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Interview: Alex Alvarez of the Gnomon School of Visual Effects

Kevin Kelly

Alex Alvarez is one of those people who obsessively played games and constantly doodled in a sketchbook as a kid. He studied art, but with no one career-oriented channel for that creativity, he didn't find himself making a living as an artist until he stumbled into a job working on comic books. A few years later, he was explaining software to movie studios and eventually opened The Gnomon Workshop, which provides training to artists who are interested in the entertainment industry.

Alvarez recently finished a six-month stint working on James Cameron's Avatar, and Gnomon just hosted the "Unleashed: The Art of Naughty Dog" art exhibit showing off works by many of the artists from Naughty Dog, several of whom went through classes at Gnomon. In our interview after the break, Alvarez talks about the expanding reach of video games, looks back at his youth spent playing Ultima and Wizardry, and doles out plenty of advice for budding young artists.

What was your background? How did you form Gnomon?

Alex Alvarez: I was working with Alias|Wavefront back in '95. They made Maya. And so back then, it was before Maya came out. So I was the support guy for Los Angeles, I was the main entertainment guy. I would go to studios all over LA everyday helping them get the software to do what they needed. And at that time, there was nowhere to study this stuff. And the tools were so new a lot of the artists at studios felt that they needed to learn more about them, so there was a great demand for a professional training facility where people would train people from the studios.

That is how Gnomon started. So in '97, it was basically a continuing education series; evening and weekend classes, people from lots of studios. And about 80 percent of our students at that time were professionals. And then over the last 12 years, you know, we have expanded to offer a full-time program for people who want to get into the industry. We do other services, community oriented things, like CG Channel, which is a website, or the gallery here to expose people to artists, or Gnomon Studios, which is creating a short for Shane Acker right now. All of this gives experience to our students, like a real production type experience. So Gnomon is very much now focused on professional education, but also creating careers.

Could a new artist come in here from the ground floor and work their way up?

We see ourselves as an arts school where visual effects, games, and 3D just happen to be the medium. But for us, in all of our experiences with the artists that we work with, some kind of creative background is critical to doing this, whether it is anything from photography to graphic design to illustration to whatever. That is the foundation of everything, so for our full-time program, we have a very strict traditional drawing portfolio requirement. We don't want to see digital stuff or 3D stuff. Like, can you draw? Are you creative? You need to have that background before you come to Gnomon, because it is a very intense program.

How much of the work at Gnomon is game-related? What about back in 1997 when you started?

Nothing then. And so for the first several years of Gnomon, everybody who came here to study wanted to get into the film industry or TV. Mostly film. Everybody wanted to work at ILM or a place like that. A few people ... you know, there weren't a lot of effects in TV back then. Well, maybe a little bit. And then over the years, obviously, a lot more episodic effects were going on, like you see in Fringe, or V, or Heroes, or whatever. So there is a lot of opportunity there.

And now the game industry is massive, so now we see about 50/50 of students that want to work in games as opposed to film or broadcast. And then with games, a lot of our students are interested in cinematics. So we have a lot of students that go to Blizzard or Blur, places like that. So Michelle Develo, who organized the Naughty Dog show, graduated about a year and a half ago. She went to Naughty Dog and helped put this together.

We have also done other group shows with other studios. Last year we did one with Blizzard and one with Blur. And so I think the Naughty Dog crew maybe visited those shows and kind of knew that we were a gallery that was interested in that. And so they approached Melissa, and she emailed me, and I asked if it would be cool. And, of course, it would be awesome. So that is kind of how it happened. And so she kind of helped wrangle the people together. And it is cool to see the diversity of people that make these products.

There's somewhat of a disconnect between gamers and the artists who create these games. You really don't think about the people behind a game when you play it.

For me, that is the huge agenda that I've had over the last 12 years: to create attention for the artists in our industry. Because the press tends to focus on ... well, let's say with a movie they focus on the actors and the director. Or the game, they focus on the game itself. But as far as who actually did it, who was the art director, the creature designer, the set designer? Who designed this prop, or this sword, or this gun? You don't get a lot of exposure on that. But there are millions of kids out there in high school that love to draw and have no idea what the hell they are going to do for a living.

The art programs all across America are getting cut like crazy. A billion dollars from UC, $400 million from LA Unified. I mean, all this stuff is getting cut and all the schools are cutting art programs first. I have two young kids and they are in public school, and art and music was the first thing to get cut. And this is happening all across America. The arts are being kind of pushed aside, while the entertainment industry is one of the few industries that is growing like crazy through the recession. There are lots of jobs out there. And all these kids who like to draw who are 12, 13, 16, whatever are being told it is not an option, you don't want to draw. You don't want to be Picasso. You will never succeed. Get a normal job. But people in our industry have great jobs.

So it is something that by creating things like the gallery or a site we have called Sketch Theater where we just get these top artists from comics, or entertainment design, or tattooing, or whatever ... like Syd Mead for example. They come in and do an awesome sketch, just pencil and paper, something that is very pure. Put it to some music, find some cool band, put it together, make it free online so that kids can see, "Wow. That was a rad drawing. Who did that?"

A lot of readers would be interested in working on games. What would you suggest to those people? Just get a sketch book and start drawing?

Well, the main thing is ... do you have that spark? Some people have it and some people don't. Everybody has it in something different. Some people, it is writing. Some people, it is music. Some people, it is visuals or drawing. All of which cater to the film industry or the game industry. You can work in the game industry doing sound effects, or sound design, or score, to voice acting, to producing, to anything, really. So the range of people that could be in into the industry is not just people who like to draw, first of all.

But for people who do like to draw, it is just about, well, practice, study. But the good thing today as opposed to when I was doing this stuff is you have the Internet, and communities, and forums where people share art. And you have sites like Joystiq where they can read about the fact that there are people doing this for a living. So you just have to do your research. Sketch Theater is free. Lots of information on our website, we have free tutorials. So hopefully that helps gets some info out there. We have tried to create a lot of free content to help people learn. I mean the gallery is free. Every month we have free events. At the end of the month we have an Avatar event that is six hours long, all day, three hours on design, three hours on technology.

So the thing to figure out is, what kind of genre stuff do you dig, and obsess on it. You know, that energy you have at 15 ... at that age, I was playing my Atari 800, playing Ultima and Wizardry and all these things like 80 hours a week. All my energy went there, because nobody had told me I should put it anywhere else. But I think that young people want to be excited about something, and to know that what they like to do is something that they should pursue as a career is an important message.

Have you played Uncharted 2? Do you still have time for games?

Oh, yeah. I do. I mean limited. Well, my girlfriend works at Blizzard, so we just got the Starcraft 2 beta. So that's been the last 24 hours of my life. It's pretty rad.

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