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Autistic Students Gain the Skills to Work in Animation and Visual Effects at Exceptional Minds

Exceptional Minds animation "Perfect Day" by the class of 2016
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Exceptional Minds animation featured on Sesame Street, "Benny's Day"
Still image from "Benny's Story," an animation produced by Exceptional Minds about a child with autism. The short was featured on "Sesame Street."​

"I'm into changing the world one kid at a time," says Howard Hoffman, Howie to those who know him, inside Cartoon Network's Burbank headquarters. Hoffman is an animation industry veteran who worked on shows like "Doug" and "Action League Now!" for Nickelodeon. Eight years ago, he started teaching people on the autism spectrum and, for the past five years, he's been an instructor for the Sherman Oaks-based visual effects and animation school Exceptional Minds. 

On this particular Sunday in June, Hoffman, who is also an animation content developer at Exceptional Minds, is leading a team of three students, all of whom have autism, in the first Cartoon Network Animation Jam. The students have been spending the weekend working on an animated short based on the game "O.K. K.O.!" They're working alongside teams from renowned institutions like California Institute of the Arts and Rhode Island School of Design, as well as the studio's own staff. In the process of that, they have had the chance to meet acclaimed animation professionals, including Ian Jones-Quartey, creator of "O.K. K.O.!," and Rebecca Sugar, who created the network's hit TV series "Steven Universe." 

"It's a wonderful experience," says Michael Schiu, a 20-year-old second-year student at Exceptional Minds, when we meet at the school's campus a few months after the Animation Jam. It's also an impressive feat for a school that's only been around for half a decade.

Exceptional Minds student group photo
Students at Exceptional Minds pose for a group photo. | Image: Liz Ohanesian

Established by parents who wanted a curriculum that could prepare autistic children for jobs, Exceptional Minds has quickly made a name for itself in both the visual effects and animation worlds. They have taken on work for both small businesses and large entertainment companies. In 2015, Exceptional Minds students made an animated short about a child with autism, called "Benny's Story," for an Emmy-nominated episode of "Sesame Street." They also created a series of shorts for Cartoon Network's anti-bullying campaign. Meanwhile, their on-site visual effects studio employs graduates, who have had the chance to work on high-profile projects like Marvel movies, "The Hunger Games" and "Game of Thrones." 

The founding premise of Exceptional Minds was simple: There were detail-oriented jobs that studios sent abroad and a population of people that was underemployed, but capable of doing those jobs. The school was designed to prepare students for some of those frequently outsourced tasks — stuff like rotoscoping and title credits — and launched with just nine students. Today, Exceptional Minds is doing double-duty by helping keep some entertainment jobs in Los Angeles and employing people from a community that has a high unemployment rate. The program has become so popular that they now have three potential students vying for every single spot in the school. People have traveled from as far as Argentina and Singapore to learn here. Currently, there are 32 students in the full-time, three-year program. Another 40 are part-time students. Their summer session draws about 160 students for two-week classes. Thirteen of the graduates now work in Exceptional Minds' own studios and a few others have been placed at outside companies.

The students work in small classrooms with teachers who largely come from the film and animation world and continuously train in working with autistic students. "What's most important to me is creating art and serving my community," says Kat Cutright, who is the academic lead for Exceptional Minds and teaches first-year students. "So this school was a great opportunity to do both things."

Animation by Andrew Dugan, an Exceptional Minds student
Animation by Andrew Dugan, an Exceptional Minds student.

Four weeks into the school year, Cutright's students are still new to the Exceptional Minds program. They'll spend the year mastering Photoshop and Adobe Animate while learning to work in group settings. "In the first year, we focus a lot on performance and they're constantly presenting their work," Cutright says. "They're getting used to the critique process and getting feedback, not just from us, but from each other, and they really grow in that way. You see their confidence grow, their ability to present themselves in a professional way improves quite a bit. Every time we have a guest, the students have an opportunity to stand up, shake the people's hands and present their work in a professional way and we practice that in class as well."

