Last year, as the industry faced an unprecedented health crisis, Exceptional Minds, the L.A.-based nonprofit professional training academy and computer animation studio, was forced to pivot and take action to ensure that business continued and its students thrived.
The biggest issues facing the school, designed to prepare individuals on the autism spectrum for careers in the digital arts, were how to pivot educationally and how to protect and secure the students health-wise. Above all else, the school’s faculty wanted to ensure the social skills of its students — those on the spectrum often have difficulties adjusting to expected social norms — were nurtured and encouraged.
To start, the school had to switch to a remote learning model, ensuring teachers and students were set up with at-home computers and other filmmaking equipment.
Academic dean Kat Cutright had been in meetings as far back as late February 2020 working with teams to make sure it was a swift transition. Two weeks after closing down on March 13, and when equipment and cameras had been distributed, the academy was up and running again with everyone from home.
“We didn’t know what it was going to look like, I don’t think anyone imagined it would take a year,” Cutright says, who was determined to push forward and continue to offer classes.
Established in 2014, Exceptional Minds studio was created to help put graduates of the program to work within the entertainment industry. Alumni have gone on to work for films and TV shows such as “Sesame Street,” “The Good Doctor,” “Black Panther” and “Captain America: Civil War.”
During a typical week, and in a pre-pandemic era, Exceptional Minds dedicates one day to social-skills training to help nurture and provide a sense of community and connection for the students who would otherwise not be provided with a fitting educational environment to grow such skills. Cutright wanted to ensure the academy’s commitment to fostering social skills, a key component of Exceptional Minds’ curriculum, remained intact during the pandemic-ridden year.
“That was an aspect that we didn’t want to lose, and it has been a challenge,” she says. “We introduced new social programming so every Thursday students can go around to social clubs. They can talk about other activities with fellow students.”
Extracurricular activities such as game nights, movie nights and Dungeons and Dragons clubs safely continued because those social activities were “an important aspect of any educational experience,” Cutright says.
Becca David, a second-year student and aspiring animator, prides herself on her social involvement. David was integral when it came to helping fellow students sharpen their social skills — even if it was online.
“It was a huge adjustment,” she admits of the pivot from in-person learning to the online platform. At times, she says, the loneliness of learning from home did get to her. However, knowing her fellow students wanted to hang out and participate in social activities “helped me along the way. It was comforting,” she says.
A year after lockdown, David is thankful that she has been able to partake in the activities that she loves and has been able to pursue her education at Exceptional Minds.
“It’s nothing short of valuable,” she says.
As David readies for her third year, instructors at the academy stimulate the workflow pipelines and urgency required on studio projects, something David will be tackling. The work-from-home experience has helped her prepare for her upcoming year. She has actually found the quieter environment less stimulating, and that has allowed her to focus more on her academic work.
“Everyone’s experience is different,” she says. “In general, we prefer a structured work environment, and the online learning has provided [a situation] where you’re not surrounded by [in-person] office activity. You have more control than you usually do.”
David’s love for animated character design has grown during her time at the school, as has her passion for visual development. She is hoping her newfound talent in motion graphics will lead to an opportunity in creating title and opening and end credit sequences.
“I wouldn’t have even considered that f I hadn’t gone to Exceptional Minds,” she says.
The same goes for Exceptional Minds alumna Kate Jorgensen, who began her career as an intern at Nickelodeon. The studio reached out and poached from the program. She has now been upped to production coordinator.
The faculty strives to help its students who are passionate about working on live-action and animated content. The lockdown has not stopped the educators from encouraging more success stories.
When 20-year-old Ryan Lowry penned a heartfelt letter to his future employer last month, it caught the attention of advisory board member Aaron Parry, exec VP of Deluxe Animation Studios. In his letter, Lowry wrote, “I am interested in a job in animation, or IT. I realize that someone like you will have to take a chance on me. I don’t learn as typical people do. I have autism.”
As his letter went viral and caught global attention, Exceptional Minds offered him a scholarship.
David Siegel, CEO and executive director of Exceptional Minds hopes Lowry’s authentic voice as a self-advocate will inspire others and change lives. “We can help him get to these success stories like Kate,” he says. “That’s the journey we hope that these students take.”
The organization continues to grow and impact students such as Lowry and help launch careers.
Donations to the school’s scholarship fund can be made here: exceptionalminds.salsalabs.org/scholarshipfund