An EPIC in the Making - NewTekniques Magazine Feature Article
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BY DICK DE JONG AND MOLLY DINKINS - April/May - 1999
"I am a product of the oil patch," said Vic Cherubini. And with a wildcatter's sense of where the next big strike is, Cherubini has led his company, epic software group, inc., into the brave world of new media.
Staying ahead of the constant cyclonic changes in the industry can be as difficult as capping a gusher; but during the last nine years, Cherubini has navigated nimbly through the twists and turns of the emerging technology. In fact, the history of his company, based in The Woodlands just north of Houston, reflects how quickly the multimedia business has evolved. With a background of 10 years in sales and marketing in the Texas oil and gas industry, Cherubini decided to strike out on his own. He had been developing the concept of the epic software group while working on his MBA at the University of Houston, and in 1990, he founded the company.
Epic is an acronym for Electronically Produced Interactive Catalogs. ~We took a company's printed catalog and made it interactive and intelligent," Cherubini explained. "The program works like a salesman, guiding the client through a series of questions that helps him understand which products are best for him." In the early days, the delivery medium for the catalogs was diskettes. CDs weren't used until around 1994 or "95, when CD players came packaged with computers. Even then, convincing companies to switch from traditional catalogs was a tough sell. "Trying to demonstrate multimedia when CD-ROMs came in two flavors, single speed or double speed, was like the digital version of Chinese water torture," Cherubini said. "It was the explosion in the popularity of the Internet that seemed to turn the tide because 'new media' now became a line item on most corporate advertising budgets," Cherubini added. "And the hundreds of sales calls I made to the large oil and gas companies around town started to pay dividends."
Into the Third Dimension
"All the planets seemed to align in 1995," Cherubini said. Not only did business pick up, but also artist William Vaughan entered the epic galaxy. Vaughan was a graduate of the Visual Communications program at the Art Institute of Houston and had worked as an illustrator for ad agencies. "When I came to epic, they weren't doing 3D animations. They were heavily into programming and not really a graphics shop." Vaughan said. While Vaughan had no previous 3D CG experience, he was intrigued by it when he was working at an ad agency. "We bid a job with the Will Vinton Studios. I had been sculpting a lot of characters in clay; but when I saw what they were doing with computers in 3D, it was obvious to me that I should move into 3D," Vaughan added.
"When William came to .epic, we started him with a copy of 3D Studio MAX. He spent a month working with it and he didn't have much to show for it," Cherubini said. "I was pretty upset. Then he mentioned that he had heard about LightWave, We found a cracked version and in three days, he showed me more than he had in that month with 3D Studio MAX," So they went out and bought a copy of lightWave. "After that, every client that came through the door, we tried to convince that 3D was the solution," Cherubini continued. "Within a week, we found a client and William spent three weeks straight learning lightWave." It's this kind of persistence, drive, and determination that has spurred the epic software group to become leaders in their field. (It also brought them to NewTek's doorstep. See the "10% Inspiration, 90% Perspiration" section of "The Acid Test" sidebar to the right.) "What sets us apart is that we give our clients exciting and entertaining graphics.
The electronic catalogs that we produce include a great deal of useful technical information coupled with the eye-candy that keeps a prospect's attention during a sales presentation," Cherubini said, When their skill in programming with Macromedia Director is added to the recipe, epic can mix the most prosaic ingredients and whip up a dessert. "In the Hughes Christiansen electronic catalog, we were able to take something as boring as drill bits and make it almost like a game," Vaughan said. Perhaps the Cap Gemini greeting cards are the best examples of epic's convergence of 3D art and interactivity with business and marketing. "Cap Gemini is a large computer consulting firm (33,000 employees worldwide, 4,000 in the US), and in 1997, the North American Division wanted a special way to wish its customers and employees a happy holiday," Cherubini said. "They were planning to take out a full -page ad in Forbes Magazine, Instead, they came to us with an idea for an interactive greeting card on CD-ROM that would include animation, video and high-resolution 3D graphics."
Epic also designed links from the CD-ROM directly to the Cap Gemini web site and even developed two interactive games. Eight thousand CDs were pressed and delivered and the digital dispatch was an instant hit with Cap Gemini and its clients. In February of 1998, this Cybercard earned epic the Gold Addy Award for the best direct mail interactive piece. The 1997 version was such a smashing success, that in '98 Cap Gemini wanted even a bigger and better version. "One of the elements they liked from the '97 card was the replay value," Vaughan said. "So we pitched a game that you could play the year around. It was called 'Holiday Squares' after the game show 'Hollywood Squares' and it included 15 celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Jackson. Once we got into it, they made it bigger. They wanted to include caricatures of 10 Cap Gemini executives that would play the celebrities, It really pushed the deadline. We ended up with 31 3D characters." The Cap Gemini interactive greeting cards would change the course of the company's direction," Cherubini said.
