Category Archives: Adobe Premiere

Adobe updates Creative Cloud

By Brady Betzel

You know it’s almost fall when when pumpkin spice lattes are  back and Adobe announces its annual updates. At this year’s IBC, Adobe had a variety of updates to its Creative Cloud line of apps. From more info on their new editing platform Project Rush to the addition of Characterizer to Character Animator — there are a lot of updates so I’m going to focus on a select few that I think really stand out.

Project Rush

I use Adobe Premiere quite a lot these days; it’s quick and relatively easy to use and will work with pretty much every codec in the universe. In addition, the Dynamic Link between Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects is an indispensible feature in my world.

With the 2018 fall updates, Adobe Premiere will be closer to a color tool like Blackmagic’s Resolve with the addition of new hue saturation curves in the Lumetri Color toolset. In Resolve these are some of the most important aspects of the color corrector, and I think that will be the same for Premiere. From Hue vs. Sat, which can help isolate a specific color and desaturate it to Hue vs. Luma, which can help add or subtract brightness values from specific hues and hue ranges — these new color correcting tools further Premiere’s venture into true professional color correction. These new curves will also be available inside of After Effects.

After Effects features many updates, but my favorites are the ability to access depth matte data of 3D elements and the addition of the new JavaScript engine for building expressions.

There is one update that runs across both Premiere and After Effects that seems to be a sleeper update. The improvements to motion graphics templates, if implemented correctly, could be a time and creativity saver for both artists and editors.

AI
Adobe, like many other companies, seem to be diving heavily into the “AI” pool, which is amazing, but… with great power comes great responsibility. While I feel this way and realize others might not, sometimes I don’t want all the work done for me. With new features like Auto Lip Sync and Color Match, editors and creators of all kinds should not lose the forest for the trees. I’m not telling people to ignore these features, but asking that they put a few minutes into discovering how the color of a shot was matched, so you can fix something if it goes wrong. You don’t want to be the editor who says, “Premiere did it” and not have a great solution to fix something when it goes wrong.

What Else?
I would love to see Adobe take a stab at digging up the bones of SpeedGrade and integrating that into the Premiere Pro world as a new tab. Call it Lumetri Grade, or whatever? A page with a more traditional colorist layout and clip organization would go a long way.

In the end, there are plenty of other updates to Adobe’s 2018 Creative Cloud apps, and you can read their blog to find out about other updates.

DP Rick Ray: Traveling the world capturing stock images

By Randi Altman

It takes a special kind of human to travel the world, putting himself in harm’s way to collect hard-to-find stock imagery, but Rick Ray thrives on this way of life. This Adobe Stock contributor has a long history as a documentary filmmaker and a resume that includes 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama (2006), Letters Home from the South China Seas: Adventures in Singapore & Borneo (1989) and Letters Home from Iceland (1990).

Let’s find out more about what makes Ray tick.

As a DP, are you just collecting footage to sell or are you working on films, docs and series as well?
I used to be a documentary filmmaker and have about 24 published titles in travel and biography, including the 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama and the TV series Raising The Bamboo Curtain With Martin Sheen. However, I found that unless you are Ken Burns or Michael Moore, making a living in the world of documentary films can be very difficult. It wasn’t until I came to realize that individual shots taken from my films and used in other productions were earning me more income than the whole film itself that I understood how potentially lucrative and valuable your footage can be when it is repurposed as stock.

That said, I still hire myself out as a DP on many Hollywood and independent films whenever possible. I also try to retain the stock rights for these assignments whenever possible.

A Bedouin man in Jordan.

How often are you on the road, and how do you pick your next place to shoot?
I travel for about three to four months each year now. Lately, I travel to places that interest me from a beauty or cultural perspective, whether or not they may be of maximal commercial potential. The stock footage world is inundated with great shots of Paris, London or Tokyo. It’s very hard for your footage to be noticed in such a crowded field of content. For that reason, lesser known locations of the world are attractive to me because there is less good footage of those places.

I also enjoy the challenges of traveling and filming in less comfortable places in the world, something I suppose I inherited from my days as a 25-year-old backpacking and hitchhiking around the world.

