Most of those who have earned the honor of VES Fellow in the past decade have been recognized by the Visual Effects Society for on-screen innovation. But this year’s honoree, Susan Zwerman, is equally distinguished by her off-screen accomplishments. Zwerman is the studio executive producer for Exceptional Minds, a visual effects and animation school for young adults on the autism spectrum and a studio that employs those artists on projects ranging from “Game of Thrones” to Marvel Studios blockbusters.
“I encourage many young adults on the spectrum to go into visual effects and animation,” says Zwerman, an industry veteran of more than 40 years. “It’s a nice challenge, and I feel they live up to it.”
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The org will recognize Zwerman, Neil Corbould and Harrison Ellenshaw as this year’s VES Fellows — a title granted for exceptional achievements and sustained contributions to the art, science or business of visual effects — in a ceremony Oct. 2 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
A successful VFX producer, Zwerman began her journey as a teacher when she mentored her friend Yudi Bennett’s son, who is on the spectrum, in computer animation, and saw him quickly go from shy and silent to speaking and interacting with others.
“It was a whole life-changing experience for him,” she says. “I saw how it changed his world, so I thought, ‘Oh, this is a good fit — for autism and animation.’”
A group of parents with similarly abled children, led by Bennett, founded Exceptional Minds in 2011 as a nonprofit, three-year, post-secondary VFX school, with Zwerman setting up and running the program. They later added a small visual effects studio that employed graduates and began to land paying work, expanding into animation.
Now, gaming is on the horizon, Zwerman says.
She credits Marvel Studios VP of production Victoria Alonso with seeing potential in the studio, which has worked on the credits of all Marvel’s features back to 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Exceptional Minds last year had credits on five Oscar-nominated movies, including VFX winner “First Man” and best picture winner “Green Book.”
Working on movies of that magnitude gives the artists a sense of accomplishment, Zwerman says, and they enjoy the repetitious nature of tasks like rotoscoping, wire and marker removal, greenscreen keying and “dust busting” — removing specs of dust from a frame.
“In terms of visual effects, they have really good concentration,” says Zwerman. “They have very good perception in terms of their vision, and they really like to go into the details — the nitty-gritty of visual effects.”
On the animation side, Exceptional Minds produces mostly short 2D promotional videos for clients such as the Los Angeles Zoo, Special Olympics, book publishers and “Sesame Street.”
The studio employs about nine full-time artists in visual effects and 10 in animation. “We like to keep it at that because we get quality, we get good work [from the artists] and we can manage the shots and the amount of work that we get,” Zwerman says.
Exceptional Minds’ mission also includes getting graduates work at other studios. Zwerman says about nine alumni now have jobs at facilities in the Los Angeles area. Opportunities in visual effects and animation will grow as technology like streaming increases demand for original programming.
Ultimately, Zwerman maintains that the positive effect of the training hasn’t been a one-way street. “It’s been life-changing for me, not just for them,” she says of Exceptional Minds’ success. “I think it’s turned my life around as well.”