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The mastermind behind Gnomon School of Visual Effects

Posted by on in Artists


| Alwyn Hunt: Alex, firstly I just wanted to say congratulations for winning "School of the Year" last year.

| Alex Alvarez:  Thank you. It was very exciting for our students and us.


| AH: Tell me what is a typical day in the life of Alex Alvarez? Are you still quite active teaching at Gnomon?

| AA: Yes, I teach a portfolio class on Wednesdays, something that I've been teaching for quite a while. I started the class after I finished on Avatar, mid-2007, so it's been over seven years. Our program is quite intense, being six classes a term for two to three years. I just felt that our students were learning so much but maybe we were not giving them enough time to sit and focus on portfolio pieces, so I added the portfolio class to address this. Our students now take it twice, having me for six months where I'm making sure that their portfolio is addressing their potential. While my portfolio class is for students interested in modeling, texturing, lighting and rendering, we also now have portfolio classes with other instructors that focus on animation, visual effects, and games. Gnomon exists to get people jobs and so ultimately we just needed to make sure that our students were doing the best that they can, putting their best foot forward and our priority has always been what's necessary for our students to get a job right out of school. There are a lot of schools out there that don't focus on that as being their responsibility. But Gnomon now has 100 percent placement, and I do not believe that any other school comes close to that.




| AH:So what sort of challenges do you see for Gnomon in the future?

| AA: → Well clearly there are a variety of things that have changed over the years. When we opened seventeen years ago, virtually everyone who came to Gnomon wanted to work in visual effects for film. But over the past seventeen years quite a bit has changed, so there's now a lot more effects work in television with commercials and episodic TV shows. The industry is also now globalized where there's now work in San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal, London and a few other cities such as Singapore. For years, all of our graduates would get a job in LA, but now what we're seeing is that some of our graduates are getting a job outside LA... yet still the minority. But the reality is fortunately for somebody who's 25 years old, the idea of going to Vancouver or London is generally exciting. It's a very different mindset being somebody who's starting your career and relocating to another city for your first job, than somebody who's in their 40s and has been in the industry for 20 years.


It's part of our mission here to try to inspire and educate people for creative careers


The visual effects business right now is obviously extremely complicated, but you know, it's a matter of different perspectives. There are more visual effects jobs today than there ever have been, all over the place, and yet the business has become so competitive with everybody underbidding each other that that's why a lot of studios don't want to pay payroll expenses and healthcare expenses and retirement plan expenses, and so that's where a lot of the jobs now are becoming project based as opposed to staffed. That's something that, again, if you're a young artist it is kind of exciting – oh, I worked on five projects with five studios this year – they think that's cool, but yeah, as you get older and have kids that can be stressful. But what we also have been doing over the last few years, as the video game industry has been growing; we have been placing an increasing number of our graduates into games. We've recently announced the launch of our new Games track in the three-year program. The techniques and tools are almost completely converged, with crossover now between industries. When we look at all the local game studios that we have in LA from Naughty Dog, to Infinity Ward, to Blizzard, these places are using Maya, ZBrush, Photoshop, etc and granted there's a part of the pipeline that's different in regard to a game engine, such as Unreal, but a lot of it is the same. So while, at the beginning of Gnomon, everybody wanted to work in film and visual effects, today we're finding that a larger percentage of entering students are interested in the games industry.




| AH: What is the current dynamics of the gaming industry? Do you think it is more stable than the VFX Industry?

| AA: → It's a lot more stable. The game industry is more staff-based, and if you take a studio like Riot in Los Angeles.... Riot started in '06, they released League of Legends in '09, their first and only title, and Riot now has over 1000 people. That's just in five years. League of Legends is making a large amount of money for them and so they have been expanding like crazy. What we perceive is that the number of graduates that we have can not match the demand of a single studio like Riot, let alone all the other game studios in LA right now like TreyArch, Infinity Ward, Insomniac, Blizzard which between Diablo, Warcraft and Starcraft is doing very well. The games industry, especially for AAA titles, is making large amounts of money and is quite stable. Therefore, the jobs at those studios actually tend to be staffed long term.



| AH: One question I've always wanted to know, where did the name Gnomon come from?

| AA: → I worked for Alias|Wavefront for a couple of years prior to Gnomon and I was a support guy for Power Animator. In the lower left corner was a little arrow that always pointed to the origin. And that arrow was called the Gnomon. Back then you had to go to the federal building downtown to register a name for a business, you couldn't do it online, and I went down there with a friend and we had a few other names that I don't even remember that were all taken. We were just sitting outside trying to think up names on the spot, literally on the spot, we gotta come up with something... and then the word Gnomon popped into my head. It's good, it's something that people can never pronounce right but you know, at least it's not The Institute of This or That.


