UNIQUE ANIMATIONS - Software company grows with 3D

By Jim Belew - Business editor

President Vic Cherubini of epic software group demonstrates vivid computer imagery to other artists within the group. The visual uniqueness of the graphic images adds to the artistic atmosphere of the company's building on Sawdust Road in The Woodlands. epic's Web site is at http://www.epicsoftware.com. Pigs fly here, but that's not too unusual for a place where a giant red soft drink cup strides King Kong-fashion through a metropolitan landscape, trailing a wake of toppled' skyscrapers while helicopters buzz overhead.

Welcome to the world of epic software group inc, a multimedia production studio at 701 Sawdust Road. Here, the only limitations are those of the imagination. The name epic stands for electronically produced interactive catalogs, a description of the service initially provided by the company when Vic Cherubini founded it in 1990.

Cherubini, a Brooklyn native with an undergraduate degree in photography, moved to Texas in 1980 on a corporate transfer in the oil and gas industry. While working on his MBA at the University of Houston, he developed a business plan for the software company and, encouraged by a professor, turned the plan into reality.

At first the company specialized in creating product catalogs with interactive elements to guide clients through decision making steps to choose products best suited for their needs. The catalogs were published on diskettes and later on CDROMs. By 1995, with the explosion of the Internet, epic began noticing a rising interest in multi-media, especially 3D animations. The company invested in LightWave 3D, the same virtual reality software Program Hollywood uses to create for special effects in blockbuster films such as Titanic and Men in Black.

Nowadays, says Cherubini, 'Our main purpose in life is to do 3D animation." Although the company still does some CD ROM development and video editing, he says, "We're really not too excited about that. There are too many others doing it. "In a 3D scene, Cherubini says, all the elements are 'real" within the computer. 'You actually build characters, so when they take light, it hits the character and throws a shadow. In 2D, the artist would draw the character and then draw the shadow." Moreover, a 3D scene's elements can be imbued with textures and reaction to natural laws, such as response to gravity. Or the elements can be manipulated to suit the artists' fancy.

But whether the scene is one of realism or fantasy, cameras, just as on a real movie set, can be positioned and moved or flown among the elements to give the illusion of looking at scene from above. Epic has created animations for corporate promotions, advertisements, Magazine covers, children's books, websites and other applications. The Woodlands Operating Co.. L.P commissioned the company to capture on a CD-ROM a fly-through" of the Waterway project as it will be when completed, including people shopping along the promenade and ducks swimming in the canal. By hitting a computer space-bar, the fly-through freezes in midflight to allow a speaker to point out specific features of the waterway project to an audience of say, representatives of companies considering relocation to the area,

Another company, Cap Gemini, paid epic $50,000 to create an interactive Christmas greeting card on CD-Rom that included animation, video, 3D graphics add links to the Gemini web site. The CD not only proved a popular success with the company and its clients, but also won a Gold Addy award for epic in 1998 as best direct mail interactive piece.

In 1998, Gemini ordered an expanded version, complete with a Hollywood Squares type game featuring 3D caricatures of celebrities and Gemini exec, Convincing people to try non-traditional approach to delivering their message 'What we have a tough time doing is getting people to step out of what they?re used to doing and look at alternative ways of doing it," Cherubini says. When working with a client, an epic artist will try to get some basic idea of what's wanted and make quick pencil sketches as the discussion continues. Story conferences among the group, says Cherubini, are super critical for a project's success. This is the epic software group. Group should be in capital letters because nobody here does it by themselves. Check your egos at the door. If the guy who cleans the floor has the best idea, we're using his idea," Cherubini says.

The company has 10 fulltime employees and several student interns from area high schools. Most of them have extensive backgrounds in art or programming- For instance, epic designer Danny Dubon, who worked on the waterway animation project, was a traditional art school student in 1991 at Lamar University. "One day. I wandered into a computer lab and saw them working with animation, and I was hooked.' he says." Now I can do pretty much anything I can imagine."

Cliff Jones, an intern, is an 18-year-old senior at Magnolia High School. Active in programming for the past four: years, he created a virtual pinball game while at epic and authored a book explaining both how the game works and providing instruction on the software's use to create the game. The book is to be published sometime this month. Jones has applied for entrance at Stanford University. "He is a real smart kid," Cherubini says. "The average college freshman wouldn't be where he is."

Most of epic's clientele is local. "A big chunk of our business is the oil and gas industry" he says. Many of the other companies like epic are located near the media epicenters of Los Angeles, New York City and Orlando, but Cherubini is content with his location. "We're kind of a specialty shop. We don't want to be out there," he says. "We want to be here."