Christopher Chapman, 27, walks down a hallway past historic Disney memorabilia encased in glass at Marvel Studios in Burbank, Calif. He looks like any other young talent, in a gray sweater and jeans with a backpack slung over his shoulder.
Chapman comes across as a quiet soul, someone colleagues might easily label the "office loner." His conversation — typically one to three-word answers — is torturously slow and delivered without expression.
Has he seen Ant-Man, the hit for which he created the credits — nearly eight minutes of scrolling names? He shakes his head. Then, very quietly, "Nope, some of my friends have." Do they think what he does is cool? Another awkward silence. "Yep." Ask him what the best part of his job is and finally Chapman cracks a tiny smile. "It's when I walk home and see the Disney Tower characters illuminated," he says. "It makes me feel like I did something magical today."
Chapman is part of a new wave of digital effects artists: He has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disability characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulty with social interactions that affects 1 in 68 American children. He found his place in the entertainment industry thanks to Exceptional Minds (EM), a visual effects animation studio serving Hollywood that's also a nonprofit vocational training program for young adults with autism.
ARTISTS IN TRAINING
At Exceptional Minds, located in a nondescript building close to Hollywood's major studios, visual effects artists on the spectrum are hard at work. Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron feature their talents, as do the Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; he Sponge Bob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and Alvin and the Chipmunks: he Road Chip. On the small screen, their work is seen in Martin Scorsese's new HBO drama, Vinyl. In Game of hrones, these talented artists made every fake falling snow-lake melt on the actors' faces in postproduction.
Upstairs, students in the three-year training program learn the trade. Tiana Fazio, 23, giggles as she shares a picture of herself as a Simpsons character. he exaggerated cartoon likeness is spot-on. "My favorite thing is learning all the new computer programs," says Fazio. "I like things that I have to figure out." Fazio worked with classmate Noah Schneider, 21, on an animated short for Sesame Street called Benny's Story, about a boy with autism. Next to her, Schneider, who is learning how to do animation sculpting in 3-D, shows of a bird lying through frames of changing backgrounds and textures. he bird seamlessly transforms from cartoonish to wood with leafy feathers. he precision work is perfect.
In the downstairs professional studio, seated at rows of computers in a darkened room to reduce monitor glare, graduates of the program — now oicially junior artists — are doing the less creative but necessary work to get films ready for the big screen. They're meticulously removing movie markers — the tiny red dots physically placed on sets to show actors where to move and editors where to trim frames — from an upcoming film. Others are intently creating lengthy credits or doing paint-out — removing unwanted objects and then filling in to seamlessly match the backdrop. All are now paid employees of EM's studio, which wins contracts in the highly competitive postproduction bidding business. And most are earning their first-ever paychecks.
It's tedious, repetitive work requiring intense focus, meticulous attention to detail and a masterful, logical mind — unique traits of many people with autism. Matching people who have autism with work that suits their unique talents is key, says nationally renowned autism advocate and animal scientist Temple Grandin, 68 (played by Claire Danes in a 2010 Golden Globeand Emmy-winning TV biopic). "here are different types of autistic minds: mathematicians, word thinkers, visual thinkers, pattern thinkers," she explains. "Visual and pattern thinkers are perfect for what EM is doing."
"People with autism are totally underestimated," says Exceptional Minds co-founder Yudi Bennett. More than 80 percent of people with disabilities, including autism, are un- or underemployed, and isolated with limited opportunities
doing unskilled, low-paying work that leaves many suffering from chronic depression. "What we're doing here is groundbreaking," she says. "We're creating a model to apply to other vocations, from manufacturing and retail to music, to train and nurture young autistic adults into America's workforce." It's a win for students and the industry.
A PASSION PROJECT
Bennett comes from a successful career as an assistant director of such hits as Pleasantville and Honeymoon in Vegas. Third-year student Schneider is her son. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and was mostly nonverbal as a child.
"When Noah was 5, my husband Bob [Schneider] was diagnosed with cancer. He died when Noah was 8, leaving me as a single mother with an autistic only child," Bennett recalls. "I had to decide, do I stay in my career or make my son's life my focus?" She chose the latter. Schneider's progress plateaued in high school ("I cried for weeks," Bennett recalls), until a friend encouraged her to enroll him in a digital after-school program.
"Within a month, Noah learned animation coding, started speaking and won age-appropriate awards for his work," Bennett says. Propelled by his success and her late husband's dedication to answering the "What's next?" question for autistic young adults after they leave school, Bennett got together with other families, pooled resources, formed the non-profit in 2009 and in 2011 opened Exceptional Minds. And now her son is thriving.
The vibrant red and black walls at Exceptional Minds are adorned with movie posters, and state-of-the-art after-effects technology takes center stage in the classrooms and studio. But a set of fake life-size elevator doors stuck to a wall hints at other important skills students