"Ben Porcari loves new technology, and his enthusiasm is just catching. He's a professional through and through, and he also cares about the community."
Ben Porcari, animation and visualization entrepreneur
Passion for computers and art leads to boutique technology firm
By Scott Thomas
For Ben Porcari, it happened in 1992. He was a University at Buffalo student at the time, studying computers and engineering and trying to figure out where his life was headed. He knew that he loved technology; he also knew that he loved art, which doesn't always mesh with the cold logic of engineering.
He and a friend, media studies student J. Frink, were already in business making small-scale commercial videos-a promotion for the Copy Stop on campus, one for a company that installs glass block windows, a late-night TV commercial for a novelty store. They were making a little money, but that eternal question of youth kept presenting itself: Is this it?
That was when they took a night off to see the film The Lawnmower Man, based on a Stephen King short story. By all accounts it was a pretty hackneyed plot, but the special effects were revolutionary for that time. And by the time the credits rolled, Ben Porcari had seen his future waiting for him.
"I finally found something I had a complete passion for," he recalls now. "I knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do. It was the most exciting time of my life."
He has parlayed that passion into IBC Digital, a downtown Buffalo boutique technology company, which produces animation and visualization work that enjoys national exposure. With a staff of eight, IBC has done work for Comedy Central, HBO, ESPN, an ad for Pop-Tarts, Home Shopping Network, the Discovery Channel, QVC ... the list goes on. "My philosophy is, you really can't pass up any opportunity, because every opportunity is the leaping-off point for the next opportunity," he says.
The company's office, on the second floor of an old brick building on Delaware Avenue, is a place where sleek, expensive computer and video equipment sit next to, say, a Buzz Lightyear action figure and a Curious George lunchbox.
But make no mistake: There's serious work going on here.
"I don't know anybody who works harder at any project that he takes on than Ben," says Frank Drucker, '85. A freelance TV producer and director in New York, Drucker has worked with IBC on a number of projects. "He's creative; he has very high energy; he embraces the project. He stays very excited about a project. You can tell he's someone who loves what he's doing."
IBC's work divides into two main areas: animation and visualization. The company's artists produce both computer animations and traditional drawn "cel" animations, which have more depth and texture than computer-based work. A recent example was a short animated film for Comedy Central called Attack! It came in as a script about a family of cockroaches living their lives until, incongruously, a towering can of bug spray showed up and blasted them. It was funny stuff, and the producers wanted it designed and animated in the style of the old '50s Raid commercials. IBC artists designed the characters and the settings, storyboarded the film, negotiated back and forth with the producers via faxes and web postings, and finally produced the animation on deadline after a series of marathon work sessions.
Visualizations, by contrast, are more about commerce than entertainment. The one that became a breakthrough for Porcari was for a Motorola product called ESPNet To.Go, a pager that displayed continuous sports scores and information. IBC took a dummy of the product and created, from scratch, a TV commercial that shows it in action-helping the viewer to visualize how this pager works. "After that," Porcari says, "the whole New York market opened up for us."
Another visualization assignment has brought IBC into partnership with the university's Center for Computational Research (CCR). Together, for the center's grand opening in October 1999, they produced an "immersive" display, in which the viewer wears goggles and perceives that he's inside the scene he's watching. It impressed New York State Governor George E. Pataki, who was the guest of honor at the opening, and others. This visualization assignment has led to another CCR-IBC collaboration that produced immersive 3-D models of various options for replacing the aging Peace Bridge, an issue of some contention in the Buffalo community.
"That was a huge success," says Russ Miller, professor of computer science and engineering and CCR director. "We had a lot of elected officials here and the Buffalo News editorial staff. We also put some images up on our website, and within the first couple of days, we took about 15,000 hits. Our understanding is that the work we did here, to enable people to visualize what it would look like, really helped the decision-making process."
Of his collaborator, Miller says, "Ben Porcari loves new technology, and his enthusiasm is just catching. He's a professional through and through, and he also cares about the community and Western New York. He could easily take a shop like his and move it down to New York, where he'd make a lot more money, but this is where he came from, this is where he grew up, this is what he likes."
For his part, Porcari sees great potential in the supercomputers at UB. "Visualization technology has a lot of power to make changes in our economy," he says. "We've really enjoyed working with the university. They are truly a leader in the nation with respect to technology-one of the top supercomputing resources in America. It's really a powerhouse waiting to happen. This stuff is the latest and greatest. Imagine waking up and having $12 million in computers at your disposal!"
It's a happy return to the university where this entrepreneur got his start. Back then, when they were students, points out his old partner Frink, there was no intuitive visual software like Alias|Wavefront Maya, Porcari's current favorite. "Back then," Frink says, "if you wanted to do, for example, a vortex, you would program it in C or C++, and you'd be animating these things from a C shell. That's crazy. It sent him back to his calculus book."
Indeed, they learned more than programming in those years at UB. "I got a hell of a lot of education there," says Porcari, who chose to leave school to pursue his rapidly expanding business. "I developed a lot as a person from experiences in my fraternity and in student government. It was during the Persian Gulf War when I got the ambassador from Kuwait to come and speak. I just called the embassy and he came. Things like that taught me that there's so much out there. That's a lesson that comes from being a well-rounded student and not just hitting the books."
And where else could he have been prepared to work this hard? He has to keep up with computer technology that's changing every week; he has to manage his company, deal with the personnel, pitch for new assignments and manage the money. "At this point I'm more of a director and producer," he says. "I organize and direct a team of artists to get to what the client wants. And on top of it all, there's a deadline." With his wife, Melissa, and two-year-old son, Jack, his life is full to bursting.
This has led to many 100-hour weeks. You can see why they'd want that complete set of Simpsons figurines to play with, to break the tension. "I put in doctor's hours," Porcari says. "But with the amount of time I spend here, I couldn't do it without my wife's support. Sometimes I can be here two or three days straight."
However, the finished product makes it all worthwhile: "We get a group of artists working together with a common vision and a goal. The result is more sophisticated than anyone can do on his or her own. You're always growing technically and artistically. And your best work is always just ahead of you."