Are you typically given topics to capture — filling a need — or just shooting what interests you?
Mostly what interests me, but also I see a need for many topics of political relevance, and this also informs my shooting itinerary.

For example, immigration is in the news intensively these days, so I have recently driven the border wall from Tijuana to the New Mexico border capturing imagery of that. It’s not a place I’d normally go for a shoot, but it proved to be very interesting and it’s licensing all the time.

Rick Ray

Do you shoot alone?
Yes, normally. Sometimes I go with one other person, but that’s it. To be an efficient and effective stock shooter, you are not a “film crew” per se. You are not hauling huge amounts of gear around. There are no “grips,” and no “craft services.” In stock shooting around the world, as I define it, I am a low-key casual observer making beautiful images with low-key gear and minimal disruption to life in the countries I visit. If you are a crew of three or more, you become a group unto yourself, and it’s much more difficult to interact and experience the places you are visiting.

What do you typically capture with camera-wise? What format? Do you convert footage or let Adobe Stock do that?
I travel with two small (but excellent) Sony 4K handicams (FDR-AX100), two drones, a DJI Osmo handheld steady-grip, an Edelkrone slider kit and two lightweight tripods. Believe it or not, these can all fit into one standard large suitcase. I shoot in XDCAM 4K and then convert it to Apple ProRes in post. Adobe Stock does not convert my clips for me. I deliver them ready to be ordered.

You edit on Adobe Premiere. Why is that the right system for you, and do you edit your footage before submitting? How does that Adobe Stock process work?
I used to work in Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X, but I switched to Adobe Premiere Pro after struggling with FCPX. As for “editing,” it doesn’t really play a part in stock footage submission. There is no editing as we are almost always dealing with single clips. I do grade, color correct, stabilize and de-noise many clips before I export them. I believe in having the clips look great before they are submitted. They have to compete with thousands of other clips on the site, and mine need to jump out at you and make you want to use them. Adobe allows users to submit content directly from Premiere to Adobe Stock, but since I deal in large volumes of clips in submitting, I don’t generally use this approach. I send a drive in with a spreadsheet of data when a batch of clips are done.

A firefighter looks back as a building collapses during the Thomas Fire in Ventura, California.

What are the challenges of this type of shooting?
Well, you are 100% responsible for the success or failure of the mission. There is no one to blame but yourself. Since you are mostly traveling low-key and without a lot of protection, it’s very important to have a “fixer” or driver in difficult countries. You might get arrested or have all of your equipment stolen by corrupt customs authorities in a country like Macedonia, as happened to me. It happens! You have to roll with the good and the bad, ask forgiveness rather than permission and be happy for the amazing footage you do manage to get,

You left a pretty traditional job to travel the world. What spurred that decision, and do you ever see yourself back at a more 9-to-5  type of existence?
Never! I have figured out the perfect retirement plan for myself. Every day I can check my sales from anywhere in the world, and on most days the revenue more than justifies the cost of the travel! And it’s all a tax write-off. Who has benefits like that?

A word of warning, though — this is not for everyone. You have to be ok with the idea of spending money to build a portfolio before you see significant revenue in return. It can take time and you may not be as lucky as I have been. But for those who are self-motivated and have a knack for cinematography and travel, this is a perfect career.

Can you name some projects that feature your work?
Very often this takes me by surprise since I often don’t know exactly how my footage is used. More often than not, I’m watching CNN, a TV show or a movie and I see my footage. It’s always a surprise and makes me laugh. I’ve seen my work on the Daily Show, Colbert, CNN, in commercials for everything from pharmaceuticals to Viking Cruises, in political campaign ads for people I agree and disagree with, and in music videos for Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and Roger Waters.

Fire burns along the road near a village in the Palestinian territories.

Shooting on the road must be interesting. Can you share a story with us?
There have been quite a few. I have had my gear stolen in Israel (twice). In Thailand my gear was confiscated by corrupt customs authorities in Macedonia, as I mentioned earlier. I have been jailed by Ethiopian police for not having a valid filming permit, which was not necessary. Once a proper bribe was arranged they changed clothes from police into costumed natives and performed as tour guides and cultural emissaries for me.

