3D Creature Development Master Class with Alex Alvarez

Introducing a brand new product from The Gnomon Workshop; this custom "class-in-a-box" set includes eight DVDs, 25 hours of lecture, 66 HD 1080p video clips for live action integration, a 176 page full-color Pipeline Guide and six limited edition prints of artist and instructor Alex Alvarez's work. Designed after Alvarez's Creature Development course taught at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood, the content covered in the lectures and text book included is considered "intermediate level" and assumes that the student has a solid grasp of the fundamentals, from modeling and UV layout to rigging and animation. The goal is to enable students to realize what they are capable of and gain an understanding of the needs of production with an emphasis on speed and efficiency.

Whenever I need to breathe life into my characters, Alex Alvarez is where I go. Whether it be to collaborate on concepts with him directly or to watch his DVDs, I am always confident in accessibility to great information. Not only has his technical prowess pulled me out of many holes, but his character sense has given rise to some wonderful moments on some major motion pictures (Avatar and Star Trek). These new DVD’s encapsulate what I gush about. Crazy and creative character design coupled with empowering technical know how.
– Neville Page
Character/Concept Designer
Avatar, Star Trek, Watchmen, Cloverfield
Master Class Special Edition Package

This Special Edition Boxed Set includes eight DVDs, 25 hours of lecture, 66 HD 1080p video clips, 176 page full-color Pipeline Guide and six limited edition prints.

Special Edition Boxed Set - Now Shipping

Add To Cart $179 | $349

Master Class Overview

Video Preview

3D Creature Development is a creative process that evolves a design by taking advantage of modern 3D tools and techniques. This Master Class introduces the student to the entire pipeline, while exploring form, looks and behavior. Along the way we focus on the experience of working on a project where our work must regularly be presented to an art director or client, while also keeping in mind that the workflow should allow for an iterative approach. This requires an emphasis on speed and efficiency. Projects are never done, they are due. You can tweak things forever, but in the end your work just needs to satisfy the demands of the project, client or specific shot that the work is being made for. With this in mind, all of my techniques are based on a workflow that allows me to spend as little, or as much time, as I have been given. For this creature project, the deadline was one day for each of the seven stages of development: Design, Modeling and UV Layout, Digital Sculpting, Look-Development, Texturing and Shaders, Rigging and Posing, Animation and Live-Action Integration.

Regarding the level of technical details we go into for each stage of development, this Master Class thoroughly discusses and demonstrates every single step with over twenty-five hours of lecture. However, there are certain assumptions that have to be made in regards to the student's technical knowledge of the tools being used. This is an intermediate level course.

  • Observe an entire creature development pipeline from design to animation.
  • Learn techniques that emphasize efficiency while facilitating exploration.
  • 2D sketching, design and orthographic preparation in Adobe Photoshop.
  • Polygon Modeling and developing an organized Topology.
  • Digital Sculpting: Normal, Displacement and Cavity Maps.
  • Creating Turnarounds and Turntable Animations.
  • Exploring Texture and Shader Looks in 2D using 3D rendered passes.
  • Developing Subsurface Materials with Image Based Lighting (HDR).
  • Rigging: Skinning, Inverse Kinematics, Animation Controls, Pose tests.
  • Camera Matching, Tracking and Integration with HD 1080p footage.
  • Creature Animation integration with multiple live-action locations.
  • Tools: Photoshop, Maya, Mental Ray, UVLayout, ZBrush, BodyPaint, SynthEyes, After Effects.

Pipeline Guide

This 176 page, full-color Pipeline Guide serves as a text companion to the 3D Creature Development Master Class video lectures. While the book covers the entire pipeline, it is not meant to be a technical document, but rather a very detailed overview, as the technical workflow is already covered in the video lectures provided on each disc. In this book, instructor Alex Alvarez retraces his steps, further illustrating and emphasizing some of the points made in the lectures, making it a necessary compliment. In addition, the book also acts as a helpful reference guide, reminding you of the instructions and suggestions that Alvarez notes in each disc. Bonus materials such as "The Making of Fume" and more are included.


