20 Years of Gnomon

Posted January 1st, 2018 by Nicole Hendrix — Category: Education — 0 Comments

Image of Gnomon's Hollywood campus.

Image of Gnomon's Hollywood campus.

Called “the MIT of visual effects” by Fast Company magazine, Gnomon School of VFX was founded in 1997 by Alex Alvarez, who pioneered the earliest instructional efforts teaching entertainment studios the original 3D hardware and software.

For the last 20 years, Gnomon has educated many of the world’s best digital artists through full-time vocational programs and individual courses for professional enrichment. This year, Gnomon School unveiled and launched its first Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Production, timed serendipitously with the milestone 20-year anniversary, and as the result of a decade of institutional planning to further strengthen the school’s mission to educate and prepare students for careers in the field of digital entertainment.


“Gnomon is known for teaching real-world skills that apply directly to the market, producing graduates ready to work and grow in the VFX and animation space. Blur has hired several Gnomon alumni over the years, and they've all been able to make an impact very shortly after their graduation. It only makes sense that Gnomon would evolve to offer a BFA program and continue to create qualified contributors to this industry.”- Jerome Denjean, Head of CG at Blur Studio

Renowned for offering a vibrant curriculum that prepares students with knowledge and skills that alumni can draw on for the duration of their professional lives, Gnomon School boasts a continuing stellar placement rate – currently 96%* for 2016. The BFA program builds carefully on the time-tested success of Gnomon’s signature vocational programs and is designed to produce production-ready artists who are versed in general academic knowledge, foundational arts, and production skills. The curriculum covers all aspects of a 3D generalist skill set, providing an in-depth understanding of the 3D production pipeline, and a strong foundation in both visual arts and general education studies.

Founder and CEO, Alex Alvarez, recalls his experiences opening Gnomon School in 1997, and recounts the hurdles and milestones along the way:

Twenty years ago, this week, Gnomon opened its doors, and we have just started our 81st term (four quarters per year). This is surreal, to think that it has been that long. But in short: the idea happened in January 1997 while working for Alias|Wavefront;, by May, the name was registered and incorporated; in August, I announced Gnomon at a Siggraph meeting at VIFX studios in Los Angeles; the next week I was told by A|W that I had to quit my job if I was going to really do it (a surprise at the time- I had asked permission prior but they changed their minds); I lost my partner as a result and decided to go solo; in September I was lucky enough to get featured in the LA Times, and then Gnomon opened in October 1997 at the Television Center lot in Hollywood, where we are still located today.

I opened Gnomon with 1,000-square-foot of space: a reception area, small kitchen, three offices, a single computer lab and two employees; Kristin Bierschbach (Admin/Wearer of a Thousand Hats) and Val Sinlao (Lab Technician). I designed the space in 3D with my friends Scot and Ryan, who hand made all of the furniture. Those were SGI days, so we had 12 Silicon Graphics O2 workstations running Alias|Wavefront PowerAnimator. $15,000 each with 256MB of RAM and a 400 MHz processor. Not to mention that PA was about $80,000 at that time- but luckily, as a school, I was able to get software for a tiny fraction of that amount.

I was 24. Which means I was fairly naive- but full of enthusiasm, passion, and hope.

I was in the right place at the right time. I got a ton of support from artists, studios, and the community. I was even able to do it in the first place thanks to my father who died when I was 17. While he died too young and in debt, he had a life insurance policy which was enough to pay for four years of college, and by the time I was 24, I had $250,000 left. I spent it all starting Gnomon. I really had no idea how much money that really was and how risky starting a company is no matter how well you plan. People say I was bold, an entrepreneur who took a big risk- not really. I was naive and fortunate (with an obsessive work ethic). Not to discount what I did, but I really didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I did not think education would become my career. I did not think that it would last 20 years. I also did not realize that while I was in the right place at the right time, it was also the right time in general for such schools to appear due to the emergence of our industry. What I mean by this is: competition. That, while from the beginning I wanted Gnomon to be different, to be ethical, to be an amazing and inspiring school with working instructors, others also had the same idea to start schools. Not all with the same intentions, however. This created a lot of stress as I learned how much work would be required to make Gnomon survive by always striving to get better, improve, prove ourselves, and serve the industry and our students. Yet, ironically, while competition can be stressful for a young company, it pushed us to be better. I don’t think Gnomon would be what it is if it wasn’t for the paranoia that is inevitable for anyone who starts a company. It sucks, but it is important.

I could probably write on and on about the lessons learned over the years about how to manage a company and work effectively, and collaboratively. But ultimately, much of it was reactionary as I, and then we, learned as we went. After a year it became clear that I needed a partner- someone to brainstorm with and co-manage the responsibilities. For this, I asked Darrin Krumweide, who I had met at Art Center when he was a teacher/industry pro and I was a student. He, too, had gone to Art Center, and worked for Alias|Wavefront, but had then moved on to work in the film and games industry. He was one of the first group of Gnomon teachers and I had the utmost respect for him. Luckily, he agreed to join Gnomon full-time as my partner, and for that I could not have been -again- more fortunate. Darrin is rad and Gnomon’s success is owed in large part to him. If I simplified the myriad ways that we have co-managed Gnomon over the years, the objective perspective would be that I focus on steering the ship while he keeps the ship running. One cannot exist without the other. I respect people who start companies and run them solo, but I couldn’t do it.

And then, all of the amazing people who work -or have worked- for Gnomon over the years. A company, in any field, is a collaborative effort. Gnomon has been so lucky to have been supported by so many who believed in our mission. Some have moved on to awesome things; many are still with us. Then there are the hundreds of artists who have taught with us. Professionals working at studios with busy schedules who have taken the time to help share their experience. Then there are all of the studios and companies who have also been supportive, provided input and nurtured our evolution. If there is one lesson that you may have heard but should take to heart: surround yourself with people who know more than you do.

