Exceptional Minds

by Graham Edwards

The students and staff of Exceptional Minds

It takes an exceptional mind to do great work in any field. That’s as true for visual effects and animation as it is for everything else. So what better place to look for talent than in a place called … Exceptional Minds?

Exceptional Minds is a non-profit vocational centre and animation studio that caters exclusively for young adults on the autism spectrum. During a three-year course, students learn the skills they need to earn a living in multimedia, computer animation and post production.

It doesn’t stop there. Not only does Exceptional Minds provide its students with experience working on major productions, but it also operates as a working studio in its own right. Its success is all the more remarkable when one considers that, for young adults on the autism spectrum, the average unemployment rate is around 90%.

I spoke to Susan Zwerman, who is both Job Developer at Exceptional Minds and an experienced VFX producer.

Yudi Bennett, Susan Zwerman, and Ernie Merlan of Exceptional Minds

Yudi Bennett, Susan Zwerman, and Ernie Merlan of Exceptional Minds

What was the inspiration behind Exceptional Minds?

Exceptional Minds was started in September 2011 by a group of parents and professionals who were alarmed at the lack of jobs for young adults with autism. Most have a child or grandchild of their own on the autism spectrum, and so have a personal interest. They view this unique school as a way to provide opportunities for their kids where none existed before.

I became involved through my good friend Yudi Bennett, who helped co-found the school, which her son now attends. It’s been a real joy to be able to use my experience and contacts in the VFX industry to help set up the programme from the beginning and, more recently, to bring in work for the students.

Josh, Arielle, Eli, Patrick discuss a shot

Josh, Arielle, Eli, Patrick discuss a shot

What skills do you teach the students?

The school provides the bridge between high school and the working world, so our instructors teach technical, creative, and work skills needed for animation and visual effects. They have real working experience in the digital arts fields, so the knowledge they pass down to our students is hard-earned and practical.

Students gain proficiency in graphic arts, animation, web design, visual effects and rotoscoping. We train them to use Adobe software, gaining ACA Certification in Flash, Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver and Premier Pro. We also teach Silhouette and are starting Maya classes.

Watch the Exceptional Minds sizzle reel for breakdowns of the students’ work:

Are there other ways in which the students benefit from being on the programme?

Our students work both individually and on group projects; the latter give them the real-world social skills they need to be successful working collaboratively. The more proficient students function as project leaders, sharing their knowledge with other members of the team.

They also learn the basic skills necessary for employment, as well as how to start a project, manage workflow, and understand deadlines. Students work on projects from the commercial world as well as internally generated content. They’re taught how to market themselves to prospective employers or clients and how to create and present their resumes, portfolios and proposals.

Graduating students display their diplomas

Graduating students display their diplomas

How much emphasis do you place on forging industry links?

Exceptional Minds is known for having close working relationships with the visual effects industry. We get a lot of support and encouragement from companies including:

The Exceptional Minds students on a field trip to Zoic Studios

Exceptional Minds field trip to Zoic Studios

These links have enabled us to provide our students with hands-on experience, including screen credit for student work on features including American Hustle, Lawless, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. We’ve also delivered graphic work for United Front, and animation work for Film Roman.

Throughout the first and second year of our three-year programme we plan many field trips to these facilities so that our students can explore the work environment and what they might be interested in pursuing as careers. This has led to real work for our studio as well as employment for our students once they graduate.

Exceptional Minds field trip to StereoD

Exceptional Minds field trip to StereoD

We recently had a major industry networking event to celebrate our first graduating class – seven exceptional young men and one exceptional young woman – after three years of hard work.

We were humbled by all the industry executives who came out to share that special day with us and to offer their encouragement.

What are your long-term plans for Exceptional Minds?

We just moved into a new facility last year with blue room and state of the art computer workstations … and we’re already outgrowing it! We’ve grown three-fold since we started, and we have a waiting list, as you can imagine. There’s huge demand for programmes like ours as more and more young people on the spectrum enter adulthood seeking meaningful employment. Exceptional Minds isn’t the answer for everyone on the spectrum, but we’re told that we’re a pretty good model for what works in teaching and preparing these young adults for careers.

Long term, we expect to continue to expand. We have students applying from all over the US and Canada – we even had a student travel from his home in Singapore to participate in one of our summer workshops.

Summer activities will likely be a part of our growth as well – these include workshops for younger high school students. The sooner we can introduce these individuals to the field, the more prepared they’ll be. Recently we received scholarship funds from Autism Speaks and a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to help out with this.

So do individuals on the autism spectrum have a particular aptitude for this kind of work?

Yes. They are very focused and pay close attention to detail, and many of them are visually gifted. Plus, they show up on time and rarely miss work!

We look for students who are talented and passionate about their work. Passion is key – and there’s no shortage of that at Exceptional Minds, as anyone who has been around someone on the autism spectrum will guess. Sam Nicholson, founder of Stargate Studios, told us this was one reason he was interested in one of our students for employment. In fact, Kevin Titcher from our first graduating class started his job at Stargate this week.

Sam Nicholson of Stargate Studios with new employee Kevin Titcher

Sam Nicholson of Stargate Studios with new employee Kevin Titcher

Yudi Bennett, Exceptional Minds Director of Operations, is an award-winning Assistant Director with feature film credits including Kramer vs. Kramer, The Four Seasons and Pleasantville.

Ernie Merlan, Exceptional Minds Program Director, has a background in visual effects and a passion for mentoring and inspiring young minds.

Susan Zwerman, Exceptional Minds Job Developer, has worked in the film industry as a VFX Producer for over 20 years and is the author of The VFX Producer: Understanding the Art and Business of VFX.