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October 24th, 2018

Learning is a lifelong pursuit, a sentiment that is taken to heart and highly encouraged in each of our Mill studios. Here in LA, our artists are constantly expanding their knowledge base by exploring the city in which they live; whether through screenings, collaborative film projects, fine art excursions or other creatively inspiring endeavors. Not only are they continually learning, they are also taking their expertise out of the studio and into the community. 

Zephyr Mann (Technical Director), Charles Storniolo (VFX Artist), Peter Claes (FX Supervisor) and Robert Chapman (CG Lead) balance work at The Mill alongside instructing up and coming talent at the Gnomon School of VFX & Animation for Film and Games, located in nearby Hollywood. 

Beau Janzen, Education Lead for Visual Effects at Gnomon, shared with us the importance of having instructors who are not only deeply knowledgeable in the industry, but are also experiencing firsthand the latest evolutions and technologies. He says, “With the speed the VFX industry changes, it’s essential for us to have instructors that are working in the trenches of production. At Gnomon, we are constantly adapting our curriculum and we rely on instructors like Peter, Charles, Zephyr, and Robert as guides to meet the ever-changing industry standards.”

We sat down with the team to learn what inspired them to get involved, and gain insight into their teachings.

How did you become connected with Gnomon?

Peter – Houdini 3 and 4 Instructor: About four years ago, some of the Gnomon students reached out through the Houdini community forum looking for someone to teach a class as a substitute teacher. Through that, I started teaching around five of the ten classes that term for the Introduction to Houdini. It soon became clear that there was rapidly growing interest among the students, so over the next couple of years I created the intermediate- and advanced-level Houdini courses, followed by an advanced projects-based course. Gnomon went from offering a single Houdini course to four Houdini courses. I reached out to a few artists at The Mill LA to see if they could help staff the growing program.

Zephyr – Scripting Instructor: I got involved through Peter when the school was interested in adding more scripting and programming classes and needed instructors for them. It’s been fun; I’ve been interested in teaching and have led a couple workshops recently, but this is the first full-fledged class.

Charles – Houdini 1 Instructor: While Peter was teaching the advanced course, he recommended I start teaching as well. The Houdini class I lead focuses on preparation and how to get the students on the right track as they’re moving forward. It’s also been a fun new venture for me as I continue leading and supervising projects.

Robert - Lighting Instructor: For me, an old friend who was affiliated with the school had recommended me to make a lighting DVD for the school. That led to an Introduction to Arnold DVD, covering many of the basics like light controls, sample settings, look development, compositing passes in Nuke and much more. It was a little surreal as I had watched so many Gnomon DVDs while in school myself­.

Gnomon Exteriorcampus NightPhoto courtesy of Gnomon School of VFX & Animation for Film and Games

What does a typical class look like for you?

Charles: A typical class is comprised of different disciplines, focusing on Houdini 1. This class is open for everyone, but I have a lot of game students. It’s a well-rounded group, so I have to try to build a curriculum that applies to all disciplines, while still teaching them the basics. It’s about trying to get the students excited and show them an alternative to Maya. We do a lot of small projects; I’ll show them a technique and then have them make their own version.

Zephyr: Gnomon had a general curriculum of what should be covered in the class, but I was able to shape the specific syllabus and what the projects looked like. For our first mini project, I had the students create a 3D fractal generator. Now that we’ve gone through most of the materials [from the first half of the quarter], there’s more workshop time and they’ve started working on their more open-ended final project. One student is doing background vegetation that they’re going to use for part of a video game. Another student is doing a car-breakdown, so he’ll start with a model and write script that animates all of the positions for the parts from one central point. 

Sierpinski Triangle CroppedFractal Project by Yang Gao, one of Zephyr’s students

What is your favorite part of teaching at Gnomon?

Zephyr: It’s cool teaching at a school designed for this area of learning. They’ve put a lot of time and resources into their facilities. Also, it’s been a good challenge for me. It’s one thing to write a script myself, but it’s another to verbalize these concepts and communicate them, and that’s beneficial because it helps to solidify it in my mind. 

It’s also been fun watching the students start to think about how they can use these concepts they are learning to produce something, and seeing the pieces start to click in their mind. When you finally figure out the pattern for a program and write the script, and it works, there’s almost a magical element to it. One of my students was trying to figure out script to make the pieces of a car come apart, and when he started to get it figured out he got really excited. It’s cool to see that spark and excitement in other people.

Charles: Seeing it click – when it makes sense and they get it and get excited, it’s encouraging and makes them want to do it even more. It’s a whole cycle, and I really enjoy seeing that process and that excitement. It also reinforces my own understanding. When you have to explain something and have it make sense, you realize there are things you don’t understand.

I love school and I love to learn. It’s important to me to get the students excited, show them the fundamentals that will get them where they want to go, and encourage them. I want them to have a real opportunity and get something out of it that they can’t find on the internet. I really take it seriously about giving them the best experience they can get.

20180911 230707Charles (right) and some of his students

Now that you have the benefit of hindsight, what is something you wish you had known when you were a student? 

Robert: Something I didn’t fully take to heart until the end of my schooling was that you get what you put into this career. You are not going to be handed a job for having a degree. The work you put out and the relationships you make is what will truly help you while breaking into the industry. If you and your team get along and have a good time together, it will make every challenge that much more rewarding.

Peter: The main things I wish I would have known – and that I now heavily include in my classes – are production-level techniques and how a complex visual effect is broken down into manageable components. Multiple layers of visual complexity create the high quality required for a modern-day production environment.

Also, don't be afraid to travel and go after your dream. There are worldwide opportunities in this industry, and exploring different countries and cultures will force you to grow immensely as an artist and as a person. 

Gnomon Lab 6 04Photo courtesy of Gnomon School of VFX & Animation for Film and Games

To learn more about Gnomon, visit their website.