In India, I was on a train to the Kumba Mela, which was stopped by a riot and burned. I escaped with minor injuries. I was also accosted by communist revolutionaries in Bihar, India. Rather than be a victim, I got out of the car and filmed it, and the leader and his generals then reviewed the footage and decided to do it over. After five takes of them running down the road and past the camera, the leader finally approved the take and I was left unharmed.

I’ve been in Syria and Lebanon and felt truly threatened by violence. I’ve been chased by Somali bandits at night in a van in Northern Kenya. Buy me a beer sometime, I’ll tell you more.

DG 7.9, 8.27

LACPUG hosting FCP and Premiere creator Randy Ubillos

The Los Angeles Creative Pro User Group (LACPUG) is celebrating its 18th anniversary on June 27 by presenting the official debut of Bradley Olsen’s Off the Tracks, a documentary about Final Cut Pro X. Also on the night’s agenda is a trip down memory lane with Randy Ubillos, the creator of Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, Aperture, iMovie 08 and Final Cut Pro X.

The event will take place at the Gallery Theater in Hollywood. Start time is 6:45pm. Scheduled to be in the audience and perhaps on stage, depending on availability, will be members of the original FCP team: Michael Wohl, Tim Serda and Paul Saccone. Also on hand will be Ramy Katrib of DigitalFilm Tree and editor and digital consultant Dan Fort. “Many other invites to the ‘superstars’ of the digital revolution and FCP have been sent out,” says Michael Horton, founder and head of LACPUG.

The night will also include food and drinks, time for questions and the group’s “World Famous Raffle.”
Tickets are on sale now on the LACPUG website for $10 each, plus a ticket fee of $2.24.

The Los Angeles Creative Pro User Group, formerly the LA Final Cut Pro User Group, was established in June of 2000 and hosts a membership of over 6,000 worldwide.


Adobe intros updates to Creative Cloud, including Team Projects

Later this year, Adobe will be offering new capabilities within its Adobe Creative Cloud video tools and services. This includes updates for VR/360, animation, motion graphics, editing, collaboration and Adobe Stock. Many of these features are powered by Adobe Sensei, the company’s artificial intelligence and machine learning framework. Adobe will preview these advancements at IBC.

The new capabilities coming later this year to Adobe Creative Cloud for video include:
• Access to motion graphics templates in Adobe Stock and through Creative Cloud Libraries, as well as usability improvements to the Essential Graphics panel in Premiere Pro, including responsive design options for preserving spatial and temporal.
• Character Animator 1.0 with changes to core and custom animation functions, such as pose-to-pose blending, new physics behaviors and visual puppet controls. Adobe Sensei will help improve lip-sync capability by accurately matching mouth shape with spoken sounds.
• Virtual reality video creation with a dedicated viewing environment in Premiere Pro. Editors can experience the deeply engaging qualities of content, review their timeline and use keyboard driven editing for trimming and markers while wearing the same VR head-mounts as their audience. In addition, audio can be determined by orientation or position and exported as ambisonics audio for VR-enabled platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. VR effects and transitions are now native and accelerated via the Mercury playback engine.
• Improved collaborative workflows with Team Projects on the Local Area Network with managed access features that allow users to lock bins and provide read-only access to others. Formerly in beta, the release of Team Projects will offer smoother workflows hosted in Creative Cloud and the ability to more easily manage versions with auto-save history.
• Flexible session organization to multi-take workflows and continuous playback while editing in Adobe Audition. Powered by Adobe Sensei, auto-ducking is added to the Essential Sound panel that automatically adjusts levels by type: dialogue, background sound or music.

Integration with Adobe Stock
Adobe Stock is now offering over 90 million assets including photos, illustrations and vectors. Customers now have access to over 4 million HD and 4K Adobe Stock video footage directly within their Creative Cloud video workflows and can now search and scrub assets in Premiere Pro.