Every day at four o'clock we would then bring in an industry speaker to talk about what they do and the jobs that are available


| AH: What passions do you have outside of the Gnomon school?

| AA: → Gnomon definitely is my main focus, so I definitely work way too many hours on the school. There's also The Gnomon Workshop which is the DVD side. I work with artists there and, when I have time, I focus on personal projects. I've gone down this natural environment route for the last couple of years. I've done a lot of 3D work with that, but that's been kind of a personal thing. It's been fun to develop pipelines and to produce some of my own DVDs, but as far as professionally, I used to do a bunch of freelance work but I kind of stopped that... for now. The last movie I worked on was Prometheus.




| AH: How many workshop DVDs are you trying to produce a year?

| AA: → It varies. Our goal for this year is to finish the year with 24. At our peak we were probably hitting more like 45 a year and then I just got really busy with the school so I didn't have the time to focus on the Workshop as well. But definitely for the next few weeks we have a bunch of stuff slated, so I know we have something coming out this Wednesday, next Wednesday, and the Wednesday after that, so we're definitely continuing to work with artists and to produce titles that are unique... where they are very technique based, as opposed to button-pushing. We've always tried to stay away from button-pushing DVDs. 




| AH: How popular have the Summer High School courses been?

| AA: → Our summer camp has become quite popular. We did it again this past summer, for the second time. It is a two-week full-time program for teens aged 15-18. Last summer, 2013, I think we had about 40, this summer we had about 60 kids, and that was awesome. Monday to Friday from nine to four they're in class and we have a bunch of different courses from an overview of 3D, drawing for entertainment, intro to digital sculpting with ZBrush, a traditional sculpture class, and the students were super excited. Every day at four o'clock we would then bring in an industry speaker to talk about what they do and the jobs that are available, so they'd get people like Neville Page, the lead creature designer for Avatar, to come in and show their work and talk... something that if I had seen when I was a teen... it would've changed my life.




| AH: What's been the reaction of the kids?

| AA: → It's been really cool. We have a couple people in Outreach whose job is to go out to high schools, junior colleges, trade shows and job fairs every week... something that we started ramping up a couple years ago. We visit these schools and events to give talks about the industry, then try to get those students to come to Gnomon for our free events on campus... just to get younger people to understand that if they like to draw then that opens up a career path for them. Most parents just assume that a kid who likes to draw is going to become a starving artist, a fine artist in galleries, like Van Gogh, and never make any money – the stereotype of the starving artist really still exists and in a very strong way in the minds of parents. We're trying to get them to understand that the entertainment industry is populated by thousands of very talented artists who love their job and have rewarding careers. That's the message and it's challenging to convey that accurately to high school or college/career counselors as a lot of them are rather narrow-minded. I mean even my mom... she still doesn't really understand what I do! It's part of our mission here to try to inspire and educate people for creative careers in the arts of the entertainment industry, so we very much see ourselves as an art school. We're focused on software and technology, but we're very much an art school.

It's part of our mission here to try to inspire and educate people for creative careers in the arts of the entertainment industry, so we very much see ourselves as an art school. We're focused on software and technology but we're very much an art school.




| AH: Do a lot of your courses have a traditional 2D aspect associated with them?

| AA: Yes. With our three year full-time program, the first year is all 2D, some traditional, some digital. We have a very strict portfolio requirement to get into the program, which is why, I believe, our placement rate is so high. Our portfolio requirement is a drawing portfolio.


| AH: What's a typical portfolio that somebody would need to be eligible for one of your courses?

| AA: We don't expect them to know the computer or software; we really don't care about that. It's similar to a portfolio you would use to apply to an illustration program at a traditional art school, meaning that we want to see figure drawing, we want to see drawing from the imagination, we want to see your observation skills, which does come from figure drawing, still lifes, landscapes and such work, and primarily we want to see how that gets applied. How your observational skills get applied to creative thinking and drawing from your imagination, so we also ask to see sketchbooks so that we can gauge if the student is ready. If they have a very strong portfolio and they're potentially older – perhaps they already have a degree, those students might go into the two year program and skip that first year. To clarify, there's a two year and a three year program, both accredited. They're identical except from the first year, and so for students where the portfolio is good but they definitely could benefit from more foundation training, then we would recommend that they go into the three year program. We're also in the process of converting the three year program into a degree, but that's something that will not happen until 2016.




| AH: How do people apply from overseas? Can they submit an online portfolio?

| AA: Yes. We really don't mind what the format is, so if someone is local and they're willing to stop by with a portfolio for an on-campus interview, that is great. But if someone is out-of-state, or international, then we ask them to send it digitally, whether it's through a website or PDF or Dropbox. I would say that right now we're 25 percent international, so we do have a lot of international students in full-time.


| AH: Do you get people applying from all around the world?

| AA: It's almost every corner of the planet. I get emails through my website and Facebook from people who are everywhere. I just got an email last week from a kid in Nigeria who's been playing around with 3D and Blender and really wants to pursue this industry and I had a lot of questions on whether it would be even remotely possible from somebody from Nigeria to enter the industry. I get questions like that quite a bit where people are worried that their location is going to be a problem.




| AH: What's your favourite blog to read?

| AA: I'm really not that into blogs, but I read I09 ( and Singularity Hub ( almost everyday.


| AH: Awesome, Alex. Hey, I know you're a busy guy and thanks for taking the time out just to have a chat with us it's been great to catch up.

| AA: Cool. Thank you so much!



Visit the Gnomon School of Visual Effects online


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