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Off to School, Into the Digital Breach

September 01, 1997|JENNIFER PENDLETON and Jennifer Pendleton is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

In this era of Hollywood blockbusters packed with computer-generated special effects, entertainment industry executives have complained for at least two years about a maddening shortage of well-trained digital artists. Alex Alvarez, a 24-year-old who has mastered some of the most widely used software programs for computer animation and special effects, plans to help.

His answer is Gnomon Inc., a digital training center staffed by former Art Center College of Design instructors. Starting in October, Gnomon will offer 10-week courses in three-dimensional computer graphics, animation and special effects for film and video, character animation, modeling, texture mapping and lighting.

Alvarez has been making valuable contacts in Hollywood while employed as an applications engineer for Alias/Wavefront, maker of the software programs used to create the visual effects in such movies as "Jurassic Park," "Independence Day" and "Jumanji." On the job, Alvarez demonstrates programs and trains animators at Sony Pictures ImageWorks, VIFX and other special-effects shops. He is also a part-time teacher at the Art Center in Pasadena.

Alvarez first mastered Alias/Wavefront's software as an art student, so he considered himself a novice when the Canada-based technology firm hired him last year. But Alvarez soon discovered he had greater experience than most in Hollywood, and the idea for a school was born.

Gnomon will not grant degrees, nor will it be accredited. Alvarez's philosophy is that computer technology is a tool for the creation of art, not a replacement for talent.

"'There are a lot of people out there who hear that character animators are in demand, so they say they want to be a character animator, but they've never drawn a figure in their lives," he says. "'We want people to understand that the key to getting a job is showing your creativity."

Of course, Alvarez's ambitions require cash. Lots of it. He wouldn't specify how much opening Gnomon will cost, but the hardware alone--14 Silicon Graphics o2 workstations--is setting Gnomon back at least $119,000. There are many other expenses: instructor salaries, rent, remodeling fees, utilities, insurance and security, to name a few. Pam Hogarth, director of marketing at Digital Media Institute, another professional training center, estimates the upfront investment will be at least $250,000.

Private investors who prefer to remain anonymous are bankrolling Gnomon, Alvarez says. The school, which needs 65 students to break even, has sufficient backing to operate for at least a year, according to its founder.

Though teaching is a familiar role for Alvarez, this is the first time he has run a school. For help, he recruited Kristin Bierschbach, the longtime assistant director of special programs at the Art Center, as Gnomon's director of administration. She and Alvarez will be the lone paper pushers. "We want a minimal level of bureaucracy," he says.

Alvarez, who will work as a freelance digital artist in addition to running the school, says he never considered setting up an educational program through an existing institution. He wants the freedom to pursue his own vision.

"The people who have the power to say yes or no to our ideas don't know anything about 3-D animation," insists Alvarez. "'We want to start a school designed by artists."

Gnomon's Web site, which Alvarez designed, is at

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