Coming to this new release are hundreds of professionally-created motion graphics templates for Adobe Stock, available later this year. Additionally, motion graphic artists will be able to sell Motion Graphic templates for Premiere Pro through Adobe Stock. Earlier this year, Adobe added editorial and premium collections from Reuters, USA Today Sports, Stocksy and 500px.


Jimmy Helm upped to editor at The Colonie

The Colonie, the Chicago-based editorial, visual effects and motion graphics shop, has promoted Jimmy Helm to editor. Helm has honed his craft over the past seven years, working with The Colonie’s senior editors on a wide range of projects. Most recently, he has been managing ongoing social media work with Facebook and conceptualizing and editing short format ads. Some clients he has collaborated with include Lyft, Dos Equis, Capital One, Heineken and Microsoft. He works on both Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere.

A filmmaking major at Columbia College Chicago, Helm applied for an internship at The Colonie in 2010. Six months later he was offered a full-time position as an assistant editor, working alongside veteran cutter Tom Pastorelle on commercials for McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, Quaker and Wrangler. During this time, Helm edited numerous projects on his own, including broadcast commercials for Centrum and Kay Jewelers.

“Tom is incredible to work with,” says Helm. “Not only is he a great editor but a great person. He shared his editorial methods and taught me the importance of bringing your instinctual creativity to the process. I feel fortunate to have had him as a mentor.”

In 2014, Helm was promoted to senior assistant editor and continued to hone his editing skills while taking on a leadership role.

“My passion for visual storytelling began when I was young,” says Helm “Growing up in Memphis, I spent a great deal of time watching classic films by great directors. I realize now that I was doing more than watching — I was studying their techniques and, particularly, their editing styles. When you’re editing a scene, there’s something addictive about the rhythm you create and the drama you build. I love that I get to do it every day.”

Helm joins The Colonie’s editorial team, comprised of Joe Clear, Keith Kristinat, Pastorelle and Brian Salazar, along with editors and partners Bob Ackerman and Brian Sepanik.

 

 


Adobe acquires Mettle’s SkyBox tools for 360/VR editing, VFX

Adobe has acquired all SkyBox technology from Mettle, a developer of 360-degree and virtual reality software. As more media and entertainment companies embrace 360/VR, there is a need for seamless, end-to-end workflows for this new and immersive medium.

The Skybox toolset is designed exclusively for post production in Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Adobe After Effects CC and complements Adobe Creative Cloud’s existing 360/VR cinematic production technology. Adobe will integrate SkyBox plugin functionality natively into future releases of Premiere Pro and After Effects.

To further strengthen Adobe’s leadership in 360-degree and virtual reality, Mettle co-founder Chris Bobotis will join Adobe, bringing more than 25 years of production experience to his new role.

“We believe making virtual reality content should be as easy as possible for creators. The acquisition of Mettle SkyBox technology allows us to deliver a more highly integrated VR editing and effects experience to the film and video community,” says Steven Warner, VP of digital video and audio at Adobe. “Editing in 360/VR requires specialized technology, and as such, this is a critical area of investment for Adobe, and we’re thrilled Chris Bobotis has joined us to help lead the charge forward.”

“Our relationship started with Adobe in 2010 when we created FreeForm for After Effects, and has been evolving ever since. This is the next big step in our partnership,” says Bobotis, now director, professional video at Adobe. “I’ve always believed in developing software for artists, by artists, and I’m looking forward to bringing new technology and integration that will empower creators with the digital tools they need to bring their creative vision to life.”

Introduced in April 2015, SkyBox was the first plugin to leverage Mettle’s proprietary 3DNAE technology, and its success quickly led to additional development of 360/VR plugins for Premiere Pro and After Effects.

Today, Mettle’s plugins have been adopted by companies such as The New York Times, CNN, HBO, Google, YouTube, Discovery VR, DreamWorks TV, National Geographic, Washington Post, Apple and Facebook, as well as independent filmmakers and YouTubers.


Bluefish444 supports Adobe CC and 4K HDR with Epoch card

Bluefish444 Epoch video audio and data I/O cards now support the advanced 4K high dynamic range (HDR) workflows offered in the latest versions of the Adobe Creative Cloud.

