Congratulations: You finally figured out what you want to do with your life. It's your destiny to create the visual effects that make videogames and Hollywood blockbusters tick. Where do you start, though? It's not like you can take a class in Character Kinematics between lunch and fifth period Biology.
The Gnomon School of Visual Effects is one of many vocational institutions dedicated to training visual effects artists. A hitch at Gnomon should net you the knowledge and technical experience necessary to forge an effects career in videogames or movies. The Gnomon family of programs includes both a full-time school located in Los Angeles and the Gnomon Workshop's extensive mail-order catalogue of instructional DVDs that assist artists around the world. Whether you're looking for a degree or just want to bone up on a specific program or discipline, Gnomon probably has you covered.
Gnomon's chief selling point is its pool of instructors, all of whom are professional artists. As Gnomon Workshop director Eric Miller told me over the phone, "We use real working professional artists to do all our classes and DVDs. We don't hire staff people just to come in and produce content like a lot of other media producers do. These are real working pros that we contract out. They come in, or they record their own content on their own machine, but really we're most interested in their own workflow, how they use these tools and processes in their professional environment. You watch enough of those and you'll see that everybody uses the tools a little bit differently.
"It's not a professor at a university that maybe learned how to do specific things over the years just through academia," Miller continued. "You learn a lot of little tricks from a production artist. That's what we offer that really nobody else does. [Other programs] can show you what buttons do what, but we can show you why you're making these type of creative or technical decisions.
"That carries over from the school to the workshop. [Gnomon Workshop] does the exact same thing as the school. They're all working pros, with a minimum of 3 or 5 years of professional work history before they'll even be looked at to be a professor at the school. We try to keep that same requirement for the Workshop's DVDs as well."
Gnomon's twin branches cover similar material but to different degrees. The Gnomon School of Visual Effects is an accredited institution that offers certificates and full-time course loads. It's a fully-formed immersive education in the finer points of visual craftsmanship. The Gnomon Workshop is less intensive, specializing in video tutorials that can supplement your visual effects education or let you get a taste for various aspects of the craft without making too big of a commitment. Both focus on all manner of visual arts. From the classic skills of drawing and painting to the most technically advanced computer effects, Gnomon and its staff of experienced industry professionals can train you in the abilities needed to excel in the world of visual effects.
When it comes to videogames, Gnomon features a deep list of courses and tutorials that will introduce you to the industry's most common tools. When asked what advice he would give to prospective videogame students, Miller reiterated the importance of work ethic. "[A videogame career] requires a lot of work and that's first and foremost no matter what you do in this industry," Miller said. "You have to be dedicated, and you have to immerse yourself in the knowledge. You're not going to start off by watching the DVD by a game artist in three hours and be able to do what they do.
"It's about making the right creative decisions, and making the right technical decisions as you work and progress through your workflow. It requires you to start at the foundational level, be able to draw form, be able to communicate with a pencil and paper before you sit in front of a computer and start your designs."
At the Gnomon School you can pick one of four primary tracks. If you attend full-time you can knock the fundamental Entertainment Design program out in a year. Think the basics of two-dimensional art topped off by a dalliance with 3D. The Digital Production for Entertainment program focuses on converting your artistic skills to the three-dimensional world of computer graphics, and takes two years. The Entertainment Design and Digital Production combo pack understandably lasts for three years. There's also a nine week Fast Track session that runs you through a crash course in the commonly used Maya 3D graphics software.
Beyond general visual effects courses and software-specific classes that are germane beyond the realm of games, the Gnomon School's current curriculum features five games-centric courses. The value of Gnomon's professional-as-professor philosophy is apparent when you read the instructors' resumes.
Slim Ghariani, the Senior Visual Effects Artist at Blizzard, teaches the Visual Effects for Games course. Ghariani has worked on games like Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and Dead to Rights 2. Ghariani's course lets students get hands-on time with common industry programs like 3D Studio Max and the Unreal Development Kit. His colleague Kevin Griffith, an environment artist on Blizzard's Diablo 3, teaches Gnomon's Environment Creation for Games course.
Other game courses at Gnomon include Introduction to Unreal, an entire course devoted solely to Epic's industry standard middleware editor. There's also the foundational Overview of Visual Effects and Games, which looks at the entire process of how effects are created for games, and an Animation for Games course that focuses on creating and bringing game characters to life.
If you don't live in Los Angeles, or can't find the time or money to enroll full-time, you can still learn from the Gnomon Workshop's video courses. These DVDs and streaming videos walk you through the creative processes of industry veterans. Like the school, the DVDs are overseen by working visual effects professionals, with big-name videogame and special effects artists sharing their wisdom with the young and hopeful.
The Workshop's library runs almost 200 videos deep. It features lessons from such notable stylists as multiple Oscar-winning effects artist Rick Baker and best-selling comic book artist David Finch. The Workshop's line-up of games artists include Cecil Kim, who worked on Final Fantasy IX and served as Visual Development Lead of the God of War series, and James Hawkins, the senior concept artist for Epic Games and the Gears of War series.
Hawkins' video, Gears of War Creature Design, focuses on the creation of a single Gears of War enemy, from the original sketch to the final 3D computer generated image. Kim's two-volume set, Environment Art Direction For Games, similarly tracks the development of a game's environment from paper to the computer screen. Nate Stephens, an environment artist with Respawn Entertainment who previously worked on God of War 2 and God of War 3 while serving as Lead Environment Artist for Sony Santa Monica, demonstrates how to model an environment through Maya in the almost four-hour long Environment Modeling for Games tutorial.
Miller underscored that the artists alone decide what you will see on their Gnomon DVDs, albeit with a bit of quality control oversight from the Workshop. "We're picky about who we bring in," he said. "The quality of the artists but also the quality of the information that you're going to get is very important to us. We go through a major quality control process where we have to go through and clean stuff up. We make sure the information is both what the artist wants to put out there and what we want to put out."
Gnomon's emphasis on immersion and direct access to working professionals harkens back to the apprenticeship system, when prospective young craftsmen and artists would learn a trade by working alongside a seasoned veteran. Gnomon might not exactly offer the all-encompassing on-the-job training of a true apprenticeship, but it does let students work in a professional environment and give them the opportunity to impress people who could help them find a job after graduation. Gnomon boasts a 93% placement rate, and recent graduates have gone on to work on games like Uncharted 2, Halo: Reach, and Medal of Honor.
Both the Gnomon School and the Gnomon Workshop can help you reach your goals, if you put the work in. "[The program] is a lot of work," Miller said. "People are run pretty ragged but when you're done you come out of it really feeling as though you can take on the world when it comes to this stuff. The Workshop doesn't offer that kind of experience remotely but you can at least test the waters and supplement your other education with training by professionals, and that's what we're here for."