Gnomon: The Serious Visual Effects School

Joe Strike takes the pitch, looking at the production of IDT Ent.s first theatrical animated feature, Everyones Hero.

Gnomon offers the total immersion style of pedagogy, rather than learning in an ivory tower environment. Above is Jesse Cutronas work from an introduction to Maya class. All images courtesy of Gnomon.

Gnomon offers the total immersion style of pedagogy, rather than learning in an ivory tower environment. Above is Jesse Cutronas work from an introduction to Maya class. All images courtesy of Gnomon.

The Gnomon School of Visual Effects is the school in Hollywood that everyone seems to know about. First you have to learn how to pronounce its name: Noh-mon. Then you can go visit the campus, smack in the middle of the Hollywood studios production area.

The Campus

Tree-lined walkways, ivy-covered walls, statuesque Roman columns, brick-lined steps leading to burbling fountains, groups of merrily laughing coeds with sweaters tied around their necks carrying stacks of thick textbooks, stately houses with large Greek letters embossed over their doorways. If that is your idea of a school, youll be disappointed, because youll find none of them here. You find dark walls covered with posters of animated or effects-laden features, offices filled with Batman and Star Wars and Shrek action figures, large rooms with projectors and giant screens, spaces full of computer terminals, open ceilings with exposed heating and ventilation ducts, metal stairways leading off in all directions.

It looks like well, it looks like a typical L.A.-style animation studio. This is definitely the total immersion style of pedagogy, rather than the ivory tower style you might as well get your feet wet, the walls seem to tell you, and learn what the future really has in store for you. Your future is now.

Gnomon offers three ways to attend: individual classes on an extension basis; the Certificate Program, which runs over 21 months; and Fast Track, an intensive nine-week course.

Gnomon offers three ways to attend: individual classes on an extension basis; the Certificate Program, which runs over 21 months; and Fast Track, an intensive nine-week course.

The place is not without its comforts. There is a kitchen area, there are groups of couches and overstuffed chairs, rows of soda and snack machines, and stands of classic videogame and pinball machines. Again, as in a real-life animation studio, you can tell that people spend a lot of time here, and that much of that time involves discussions of ideas and team building fueled by pizza and Snickers Bars and Red Bull.

The Classes

There is an almost dizzying array of classes available 45 of them, all going simultaneously. The catalog lists rows of them Intro to Maya, Intro to Unreal, Texture Mapping, Digital Sets, Dynamic Effects, Character Creation for Games, Machinima, Digital Sculpting in Zbrush, Creature Development & Creation, Character Skinning, Storyboarding, Acting for Artists, Writing for Animation and Games. Although this comprehensive a set of offerings must be a logistics nightmare for the administrators, you learn that the large number of classes is being offered for the convenience of the students the thought behind this is that if a student needs advanced skills in Maya to get a particular job, for instance, those classes have to be available right now, rather than six months down the road.

To make sure that students can use the facilities whenever they need to, the school is open from 9:00 am to 1:00 am, seven days a week; technical support is provided throughout this whole period, to make sure students have help and dont get stuck on technical problems at any time.

Gnomon is a vocational school, more concerned with achieving levels of skill and knowledge than with academic degrees. This certainly reflects the state of the real-world animation industry, where many job interviewers are much more interested in an applicants portfolio or reel and production experience than they are with how many degrees he or she may have earned along the way.

User Groups meetings are a place for students to interact with professionals and learn the latest in technical and production issues as well as network.

User Groups meetings are a place for students to interact with professionals and learn the latest in technical and production issues as well as network.

There are basically three ways to take classes at Gnomon. The first is to take individual classes, on what is termed an extension basis. About 80% of the students at the school are doing this, and about half of these students are already working in the industry, looking to get additional training to either get into new job categories (such as 3D instead of 2D, or poly modeling instead of NURBS) or to freshen up their skills on the many new software toolsets that keep coming out every six months or so.

