|By: Travis Bourbeau
Suits vs. Shirts, or Business vs. Creative types.
It was 118 degrees with no air conditioning. There were a bunch of artists from games, film, and fine-art soaking wet in the middle of the desert with nothing to drink but Red Bull when I first met Alex Alvarez. I was a studio partner holding a workshop in Austin, Texas and fully expected to meet an entrepreneur or “CEO” type in a business suit. You know the type that tries to “fit in with the artist”. Instead, I found a 32 year old artist in cargo shorts and a black t-shirt, as excited as we were about the event. Alex was checking out every demonstration he could, with his only frustration being that he couldn’t see all of them. In short, he wasn’t the “Suit” I was expecting to find, but a passionate artist ecstatic to be hanging out with like-minded individuals.
With the release of his Master Class, an advanced 3D Creature Development course based on his Gnomon School class for certificate students, I wanted to sit down and gather some thoughts on Alex’s experiences over the past thirteen years building companies by artists, for artists.
GW: Have you ever played with fire?
AA: Haha. Thanks for the easy question… umm, I think all boys do, no? Let’s see… when I was six I lit my bathroom carpet on fire, just to test if the carpet was fire retardant. It wasn’t… at all. I guess in 1979 they hadn’t figured that one out yet. For some reason I did it right next to the toilet (definitely not because I was thinking ahead… I was six), and was able to put it out pretty quickly. I did end up with a twelve inch circular black burn on the carpet which my parents never fixed. I think they wanted to keep it as a reminder that I was sometimes stupid. Then a couple years later (age eight or so) I found a firework at the beach, red, cylindrical, about four inches long with a 1/2 inch fuse. Someone had obviously lit it but it went out before going off. I put it in my pocket and when I was back at home and alone in our driveway, I put it on my mom’s car bumper and lit it. I spun around to run but it immediately exploded and left me with a sore butt cheek for a day. Heh. There’s more but I’ll leave it with these two tales of a dangerous kid. I also managed to break my arm twice, my leg, several fingers and seriously cut my wrist (by accident) all by the age of ten. Oops.
GW: Were you artistic at an early age? At what point did you ever consider art as a career, or something you might want to do for a living? Was your family supportive?
AA: I was really into drawing as a kid… When I was in 2nd grade (seven years old) my teacher told my parents to put me in art classes, which they did. But I hated it and only went for a few weeks. We were doing still-lifes which was not at all what I wanted to do. But growing up I was always drawing and making sketch books that I would put together in three-ring binders and give to my parents as gifts. Around age nine, however, I got my first computer (Atari 800) and that very much took over most of my free-time. I was an only child who was never enrolled in afterschool/weekend activities so I had a lot of time to myself. For whatever reason I really enjoyed being alone playing games and making stuff. From ages nine to fourteen I was obsessed with role-playing games on my Atari and AppleII (Ultima, Wizardry, etc.) as well as running my Bulletin Board (BBS), designing a lot of Atascii art for it (special key characters with which people made computer art back in the day). Then from ages fifteen to eighteen I got back into drawing, especially in my senior year of high-school after my father died. Before his burial in Venezuela I stayed up all night with an 11×17 piece of paper and a bunch of prismacolor pencils and did a full color rendered drawing of him leaving his body to escape to a little hut on a tropical beach (something he had talked about doing one day). The next day we put it in the coffin with him. But that drawing was the best thing I had ever done and the experience somehow focused me on my potential to be an artist. Hmm, sigh… hadn’t thought about that in awhile.
Was my family supportive? Well, yes and no. I grew up with wonderful parents, but they definitely did not think of art as a career. While they were very complimentary and kind about things I would make, I was always told that I would need to have a normal job one day. At age twelve I was moved to a private school which was insanely academic and serious with an incessant focus on getting into a good college. I grew up being told that an interest in drawing was akin to an interest in what we see in Art History books and the world of fine-art, which basically means becoming a struggling artist with no money and a sad life such as Van Gogh. I have an older cousin in France who I always looked up to as a kid, because he could draw super heroes so well. He became a gallery artist but always had trouble supporting himself and it was a family issue. So my parents would point to him as an example of what not to be. I think that if they knew about the world of design as opposed to fine-art, they would have been supportive, but they just were not informed and were trying to guide me as best they could. It was not until I was twenty-one that I realized that I didn’t have to ‘find a normal job’.
GW: You went to college In Pennsylvania? What did you study?
AA: I applied to a bunch of Ivy League colleges in my senior year of high-school and the best one I got into was the University of Pennsylvania. I had told my college counselor that I was interested in art (thinking that this could continue to be a hobby in college), and was told that all Ivy League colleges had good art programs. Once I got to Penn, however, I learned that out of 8000 undergrads, only eight were majoring in Art. So there you go… But I spent two years taking a bunch of different ‘liberal arts’ courses (Eastern Religion, Abnormal Psychology, Film History, etc.) and had a lot of fun partying as the work load was surprisingly pretty light. At the end of my second year, however, I had to declare a major and I just couldn’t decide. I still felt that I needed to pick something like ‘English’ or ‘Communications’ or ‘History’. I decided to take a year off so that I could figure out what to do and moved back to Los Angeles.
GW: How do students pursuing visual effects as a career approach parents that want them to be a doctor or lawyer?