Happy and Max
Leveraging its experience with the Cap Gemini card, epic caught the attention of Dr. Kris Jarosa, President of Jamsa Press, and an author of 80 computer books. Jamsa had an idea for a children's book series that converged perfectly with epic's skills and interests. Jamsa wanted to give his "Happy & Max" adventure series a different look by using 3D graphic illustrations. He also planned on packaging an interactive CDROM with the books. "I wanted to do children's books since was four," Vaughan said. "I buy about two children's books a week." So Vaughan was the natural choice for project manager for "Happy and Max" (Happy is the boy, Max is the Dalmatian.) "Kurt Larson (an epic animator) did the initial pencil sketches that we sent to the authors for review," Cherubini said. "From the comments we received back, Kurt made the changes and nailed it. When the authors saw the drawings, they said that's exactly what we're looking for." The epic crew used Inspire 3D to model and render most of the images in the four volume series which has been printed in 10 languages. "One book just came off the press in Finnish," Cherubini said. "And we just received a royalty check from the book sales in Bulgaria," Two more "Happy and Max" books are on the drawing board.
The Next Epic Chapter
Though epic is not ready to abandon its core oil and gas industry business, Cherubini and the epic software group would like to drill some wildcat wells and develop more entertainment projects. "Our future is being able to do more children's content," explained Cherubini. "We have deals in the works with people who have stories and like the look we create for them," One of the ideas that is fueling their imagination is Jack Howston's Dragon Fellow, a 70 minute a1l 3D feature. "We would like to produce the entire piece in Texas," Cherubini said about the ambitious venture. "Epic has become a gathering point for animators who so not want to go to Hollywood. We gave bought thee and a half acres of land and plan to build a facility that will be the start of a production studio. We are designing a special building where people will want to come to work."
In the mean time, epic continues drilling for new ideas. "We went to Dallas to visit John Davis and Keith Alcorn at DNA Productions," Cherubini said. "The suggested that we always have an animation in the works that we do for no one else except ourselves."
As for the future, epic's explorers hope to strike black gold on the silver screen.
THE ACID TEST
"We have a strange hiring process," said Vic Cherubini, epic software group's founder and president, explaining the company's success at corralling champion talent. "We look at an applicant's portfolio and give him a project to do - such as to model 10 objects in lightWave. We tell him to come back in two weeks. We call it our acid test." "Most applicants see it as a chance to show off," added William Vaughan, epic's art director. "We found that some people don't understand the concept of a deadline. And the acid test is all about starting and finishing something." "If we like what we see, we give them a 90 day trial," Cherubini continued. "We then sit down and everybody In the company has to agree on hiring him." (They have lassoed eight of the 20 candidates put through the drill.) this team attitude pervades epic's environment. "When a job comes in everyone grabs a piece of it," Vaughan said, "There are no big heads here. We were able to put together a Dr. Pepper character in record time because everyone was working on it as soon as the phone call came in. Someone started modeling the hand while someone else was working on the rest of the body."
"The work environment Is great," lead animator, Tom Jordan said. "We really feed off each other." Cherubini also has rounded up skilled young hands through its intern program established with the Academy of Science and Technology, the local magnet high school. "We've had about 40 interns since we started the company. They could make more money working at the local grocery store, but they all leave here with the knowledge and skill level to get good jobs," Cherubini explained. An Intern of epic proportions, Drew Creel is a programming whiz who has taught lightWave and Macromedia Director classes. Creel is so good at Director that he is helping to write a Director book at epic that will include a CO of 24 Director games for which he wrote 90 percent of the code. Creel graduates from high school this spring.
10% Inspiration and 90% Perspiration
Cherubini may have the entrepreneurial spirit of a wildcatter, but he also has the work ethic of a roughneck. Nowhere are those two characteristics more evident than in the epic tale of the Inspire 3D tutorial. The story s with William Vaughan who had become such an expert at lightWave that he was invited to teach it at the North Harris Community College, "I discovered it was much easier to teach somebody the concepts of 3D if I was sitting beside them and guiding them through it," Vaughan said. Hence he began developing new teaching tools. With an Idea for a lightwave tutorial in their saddlebag,
Cherubini and Vaughan hit the trail to Topeka, Newtek's headquarters at the time. 'William had been assembling a lot of information to help students learn lightWave, so we went up to Kansas and met with NewTek's management team," Cherubini said. "They liked what they saw and said they were developing a new product." Code named Popeil, the product became Inspire 3D. "We thought the idea of a tutorial was ideal for an entry level program like Inspire," said Donetta Colboch, NewTek's Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Epic software group not only produced the Inspire tutorial; they designed the logo and package. "The tutorial took six months to complete," said Cherubini. "Since Inspire was new, we spent two weeks just producing sample Images that we could use in the tutor~I , " Vaughan added. "It's a fabulous piece of work. They have some incredible artists," Colboch said. "The tutorial makes the job of learning 3D easier. And it's done with a real sense of humor."
Epic has continued their educational efforts to support the lightWave community by providing tutorials for New Tekniques magazine. They also have signed an exclusive distribution agreement with Agfa Direct, the latest growing distributor of stock photography in the US. Agfa will market two libraries comprised of over 500 royalty free, 3D objects that the epic software group has created. The CDs will be featured in Agfa's Spring catalog and on their web site. "The cost will be under $500 for 500 objects. We're marketing them like clip art," Cherubini explained. "We're doing our part for making 3D objects more readily available."