Epoch SDI and HDMI solutions are suited for Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC, Audition CC and other tools that are part of the Creative Cloud. With GPU-accelerated performance for emerging post workflows, including 4K HDR and video over IP, Adobe and Bluefish444 are providing a strong option for pros.

Bluefish444’s Adobe Mercury Transmit support for Adobe Creative Cloud brings improved performance in demanding workflows requiring realtime video I/O from UHD and 4K HDR sequences.

Bluefish444 Epoch video card support adds:
• HD/SD SDI input and output
• 4K/2K SDI input and output
• 12/10/8-bit SDI input and output
• 4K/2K/HD/SD HDMI preview
• Quad split 4K UHD SDI
• Two sample interleaved 4K UHD SDI
• 23, 24, 25, 29, 30fps video input and output
• 48, 50, 59, 60fps video input and output
• Dual-link 1.5Gbps SDI
• 3Gbps level A & B SDI
• Quad link 1.5Gbps and 3Gbps SDI
• AES digital audio
• Analog audio monitoring
• RS-422 machine control
• 12-bit video color space conversions

“Recent updates have enabled performance which was previously unachievable,” reports Tom Lithgow, product manager at Bluefish444. “Thanks to GPU acceleration, and [the] Adobe Mercury Transmit plug-in, Bluefish444 and Adobe users can be confident of smooth realtime video performance for UHD 4K 60fps and HDR content.”


WWE adds iPads, iPhones to production workflow

By Nick Mattingly

Creating TV style productions is a big operation. Lots of equipment, lots of people and lots of time. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is an entertainment company and the largest professional wrestling organization in the world. Since its inception, it has amassed a global audience of over 36 million.

Each year, WWE televises over 100 events via its SmackDown, WWE Raw and Pay-Per-View events. That doesn’t include the hundreds of arena shows that the organization books in venues around the world.

“Putting this show on in one day is no small feat. Our shows begins to load-in typically around 4:00am and everything must be up and ready for production by 2:00pm,” explained Nick Smith, WWE’s director of remote IT and broadcast engineering. “We travel everything from the lighting, PA, screens, backstage sets, television production facilities, generators and satellite transmission facilities, down to catering. Everyone [on our team] knows precisely what to do and how to get it done.”

Now the WWE is experimenting with a new format for the some 300 events it hosts that are currently not captured on video. The goal? To see if using Switcher Studio with a few iPhones and iPads can achieve TV-style results. A key part of testing has been defining workflow using mobile devices while meeting WWE’s high standard of quality. One of the first requirements was moving beyond the four-camera setup. As a result, the Switcher Studio team produced a special version of Switcher that allows unlimited sources. The only limitation is network bandwidth.

Adding more cameras was an untested challenge. To help prevent bottlenecks over the local network, we lowered the resolution and bitrate on preview video feeds. We also hardwired the primary iPad used for switching using Apple dongles. Using the “Director Mode” function in Switcher Studio. WWE then triggered a recording on all devices.

For the first test using Switcher Studio, the WWE had a director and operator at the main iPad. The video from the iPad was output to an external TV monitor using Apple’s AirPlay. This workflow allowed the director to see a live video feed from all sources. They were also able to talk with the camera crew and “direct” the operator when to cut to each camera.

The WWE crew had three camera operators from their TV productions to run iPhones in and around the ring. To ensure the devices had enough power to make it through the four-hour-long event, iPhones were attached to batteries. Meanwhile, two camera operators captured wide shots of the ring. Another camera operator captured performer entrances and crowd reaction shots.

WWE setup a local WiFi network for the event to wirelessly sync cameras. The operator made edits in realtime to generate a line cut. After the event the line cut and a ISO from each angle was sent to the WWE post team in the United Kingdom.

Moving forward, we plan to make further improvements to the post workflow. This will be especially helpful for editors, using tools like Adobe Premiere or Avid Media Composer.

If future tests prove successful, WWE could use this new mobile setup to provide more content to their fans–building new revenue streams along the way.


