×

VES Honoree Susan Zwerman Trains People on the Autism Spectrum for Film, TV Jobs

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.”

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 with autism 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 children and teens on the autism spectrum, led by Bennett, founded Exceptional Minds in 2011 as a nonprofit, three-year, post-secondary VFX school. They later added a small visual effects studio, run by Zwerman, that employed graduates and began to land paying work, expanding into animation. 

Now, gaming is on the horizon, Zwerman says.

She credits Marvel Studios executive VP Victoria Alonso with seeing potential in the studio, which has worked on 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.” 

More Artisans

  • Advanced Imaging Society Honors 10 Women

    AIS Honors 10 Women in Tech

    Celebrating 10 years of achievement in entertainment technology, the Advanced Imaging Society today named 10 female industry innovators who will receive the organization’s 2019 Distinguished Leadership Awards at the its 10th annual Entertainment Technology Awards ceremony on October 28 in Beverly Hills. The individuals were selected by an awards committee for being significant “entertainment industry [...]

  • Will Smith Gemini Man Special Effects

    How the 'Gemini Man' VFX Team Digitally Created a Younger Version of Will Smith

    More human than human — yes, that’s a “Blade Runner” reference — yet it sounds like an unattainable standard when it comes to creating believable, photorealistic, digital human characters. But the visual effects team on Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” set its sights on something even more difficult: creating a digital version of young Will Smith [...]

  • Jest to Impress Cartoon Network Virtual

    New In-House VR Program Helps Cartoon Network Artists Add a Virtual Dimension

    Teams of animators and artists from across Cartoon Network’s numerous properties are getting the chance to expand into virtual reality storytelling via the company’s pilot program, Journeys VR. The work of the first three teams — including experiences based on action, nature and comedy — was unveiled to global audiences Oct. 1 on Steam and [...]

  • Frozen 2

    How the 'Frozen II' Artists Created Believable Emotion Through Animation

    “The more believable you can make the character [look], the more people believe how [it’s] feeling,” says Tony Smeed, who, with Becky Bresee, shared the challenge of heading animation on Disney’s highly anticipated “Frozen II.” “Emotion comes from inside and manifests itself into actions and facial expressions. Anything beyond that is movement for the sake [...]

  • Lucy in the Sky BTS

    'Lucy in the Sky' DP Shifts Frame to Show Inner Turmoil of Natalie Portman's Astronaut

    What drew cinematographer Polly Morgan to “Lucy in the Sky” was how Noah Hawley’s script so clearly illuminated the emotional breakdown of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in a way that felt very insular: The visual cues were on the page — and conveyed an unusual approach to charting the character’s journey. “When things fall [...]

  • NICKI LEDERMAN and JOAQUIN PHOENIX Joker

    How Makeup, Hair and Costume Team Gave 'Joker' a New Look for Origin Story

    “We’re not in the superhero world,” says Nicki Ledermann, makeup head on Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which reimagines the iconic comic book villain’s origin in an acclaimed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. “This story is treated as real life, and that’s what made the project so interesting.” In this most recent take on Batman’s nemesis — a [...]

  • Exceptional Minds VFX Autism Training

    VES Honoree Susan Zwerman Trains People on the Autism Spectrum for Film, TV Jobs

    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 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content