For the majority of young adults diagnosed with autism, finding a skilled job — especially one in the entertainment biz — is a pipe dream. But thanks to Exceptional Minds digital arts vocational school, it doesn’t have to be.
With the school’s help, four autistic students in their early 20s were hired to work on post-production visual effects for “American Hustle.” Arielle Guthrie, Lloyd Hackl, Patrick Brady and Eli Katz, who are in the program’s third and final year, provided rotoscoping services — the laborious process of outlining elements in key frames for digital manipulation — from EM’s Sherman Oaks, Calif., studio.
One of the program’s instructors, Josh Dagg, closely supervised the project, which the students worked on for five weeks on top of their full course loads. Dagg said most people with Autism Spectrum Disorders — when they feel mentally engaged — can focus with laser precision on a task for hours on end. Students in the program represent a wide range of individuals afflicted with a varying severity of symptoms. The students who worked on “American Hustle” had milder forms of autism.
“I want them to look forward to a career of personal and professional success rather than a lifetime of people telling them that ‘because you hit this particular number in this genetic lottery, you are now a glorified houseplant,’?” Dagg said. “That’s a very real fear for a lot of people (with autism).”
Before joining Exceptional Minds when it opened in 2011, Guthrie had given up on a future in film or animation.
“I feel like now I genuinely have a chance, whereas before I didn’t,” Guthrie said. “Not to be overly melodramatic, but I was in a very fatalist, horrible place of not feeling like I was going to get anywhere or do anything with my life.”
The students who worked on the film were paid a professional rate based on the number of shots they worked on, as opposed to the hourly student rate that they’re usually paid. The producers got a tax deduction. Robert Hackl, the supervising visual effects producer on “American Hustle,” reviewed and, in conjunction with an editor, signed off on the work EM produced. Hackl, who is also Lloyd’s dad, hired the foursome for another Annapurna picture in 2012, John Hillcoat’s “Lawless.”
“The way things are working now in motion pictures is that a lot of work just gets farmed out to independent vendors,” he said. “Sometimes they’re offshore in India or Indonesia or China. The work is shuttled around online. So if that’s the case, well, gee, you can have a crew of guys like Lloyd, Patrick, Arielle and Eli set up in Sherman Oaks. Work comes in and they do the work.”
Graduates who choose to stay at EM can work from a studio opening next year in the same space, but run separately from the school.
“The work is out there,” Dagg said. “Mostly what’s going to be done is handed over to an already overworked compositor who already has 500 shots that he has to finish that week. Meanwhile, we could get people who know how to do the job just as well here, and take a couple shots off their hands and earn an income that they otherwise could have only gotten at a McDonald’s or a Vons.”