But I’m not going to sugar-coat it: Gnomon has been hard. Running a company requires endless 80-hour weeks, little-to-no vacation for years, and a lot of personal sacrifice. I went to Art Center to become an industry artist and somehow ended up starting a school not realizing how all-consuming it would be. I’ve had more than enough times where I questioned why I was doing it as for many years it wasn’t financially all that great. Years where we wondered if we would make it. But then time passed. Gnomon grew, and the impact it was having on people’s lives became more clear. The value of that. We added a full-time program in 1998, but then longer full-time programs, accredited programs, two-year, three-year and now a four-year BFA degree. Every six months we have our graduation ceremony. I meet families, parents, grandparents, spouses. I hear about the jobs that they have been offered, the careers they have started. And it is humbling. And it makes me happy to know that Gnomon means something to people. I know that many of you only know Gnomon from the Gnomon Workshop training library. But that is a separate company and thing. I’m talking here about the school, which consumes the majority of my time. The Workshop is something I am also very proud of, but the school is different in that it is personal, it is a place, it has people who interact face to face. I see photos of past students from years ago on Facebook and see them with other past Gnomon students- Gnomon has created not just careers for people, but deep friendships. Lifelong relationships- including, even, a few marriages. Every Friday I get a report of what our alumni are up to. It is nuts. So many talented artists (and genuinely cool people) working on so many awesome games, films, commercials, cinematics- it is inspiring.

So yes, on our 20th anniversary, I am proud. From 1,000 square feet to 35,000. The school, events, gallery, extension courses, full-time programs, online courses, high school programs and now degrees. Thousands of students over the years and, from what I hear from our alumni- lives changed. It's weird. But really all I can do is bow to everyone who made this happen. Because, surely, it's not about me; its about everyone who has believed in us, trusted us, helped us. Thank you. It is an honor to be in the position I am in.

Thanks for listening.
Gnomon is 20.

Alex Alvarez, written on 10/12/2017

Our friends over at the Animation Career Review recently sat down with Alex Alvarez to find out more about the history of Gnomon. Read on to learn more about how Gnomon started and found its feet in Hollywood as the school of visual effects.

ACR: Alex, as you celebrate Gnomon’s 20th anniversary and unveil the school’s latest addition- the B.F.A. in Digital Production- I want to look back at the early years first. Why did you decide to found a school entirely dedicated to the 3D arts?

Alex: Like many people I suspect, I was steered away from the arts from well-intentioned guidance counselors who didn’t see a viable career path. So, I went to [University of] Penn[sylvania] to study the liberal arts, but just wasn’t motivated. I took time off and got hired to color comics in Photoshop for Malibu Comics. Suddenly, I was surrounded by like-minded people who were interested in fantasy art like me- Tolkien and Dune, and all that stuff. I got super excited and that’s when I really discovered what I could do with 3D. So, I enrolled in Art Center College of Design to study Illustration, because no one was teaching the digital stuff back then.

In 1997, I was working at Alias|Wavefront when the idea for Gnomon struck me. I was self-taught on the software but didn’t know much about technique, and my studio friends knew technique but not software. My intent was to open a small training center with friends from other studios to share techniques and ideas on the weekends. I wanted to create the exact school I hadn’t yet found, where every teacher was a working professional who knew more than I did about their subject.

We started the school with a single computer lab. If it wasn’t for the studio artists wanting to teach at Gnomon, it would never have become the incredibly valuable thing that it has for the community. We worked quickly on launching an 18-month program and our first alumni graduated in 2000. Now those graduates hold senior positions in the industry and come back to campus to help current students, so it’s pretty cool to see it all come full circle.

ACR: Studio artists still make up Gnomon’s instructor roster, don’t they?

Alex: They do. Instead of tenured faculty, we hire working professionals to teach our courses. There are about 80 instructors at Gnomon right now, and the advantage for students is that they take classes from someone who works at Disney or Blizzard or Naughty Dog. Our instructors bridge that gap between students and the studio community. That network is a huge part of future industry success.

ACR: I mentioned the fall launch of Gnomon’s new B.F.A. in Digital Production… my how far you’ve come! At what point did you and your staff turn your attention to a 4-year degree?

Alex: We started discussing the possibility of a four-year Bachelor [of Fine Arts] program a decade ago but we quickly learned that the accreditation process from the Department of Education would be an incredibly complex and lengthy one. There are many stipulations that we felt might compromise our quality and rigor, and we weren’t going to sacrifice the caliber of our education. So we very carefully went about the process of creating our own [degree]. Patricia Winters, our [School] Director, spearheaded it and we were able to customize a B.F.A. that allows a majority of our courses to be specific to the career field while retaining our industry instructors. It’s pretty exciting for us.

Read the full interview at AnimationCareerReview.com.
To celebrate 20 years of Gnomon School, limited edition merchandise was created to mark the milestone in the history of Gnomon. Pick up your 20-year merchandise at the Gnomon Store in Hollywood.

*Percentage reflects the average placement rate of Gnomon’s vocational programs in accordance with national accreditation standards of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). Visit http://www.gnomon.edu and see Consumer Disclosures for more information.

Read More
Find out at which studios Gnomon’s alumni are now working
Watch showreels from Gnomon’s recent graduates
Learn more about the Gnomon campus in Hollywood
Browse all Gnomon’s current training courses on campus


About Gnomon

Founded in 1997, Gnomon has trained thousands of students and professionals for careers in the entertainment industry. Find out more