AA: In the end, you have to do what you love. If you like something, you will do it and through practice you will get better. Eventually your skill will make you employable in some fashion. What your parents think is irrelevent. At some point you will be an adult and they will no longer run your life. Once you hit eighteen, it is up to you to figure things out. With that said, however, we all look to our parents for approval and support, as well as financial support through college. So I think for many people it is important to try to educate their parents on how their interests are not childish but professional. The arts are not just about the fine-arts, but many parents are stuck with this perception. Design, which includes the entertainment industry, is very much about career, income, jobs, clients and so on. Parents just need to know that their child can support themselves just as well in a design career as any other. I know many designers and technical artists who make just as much (if not more) as doctors and lawyers… Money is not the issue. What matters is finding what you like enough to actually improve your skill to a point of employability. Most people in society do not think about the person who designed what they are engaging with, which is why we have this issue of misperception. Be it transportation, fashion, film or video games, these design industries employ thousands of artists around the world and the reality is that there are many opportunities for new artists to enter these growing industries.
GW: How were you exposed to the industry?
AA: During my year off from Penn, I spent most of my time drawing. A friend of mine told me that he saw a job posting at his university from a comic book company, Malibu Comics, looking for colorists using Macintoshes and a program called Photoshop (1993). At this point I was out of the loop on computers, but the job posting said that only a traditional portfolio was required. I applied with a portfolio of prismacolor drawings, got the job and learned Photoshop (V3 on a Mac Centris). It was during my time at Malibu that my interest in 3D began. The game Myst had just come out and the fact that it was made by two brothers using off the shelf software (Strata) on a Mac completely blew my mind. I then discovered that the Malibu game division had Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations with 3D software, the same used to make Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, and I began poking around the games division. At this point my path became very clear, which was to learn 3D. My excitement over the discovery of 3D tools was intense and I got myself my first Mac running a program called Infini-D. The limitations of the home accessible tools were obvious, however, and I began researching schools. I knew that I wasn’t going back to Penn. I ended up going to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena as an Illustration Major, primarily because I knew they had labs full of SGI computers. Even though they didn’t have any entertainment related classes on 3D as the computers were there for the product and transportation design students, I managed to get access to the labs and spent my days drawing and my evenings teaching myself Alias PowerAnimator (which eventually became Maya). Even though Art Center was an expensive way to just get access to computers, I value the time I spent there drawing and painting, while being able to use computers and software that were literally impossible to get at home. In 1993 an SGI with Alias|Wavefront software was over $100k.
GW: What made you decide to start Gnomon?
AA: After Art Center (1995) I got a job at Alias|Wavefront as an Applications Engineer. Every day I would go to different studios either to help with technical support or to demo the software to potential clients. Many of the studios that I spent a lot of time at, such as Warner Digital, VIFX and DreamQuest Images are no longer around but many are, such as Blur Studios, Sony Imageworks and Digital Domain. I was quite young at the time, being 22, so I was initially rather intimidated by the studios but quickly realized that the software was new not just to me, but to the entire industry. Everyone was figuring things out on the fly and there was no such thing as online communities, tutorials, DVDs or classes for production specific techniques. After a couple years at A|W, an idea emerged to open a training facility where studios artists could share their techniques with each other. While my experience thus far had been to teach myself, I wanted to learn more and all of the artists and studio leads that I talked to felt the same way. In January of 1997 I had the idea, in May we incorporated, and in October Gnomon was open. Using the insurance money that I got when my dad died, I invested it all, and started Gnomon in Hollywood with one lab and a small handful of classes. Basically I wanted to create the school that I wanted to go to.
GW: How has Gnomon evolved? What are some of the differences in technology, software and production from when you started the school to today?
From a design perspective, the last ten years has seen the switch from traditional to digital tools. Entertainment designers almost exclusively used paper and clay in 1997. So while Gnomon has always had design courses as part of our curriculum, back then it was all done in a non-digital studio environment. But it is safe to say that today probably 75% of entertainment designers spend the majority of their time with a wacom tablet and therefore Gnomon now offers many design courses using Photoshop, Painter and ZBrush. Now that I’ve mentioned ZBrush, that for me is probably one of the biggest technological advances of the past few years in regards to modeling and character/creature design. The first time I saw what was going on at Weta with ZBrush and at ZBrushcentral.com, I knew that we were on the verge of a paradigm shift. Soon after I hired Meats Meier as a resident artist and began learning and using it, with Gnomon being the first school to teach this amazing tool.
GW: Why did you decide to start the Gnomon Workshop?
AA: Up until 2000, Gnomon was very much focused on developing artists for the local Hollywood production industry, but I was very involved in CG community forums and sites. I would often put together Maya tutorials that I’d host on my website and was getting a lot of positive feedback. But since the classes I was teaching at Gnomon were lecture based, I really wanted to be able to share that info via video instead of text and images. I spent a few months figuring out the pipeline for recording, mastering and producing VHS lectures and incorporated The Gnomon Workshop in May of 2000. Our first release was four Maya training videos that I produced and we immediately had a very positive reaction to them. Ten years ago it was virtually impossible to find professional quality training material online or on video, so I think the Gnomon Workshop made a dramatic contribution to what aspiring artists around the world could get access to. Over the past ten years, The Gnomon Workshop library has grown to over three hundred DVDs that represent thousands of hours of lecture from an amazing array of professional designers and technical artists. I’ve been fortunate to work with many stellar talents, such as Syd Mead, Carlos Huante and Ryan Church, and feel very fortunate to be able to be involved in bringing their knowledge, experience and techniques to the global community. The Gnomon Workshop has been a wonderful experience and complement to the Gnomon School, as many top artists are not in Los Angeles or are too busy to teach a hands-on class. The DVDs have created an opportunity for us all to learn from them in spite of these obstacles and I’ve grown a lot as an artist as a result. As I mentioned above regarding the school, my goal has always been to create an environment that I was looking for but couldn’t find when I was researching schools and resources. Through the school and DVDs, we have really shared with the world how dynamic and diverse the range of knowledge is that artists acquire during their careers, and how through this fact, being an artist is a lifelong pursuit of growth. There is no end to it.
