Gnomon School: The Kings of the Cut Scene

Nestled in an unassuming compound in the shadow of the Hollywood sign that overlooks Los Angeles, the Gnomon School of Visual Effects is at once an institute of higher learning and a landmark awash in cinematic history. The catwalks, studios, and soundstages once served as a transfer workshop for Technicolor, so it’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that Hollywood has seeped into every corner of the building.

Gnomon has added to that legacy since its inception in 1997. The small school specializes in computer graphics entertainment, and while you may not have heard of the institute, you’ve almost certainly seen the results of the curriculum. Founder Alex Alvarez isn’t using any hyperbole when he says that every special effects team in Southern California employs someone associated with the institute – Alvarez’s personal credits include creature work for Avatar, Star Trek, and Super 8 –and Gnomon alumni have been known to turn up at studios as prolific as Naughty Dog, Pixar, Blizzard, and Industrial Light and Magic.

That pedigree has made Gnomon one of the most significant behind the scenes players in the entertainment industry. We had the opportunity to tour the facility on a lazy Friday in the wake of a whirlwind E3 in June, and while the visit is certainly memorable – not every school has Iron Man’s helmet in the art gallery – the palpable sense of intellectual vitality leaves a far more lasting impression. Gnomon’s innovative approach to education rethinks the relationships between art, entertainment, and employment in a corporate society, and in doing so it transcends media in a way that melds beauty and modern technology. Video games and films are merely the beneficiaries so keep reading to get a glimpse at the future of computer-generated entertainment.

Sonya Christoph
Sonya Christoph

The paintbrush is mightier than the microchip

Gnomon recognizes that a school’s reputation is only as good as the talent it produces so it is first and foremost an artistic institution. In that regard, Gnomon is a throwback to a much older and more open-minded artistic era. Even though the school’s mission demands a complete immersion in technology – they are, after all, teaching computer entertainment –the actual curriculum is paradoxically rooted in the physical sensibilities of the past.

That dichotomy is reflected in the school’s utilitarian approach to technology. At Gnomon, the classroom gadgetry is undeniably cool, but there’s nothing so futuristic that it’ll melt the modern brain. That’s partly in keeping with the school’s practical mandate – no budget-conscious studio is going to splurge on top of the line equipment for an entire team of employees, and there’s not much point in using tech that isn’t in wide circulation – but it also reinforces the fact that Photoshop is not synonymous with art.

Gnomon’s instructors are relatively unconcerned with a student’s technological capabilities because they know that anyone can be taught to use software. The problem is that technical know-how is no substitute for intuitive vision, and Gnomon wants its students to think and make decisions as artists instead of as individuals who happen to be good with keyboards. Like the sculptor with a chisel, Gnomon students learn to view their computers as tools to be used in service of a broader set of aesthetic principles.

To that end, life at Gnomon is as much about inspiration as it is about technique. Everyone has struggled with a deadline at one point or another, and finding the desire to create can be as much of a challenge as the actual process of creation. Gnomon helps students get past those mental blocks, molding them into artists who earn the title by actually producing art.

“Having a distinct aesthetic vision and feeling artistically inspired isn’t antithetical to building a successful career. In fact, they should go hand-in-hand,” continues Alvarez. “We work to create an environment at Gnomon that inspires students to do their very best work, and they get great jobs because of that inspiration, not despite it.”

Gnomon consequently excels because the founders recognize that art and economy don’t exist in isolation. An artist is only able to create as long as he or she has the resources (read: talent and financial stability) to do so, while a day laborer isn’t an artist unless he or she is able to exercise expression in the workplace, and students who grasp that fundamental truth are eventually able to realize their ambitions.

Rio Paulo Santana - Concept by Seamus Gallagher
Rio Paulo Santana - Concept by Seamus Gallagher

How to make it in Hollywood

Travis Bourbeau is a character modeler and concept artist with more than a decade’s worth of industry anecdotes, but these days he’s primarily settled into his administrative role at Gnomon. As the school’s Director of Industry Relations Bourbeau believes that Gnomon stands apart because the curriculum is squarely grounded in reality. He’s critical of assembly-line institutions that don’t adequately prepare students for post-academic life, and he constantly reminds his students that while they are artists, they’re also artists looking to move on to professional careers.

“You get a lot of blue-sky paintings, things like a fairy floating through the sky naked shooting a serpent,” says Bourbeau while describing the shortcomings of the average demo reel. “Being a professional, very rarely do you ever get tasked to do that kind of work, but some students will go all the way through school and that’s the only type of work they’ll focus on.”

If you’re hoping to figure out what makes Gnomon different, that’s as good a place to start as any. The school refuses to indulge impractical self-gratification, preferring instead to help students express themselves within the confines that they’re likely to encounter in the real world. The courses and homework assignments are designed to mimic the production demands and scheduling pipelines of the various major studios, and while that approach may seem calculating, it does help prime students for rigors beyond academia.

“If you work hard, care, and are good at what you do, you’ll get a job,” adds Alvarez. “The artists that get in to Gnomon and have the work ethic and the wherewithal to make it through are the best-prepared new talents out there.”

It’s impossible to argue with that assessment. Gnomon boasts an astounding 93 percent work placement rate for graduates, even if that number is admittedly a little deceptive. The school’s thorough admissions process weeds out casual illustrators – most of the new students at Gnomon already have a degree from another institution – so the people who do get in are more likely to see things through to graduation.