"Alex is a phenomenal teacher; although he's very intimidating at first, his no-nonsense critiques are honest and encouraging. Taking his creature class at Gnomon was the perfect spring board into my career. By keeping the class and schedule demanding, we were forced to learn and create more than we ever imagined! The skills he taught and work ethic we practiced have served me well in my current job and I owe Alex so much for this."

Jessica Dru Johnson
Associate Cinematic Artist, Blizzard Entertainment

"Gone are the days of all-nighters and hooking myself up to an intravenous drip full of cheap coffee but boy, do I miss them. Alex's Character Creation class was one of the most exhausting, exciting and rewarding experiences of my life. The demand for quality work in a limited time forced me to become a more efficient artist. It also forced me to progress a lot in a short period of time and gave me the chance to apply all of the tools and skills I'd spent the previous year and a half learning. One of the best things about the class is that it's just like real production. It left me feeling well prepared when I entered the industry as a working professional. This class was simply invaluable."

Ryan Calloway
Model/Texture Artist, Industrial Light and Magic

"Alex's creature class was a brutally intense exercise in creating the highest caliber work in the most ridiculously short deadlines. It was hellish... but I loved every minute. In the end, I had numerous demo reel pieces, a better artistic eye, and was tremendously faster. I highly recommend the class for anyone wanting to create their own fully realized 3D characters."

Nathan Boyd
Texture Painter, Rhythm and Hues Studios

"Although I am not a character artist, taking Alex's character and creature class was invaluable to my success in the big leagues (production). The class made me understand the rigors of studio work and how to hold myself accountable for a higher quality of work. It also clarified so much about the character process and 3D art in general. More than anything it taught me how to be hyper critical of my work as an artist and how to deal with a critique that was as brutal as it was honest. I can honestly say that Alex's Character and Creature class was one of my favorite classes during my time at Gnomon. (even though he's mean!)"

Max Dayan
Modeler, Land of the Lost, 2012, Toy Story 3, Watchmen

"Taking Alex's portfolio class at the end of the Gnomon Certificate program was the perfect way to put all the amassed knowledge of the program to good use. Regardless of whether the subject was characters or environments, having a class solely dedicated to polished portfolio pieces has incredible value for students just getting started. Alex demonstrates how to approach and refine artwork, meticulously (sometimes painfully!) pointing out every tiny little aspect of a piece that needs fixing or improving. Be sure that you will not just skate by if something isn't right. The emphasis on perfect technical execution and superior quality of artwork on a production-style schedule is a great way to transition from student life to the demands of the working world. Alex's portfolio class, in my opinion, would be of great benefit to any student seeking to prepare themselves for the realities of being a professional CG artist today."

Jake Raymor
3D Artist, Frontline Design Inc., Spider Man 4

"Alex's class is the most intense and educational class Gnomon has to offer. The technical skills and work ethic that are taught in Alex's class fully prepare students for a working environment. Students are taught what it means to meet an impossible deadline and strive to meet their goal. The work that comes out of Alex's class is top row!"

Kyle Mulqueen
Gentle Giant Studios

"Alex's creature class was the highlight of my stay at Gnomon. The instruction was excellent, the workload intense, and the end-result completely worth it. By the end of the class, I had 4 demo-reel ready pieces and an advanced understanding of the creature-development process. Overall, I would highly recommend the class to anyone even remotely interested in creature development."

Sanjay Chand
Lighting Artist, Halo Reach, Bungie

"Alex's class was the hardest 10 weeks of my life. I spent so much time working on projects that even when making microwave dinners, if I put in the wrong time my hand would automatically go to Control Z (undo). Although it was difficult and demanding, I learned an abundance of crucial information. The projects that I did in his class were used in my Graduating Reel, and were the reason I was able to get a job at Blizzard... no more microwave dinners."