GW: What is Gnomon’s demographic or who does Gnomon serve?
AA: Gnomon students are artists, representing all parts of the world and all ages. The Gnomon School has students from 18-60+, as does the Gnomon Workshop, although we also have many high-school students who watch our DVDs. I often wonder where I would have been as an artist by age twenty if I had been exposed to the training we produce when I was thirteen. Just knowing that there are so many artists out there who have amazing careers producing the type of artwork that I have always loved, be it fantasy or sci-fi, would have been amazingly empowering while also valuable information to share with my parents.
GW: The school and Workshop are highly regarded with over ten years experience in the industry, but you also have recently established other companies and projects. How do these relate to Gnomon?
AA: Yes, I’m always looking for ways to reduce my free time. Heh. In 2007 I launched SketchTheatre. In 2008 we created the Gnomon Gallery and acquired CGchannel, and last year opened Gnomon Studios. Each of these are synergistic with what Gnomon represents, which is community, education and creativity.
GW: With four companies, how do you balance yourself as an artist and business owner?
AA: Not easily as much of my time goes into managing the companies. Evenings and weekends are really the time where I try to focus on personal projects. Over the past few years, however, I continued to work in production from time to time as it is not only fun, but an important thing to do as the director of Gnomon. Now that we have Gnomon Studios, that gives me the opportunity to jump into production when my schedule permits it. With that said, however, I am always surrounded by artists and that is by far the best motivator to keep working on my personal goals of improving as an artist, both aesthetically and technically. Every week I see the work that our students and instructors are doing and am very much inspired and energized by it.
GW: When you are a pioneer in the industry, where do you look for business development? What determines the right time or plan to start up companies like SketchTheatre or the Gnomon Gallery when there is no real blueprint?
AA: To be honest, Gnomon’s evolution over the years has been rather organic as there is no master plan. I take things one week at a time and sometimes, an idea just pops up and germinates. SketchTheatre was unique in that it literally popped into my head out of the blue one night as I was falling asleep. I went to my desk and wrote out exactly what it should be, how it should look, etc and a couple months later it was launched. The gallery is something that we wanted to do for years, but being so busy we just had to wait for the right time to materialize on its own. A couple years ago during plans for a Gnomon expansion, it was clear that a space we were looking to rent had enough room to accomodate a gallery and there it began. Pretty simple stuff really… in regards to ideas. As with many things, having the idea is one thing, but making it happen is another. This always requires resources and people. Fortunately as Gnomon grows I am able to explore new directions with the support of a great team of people.
GW: Where do other schools and programs fall short?
AA: Well, I can only comment on other schools based on my own college experience and what I hear from Gnomon students who come to us from other schools. Gnomon is unique in that we are an artist-run company based in Hollywood with an amazingly extensive network of contacts into studios and with professional artists. The industry likes working with us because they trust our motivations, dedication and commitment to an ethical educational experience. Gnomon does not accept anyone who simply has the money. Gnomon only hires working professionals as instructors. Gnomon understands all aspects of production and is able to intelligently communicate with the industry in the development of our educational material. Many schools have become corporations that are run by boards of directors who are themselves not artists, but suits who are focused on the business of education. This is not to say that these institutions do not have staff and teachers who are genuine and dedicated, but the vibe of any company trickles down from the top. Most universities are no longer run by their founders, Gnomon still is. So I think that our students and instructors appreciate and like the fact that I am just as much an artist, fanboy, gamer and film buff as they are. I can relate to them and they to me, and through this we work together to constantly improve the Gnomon experience.
GW: What is the difference between a self-taught education vs. school, i.e. the Gnomon School vs. The Gnomon Workshop?
AA: They are really two completely different experiences. School is about structure and networking. Self-education is about filling in gaps. The two complement each other well as I know that all Gnomon students, and students from other colleges, rely on the web, tutorials and DVDs to find those pieces of information that they are either not getting in school, or need a refresher on. I know that online this is a constant debate in forums and depending on your location and what your college options are, sometimes self-education is your best bet. For this to work out for you, however, you need to have an incredible amount of dedication. I know a bunch of artists that are self-taught so of course this is a viable path. School, on the other hand, provides something very different than what you could ever experience alone. Having an imposed schedule, homework, facilities, equipment, many instructors providing a diverse range of experiences, classmates with whom you can constructively compete with and motivate each other and a formal network system to gain contacts into the industry are all wonderful things for accelerating growth and entry into the industry. But I constantly hear negative stories from students about their experiences at other schools. If none of your teachers inspire you, if your classmates are lazy and your school doesn’t seem to care, then you may be at the wrong school. I went to Penn, which was and is a great school, but not for what I wanted to do. So I left. You have to be willing to make a change because what matters is not the degree, but your work, your happiness and your career.
GW: Certificate or Degree? What’s the difference when it comes to looking for work?
