At This VFX Studio, Artists With Autism Make Magic for Marvel
California’s San Fernando Valley is full of visual effects post-production studios, many working under contract for Marvel. One of them, Exceptional Minds, has artists who are all on the autism spectrum.
It’s genius when you think about it: people with autism often possess extraordinary attention to detail, advanced visual recall, and highly developed creative gifts—like retaining an encyclopedic catalog of every character in the Marvel Universe.
Recently, PCMag was given a tour of the Exceptional Minds studio, and its accompanying trade school, and sat down with the studio’s executive producer, and veteran VFX producer, Susan Zwerman (Alien Resurrection, All That Jazz) and one of Exceptional Minds’s current rising stars, Eli A. Katz, who has worked on Spider-Man: Homecoming and Captain America: Civil War, among others.
Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Susan, firstly tell us how you got into the VFX industry?
I was born and raised in NYC, and started my movie career working there, first as a production assistant, then as location manager, assistant director, and production manager. I moved to L.A. in 1984, getting work with a producer I had known in NYC. Then, in 1992, I saw the switch happening to digital effects and it intrigued me. I took a year off, studied at various VFX schools, hung out at visual effects facilities studios saying: ‘Show me the type of VFX techniques you have here.’ Eventually I became educated and felt secure enough to get work as a VFX producer and never looked back.
Pick one highlight. Didn’t you work on the Alien franchise?
Yes! I was the VFX producer on Alien Resurrection [in 1997] and, for the first time ever, I worked to produce approximately 30-foot-tall animatronic aliens, build [computer-generated] aliens for the underwater scenes, and the trick was to blend all the different aliens, including the man-in-a-suit-alien used in the wide shots, ensuring a smooth composite for the final effect. The composite was to show that by using all three techniques, they would all blend well together for the final Alien look.
So what brought you here, to Exceptional Minds?
It was just the right time. I had worked on over 30 movies, traveled all over the world, and wanted to continue in VFX, but also give back to the next generation of up-and-coming artists. Plus a good friend, colleague, and fellow DGA member, Yudi Bennett [Star Trek: Generations, Kramer v Kramer], had a son, Noah, on the autism spectrum, and I saw how computer animation changed his life. I became his mentor. Yudi, and other parents, started Exceptional Minds in 2011. I came onboard soon after to help expand the school and then, just three years ago, we started the studio to bring in employment opportunities for our artists.
What do they learn at the school?
Our students learn everything they need to get work in the VFX business: paint—wire, rod and marker removals—simple composites, rotoscoping, monitor burn-ins, simple 2D set extensions, green screen keying, camera stabilization, end title credits, and 2D animation. We also teach social skills and workplace readiness.
When they’re trained, and move into the studio, they get to work on actual movies for Hollywood studios?
Oh yes, in the school we have 30 full-time students, 38 part-time, and more than 100 in our summer enrollment; in the studio we have 11 artists, and six in our new animation studio. Our graduates have worked on more than 50 productions for HBO, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Sesame Street, Disney, Universal, Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios, to date.
Let’s bring in Eli Katz now—one of your rising stars here at Exceptional Minds—Eli, what movies have you worked on and what tools/software do you use here?
Eli: I was 19 when I came to the school to train and started on Adobe Creative Suite and from there I started learning mocha Pro, After Effects, PhotoShop, Dreamweaver. Every pipeline is different, but now I’m using Maya, Nuke, and Premiere Pro. The first movie I worked on here was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as a paint and roto artist.
What work did you do on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?
Eli: On the set, where the apes would be, there were markers to show the location of the [computer-generated] characters, so part of my work was to remove the markers from 40 shots before handing it off to the VFX house, who would put the computer-generated apes into the final shot.
So, back to you, Susan, how did you persuade Hollywood studios to give Exceptional Minds assignments?
It took a long time. But I had deep contacts within the industry, and I kept taking meetings in Hollywood, giving tours of the facilities here every Thursday to production executives and to VFX facilities, showing them what our artists can do. Our biggest champion is Victoria Alonso, EVP, Marvel, she has really opened doors for us, not just giving us work, but connecting us with industry folks.
What’s it like working on Marvel movies? Super tight security, right?
(Laughs) We have a very secure vault.
I can’t go into the specifics, but I’m proud to tell you we have our certification for Content Protection from the Motion Picture Association of America over there on the wall. It’s a very intense, detailed process, including facilities inspection, required by all the studios we work for.
Before we go—Eli, back to you—got a favorite Avenger?
Iron Man, definitely. I got to work on Captain America: Civil War, too. Seeing the final product, when you’ve worked on it, is very cool.