Konrad Lightner
Look Development Associate Texture Artist, Cinematics Team, Blizzard Entertainment

"Alex's Character/Creature Portfolio class was just the shot in the arm my demo reel needed and it couldn't have come at a better time, that being our final term in the High-End CG Certificate Program. When students reach their final term, they have a thorough understanding of the various software packages and techniques used to accomplish quite complex character and scene compositions in a short period of time. Although, one thing can't be overlooked and that is, we are still students. The success of the class was in large part due to the combined effort of the student's hard work and many cups of coffee, coupled with Alex's extreme attention to detail. Alex did an uncanny job imparting to the students everything, from his knowledge of the software and the latest techniques, to his sometimes frightening ability to dissect pixels. Being able to analyze form, color, surface quality and lighting is absolutely critical when it comes to recreating reality inside of a computer and this class in particular pushed the students to another level entirely. From my own personal experience, getting my first job at Rhythm and Hues upon graduating was in large part due to the projects produced from Alex's portfolio class. I soon found out that the unwavering scrutiny Alex put our class work under, is in fact exactly how working on feature films is. I count myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in such an invaluable 'pre-game warm up'."

Erik Halsey
Modeler, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

"I recommend this class to anyone who is interested in getting a taste of what working in the industry is going to be like. I learned how to present and communicate my work, as well as take criticism on how to improve my art. It really prepares you for the reiterative process that everyone should come to expect in the real world. This class really helped me bring together all the things I had learned at Gnomon. It's a wax on wax off moment, where you realize that everything you've been learning is coming together. Its long hours and really hard work at the home stretch, so if you're up to the challenge then I highly recommend taking this class."

Kirti Pillai
Associate Cinematic Artist, Blizzard Entertainment

Alex Alvarez

Alex Alvarez is the founder and president of the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood, The Gnomon Workshop, Gnomon Gallery, SketchTheatre, Gnomon Studios and the president/CEO of CGchannel. Having dedicated over a decade to educating students and professional artists around the world, Alex has helped change the face of computer graphics and design education. He has been published in industry magazines, websites and books - plus he has taught courses at several major trade conferences. He continues to work on personal and professional projects, recently as a creature development artist on the James Cameron film Avatar and JJ Abram's Star Trek. Prior to Gnomon, Alex worked for Alias|Wavefront as a consultant and trainer for studios in the Los Angeles area. Alex is an alumnus of the Art Center College of Design and the University of Pennsylvania, but would have gone to Gnomon if it was around at the time.

Disc One - Ideation and Design

Introduction Video
Sample Clip

This DVD commences a twenty-five hour journey to illustrate a creature development pipeline that emphasizes speed, efficiency and quality. More specifically, how can we manage a technical workflow so that the creative process of resolving a design can be iterated and completed within a given timeframe? All projects have a deadline and a client so as we develop the creature, I make a point of illustrating how to communicate your work effectively, while working fast.

The first step of any project, as illustrated in this lecture, is 2D design exploration. We begin by developing a design brief that outlines the function and direction to take with the creature; something similar to what you may be given by a client. This is then explored and evolved with a series of sketches in Photoshop. As we approach a final design, the sketch is then animated in 3D to evaluate any functional concerns. This information is then used to resolve a final design that can move onto the next step of the pipeline: modeling.

  • Developing a Design Brief
  • Sketching in Photoshop
  • Presenting Designs
  • 3D Animation Tests
  • 3D Design Exploration
  • Extrapolating 2D to 3D
  • Quick Animation Rig
  • Final Design Prep
  1. Introduction: Introduction
  2. Ideation and Design Part 1: Design Brief
  3. Ideation and Design Part 2: Initial Sketches
  4. Ideation and Design Part 3: Design Evolution
  5. Ideation and Design Part 4: Design Evaluation
  6. Animation Test part 1: Design Animation Test
  7. Animation Test part 2: Design Revision

Disk Two - Modeling and UV Layout

Introduction Video
Sample Clip

Modeling a Creature that will be digitally sculpted and rigged for animation requires attention to topology. This can be considered either before or after the sculpting process. Given that we have a precise design to work from, the model topology is resolved in what is called the 'base mesh'. Using the side-view orthographic design of the creature, we develop the polygon model while interpreting how the side view extrapolates to the front, top and bottom. This workflow is an example of where a 3D process can evolve a 2D design. Careful attention is paid to the edge flow so that it follows the forms of the anatomy for rigging, while creating an even polygon quad layout ideal for sculpting. Then with the model complete, the UVs are created in a manner that will optimize texturing later on down the pipeline.