AA: No one in the entertainment industry who interviews you for a job will ever ask you if you graduated, if you have a degree or what your GPA was. All they want to see is your portfolio or reel. So whether you’re self-taught, went to college and dropped out, got a Masters degree, whatever, no one cares. Seriously. No one. All you should think about is how to get your portfolio to a professional level so that you can get the job you want. We have had many students come to Gnomon with previous degrees, because they did not receive the education they needed. Any school that is not located in an industry hub with industry teachers is going to have flaws and you will pay the price for it in time wasted. In these situations the best you can hope for is that the students will motivate each other and learn more from each other than from their teachers. This was my experience at Art Center. I enjoyed it and had no choice as it was the only way I could get access to Silicon Graphics computers, but in my time there I only had one teacher that I admired (Bob Kato). But the moment I was offered a job at Alias|Wavefront I was out of there, even though I had two terms left. There was simply nothing left to learn in that environment. So I don’t have a degree and it has never come up except when people who also went there ask me when I graduated. The trick with all of this is being able to make the right decision at the right time. I chose to leave Penn and take a year off. I chose to leave Art Center and take a job that offered me more, educationally speaking, than what I was experiencing. Both of these decisions upset my mom, as did starting Gnomon… an extremely risky thing for a twenty-four year old to do. They were not easily made, but I had to do what felt right.
GW: When you are working on personal projects what type of work do you like to do?
AA: For me just about everything begins with doodles and sketches. I have a 4×6 photo album where I put sketches and compositions that I think could work as a 3D piece, so that when I have time to start a new project, I can go through that and pick something, especially if I’m not in the mood to sketch something new. Occasionally I will develop a ZBrush sketch into a finished piece, but I find that this always takes much longer to find direction for, than when I have an initial concept. As far as style, I’m still figuring out what my style might be when I grow up. For now I’m very influenced by artists such as Cam de Leon, Chet Zar, Wayne Barlowe and Beksinski, and I hope that eventually my own individual style will emerge and take root.
GW: Having produced content and curriculum yourself, and with some of the industry’s top talent, what do you feel are some of the consistent traits of successful artists and educators?
AA: Well there are two questions in here. What makes a successful artist and what makes a successful teacher are two different things. Finding the individual who encompasses both is the trick, which is a big part of what we do at Gnomon. With just about every artist that we have worked with, I find that they are very tuned into their weaknesses. Every artist, no matter the experience or level, feels that they could get better. It is this constant pursuit of growth that explains why some artists are so good. Talent is a difficult thing to define, but it is not simply explained by some magical gene. Top artists worked their butts off to get there and are still trying to improve. Their techniques for getting better may be more effective than others, who perhaps spend too much time playing it safe and doing what they have done before, versus taking risks and challenging themselves. What we all want, as artists, is to look at our work from a year back and think that we are now better. Granted, some artists reach a level where, professionally, their work more than satisfies the needs of their clients and they no longer have a professional need to improve. At this point it becomes a personal journey. This is where you see some working artists at studios doing personal work, and some not. Many, if not most, professional artists get to a point that they want to balance work with family and social life. Some artists, however, continue to obsess over their skills and personal evolution. This is not to say that during work hours they are not challenging themselves, but is more of an observation. To be successful in the industry I think needs to begin with obsession, but down the road what you do becomes subjective.
In regards to teaching, this really is an issue of communication skill. Some people have it, some don’t and many don’t have any interest as they are simply too busy. We have encountered many artists over the years who were very talented with impressive resumes, but once put in the classroom fell a little short. Not because they didn’t have the knowledge, but because they were not effective at communicating it or commanding the attention of students. A teacher needs to be a leader who is confident in what they do, and do not, know. A teacher needs to be someone who has little ego, but rather a strong desire to engage their community, share and help the next generation and their peers. Through the experience of teaching I have learned so much, met many wonderful people and have myself been inspired. It is a collaborative experience.
GW: Why help promote artists? Why invest money in non-profit endeavors like SketchTheatre, the Gallery or monthly events?
AA: Because creativity is what makes us human. Because art and design, not just the visual arts, but music, writing, fashion, architecture and so on, are profound elements to the experience of living. My respect and admiration for all of the artists, both past and present, who have created the various things that have molded who I myself am as a creative individual is something that cannot be measured. My gratitude to these artists for inspiring me, moving me, motivating me is profound. Whether we’re talking about Richard Garriot for creating Ultima, JRR Tolkien for Lord of the Rings, Asimov for Foundation, Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, Frank Frazetta, Simon Bisley, James Cameron, Gustave Dore, Michelangelo… these are my heroes and my idols.
Our industry is staffed by thousands of talented artists who do not get the recognition they deserve. Every month I meet new artists who I have never heard of and want nothing more than to broadcast to the world how awesome and talented they are. I find it a travesty that the media ignores who is responsible for creating all of the wonderful things we experience and interact with on a daily basis in our lives. Roger Epert just said in an article that games will never be art. What an ignorant jackass. When Larry King wants to interview people about Avatar, he talks to the actors. Really? Is that really what made Avatar what it was? The acting? These things infuriate me. Avatar made two billion dollars thanks to James Clyne, Ryan Church, Dylan Cole, Neville Page and the hundreds of other designers and artists who worked on it and they deserve recognition – not just for themselves, as some of them don’t want it, but for the thirteen year old kid out there who likes to draw in his room all night, whose family thinks he is a freak, who wonders if he will ever be liked by anyone, who in reality could become the next Frazetta. We need to engage and invigorate the creativity in all children and our current society doesn’t do it. It is a sad state of affairs when arts and music are increasingly cut from the education system due to budget cuts, as California spends more money on prisons than schools.
