Alex Alvarez puts down his coffee and lights up a cigarette.
He noodles out The Exorcist theme on the piano in his living room. Then he turns to his collection of Star Wars figures. "They were mine when I was 5," he says proudly. Now they belong to his son, Griffin. "I was obsessed with Star Wars," he adds. "The impact it had on my generation's imagination was rather staggering."
Rather. For a guy with some of the most powerful connections in the movie business, Alvarez, founder of the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, in Hollywood, is an unapologetic geek. His baggy army-green pants are hiked up by a black quasi-military belt with three rows of grommets. He shares his Los Feliz home in L.A. with a collection of latex monsters with bulging eyes and antennae. He throws Jägermeister-soaked parties packed with artists who sometimes sit down and sketch on the fly for their friends, with the results thrown up on a big screen. ("It's kind of like Sex, Lies, and Videotape," admits one regular. "You might be drawing something embarrassing depending on how many shots you've had.")
But all traces of dorkiness fall away when Alvarez takes his place at the front of his class on character-and-creature design at Gnomon. Seven pairs of eyes pin their gaze on his round, youthful face; his commanding 6-foot-1-inch frame; and the thick mustache that connects to a beard manicured to follow his jawline. Long strands of jet-black hair are slicked back and chopped abruptly at the nape. Over the course of his lecture, he uses words such as "sci-fi'd out," "badass," "hard-core awesomeness," and "zombie dragon" as naturally as "topology" and "base mesh." When Alvarez taps into a key concept, he raises his eyebrows and gesticulates in symmetrical and controlled motions, like a mime. These gestures become a kind of geometry, as if he's physically molding the same 3-D polygons he models on his computer and projects onto a screen at the head of the room.
With his buttery charisma and bottomless technical chops, Alvarez has become the pipeline between Hollywood's studios and rising digital artists. In fact, for an industry increasingly driven by — and dependent on — digital effects, Gnomon has become its most dependable stockpile of highly refined fuel. When Alvarez started the school back in 1997, computer graphics (CG) were just breaking out. Jurassic Park, Independence Day, and Toy Story had proved the box-office appeal of visual effects and 3-D animation (a 3-D representation of 2-D images, not the stereo 3-D camera and projection technology that's all the rage today). But the talent pool had yet to catch up. Alvarez was only 24 at the time, an "applications engineer" for Alias|Wavefront, which created software used in such movies as Terminator 2, and was making daily rounds to the studios to school artists in 3-D modeling and animation. He mined those connections and created a school joined at the hip to the industry. Patricia Beckmann-Wells, manager of school and outreach relations at Walt Disney Animation Studios, calls Alvarez a visionary for redefining the educational landscape for CG. "It was an undefined beast 10 years ago," she says. "Alex took it on himself to fill a void."
Today, Gnomon is considered the MIT of visual effects — the most reliable route to a real job for art-school grads focused on Hollywood. Teachers are working pros drawn from DreamWorks, Industrial Light & Magic, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Disney, Pixar, Digital Domain, Rhythm & Hues, Blizzard, and Electronic Arts. "These are the people pushing boundaries," says Jeffrey A. Okun, chair of the Visual Effects Society. Alvarez himself is both admired and feared for his talent; students log 16-hour days to get their work in good-enough shape for him to tear apart. "I had the luxury of having classes with Alex," says Tefft Smith II, who graduated from Gnomon in 2000 and worked at studios like LookFX and Zoic before returning to the school as director of education. "My brain just felt like it was going to explode — but in a good way."
"My interactions with him leave me gob smacked!" exclaims Okun. "He is a Svengali, but in the best way. A student goes in there feeling like the world's biggest loser, without a creative bone in his body. Twenty minutes with the guy, and he's written the greatest opera ever."
Given the performance at the U.S. box office in 2008 — attendance dropped 4.7% — digital effects have become ever more important to the studios, and not simply because the majority of the 100 top-grossing titles ever are effects-driven or animated films. Digital effects can also save money — lots of it — by reducing production time, papering over continuity problems or other glitches that weren't caught on set, and even by generating entire scenes from the thinnest visual material. And in a business built on software, the more you know, the more you're worth. Alvarez's range makes him all but priceless.
Neville Page, one of Hollywood's top creature designers, hired him last year to work on James Cameron's upcoming Avatar. Page says they sat in a room together over the course of a year, animating Page's 3-D models. "There was a shot on Avatar where Neville had this background painting of a forest, just a static painting, and I was asked to bring it to life," Alvarez explains, fingering a Tibetan charm (to ward off evil spirits) dangling from his neck on a silver chain. "So that was a lot of particle-effects animation — fireflies flying around, insects zooming in and out. That's not modeling at all, but all particle systems, dynamics, and fields." Alvarez had a profound impact on J.J. Abrams's Star Trek prequel, too, says Page, who asked him for help in animating a concept for the "Red Snow Monster" emerging from ice: "I said, 'Can you help make it walk across the floor?' He came back with animations that way exceeded my expectations. He did the entire immersive scene and made it so bloody cool."
With the new craze for stereo 3-D — with its manna-like promise of pumped up revenue (tickets cost $3 extra on average) — Alvarez has expanded his initial idea for Gnomon into the foundations of a geek empire. He's a guy who thinks big picture from the start, says Page: "If we spoke to NASA on the chance we could all go to the moon, I would be designing the rocket ship and Alex would have a business plan." Alvarez has built a line of Gnomon downloadable tutorials, created online classes, and produced hundreds of training DVDs by iconic artists such as Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Tron) and Iain McCaig (Star Wars episodes 1, 2, and 3). Everyone from LucasArts to Microsoft collects the DVDs, as do art schools across the country. "The DVDs are truly visionary," says Page. "A lot of artists think you don't share — you developed this technique, so it's yours. Now you can get great artists on your computer and watch how they work, even if you're in India or you have only 50 bucks. The community of artists has changed across the world because of these DVDs."
Alvarez's empire has also expanded to commercial projects outside the film world. He recently created a caricature-style, 3-D animated short on the economy for Berkshire Hathaway. "The short features 13 people, including Warren Buffett, and the GEICO Gecko," says Alvarez. "Each delivers a line of dialogue, promising that everyone at Berkshire will work their hardest to make sure we get through these tough times." Alvarez and his partner at Gnonom, Darrin Krumweide, along with Tefft Smith, spent months creating a 3-D animated blueprint for a large-scale project by singer Marc Anthony. Gnomon is also finishing work on a music video for Lolly Jane Blue's "White Swan," directed by in-house resident artist Sil van der Woerd.
Alvarez often asks his students to work on those real-world projects. "Sil wanted CG cotton candy that's growing out of pools of water. We put problems on students' plates that don't already have a solution." That's why when McCaig needs fresh blood to work on a feature, he calls Alvarez and asks for folks to add to his team. "I can only do that if they're trained a certain way — professional and skilled — so I pull heavily from Gnomon," he says.
Thanks to Alvarez, students at Gnomon aren't just production drones. They have a sense of how to make "images that are part of the larger story," says Michael Fink, CEO of Frantic Films. As Alvarez tells his students, it's all about their ability to fill in the blanks.
Diane Mehta has written for The New York Times, Elle Decor, and CNBC European Business. She lives in Brooklyn.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.