The Hollywood job that makes autism an asset
Jacob Fenster is sitting in front of two huge computer screens working to make a simple blue ball glow like a magical orb.
Fenster, 27, works in visual effects, cleaning up footage for movies and television shows, but he never imagined that he'd be here. He has autism spectrum disorder and thought that, like a lot of other young people with autism, he'd end up unemployed.
"I never thought I’d be doing work and getting paid for it," Fenster said. "I thought I was just gonna be at home for a while."
Fenster does have work now after graduating from Exceptional Minds, a vocational school in Sherman Oaks that trains high school graduates on the autism spectrum in animation and visual effects. After completing the three-year training program, graduates have the opportunity to work in the in-house studio, doing contract visual effects work for major film studios.
The Exceptional Minds studio has a long list of visual effects credits on more than 30 movies and TV shows, including "Captain America," "The Avengers," and "Game of Thrones."
The studio is regularly called on to merge split-screen shots together, paint backgrounds to remove logos or unwanted scenery, design end title credits and to do rotoscoping, which involves tracing over footage frame by frame so items or characters can be set against different backgrounds.
Recently, Fenster was tasked with working on footage to make a mermaid look as realistic as possible.
"There was a tag on the mermaid tail and a line on it," said Fenster, 27. "So you could easily see it wasn’t a mermaid so they asked us to remove that and they asked us to remove the tag."
The founders of this school believe young adults on the autism spectrum have an edge when it comes to work like this. While people with autism may have difficulty with communication and social interaction, they also tend to be very detail-oriented and rule-governed — valuable traits for the extremely tedious work of visual effects.
Fenster agrees: "I’ll start a shot and I won’t wanna stop until I finish it and even if I get discouraged, I’ll still continue," he said.
Exceptional Minds is trying to tackle the high rates of unemployment and underemployment among young people with autism. One study found that six years after high school, only half of people on the autism spectrum found paying jobs.
The school also wants to equip its students with skills to meet a growing need in the film industry.
"People forget, it’s not just the big visual effects pictures that need visual effects these days," said Yudi Bennett, who co-founded the Exceptional Minds school and studio five years ago.
"It used to be that if you made a mistake, you’d go out and reshoot it," she said. "Now, you don’t reshoot it, you bring it to a studio like this and you fix it."
Artists with Exceptional Minds have also produced a number of animated shorts, including one for the Sesame Workshop.
A SPECIAL SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT
For Bennett, this is a personal mission. Her son, Noah Schneider, has autism. When he started struggling in middle school, Bennett enrolled him in a computer programming class. He latched on to digital art and things turned around for him.
"She wanted to create a special school environment to make me pursue my passion," said her son Noah Schneider, 21.
Schneider completed the three-year vocational program in June. The curriculum focuses on the basics of drawing, digital painting and Photoshop, then moving on to post-production and visual effects.
"We require that you study both animation and visual effects because we’re not sure where the jobs will be and we want to have our kids able to do as many jobs as possible," Bennett said.
There is a waitlist for the full-time program. Classes sizes are small – with a four-to-one student to teacher ratio – and there are only 30 slots.
But to expand its reach, Exceptional Minds holds classes after school and during the summer for kids ages 12 and up.
During one of the two-week workshop this summer, instructor Kat Cutright exaggerated her movement as she crossed the room, bobbing her head up and down to illustrate a basic concept of animation.
"Your head doesn’t stay flat all the time you’re walking right? You move up and down," she explained. "Everything’s moving in an arc all the time in animation."
Students learn about the stages of production and the basics of software programs like Adobe Flash, for a chance to get a taste of the field.
"At the end of the day, this is hard work," said Bennett. "As they say, its not all autographs and sunglasses. So when they come in and try it, for a lot of them it’s a perfect fit and they apply to the full-time program. For some they realize it’s harder than it looks."
The mission of the school goes beyond teaching technical and artistic skill.
"When you’re working with individuals on the autism spectrum one of the things you'll see happen is, they’ll perform really great in one setting and then you’ll put them in the identical task with a new person, in a different setting and they won’t perform at all," said Benjamin Maixner, vice principal at Exceptional Minds.
Maixner runs the work-readiness program, where students learn about problem solving, time management, communication skills, what to wear -- things they can use in any workplace.
"We’re not saying, 'Hey, we’re gonna put you in some type of modified or supported work environment,' "said Maixner. "We’re trying to prepare them for independent, competitive employment."
FEEDING THE FILM INDUSTRY
After graduation, the students have software certificates recognized by the film and television industry. Some graduates move on to paid internships and others transition to the studio – just downstairs from the school – which contracts work out to major studios like Marvel Studios.
"To be honest with you, it’s a relationship made in heaven for us," said Victoria Alonso, executive vice president of physical production at Marvel.
"These are kids that obsess over details and visual effects is obsessing over details," she said.
The goal is to have students gain experience at the in-studio and then get jobs elsewhere. Out of the three graduating classes so far, three graduates have gotten full-time jobs – one with Marvel Studios.
Alonso also points out that work like this is often contracted out to workers in other countries, and she said she values the opportunity to contribute to the local economy.
Holly Schieffer is vice president of post-production at HBO, which also works with the Exceptional Minds studio. She’s been wowed by quality of the work and wants more young people with autism to get this training.
"We can be teaching them to bag groceries in a super market or we can give them the skills in this incredible school," said Schieffer. "Then they become far more expansive in what they can do and they feed the film industry."