After a trip through the heart of Downtown Cincinnati, I pull up to the historic Longworth Hall that lies just next to Paul Brown Stadium, and not more than 200 yards from the Ohio River. After parking, I look up to take in my surroundings: behind me rattles a train raised on a track 100 feet in the air, on either side of me rumble cars speeding over the raised highways that lead from the West side into Cincinnati, and in front of me is a stretched out old brick warehouse with the words “Baltimore and Ohio” faintly printed across the facade, topped by a water-tower that reads “Longworth Hall.” It’s the breeding ground for startups.
First passing a nightclub, I enter an elevator bound for the fourth ﬂoor. Today, I am meeting with Jason Heaton, an animator at the relatively new Epipheo Studios. Upon arriving on the fourth ﬂoor, I step out of the elevator to see the inside of the building exactly as I expected: wood ﬂoors and brick walls, and honestly it couldn’t be cooler. Before long I see Jason walking quickly down the hall towards me, enthusiastically introducing himself and then without hesitation beginning our tour. The ofﬁces of Epipheo, he informs me, had just expanded in January. They have two spaces: the business side of the studio is located on one side of the elevator, and the animating side on the other. In about an hour, he shows me everything from the personal conference rooms (meant for just two or three people) to the communal spaces furnished with couches and tables to the animating desks and the sound production room. For a business that had just moved in to Longworth Hall a year ago, it is impressive
Perhaps most unique to Epipheo’s space are three things: the desks, the conference rooms, and the white boards. Most everybody has about a four-and-a-half to ﬁve foot tall desk at which to stand. Having made a video for a standing desk company about the harmful effects of sitting all day, Jason informed me the ofﬁce is making an effort to ditch the desk chairs. Lining the outside of the main ofﬁce space are small rooms with a table and two or three chairs each. These rooms provide a space for the producers and designers to get together and plan out each video. Finally, most essential to the Epipheo style of work is the whiteboard. Everything is planned, written, organized, and initiated by white board. In fact, when Jason and I sit down to talk, he continually uses the whiteboard to illustrate what he is saying.
Beginning with Jon Collins in 2008, the studio is rooted in a video he made called the Advent Conspiracy Promo Video. After a strong, positive response from friends and neighbors, as well as strangers, Collins got together three of his buddies to create a business out of his videos. About one year later, a video was released on the new Google product, Google Wave, a product so confusing and confounding that Collins saw the perfect opportunity to create his next video discussing it. Epipheo, by the studios’ deﬁnition, is a mix of an epiphany and a video. When a person has a thought or idea that they need to share with the rest of the world, but they don’t know how best to share it, that’s when Epipheo steps onto the scene. Collins demonstrated this with the video he created on Google Wave where he explained the pure basics of a confusing product in simplistic animation. The video went viral, and ﬁve years later, we ﬁnd his studio set up in Cincinnati and Portland creating short videos for CNN, Facebook, Ebay, and other big name companies, all the while with the motto “Truth, Story, Love.”
These days, Epipheo has grown enough to attract exceptional animators like Jason Heaton. A Cincinnati native and St. Xavier graduate, Heaton planned on attending the Ringling College of Art and Design initiated by the pleas of his art teacher senior year. Before this, he had hoped become a director or possibly a teacher. After this somewhat surprising turn of events, Heaton settled in at Ringling to study computer animation, an area he never became very passionate about until a moment of clarity late in his college career when he realized that what he created in school would be determining his job in just a few years. Though he busted his butt to put out great stuff, Heaton came to another change: he decided to take up storyboarding. In just one summer, his best friend Stan – who went on to work for Oscar winning studios Moonbot and Pixar – taught Jason the process. Because he had no portfolio for that department however, Heaton found it difﬁcult to get a job. Luckily, he was hired on at Moonbot with the rest of his friends in August, 2010, when the summer interns left. Here he had the opportunity as a CG Generalist to work on layouts, texturing, modeling, and animating for the Oscar winning short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” and afterwards continued perfecting his storyboarding. Before long, many of his friends moved out of Moonbot and on to the big names of Hollywood: Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks. Jason left soon afterwards, returning to Cincinnati while deciding what to do next. Here, he heard about Epipheo, and long story short, he stayed in Ohio when the studio hired him full-time as a storyboard artist.
What Heaton found attractive about Epipheo is what seems to be the studio’s root cause for success: story. Story is the life of Epipheo, and for Jason, it is why he does what he does. The way he animates, story is required. “When making a video about a company’s product, you can’t just say they’re the best, that’s not what people want to hear. People care about story, and that lives on the “why” level.” Jason’s goal is to get you to care about that ‘why’ through animation. He describes the studio as a storytelling ﬁrm where they want to create good stories that they can plus with the visuals. “I look for the simplest way to get you to care about this product.”
What I took away from my meeting with Jason is that drawing ability is almost a secondary skill in animation. Of course there’s a level of ability that’s required, but that can be taught; the what, how, and why must be innate. I am excited for the creative, original shorts Jason and his colleagues will be creating for their new epipheo.tv website, as well as their future productions for big-time businesses. In the meantime, what can be taken away from this for anybody who hopes to enter the entertainment business is this: the heart of a production is its story, and if you can get the audience to care about the character and their individual ‘why’ factor, the rest will fall into place.