The latest Disney Marvel Studios film “Black Panther” proved to be the box-office smash everyone predicted, opening with a record-breaking $241.9 million domestically during the four-day holiday weekend, Feb. 16-19. That includes $40.16 million on President’s Day, Feb. 19, eclipsing 2016’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for the biggest Monday in box office history.
The film’s total swells to $426.6 million when you include its openings in international markets on Feb. 13. That total does not include China, the second biggest movie market in the world, where the film opens March 9. “Black Panther” had not yet opened in Japan and Russia.
Among those able to bask in the reaction to and success of “Black Panther” are the visual effects artists from Exceptional Minds Studio, located in Sherman Oaks. It is the only visual effects and animation studio staffed entirely by professionals on the autism spectrum.
The studio is part of a digital arts academy that teaches and develops young adults with autism for careers in film post-production, visual effects and animation. It is supported by, instructed by, and run by professionals who have worked in animation and post-production for entertainment companies like Disney, Nickelodeon, ABC, Warner Bros., and the Cartoon Network.
“Our students, graduates and working artists are at different levels of the autistic spectrum,” said Dee McVicker, spokeswoman for Exceptional Minds. “I would say that more of them are on the higher end. But there is one artist who’s been in the studio here (at the school) for four years who is not high-functioning.”
The studio’s artists provide what is known as “visual cleanup” for feature films. That includes tracker marker removal, split screen, green screen keying, and rotoscoping for compositing as well as end title credit work and animation.
The school, a 501c3 nonprofit, was opened in 2011 by film industry parents and working professionals to help young adults with autism transition from high school into meaningful careers in the digital arts. The school is attended by young adults in their early to mid-20s.
“We go through rigorous section process,” McVicker said. “We have 10-12 students in every class and three classes — first year, second year and third year. If they gradate, they can go do work at the studio co-located on the campus or they could be hired by studios outside the program. One graduate is working at Marvel Studios.”
Since the studio opened its doors almost four years ago, Exceptional Minds artists have done visual effects and/or end title typesetting for more than 50 major motion pictures and/or television series. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “The Good Doctor” are recent additions. Their work for Marvel Studios movies includes “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Doctor Strange,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Ant-Man,” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
“Black Panther” is the latest Marvel Studios movie assignment. Exceptional Minds artists Nicolas Arredondo, Andrew Dugan, Tiana Fazio, Lloyd Hackl, Eli Katz, Annie Leffe, Madeleine Petti, Tony Saturno and Mason Taylor did VFX cleanup on 40 shots (marker and object removals, roto, paint and split screen) and Exceptional Minds artist Xavier Romo put together the end title crawl.
In addition, Exceptional Minds Studio Executive Producer Susan Zwerman and Studio Coordinator Jennifer Giandalone, along with visual effects supervisors Immanuel Morris, Kenneth Au, Megan Flood and Josh Dagg, supervised both visual effects and end title credits for the movie.
McVicker notes there are thousands of people diagnosed with neurodevelopment or “autism spectrum” disorders that are graduating from schools each year and can enter the workforce. While working artists from Exceptional Minds might be “blazing trails,” this isn’t some solitary supplier of talent being funneled to Disney Marvel, although the studio has been a big supporter of the school.
“We aren’t just preparing them for careers at Marvel,” McVicker said. “We work with the studios as well as the students. We’re a model of how this can work.
“Not everyone can do visual effects. Some may be talented musically or in other ways. A lot of our students and grads lean toward an interest in animation and visual effects. But if you want these young adults to be successful you have got to put them in the right jobs, prepare them, then accept them. And the results can be wonderful. They are gifted and hard working.”
The artists are paid for their work, whether it is for the specific film project, or as salaried studio employee. “For some it’s their very first paycheck,” McVicker. “For some it’s the chance to get an apartment.”
What’s also fun is seeing their names on the credits at the end of a film, McVicker said.
Especially on a film that looks to be as big a success as “Black Panther” is turning out to be.
Located in Sherman Oaks, Exceptional Minds offers technical proficiency and work-readiness training that prepares students for careers in graphic arts, animation, web design, visual effects and rotoscoping. The school also offers two weeks of introductory workshops during the summer for younger youth in animation, visual effects and graphics. For more information, call (818) 387-8811, or visit http://www.exceptionalmindsstudio.org.