Ok, sorry.. I’ll calm down. I wrote that last paragraph in under a minute… heh. Why promote artists? Because artists and kids deserve it and I am doing what little I can to help change the perception of who artists are and what they can accomplish.
GW: How are things like piracy affecting the industry?
AA: Jeez, you’re now stoking the fire Travis. Yes, piracy has reached a point that we begin to wonder where things are going. My opinion is that until governments decide to take a stand against it, we will reach a point of diminishing returns. Millions of people around the world feel that they are doing nothing wrong by stealing that which they can’t afford or rather, could maybe afford but why bother if they can get it for free. They know it is illegal but don’t care because they do not feel any tangible repercussions for their actions. You would never steal a Ferrari because you can’t afford one. But if you knew 100% that if you stole one that you would never get caught, would you? Clearly millions of people around the world would answer that with a ‘yes’.
I think that many people believe that the affect of illegally downloading content is negligible–that they are not hurting anyone. The reality is that so many people are doing it now, that the financial cost to the system and economies of the related industries is very much felt. It is easy to think that using an illegal copy of Windows isn’t a big deal to a company like Microsoft, but for small independent publishers, like Gnomon, you force them to change their business model. I focus now more on the Gnomon School than the Gnomon Workshop. Because of Piracy. In the end I’m still busy and happy… and we continue to create DVDs more out of a personal interest in working with artists. But will the Gnomon Workshop do this forever? Not if piracy continues to grow. At some point I’ll just shrug my shoulders and move on as there are more than enough other things to do. In the end I would be just as happy working in production as I am running Gnomon. If anything I’d get more time to be an artist. But to clarify… we’re not there yet. Gnomon as a whole is growing and all is well. But piracy is evil, illegal and hurts Gnomon and all of the artists that work hard to produce content with us.
GW: As a professional artist, why is it important to maintain your personal work?
AA: Primarily because what you do at work can eventually become routine. I’ve heard from many artists that there does come a point where the job becomes second nature and unchallenging. This is not true for everyone or every place, but many artists feel that they need to work on personal projects in order to fulfill something that they are not getting at work. More often than not this has to do with the fact that our industry is a collaborative one. The final product, be it film, game, commercial, etc, is a combination of various talents and individual contributions, but not one that you can usually say is 100% yours. As artists, however, many of us want to create work which represents us as individuals. It is through personal work that we can challenge ourselves and focus on the exact type of projects that we want to engage in.
Over the past year we have done three group shows at the Gnomon Gallery with collectives of studio artists from Blizzard, Blur and Naughty Dog. While all of the artists were from a single studio, the artwork was personal and not from a work project. These shows have been an amazing insight into the diverse range of artists and interests that come together in any studio environment. When we saw the personal artwork from Naughty Dog artists, none of it looked like Uncharted. Under the guidance of a project and art direction, these professional artists work together to achieve the vision of the company, but in the end they are all unique artists with their own voice. The shows have expressed the soul in the machine.
So with this said, I wouldn’t say that it is important to maintain personal work. It is a personal decision. Some artists do it and some artists don’t. But for those who are seeking to change position, i.e. from modeler to lighter, or from effects artist to art director, personal work is usually where you find the opportunity to express your potential.
GW: What do you feel are your most productive work hours? How do you avoid procrastination and hit deadlines effectively?
AA: Well, work hours are what they are as defined by your studio and in the workplace you really have little room for procrastination due to deadlines. Either you get the job done, on time and regularly, or you are eventually replaced. What I think you are getting at is the issue of efficiency and speed. In order to get any job done you need to first know how much time you have. This is where I often see an issue with students versus professionals in the workplace. Students, especially those studying on their own, have a bad habit of working on a project for way too long as they never gave themselves a deadline. It is important to develop the ability to know how long it takes you to accomplish different levels of polish.
The first thing that I always ask when working on a project is when is it due? This then determines what techniques will be used, while explaining to the client what is possible in that timeframe. As shown in my Master Class, I can design, model, texture, rig, animate and integrate a creature in a week. I can also do it in a month. The question is how many iterations are required, or how many changes are expected, how close is it to screen, how realistic does it need to be, how is it lit, etc? On Avatar we were working on creatures that required what seemed like incessant revision per Cameron’s direction. They were paying for it, so we did it and had a lot of time to explore.
With all of this said, however, it is difficult to gauge timelines when you are a student and still learning the tools. Eventually you will get comfortable enough so that the tools are transparent and it is more about the work. At Gnomon it is not until the last term that I force my students into the experience of crazy deadlines, as by that point the tools should be second nature. In ten weeks my students model, texture and light five finished projects (environments and characters/creatures), so two weeks per project. It is intense but it forces them to manage their time effectively while resolving any pipeline gaps they may have prior to graduation.
GW: Recently you worked on Cameron’s Avatar with Neville Page. What was the experience like? What were you responsible for? What do you think about the pre-production process in general?
AA: Well, not so recently now. I was on Avatar in the art department for seven months full-time from ’06 -’07. Neville contacted me looking for a recommendation for a 3D generalist who could help with creatures as the artists were all 2D/Clay and just beginning to use ZBrush. They needed someone to model, texture, rig, pose, animate and do look-development. I was actually on vacation when we spoke, trying not to think about work for a few days, but his description of the project sounded truly amazing. At that point I was nine years into Gnomon and the thought of a ‘sabbatical’ quickly entered my mind as an opportunity to reinvigorate myself in production, knowing that I would be surrounded by many artists way better than myself who would inspire, educate and motivate me. I’ve also known Neville for many years, and the thought of working with him was really exciting as he is such a wonderful person and talent. I threw my name in the hat and was surprised and very happy at how enthusiastically he embraced the idea. At the time I was recalling how back in 1998 I was asked to go to Weta to work on Lord of the Rings, and declined due to being so busy starting up Gnomon. This was a difficult decision at the time as I was a seriously huge Tolkien fan from childhood and wanted so badly to be able to go. I just couldn’t let this happen again and crossed my fingers that Gnomon would be ok with me gone for awhile.