Nick Mattingly is the CEO/co-founder of Switcher Studio. He has over 10 years of experience in video streaming, online monetization and new technologies. 


A glimpse at what was new at NAB

By Lance Holte

I made the trek out to Las Vegas last week for the annual NAB show to take in the latest in post production technology, discuss new trends and products and get lost in a sea of exhibits. With over 1,700 exhibitors, it’s impossible to see everything (especially in the two days I was there), but here are a handful of notable things that caught my eye.

Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve Studio 14: While the “non-studio” version is still free, it’s hard to beat the $299 license for the full version of Resolve. As 4K and 3D media becomes increasingly prevalent, and with the release of their micro and mini panels, Resolve can be a very affordable solution for editors, mobile colorists and DITs.

The new editorial and audio tools are particularly appealing to someone like me, who is often more hands-on on the editorial side than the grading side of post. To that regard, the new tracking features look to provide extra ease of use for quick and simple grades. I also love that Blackmagic has gotten rid of the dongles, which removes the hassle of tracking numerous dongles in a post environment where systems and rooms are swapped regularly. Oh, and there’s bin, clip and timeline locking for collaborative workflows, which easily pushes Resolve into the competition for an end-to-end post solution.

Adobe Premiere CC 2017 with After Effects and Audition Adobe Premiere is typically my editorial application of choice, and the increased integration of AE and Audition promise to make an end-to-end Creative Cloud workflow even smoother. I’ve been hoping for a revamp of Premiere’s title tool for a while, and the Essential Graphics panel/new Title Tool appears to greatly increase and streamline Premiere’s motion graphics capabilities — especially as someone who does almost all my graphics work in After Effects and Photoshop. The more integrated the various applications can be, the better; and Adobe has been pushing that aspect for some time now.

On the audio side, Premiere’s Essential Sound Panel tools for volume matching, organization, cleanup and other effects without going directly into Audition (or exporting for ProTools, etc.) will be really helpful, especially for smaller projects and offline mixes. And as a last note, the new Camera Shake Deblur effect in After Effects is fantastic.

Dell UltraSharp 4K HDR Monitor — There were a lot of great looking HDR monitors at the show, but I liked that this one fell in the middle of the pack in terms of price point ($2K), with solid specs (1000 nits, 97.7% of P3, and 76.9% of Rec. 2020) and a reasonable size (27 inches). Seems like a good editorial or VFX display solution, though the price might be pushing budgetary constraints for smaller post houses. I wish it was DCI 4K instead of UHD and a little more affordable, but that will hopefully come with time.

On that note, I really like HP’s DreamColor Z31x Studio Display. It’s not HDR, but it’s 99% of the P3 colorspace, and it’s DCI 4K — as well as 2K, by multiplying every pixel at 2K resolution into exactly 4 pixels — so there’s no odd-numbered scaling and sharpening required. Also, I like working with large monitors, especially at high resolutions. It offers automated (and schedulable) color calibration, though I’d love to see a non-automated display in the future if it could bring the price down. I could see the HP monitor as a great alternative to using more expensive HDR displays for the majority of workstations at many post houses.

As another side note, Flanders Scientific’s OLED 55-inch HDR display was among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, but with numerous built-in interfaces and scaling capabilities, it’s likely to come at a higher price.

Canon 4K600STZ 4K HDR laser projector — This looks to be a great projection solution for small screening rooms or large editorial bays. It offers huge 4096×2400 resolution, is fairly small and compact, and apparently has very few restraints when it comes to projection angle, which would be nice for a theatrical edit bay (or a really nice home theater). The laser light source is also attractive because it will be low maintenance. At $63K, it’s at the more affordable end of 4K projector pricing.

Mettle 360 Degree/VR Depth plug-ins: I haven’t worked with a ton of 360-degree media, but I have dealt with the challenges of doing depth-related effects in a traditional single-camera space, so the fact that Mettle is doing depth-of-field effects, dolly effects and depth volumetric effects with 360-degree/VR content is pretty incredible. Plus, their plug-ins are designed to integrate with Premiere and After Effects, which is good news for an Adobe power user. I believe they’re still going to be in beta for a while, but I’m very curious to see how their plug-ins play out.

