Thursday, August 05, 2010

Our Meeting with Alex Alvarez of Gnomon

Back in early July, we found a thread on the CG Society forums where the announcement of Gnomon Studios was highlighted. There was quite a racket over the matter of students being used as an unpaid labor force to work on

... feature project[s] ... as was the case with the facility’s recent contributions to the 2011 film “Green Lantern” and the popular TV series, “Fringe.”

Enough questions were raised that Alex Alvarez, founder and CEO of Gnomon weighed in to share his feelings and set the record straight on what happened. Steve Hulett posted his thoughts on the matter here and in regards to Alex's response here. VFX Soldier posted about it here on his blog and here regarding Alex's response. Alex reached out to us and I went over to Gnomon to sit with him and discuss what happened.

I met Alex in the late afternoon; he started out by giving me a tour of the facility. I was shown the classrooms, labs and hangouts of Gnomon School, the recording rooms and store of Gnomon Workshop and the workspace of Gnomon Studios. We then sat in Alex's office and had our discussion.

It is my belief that Alex never intended to break the law or use his students to form a production studio. As many of the supporters in the blog threads have pointed out, the opportunities that Gnomon present to the artists who attend the classes there are intangible in value. Gnomon's contributions to the skill set of the student artists either in the classrooms or through their DVDs have been the difference in employment for many of the successful vfx artists in the industry today. Simply looking at the placement rate and placement location of Gnomon graduates speaks volumes to what Alex has achieved through Gnomon.

However, the fact that it happened is a matter of record and history. According to what was told in the blogs and to me directly, both projects were presented to Alex directly who brought them to students. His intentions were that of the director of Gnomon School and an instructor looking to give further examples of real-world work and expectations. Students worked on the projects for about six weeks in totality. The work for the Fringe episode aired in the season two finale toward the end of May of 2010. Green Lantern is scheduled to be released in June of 2011. I was never told who got paid for the efforts, but assuming that Alex was the one who did would seem logical.

In the public forums and in person, Alex pointed out that running a full vfx facility was outside the intent and scope of what Gnomon strives to achieve. Gnomon Studios is set up as an example of what production schedules and stresses students will encounter when they graduate from the school. Its easy to believe that Alex, an accomplished artist in his own right, brought work to the students he's worked so hard to enrich that was presented to him. It makes it easier to understand how it happened right after Gnomon Studios was formed since it is supposed to imitate real world schedules and pressures.

It's also easy to understand why we were so quick to jump in defense of the students who are working so hard to become the artists in the field making the art we all love to experience. Our organization will always stand against labor law infractions or any abuse of the artists we strive to represent. It's kept us busy for the last 58 years.

I look forward to working with Gnomon in the future to bring awareness of the guild and labor organization as well as the benefits of Guild membership to their students. I also look forward to seeing the work that comes from the students who are empowered by the high caliber of training that Gnomon gives the artists who attends their classes.


Anonymous said...

Now if I understand correctly the producers of Fringe and Green Lantern hired Alex to produce VFX for the projects and yet he claims to never have offered up the school's resources as a production studio...?
Since when would high profile projects like these hire one person to produce a multitude of VFX shots? Don't they usually look for a studio/company that has the ability and resources to do what they want besides just looking for the best/cheapest price?
So I'll assume that part of his story is BS.
And assuming that these projects (mistakenly) hired a studio/company then they would have paid rather decently - even if the amount was below the average of a real VFX studio.
Where did that money go? Into Alex's pocket? The school's pocket?
Someone made out like a bandit and the students got screwed.
Until the school or Alex is willing to compensate the students in one way or another (monetarily or tuition) then I would suspect that what has happened could be worthy of a lawsuit if not more.

Or am I misreading this...?

Steven Kaplan said...

Anon 2:40pm:

There was one to three shots that was brought to Alex directly for Fringe. They dealt with the floating head of Leonard Nimoy in a crystal ball, if I'm not mistaken. Alex was never asked to work on an entire episode of the show. This work was brought to him based on a relationship he has with Bad Robot and his skills as a creature artist.

The work on Green Lantern was more creature/character work. I have not been told more than that nor have I seen the work in question, and therefore can not comment to it.

It is the Guild's stance that the work done was in violation of labor laws regarding internships in the workplace. As pointed out by Steve Hulett in his blog post here we contacted an attorney who needed one of the students to come forward in order to file a charge.

Anonymous said...

so did any of the students come forward...?

Anonymous said...

What has kept you busy for the last 58 years? This too will just fade away.

Anonymous said...

SOOOOOO, he HAS used students of his school to produce footage for HOLLYWOOD movies without pay.....
not unlike Whoopie whopping Salahi,the presidential gatecrasher!

Anonymous said...

i highly doubt that any of those students will come forward. They don't feel like they were taken advantage of. they all got grate placement in reputable companies.
they got out of the experience exactly what they wanted. seems like it was a win win situation for the students and school.

Anonymous said...

...and the studios looking for free/cheap labor.

Anonymous said...

that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I can just pay Alvie to get me a job......

Anonymous said...