GW: You again collaborated with Neville on Star Trek and Green Lantern?
AA: Star Trek was a pretty short job as I worked with Neville on the Red Snow Monster. Neville had a design for it that he was getting ready to pitch to J.J. Abrams, but wanted me to help sell it. Neville gave me the ZBrush sculpt and asked me to integrate it into an icy environment, on land and swimming underwater. So I built two environments and developed shaders/rigging and animations that Neville could incorporate into his pitch. It got approved which was cool and the creature in the film was pretty much identical to what I worked on… so 100% Neville but I suppose my animations helped in some way to get it to screen.
Green Lantern doesn’t come out until next year, so I can’t really say anything other than that Gnomon Studios worked on it for a few weeks doing creature development work, similar to what I describe above for Avatar and Star Trek.
GW: Gnomon Studios was developed in a unique way… how is the business plan different from that of a normal studio?
AA: Over the past few years Gnomon has maintained a resident artist program, where we hire a visionary artist to basically hang out at Gnomon and focus on their personal work. Meats Meier was at Gnomon for awhile developing his illustrations with ZBrush and Maya until he got the call from Tool to work on animations for their Lateralus tour. Sil van der Woerd spent a year at Gnomon producing the music video White Swan with a group of Gnomon students, which won best music video at HDfest, until he was contacted by Digital Domain to be their first staff director for the commercial division. There have been a variety of other such projects and artists, and the experience has always been wonderful both for staff and students.
When Sil van der Woerd notified me of his opportunity at Digital Domain, I contacted Shane Acker to see what he was up to. Years earlier Shane had actually accepted the resident artist position at Gnomon, just before receiving a call from Tim Burton to develop his short 9 into a feature film. Of course that was too big an opportunity to not pursue, and last summer I knew that the film was about to come out and that Shane was probably wrapped and in development of his next project. When we spoke I was very happy to hear that while he was kicking around ideas for a new film, he also had an idea to pitch me for an animated short that Gnomon could produce, entitled Plus Minus. After a few meetings, Shane joined Gnomon as our new, and current, resident artist. Over the summer I began to explore a new structure for how Gnomon could develop these types of projects, and the idea for Gnomon Studios, a new and independent company, was conceived. Furthermore, my ongoing freelance production work seemed like a good fit for the Studio to take over, where I could give students the opportunity to get some real-world experience.
Production work for outside clients is kept to a minimum, pretty much as opportunities present themselves. In the past nine months we’ve worked on projects for Aaron Sims, Neville Page, Green Lantern and did a couple shots for Fringe via Bad Robot last month, but this is not an area that we actively pursue. I know that some studios were a little put off by Gnomon getting into production, but the reality is that we are not. Our goal is to create short films, not for profit, but as creative opportunities for our students and professional colleagues. Projects that, in the end, would not happen if Gnomon did not support them. In this respect we are more like a production company with a tiny studio component. We will see where it goes, but for now we are just focused on getting Plus Minus wrapped by the end of the year.
For me personally, my office is in the Gnomon Studios location, so this gives me the experience of being in a production environment, while engaging in my responsibilities for the Gnomon School, Workshop, Gallery, etc. I very much enjoy being in this creative space, while having the opportunity to jump in and out of production as my time permits.
GW: What are you currently teaching yourself now? What part of your process includes the most thought or patience, and what happens quickly? Are there any shortcuts?
AA: I’m mostly focused on character and creature work these days, so my interests lie predominantly on improving my design, sculpting, detailing and texturing. I have a lot to learn and am very much a student compared to artists such as Neville, Aaron, Carlos and many of the artists I see regularly at ZBrushCentral. I’ve spent the bulk of the last fifteen years focused on technology and Gnomon, so when it comes to my aesthetic skill, I feel that I have a lot of catching up to do. While I am good compared to some, I suck compared to many and I am aware of this fact every day. But I remain motivated to keep trying, practicing and hopefully improving.
I think that as a 3D artist, a lot of what I do requires patience and thought. There are so many technical aspects to being a 3D generalist, and I’ve learned that it is better to be methodical about my approach than to rush and skip steps. I prefer to only do something once and do it right, or set myself up for flexibility, then to later work myself into a corner that is a mess to get out of. It is because of this that I think some people consider me to be fast. Most of what I see students stumble on has to do with not being clear on their pipeline or how to approach something. It is best to resolve these workflow concerns quickly with simple exercises than to try to force yourself blindly through something while working on a final asset.
Are there any shortcuts? Yes… many, for everything. This, in the end, is the benefit of having done this stuff since 1994. Through experience I am aware of all the mistakes I have made and the various approaches I have tried for things. I’m always discovering new ways to speed up my pipeline, although I feel that my approach is rather streamlined. A couple months ago Neville gave me a ZBrush sculpt of a creature and asked if it was possible to texture, shade, light, rig and animate it into a live-action background in 24 hours for a last minute pitch to J.J. Abrams. I gave it a shot and it turned out pretty cool, according to Neville anyhow. I don’t know how much faster I will get than that… but of course the quality of what I do in that time I know can improve.