  • Polygon Modeling
  • Topology
  • Quad Based workflow
  • Rig and Sculpt friendly Meshes
  • Pipeline checking
  • Turntable Animations
  • UV Layout
  1. BaseMesh_A: Ortho Preparation
  2. BaseMesh_B: Rear Leg
  3. BaseMesh_C: Legs
  4. BaseMesh_D: Torso and Arms
  5. BaseMesh_E: Turntable Animation
  6. BaseMesh_F: Final Tweaks
  7. UVlayout: UV Layout

Disk Three - Digital Sculpting

Introduction Video
Sample Clip

It is common to refer to a model as having primary, secondary and tertiary form. The primary forms are the basic volumes and silhouette of the creature that, in this case, originate in the 2D design and are dimensionalized in the topological base-mesh. The secondary forms are the surface musculature and visible skeletal structure which are designed through sculpting in ZBrush. Much of this is interpreted from the 2D design, while regions not visible in the sketch are resolved. This continues the design evolution of the creature. Tertiary form refers to high-frequency details such as wrinkles and pores, something possible in ZBrush but derived later in the texturing process.

The creation of 2D turnarounds rendered in ZBrush is a critical part of the design evaluation as it pertains to model submission and review. We demonstrate the value of this process, make the final edits to the sculpt, and export the final results to Maya.

  • Exporting to ZBrush
  • Digital Sculpting
  • Design Evolution
  • Presentation Renders
  • Turnarounds
  • Evaluating a Sculpt
  • Exporting to Maya
  • Normal Maps
  1. ZBrush part01: Setup, Head, Torso
  2. ZBrush part02: Torso, Arms
  3. ZBrush part03: Legs
  4. ZBrush part04: Legs, Rear Leg
  5. ZBrush part05: Rear Leg, Belt
  6. ZBrush part06: ZBrush Renders, Turnarounds
  7. ZBrush part07: Final Tweaks
  8. ZBrush part08: ZBrush to Maya

Disk Four - Integration, Rigging and Poses

Introduction Video
Sample Clip

As the creature model is now considered final, it is extremely helpful to begin showing it in the context of an environment, while also exploring its character via a series of pose tests. Using an HD video shot with a static camera, the creature is integrated to illustrate scale and presence. Also extremely important to the development cycle is to explore the creature's character via poses, and later, animation. The creature is therefore skinned and rigged, allowing us to illustrate a series of possible directions for movement and attitude, both in the live-action plate and alone.

  • Live-Action Integration
  • Using HD footage and HDRs
  • Matching the 3D camera
  • Skeletons
  • Skinning
  • IK Controls
  • Creature Poses
  • Presentation Renders
  1. Integration Part 1: Integration: HD Plate + HDR Set-up
  2. Integration Part2: Integration: Camera, Lighting, Geometry
  3. Integration Part3: Integration: Rendering Creature in Scene
  4. Rigging Part1 Skeleton: Skeleton
  5. Rigging Part2 FingersSpike: Fingers, Spike
  6. Rigging Part3 Legs: Legs
  7. Rigging Part4 TorsoArms: Torso, Head and Arms
  8. Rigging Part5 IKcontrols: IK Controls
  9. Pose Tests Part1_LivingRoom: Creature Poses: Living Room
  10. Pose Tests Part2_AmbientOcclusion: Ambient Occlusion Set-up
  11. Pose Tests Part3_Poses: Creature Poses: Alone

Disk Five - Look Development

Introduction Video
Sample Clip

For an alien creature, there are an infinite variety of ways in which it could be textured and shaded. It is critical to explore this potential in a manner that allows for the process to be iterative, efficient, fast and usable as a start-point for later 3D texturing. To begin, we first discuss the advantages of a Normal/Displacement map workflow, exporting new maps from Zbrush and blocking out the Subsurface(SSS) shader in Maya. Render passes are then exported to Photoshop and a series of possible looks for the creature are developed. This process is quick, fun and allows you to fill a wall with directions in a day. It is through this type of exploration that the best solution for the project can be discovered.