Regardless of the benefit to the students this 'win win' situation had it was still illegal and the one who benefited the most was the teacher who pocketed a lot of money for taking advantage of free labor (all the while earning an income from the school - who does he think he is? Chucky Z?).
If he isn't made an example of it will continue to happen.
The school, if it has any integrity at all, should at least fire the schmuck and if they don't the union should make it a policy to never endorse this school (as well as every other professional).
Despicable behavior.

artist said...

I doubt they'll ever be doing this again, so why go on and on about it? Why boycott or fire someone? Just to be vindictive and feel better about yourself? You can pick it apart over and over again or realize that they have already said they won't be doing this again and learned their lesson. Get over it already.

Anonymous said...

BECAUSE...... the Hollywood Movie that they worked on is going in print, distributed to theaters all over the country and planet earth, made into DVD's and internet downloads, and going to make lots and lots (did I say LOTS?) of money money money, which is what this is all about. The winning students who are now working at the awarded under-the-radar-unionless VFX houses around town for this stunt got them unfairly, and if the studios that used them to get this reward are allowed to get footage from those houses for future HOLLYWOOD movies, there is a serious descrepancy which only leads to further loopholes being found and exploited. Realize that the jobs going into making a movie are so diced down these days, that there are no real jobs anymore. Dont come down on the watchdogs who are crying foul. They are protecting your rights as an artist and a contributor to the industry.

Anonymous said...

What a truly scummy organization this Gnoman has become.

Anonymous said...

"...why go on and on about it? Why boycott or fire someone? "

Why prosecute the man who kills his wife because she was cheating. Chances are real good he'll never do it again. I bet he'll even promise never to do it again.

What stupid reasoning.

The point is if nothing is done about it then what's to stop him/them or someone else from doing it again?

Steven Kaplan said...

TAG was proud to investigate this matter as much as we did. We would have been proud to offer the legal services of an attorney to any of the students, had they come forward.

We were also happy to sit with Alex and explain our point of view. He explained that his intention was that of an instructor who was looking to enrich his students with a unique opportunity. I personally believe that it was not his intent to break labor laws and that Gnomon Studios is what he says it is: a scholastic laboratory where Gnomon students can learn what production schedule stresses and expectations are like which will prepare them for their futures as visual effects artists.

We are also quite aware of the state of the industry today and what measures are being taken to help stretch budgets and workloads in order to complete productions as quickly and "cost effectively" as possible. Its one of the reasons we were so vociferous in our statements and posts. While we are glad that Gnomon is not marketing itself as a production facility, we are also aware that the work that was done could have been given to a legitimate facility and artists who aren't paying to be students completed and paid for the work. We felt it our responsibility and duty to speak out and make sure that laws were being enforced and artists were not being exploited.

We see this as a one-off with Gnomon and are glad to work together in support of their efforts in educating artists to better themselves and earn a living in the field.

Anonymous said...

'Get over it already.'

And THATS stupid reasoning.

Anonymous said...

Nice to know someone can still get away with something with nothing more than a nice little talk.

Sorry, but for me as long as that instructor still works at that school I will not recommend it to anyone interested in learning animation. There are other schools.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with anonymous at 5:49.
That's a BIG black mark on the school IMO

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight.

Alex Alvarez admits that he used students to do unpaid work on a commercial, for-hire, contracted project, but that he had no intention of breaking the law or exploiting students.

According to Mr. Alvarez:

"Regarding the law, or as I understand it, the rules of accreditation... interns who receive school credit are not allowed to be paid. When we started the studio it was for Plus Minus who no intentions of doing any production work, as is still the case. When Green Lantern came in, I wanted to pay the students and was told by our compliance officer that we were not allowed to. "

There are many issues involved here.

(1) Those students were NOT, according to Federal law (FSLA - Fair Labor Standards Act), unpaid interns (, especially as regards to criteria #4, "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern". Clearly Mr. Alvarez received an immediate benefit by having students execute and complete work for him.

(2) Those students then should have been regarded as EMPLOYEES of Mr. Alvarez, and therefor are entitled to Federal, State, and local labor law protections.

(3) As EMPLOYEES of Mr. Alvarez, these students are entitled to minimum wage pay and overtime pay.

(4) As EMPLOYEES of Mr. Alvarez, he is required to pay the employers share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and withhold the employee's (i.e. the student's) share of Social Security and Medicare, as well as withhold Federal and State income taxes, and state disability taxes.

(5) As EMPLOYEES of Mr. Alvarez, he is required by the state of California to pay for Workers Comp insurance.

(6) Whether intentional or not, Mr. Alvarez may be on the hook for unpaid wages, unpaid taxes, interest, and penalties.

(7) ANYBODY may ANONYMOUSLY report suspected tax violations to the IRS via Form 3949 A (check "Failure to Pay Tax" and "Failure to Withhold Tax"),,id=106778,00.html

I hope that Mr. Alvarez has consulted his attorney regarding these issues - he may be getting a call from the IRS soon.

Anonymous said...


The RESISTANCE exists in EVERY vfx facility in the world.

The RESISTANCE exists in EVERY vfx school in the world.

The RESISTANCE exists in the heart, mind, and soul of EVERY vfx artist who decides to subvert, harass, expose, and embarrass those who would seek to exploit vfx artists world-wide.

More to come...

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