The first-year students will also learn the basics of design and animation and all of those skills will carry over to their second year, when they learn production and editing. In their final year, they'll move on to visual effects and learn Maya, the computer animation software. They'll also continue to learn how to be prepared for real world jobs; there's even a fake elevator door in one of the classrooms so that they can learn how to give an "elevator pitch." When they're done, they're ready to work in a field that has long mesmerized many of the students. 

"The truth is that a lot of these guys learned to talk by watching animation, so it's something that is very near and dear to their hearts," says Ernie Merlán, executive director of Exceptional Minds. "Really, what makes anyone good at anything is passion and if you've got the passion for something, then you're able to learn it. These guys are really passionate about animation. You've got so many coming in here and they're so excited to be working on something that has characters in it, that has animation in it. We also visit a lot of the studios, so they get to meet their heroes in a lot of cases."

Exceptional Minds animation "Perfect Day" by the class of 2016
"Perfect Day," a work by the class of 2016 at Exceptional Minds.

The student body at Exceptional Minds is overwhelmingly male and, Merlán explains that this coincides with the gender breakdown of people on the autism spectrum. "There are about eight boys to every two girls that have autism in general and we see those numbers play out pretty much right in our classroom," he explains. "We have one to two girls in every classroom."

Merlán had his own animation studio where he did work for amusement parks when he was approached to be the program director of Exceptional Minds. "I thought, well, that's a little crazy because I don't know anything about autism," he recalls. Merlán offered to work 10 hours a week for the school, but he soon closed down his own studio to work for the school full-time. 

He's not the only one who made a career change here. Susan Zwerman spent 20 years as a visual effects producer. She's also a writer who co-authored the handbook "The Visual Effects Producer: Understanding the Art and Business of VFX." Now, she's the executive producer of Exceptional Minds' visual effects studio. "This has been life-changing for me, leaving my career and coming here," she says. "It's been more of a spiritual thing for me to give back, to help people in the industry and I really feel that's why I'm here."

Animation by Jason Klavir, an Exceptional Minds student
Animation by Jason Klavir, an Exceptional Minds student.

Amongst the graduates working at Exceptional Minds is Michael Alan Yochim, 22, who returned to the school to work in the animation studio after finishing an internship at Nickelodeon. "At first, I wanted to pursue a career in video games. I figured this isn't what I really want to do. It's hard to get past all of the coding, all the lingo, and I wasn't really into all that," he says. "I like a straightforward process and that's exactly what animation is. I've always been a fan of cartoons, I've been watching them ever since I can remember and I just feel that it would be fun to really work and work doing what I love watching."

On this day, Yochim has been working with Hoffman to prepare a pitch for an animation project. "They're really trained in software and some animation now and certainly in visual effects so that they have the technical skill," Hoffman says. But, he adds, not all of the Exceptional Minds artists were made to work in the precise, detail-oriented world of visual effects. Some are better suited for creating their own characters. So, he has been helping students and graduates prepare their pitch packages, as well as projects like the Cartoon Network anti-bullying videos. "A lot of them have their own vision for something, maybe their own series of shorts," Hoffman says. 

"It's cool to work with the graduates and see them in that transitional phase," says John Clark, animation studio manager at Exceptional Minds. "When you're a student, you're in a certain mindset and you're not open to all these realities that you're going to face whether you know it or not." 

Now they're learning how to get projects off the ground and they're able to get a better idea of what they want to do with their careers. "I would like to get better at character animation. I'm more comfortable working on the video editing side of it," says Adam Schuring, 33, who graduated in June and works in the animation studio. "I would also like to be involved in coming up with the stories and plot lines for shorts and even series if that sort of opportunity comes up."

Hoffman notes that, sometimes, students come in with an impressive body of work. Jacob Lenard, a 19-year-old second-year student who was part of the Animation Jam team, is an example. He's the creator of "Mugman," a web series. "Each one had six to twelve thousand views. I couldn't believe it," Hoffman says.

"We have cartoon souls that need to be fed," he adds. At Exceptional Minds, that's happening.

Top image: "Perfect Day," a work by the class of 2016 at Exceptional Minds. 

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