Finally, in terms of purely interesting tech, Sony’s Bravia 4K acoustic surface TVs are pretty wild. Their displays are OLED, so they look great, and the fact that the screen vibrates to create sound instead of having separate speakers or an attached speaker bar is awfully cool. Even at very close viewing, the screen doesn’t appear to move, though it can clearly be felt vibrating when touched. A vibrating acoustic surface raises some questions about mounting, so it may not be perfect for every environment, but interesting nonetheless.


Lance Holte is an LA-based post production supervisor and producer. He has spoken and taught at such events as NAB, SMPTE, SIGGRAPH and Createasphere. You can email him at lance@lanceholte.com.

Exceptional Minds: Autistic students learn VFX, work on major feature films

After graduation, these artists have been working on projects for Marvel, Disney, Fox and HBO.

By Randi Altman

With an estimated 1 in 68 children in the US being born with some sort of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring, I think it’s fair to say that most people have been touched in some way by a child on the spectrum.

As a parent of a teenager with autism, I can attest to the fact that one of our biggest worries, the thing that keeps us up at night, is the question of independence. Will he be able to make a living? Will there be an employer who can see beyond his deficits to his gifts and exploit those gifts in the best possible way?

Enter Exceptional Minds, a school in Los Angeles that teaches young adults with autism how to create visual effects and animation while working as part of a team. This program recognizes how bright these young people are and how focused they can be, surrounds them with the right teachers and behavioral therapists, puts the right tools in their hands and lets them fly.

The school, which also has a VFX and animation studio that employs its graduates, was started in 2011 by a group of parents who have children on the spectrum. “They were looking for work opportunities for their kids, and quickly discovered they couldn’t find any. So they decided to start Exceptional Minds and prepare them for careers in animation and visual effects,” explains Susan Zwerman, the studio executive producer at Exceptional Minds and a long-time VFX producer whose credits include Broken Arrow, Alien Resurrection, Men of Honor, Around the World in 80 Days and The Guardian.

Since the program began, these young people have had the opportunity to work on some very high-profile films and TV programs. Recent credits include Game of Thrones, The Fate of the Furious and Doctor Strange, which was nominated for an Oscar for visual effects this year.

We reached out to Zwerman to find out more about this school, its studio and how they help young people with autism find a path to independence.

The school came first and then the studio?
Yes. We started training them for visual effects and animation and then the conversation turned to, “What do they do when they graduate?” That led to the idea to start a visual effects studio. I came on board two years ago to organize and set it up. It’s located downstairs from the school.

How do you pick who is suitable for the program?
We can only take 10 students each year, and unfortunately, there is a waiting list because we are the only program of its kind anywhere. We have a review process that our educators and teachers have in terms of assessing the student’s ability to be able to work in this area. You know, not everybody can function working on a computer for six or eight hours. There are different levels of the spectrum. So the higher functioning and the medium functioning are more suited for this work, which takes a lot of focus.

Students are vetted by our teachers and behavioral specialists, who take into account the student’s ability, as well as their enthusiasm for visual effects and animation — it’s very intense, and they have to be motivated.

Susie Zwerman (in back row, red hair) with artists in the Exceptional Minds studio.

I know that kids on the spectrum aren’t necessarily social butterflies, how do you teach them to work as a team?
Oh, that’s a really good question. We have what’s called our Work Readiness program. They practice interviewing, they practice working as a team, they learn about appearance, attitude, organization and how to problem solve in a work place.

A lot of it is all about working in a team, and developing their social skills. That’s something we really stress in terms of behavioral curriculum.

Can you describe how the school works?
It’s a three-year program. In the first year, they learn about the principles of design and using programs like Adobe’s Flash and Photoshop. In Flash, they study 2D animation and in Photoshop they learn how to do backgrounds for their animation work.

During year two, they learn how to work in a production pipeline. They are given a project that the class works on together, and then they learn how to edit using Adobe Premiere Pro and compositing on Adobe After Effects.