Moran Tennenbaum - Concept by Aleksi Rokka
Moran Tennenbaum - Concept by Aleksi Rokka

Gnomon simply steps in to provide those students with the tools needed to survive in a chosen professional setting, and the faculty is able to do that so efficiently because everyone at Gnomon has actually suffered through Hollywood’s unforgiving hiring process. All of the instructors are required to have a minimum of three to five years of work experience before joining the institute, and it’s that background that they’re passing on to a new generation of designers.

“We created Gnomon to be the school that I wanted to go to when I was a student,” explains Alvarez. “Conventional universities don’t work for everyone, and that wasn’t what I was looking for. The professors were smart and talented, but they weren’t active in the field – they’d been out of the game for years – so I wasn’t getting the inspiration I needed. I wanted to learn from the people that had the jobs I wanted.”

As you’d expect, the full time students reap the benefits of that philosophy. Gnomon’s list of former instructors includes illustrious names like onetime Sony Santa Monica Visual Design Lead Cecil Kim (God of War) and Uncharted Lead Character Artist Rich Diamont, and everyone else on the faculty has – at one point – lived the life of the working artist. Students develop meaningful relationships merely by showing up to class, and those contacts pay off in the years that follow graduation.

“It’s impractical and naïve to think that networking isn’t a part of everything we do and every career that is out there,” admits Alvarez. “Having a strong network of artist contacts isn’t going to make up for a weak portfolio, but it certainly doesn’t hurt when you’re entering the job market.”

There are, of course, a few harsh lessons to be learned along the way – students doing subpar work will be told that they need to either improve or temper their expectations – but Gnomon instructors have enough perspective to lend constructive weight to their criticisms and it can be a welcome wake-up call for the students still convinced that naked faeries and serpents will translate to financial success. Gnomon is one of the few schools confident enough to admit that art is a business in a corporate society, and stripping away the ivory tower idealism often associated with academia has allowed them to pioneer a syllabus that blends practicality and creativity in order to optimize both.

Lucas Sparks - Concept by Naughty Dog
Lucas Sparks - Concept by Naughty Dog

Good looks never go away

For those interested in visual effects, the film industry has been a final destination for decades. The best projects and the biggest paychecks have always been waiting in California, and that was still true when Gnomon was founded back in 1997. The school hoped to guide fledgling artists into meaningful cinematic careers, and that mission hasn’t changed in the intervening fifteen years.

Popular culture, however, has not been so constant. Our visit is proof enough of that. Pixels and Ink is a comics and video gaming magazine, and it’s the latter that brings us to Gnomon. What was once a niche medium that appealed primarily to children and nerds has evolved into one of the most prevalent and profitable forms of global entertainment, with increasingly capable technology that makes a mockery of the polygons of the 90s.

As the premier design school in the region – and unlike old-guard film enthusiasts like Roger Ebert – Gnomon has been at the forefront of that interactive movement. They cater to a younger demographic that has grown up dreaming of a career in the games industry just as past generations dreamed of making it in Hollywood, and the numerous elite game studios in California are just as thirsty for premium talent.

“We’ve tailored our course offerings over the years to answer that shift in the industry, and have many classes solely dedicated to learning the skills critical to working in games,” explains Alvarez, who still has fond memories of his Atari 2600 and Apple II. “At this point, the fidelity in games is reaching such a level that it continues to approach what we see in films and television, and nearly half our students are going into games after graduation.”

At Gnomon, video games and movies now have roughly equal billing. Posters for Blizzard and Naughty Dog hang alongside those for Avatar and Iron Man and – strange as it may sound – the transformation has been possible because the institute’s prioritization of artistry over technology has effectively used the past to validate modern digital design.

“No form of art is obsolete,” says Alvarez. “As they become more affordable we’re seeing more and more digital effects across the board, but that doesn’t make any practice a dead art. We teach sculpture and drawing classes at Gnomon specifically because of that. A digital artist, no matter how well they know the software, must have a strong foundation in form, shape, anatomy, color, lighting and composition if they’re going to truly succeed.”

Li Wan
Li Wan

That, more than anything, explains Gnomon’s willing recognition of games as art. Since the CG images in both games and film are built upon the same physical foundation that informs the traditional arts, it’s impossible to make qualitative distinctions between the two forms. Now that much of the process and the quality of the finished products is virtually identical, the parallels have led to a convergence of thought that allows some of the borrowed artistic legitimacy afforded to cinema to be passed on to its interactive cousin.

“Look at the cinematics coming out of Blizzard or Blur and you know these are artists operating at the highest level possible,” says Alvarez. “This convergence means that a lot of artists are actually jumping back and forth between film and video games now because the toolsets are the same and what they can realize aesthetically is almost equivalent. So at this point it’s more a matter of preference than it is glamour or merit – what an artist wants to do and picking the best medium for the story they want to tell.”

With that in mind, an increasing number of people are choosing to pursue dream jobs in games instead of film. Bourbeau, for instance, tells one story about a student who walked away from a high-profile position working on films like Cowboys and Aliens and The Avengers to pursue a career in the video game industry, and while it’s an anecdote that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, today it’s merely reflective of changing cultural tastes for artists who wish to pursue video games without sacrificing their integrity.

“I really don’t see them as divergent or different art forms—it’s the same practices, just with a new toolset,” says Alvarez. “The things that make an artist great will always remain the same and the people that appreciate art will always find beauty where it lies.”

For those still harping on about games as art, that mentality is nothing short of heartwarming. Games will eventually be recognized as art because the process of game development is art, and it’s only a matter of time before such thinking becomes the norm.