  • Normal/Displacement Workflow
  • ZBrush: Normal, Displacements, Cavity
  • SubDiv Approximation
  • SSS Shader Set-up
  • Render Passes
  • Look Development in Photoshop
  1. Intro to Look Dev Procedure
  2. ZBrush Disp/Normal/Cavity maps
  3. Maya set-up: Normals/Displacements
  4. Maya SSS Skin Shader Set-up
  5. Render Passes for Photoshop
  6. Texture Look Dev, Style 1
  7. Texture Look Dev, Style 2
  8. Texture Look Dev, Style 3
  9. Texture Look Dev, Style 4

Disc Six - Texturing and Shaders

Introduction Video
Sample Clip

Once a look for the creature is established, 3D texturing and shading can begin. We start by projecting the look-development textures onto the model, giving us a strong foundation that we can build upon. The SSS shader must be tuned to match the look of the approved look-dev image, as we clean-up the textures and create the sss, bump, specular and reflectivity settings, and maps, for the shader. It is during this process that we resolve areas not visible during look-dev. We also incorporate image based lighting in order to submit the creature in a variety of photo-real lighting conditions, environments and poses, necessary for both final shader tuning and presentation.

  • Camera Projections
  • Convert to File Texture
  • Projection Clean-up
  • Integrating maps into SSS
  • Texture Clean-up
  • Image Based Lighting (HDR)
  • Fixing Seams with Bodypaint
  • Presentation Renders
  1. Projection Set-up
  2. Convert to File Texture
  3. Projection Cleanup - RearLeg
  4. Projection Cleanup - Torso
  5. Projection Cleanup - Leg, Spike
  6. SSS Shader - Color
  7. SSS Shader - Cavity Maps
  8. SSS Shader - Bump, Primary Spec
  9. SSS Shader - Secondary Spec
  10. SSS Shader - Reflectivity, HDR/IBL
  11. Texture Cleanup
  12. Texture Cleanup, part 2
  13. Presentation Renders
  14. Fixing Seams with BodyPaint 3D
  15. Tuning Subdiv Approximation Nodes
  16. Final Presentation: Posed Renders

Disc Seven - Animation and Live-Action

Introduction Video
Sample Clip

Creature development is a process that allows the artists involved to present options to a director for approval, while creating a design package that can be delivered to the final effects studio. Time permitting, this need not be limited to just still images, but can go as far as animation tests incorporated into matchmoved live-action shots. At this point, you are creating something that looks like a final shot, albeit not using final plates as principal photography has probably not begun. Regardless, this is an extremely effective way of communicating how the creature is not just supposed to look, but how it should behave. In this final chapter of the series, I demonstrate how to camera track, animate, integrate and render the creature into multiple shots of live-action footage in just a few hours.

  • Animation Controls
  • Animation Workflow
  • Automating Keyframing
  • Rigged Creature Import
  • Camera Tracking in SynthEyes
  • Matching Scene Geometry/Lighting
  • Setting up Coordinate Systems
  • Re-purposing Animation
  1. Animation Introduction, Living Room Scene
  2. Keyframe Controls, Scene Prep
  3. Initial Steps
  4. Rear Leg Hop
  5. Down the stairs
  6. Onto the floor
  7. Kickstand
  8. Reaction
  9. Reaction, part 2
  10. Final Animation, Render, Comp, Motion Blur
  11. Outdoor Night Scene: Camera Tracking Overview
  12. Tracking in SynthEyes
  13. Tracked Scene Set-up in Maya
  14. Importing Animation to Tracked Scene

HD Video Collection


A collection of various background plates, shot near the Salton Sea in California, perfect for tracking and using in your 3D animation projects. Shot using the Canon 5DmkII at 1920x1080, Progressive, 30fps. Includes HD 1080p clips and 405p preview clips.

Abandoned Grainery

Abandoned House

Abandoned Warehouse

Bone Beach

Cracked Earth

Decayed Garage

Gravel Pullout

Long Gravel Road

Mexican Restaurant

Motel Hallways

Motel Morning

Office Exterior Night Green

Salty Chair

Sidewall Gravel Night

Stagnant Pond

* This special edition boxed set is NOT available as a Digital Download or as part of the Online Training Subscription plans.