The second way to attend the school is via the Certificate Program, for seven terms that run over 21 months. This more closely resembles the way a traditional school operates, though the training is shorter (about two years versus the traditional four of a college) and more intensive students typically spend 50-60 hours a week, including around 30 hours of studio time. They learn how to work collaboratively, to help each other and to form production pipelines, said Pam Hogarth, Gnomons director of industry relations. Those are important career skills that they cant learn at home.

Students are tutored in job hunting, what skills are needed for different positions, how to network and how to make pitches. Above, a work by student Miguel Ortega.

Students are tutored in job hunting, what skills are needed for different positions, how to network and how to make pitches. Above, a work by student Miguel Ortega.

The classes include not only digital skills such as character animation and set building, but a large block of analog courses, in skills such as figure drawing, character sculpture, writing, and even hand drawing of animation cels. The students also learn acting, an especially important skill needed for the new generations of videogames, where resolutions are now so high that detailed emotional expressions of bodies and faces are necessary, something that the creators of first-generation games never had to worry about.

The students are also tutored in Career Realities, in job hunting, what skills are needed for different positions, how to network, and how to make pitches. As in all things at this school, the emphasis is very real-world, on how to actually get jobs and get projects produced, rather than on ars gratia artis, learning theories of art for their own sake without any real application. One important aspect of learning here and one that could not come from any textbook is the practical knowledge of production, of meeting deadlines, that the 40-50 teachers here impart, by telling it how it is directly from their experience of working in the industry.

What really makes us different from other schools is the instructors, because they are all working professionals who teach the skills they use on a daily basis, Hogarth noted. The results of the Certificate Program here are startling 88% of students who complete it get placement as digital artists, according to the school, a phenomenal success rate. I had personal evidence of this during my tour, which was interrupted by a call from a major videogame company, whose director phoned to thank Gnomon for the graduates they had recently sent him and asked whether the school had any more just like them.

The third way to attend classes is via Fast Track, intensive nine-week classes in specialized subjects such as the Maya toolset that meet Mondays to Fridays. from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and include some 270 hours of class time.

In addition to providing classes, Gnomon clearly cares about the industry; for example, it provides meeting places for regular gatherings of major animation congregations such as the User Groups of Side Effects (Houdini), Pixelogic, Maya and RenderMan (Pixar), where students can mix with these professional communities and learn the latest in hot technical and production issues and network to their hearts content. The school supports these meetings free of charge. Gnomon is lucky in having available a number of large meeting and presentation spaces, including a huge sound stage, a remnant of the time when the schools buildings were all part of Technicolor Studios.

Gnomons student body takes full advantage of opportunities to learn from the schools well-placed alumni, as well as other industry professionals. Above, pioneering scientist/filmmaker Paul Debevec, speaks to a full house.

Gnomons student body takes full advantage of opportunities to learn from the schools well-placed alumni, as well as other industry professionals. Above, pioneering scientist/filmmaker Paul Debevec, speaks to a full house.

Gnomon also encourages student projects as a means of evolving collaboration and production skills; recent productions included show bumpers and a tribute to John Lasseter. The results speak for themselves the list of studios and projects employing the alumni of the school looks like a whos who of animation and visual effects, and includes Digital Domain, EA, Weta, Double Negative, Film Roman, Zoic Studios, Sony Interactive, and Rhythm & Hues, to mention only a few. A perhaps underappreciated advantage of a production-oriented school such as Gnomon is the ability that its students have to network with this universe of alumni, as well as with the instructors and a large advisory board that consists of senior managers from the industry.

I spoke with one of the students, named Matthew, at the school and asked him about his experience. This place is a real good investment of time and money, he said. Ive taken fine arts classes at other schools and enjoyed them, but it sure is nice getting a paycheck. Also, other schools often have books and materials that are totally out of date, whereas everything here is being used right now.

Gnomon is an accredited vocational school, which means that students can get loans and other government support. In addition to its F2F (Face to Face) classes, the school also has online classes and a large set of instructional DVDs on almost any conceivable topic related to visual effects production. The panoply of online and DVD offerings can be accessed via its website, www.gnomon3d.com.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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