what it can do.
Any projects or experiences in particular?
I can’t say much about Theory’s upcoming projects, but I can say we’re currently prototyping several VR experience ideas.
I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next! I’ve got just one final question for you Szymon. How do you find your SZEN?
I find it in music and nature, definitely.
Thanks for reading our “A Moment of SZEN” series! Find your own moment of SZEN by checking out our musical, meditative, VR experience on the Steam Store
Catch up with Theory’s latest projects on our website