GW: How long do you typically spend on a character or piece? Does it ever feel finished?
AA: As I’ve mentioned, this greatly varies depending on the project. But no, nothing ever feels finished. As I tell students, nothing is really done, it is just due. But for personal projects, I have images like Kiss or Smile that were made in an evening primarily because I based them on a sketch and used Photoshop heavily to finish them. Other images, however, like Draeke and Guardian took longer just because those evolved from ZBrush sketch sculpts and I wasted a bunch of time exploring different directions, compositions and backgrounds for them before settling on something. When working off a sketch that has resolved the final composition, lighting, etc. it is easy to use all my shortcuts. When sculpting for fun in ZBrush, however, I end up with something that I like from many angles and it is difficult to decide what the best use of it is for a final 2D illustration. But regardless, either process is a fun journey and something that I don’t take too seriously. After all, personal projects should be satisfying, not stressful.
GW: Why do you feel studios are having such a hard time making a profit?
AA: Well, studios notoriously have a small profit margin which I seem to be hearing more and more about lately. This is a result of competition and there is little hope that this will change. As long as you are in a service business working on client projects, you will remain susceptible to changes in the cost of software/hardware and talent. In the future, the quality of work done outside the US will continue to improve, while communication channels to those vendors improves as well, making it easier to work with them. This just means that domestic studios need to continue to raise the bar on what is possible while taking advantage of the experience and talent that resides here. There is still much room for improvement in efficiency at studios and a lot of money gets wasted in how some studios develop their pipelines and while not maximizing their artist’s potential for growth. But when you look at studios that develop their own properties, like Pixar or Blizzard, you hear no complaints about margins but rather how they’re sending their crews to Las Vegas or installing high-tech gyms. In the end, if you want to make money you need to work for yourself, not for other people. But developing intellectual property and getting that to market is expensive and extremely speculative.
GW: How far off are we on seeing large scale profitable independent distribution on the level of traditional distribution channels?
AA: In regards to independent distribution, it already exists thanks to the web and Youtube, Vimeo, etc. The issue here is turning that into money. Just because your film gets two million views on Youtube doesn’t mean that you’re making money, it just means that you have a lot of fans. Clearly this can result in opportunities via the exposure you get, thinking of Neill Blomkamp or Fede Alvarez, but you need to then filter through the noise you’ve generated and select a path that will get you what you want… which in their case was to direct feature films. But large scale independent distribution that equates to up front money I think is not a near-term reality. Youtube and related services are free and will likely remain so. If you made a dollar for every view you got, that would be awesome, but its not going to happen. Theatres and television are the only way to make money for film projects and those channels are not easily cracked by an independent. Games are, of course, a different beast and things like the App Store and Steam are promising, but then look at how much content is already in there. The competition is pretty fierce.
GW: Networking and personal connections in this industry can propel one’s ability to land jobs, learn new techniques and discover unexpected opportunities. Do you have any specific examples how this has helped Gnomon or your own personal experience?
AA: There is no question that aside from the quality of your work, the second most important component is your ability to get along with people. Our industry is one of collaboration, and you need to accept that this is what you are signing up for. When a studio hires someone, the questions they ask themselves are A) are they talented? and B) do we want to hang out with them? Often when people are let go from companies, it is not because they couldn’t do the work, but because people didn’t like working with them. If you’re someone who rocks the boat, rubs people the wrong way, has a big ego, complains all the time, etc., you’re really going to have a problem unless you are a superstar artist.
But if you are a universally well-liked person and sociable, people will do what they can to help you out. My experience is that the majority of people in the industry are cool, friendly and approachable. The importance of networking very much has to do with getting work, regardless of position, from junior to supervisor. There is very much a culture of giving work to friends of current staff over strangers. Knowing that a staff member or peer can vouch for a prospective hire is comforting to a company, and they would much rather take this route than going through a big box of portfolios sitting in the HR department.
If you consider that box to be ‘the line’, then networking gives you the opportunity to skip it. We’ve gotten many students into studios through this process, just as how I got my job on Avatar. Neville could have gone to Lightstorm HR, but instead he called me asking for a referral. He needed someone fast and didn’t want to get bogged down by interviewing a bunch of people that he didn’t know. This is where Gnomon students have a huge advantage. With over sixty-five instructors every term at Gnomon, all coming from studios around Los Angeles, students graduate with a huge network. This is not to mention all of the fellow classmates who end up working at studios and will vouch for you down the line when you’re between gigs. This is a clear example of the difference of going to school versus self-teaching. Sure you can participate on the forums, but do you really get to know someone as a person and what they’re like to hang out with? There is no question that spending sixty hours a week with someone for two or three years while in school is going to develop a lasting friendship. Exchanging some posts in a forum thread is just not the same thing.
Another personal example would be how I started Gnomon. For two years while at Alias|Wavefront I was going to different studios every day doing tech support and demos, meeting tons of artists and supervisors. It is through those connections that I rallied the studio and artist support I needed to get Gnomon launched. I think that because I showed them so much respect and admiration, while clearly being determined to do something of value to the industry based on their feedback, that they wanted to help me succeed. Which leads me to say that Gnomon’s success has always been about those that support us, not about me. After thirteen years this is the first interview I’ve done to publish on a Gnomon site, as I just don’t see myself as important as the scores of instructors and studios that give us their time to help our students. In the end, I’m the just the glue that holds things together. But my ability to bring people together, network and communicate has been of tremendous importance.
GW: Forums and online communities are a big contributor to the ability of artists to pick up techniques and good general advice. They can also do the opposite with unqualified advice. From your online activity, as well as hosting The Gnomon Workshop’s own forum, do you have examples you can share?
AA: In my opinion forums used to be great and I spent a ton of time on them, but these days there is just too much noise. I’ve heard the same thing from the great majority of professionals that I’m friends with. I think that as a student they are a great opportunity to get together with like-minded people, but once you get busy working, they tend to become a distraction. For this reason, most of the people on forums are students and the comments, critiques and advice you get needs to be taken with a grain of salt. What they are definitely useful for, however, is as repositories of information. If I hit a technical issue, the first place I go is Google to see if any forum threads pop-up with an answer… but if I can’t find one in ten minutes, I get on the phone. That is about my current level of patience. Heh. But I’m lucky to know a lot of people with answers… This may all sound a little annoying to a student who depends on the forums, but just know that once you get a job and get older, and busier, you’re going to become the same way. What I do love with forums, however, is contests and challenges which is why I’ve been running the Gnomon Workshop contests for the past few years. These are a great way to experience the creativity and enthusiasm of other artists, while giving yourself a deadline and project to focus on. Especially for artists that are on their own self-teaching, these kinds of challenges really help create a sense of community and opportunity for personal growth.
When it comes to using forums to get critiques of your work, I say proceed with caution. Forums are democratized to the point of insanity, where a ten year old has the same platform to comment as anyone else. I know a bunch of people who would much rather share their work privately with peers that they respect, then to post it on a public forum where you’re bound to get a bunch of rude comments regardless of what you made. If you’re looking for critiques and advice, it is far better to try to network privately than to just see what reaction you get online. You may get a bunch of comments, but which ones do you listen to and which ones have any merit? Forums are a tough crowd for students whose work still needs a lot of guidance.
GW: You were recently at the Weta Workshop in New Zealand. Any secrets you can share about the upcoming film The Hobbit? Who did you meet and what was your overall impression?
AA: I was in Australia a few weeks ago to speak at the agIdeas conference and decided to add a few days to my trip to visit my friend Scott Spencer at the Weta Workshop. As I had always expected, it was truly an amazingly inspiring place, full of props and sculpts from Lord of the Rings, the Narnia movies, District 9, King Kong and their other films. I didn’t see anything from the Hobbit as that was all off limits, of course. But seriously, walls full of swords, shields, creatures… it just went on and on… very very cool. Scott introduced me to several artists and I am seriously grateful to him for it. We had dinner with Gino Acevedo (creature supervisor and uber talent), lunch with John Howe (!!!), met David Meng whose sculptures are rad, had a brief encounter with Richard Taylor (founder/co-owner of Weta), who told me that he watched and loved the Gnomon DVDs, especially John Brown’s sculpting series (!!!), and really just had an amazing time there, albeit way too short. Hopefully I’ll get to go back there one day. There are too few studios where you get to see physical stuff and most digital studios are really just a bunch of monitors. Over the years my most memorable experiences have been Stan Winston Studios (Legacy), Rick Baker’s Cinovation and now Weta Workshop. If you ever get the chance to visit one of these places, drop everything and go! You’ll never forget it.
GW: Is there a book or project you would like to see made into a film?
AA: They’re making it… Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Such an amazing series and if you haven’t read it, you’re in for a wonderful time. Seven books, I’ve read them twice and look forward to the next round one day. Unfortunately, however, they gave it to Roland Emmerich which to me makes little sense. These books are rather mental with little action and the protagonists are mathematicians. The story spans thousands of years with several disconnected series of events, so I have little hope that they will do more than what they did to I, Robot….meaning that it will be a forgettable Hollywood action flick that has virtually nothing to do with the books. But hopefully I’m wrong and it is epic and at least better than the Star Wars prequels. Haha. Ugh.
GW: Balance, personal life and family. Does your significant other understand the industry?
AA: I have two kids, ages six and nine, and for those of you that know, children create balance and perspective, while allowing you to reconnect with the creativity, optimism and imagination that is childhood. The highlight of my week and my life is the time I get to spend with them. I am very much a workaholic, but when I have my kids they are all I focus on. I split with their mom many years ago, but they live only a few minutes away and I’m with them every week, so it’s all good. My significant other meaning Sofia? Heh. Yes, I think she understands the industry… she’s a cinematics environment artist at Blizzard. I managed to find one of the only girls in the industry thank god! Haha. She’s awesome and totally puts up with my Gnomon chatter as I have to listen to her Blizzard chit chat. While I’m usually in front of the computer at home, she is too, so we complement each other very well. Plus she is really into gaming and being from Blizzard has its perks, since we have the StarCraft II beta and just got the Cataclysm alpha to play with at home. Pretty cool. She’s a lvl80 Night Elf Druid, I’m a 77 Night Elf Rogue. Yep… But I don’t play anymore. Really. I don’t. I think the only thing we disagree on is Twilight. I’m sorry. Twilight is lame and New Moon was the worst movie I’ve ever seen. But going to see it is the kind of thing you do to make your girlfriend happy. Even if you have to listen to dozens of teenage girls screaming for ninety minutes ’cause some overpaid cheeseball took his shirt off. Oi.
GW: Meeting and working with directors like Bryan Singer, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron, Shane Acker, Meni Tsibiris… Gnomon is now at the point where artists and directors see it as an industry resource rather than a school. Where to next?
AA: Tomorrow I teach all day. That’s what’s next for me. Well, sleep first.