In the third year, they are developing their skills in 3D via Autodesk Maya and compositing with The Foundry’s Nuke. So they learn the way we work in the studio and our pipeline, as well as preparing their portfolios for the workplace. At the end of three years, each student completes their training with a demo reel and resume of their work.

Who helps with the reels and resumes?
Their teachers supervise that process and help them with editing and picking the best pieces for their reel. Having a reel is important for many reasons. While many students will work in our studio for a year after graduation, I was able to place some directly into the work environment because their talent was so good… and their reel was so good.

What is the transition like from school to studio?
They graduate in June and we transition many of them to the studio, where they learn about deadlines and get paid for their work. Here, many experience independence for the first time. We do a lot of 2D-type visual effects clean-up work. We give them shots to work on and test them for the first month to see how they are doing. That’s when we decide if they need more training.

The visual effects side of the studio deals with paint work, wire and rod removal and tracker or marker removals — simple composites — plus a lot of rotoscoping and some greenscreen keying. We also do end title credits for the major movies.

We just opened the animation side of the studio in 2016, so it’s still in the beginning stages, but we’re doing 2D animation. We are not a 3D studio… yet! The 2D work we’ve done includes music videos, Websites, Power Points and some stuff for the LA Zoo. We are gearing up for major projects.

How many work in the studio?
Right now, we have about 15 artists at workstations in our current studio. Some of these will be placed on the outside, but that’s part of using strategic planning in the future to figure out how much expansion we want to do over the next five years.

Thanks to your VFX background, you have many existing relationships with the major studios. Can you talk about how that has benefitted Exceptional Minds?
We have had so much support from the studios; they really want to help us get work for the artists. We started out with Fox, then Disney and then HBO for television. Marvel Studios is one of our biggest fans. Marvel’s Victoria Alonso is a big supporter, so much so that we gave her our Ed Asner Award last June.

Once we started to do tracker marker and end title credits for Marvel, it opened doors. People say, “Well, if you work for Marvel, you could work for us.” So she has been so instrumental in our success.

What were the Fox and Marvel projects?
Our very first client was Fox and we did tracker removals for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — that was about three years ago. Marvel happened about two years ago and our first job for them was on Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What are some of the other projects Exceptional Minds has worked on?
We worked on Doctor Strange, providing tracker marker removals and end credits. We worked on Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Pete’s Dragon, Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and X-Men: Apocalypse.

Thanks to HBO’s Holly Schiffer we did a lot of Game of Thrones work. She has also been a huge supporter of ours.

It’s remarkable how far you guys have come in a short amount of time. Can you talk about how you ended up at Exceptional Minds?
I used to be DGA production manager/location manager and then segued into visual effects as a freelance VFX producer for all the major studios. About three years ago, my best friend Yudi Bennett, who is one of the founders of Exceptional Minds, convinced me to leave my career and  come here to help set up the studio. I was also tasked with producing, scheduling and budgeting work to come into the studio. For me, personally, this has been a spiritual journey. I have had such a good career in the industry, and this is my way of giving back.

So some of these kids move on to other places?
After they have worked in the studio for about a year, or sometimes longer, I look to have them placed at an outside studio. Some of them will stay here at our studio because they may not have the social skills to work on the outside.

Five graduates have been placed so far and they are working full time at various productions studios and visual effects facilities in Los Angeles. We have also had graduates in internships at Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

One student is at Marvel, and others are at Stargate Studios, Mr. Wolf and New Edit. To be able to place our artists on the outside is our ultimate goal. We love to place them because it’s sort of life changing. For example, one of the first students we placed, Kevin, is at Stargate. He moved out of his parents’ apartment, he is traveling by himself to and from the studio, he is getting raises and he is moving up as a rotoscope artist.

What is the tuition like?
Students pay about 50 percent and we fundraise the other 50 percent. We also have scholarships for those that can’t afford it. We have to raise a lot of money to support the efforts of the school and studio.

Do companies donate gear?
When we first started, Adobe donated software. That’s how we were able to fund the school before the studio was up and running. Now we’re on an educational plan with them where we pay the minimum. Autodesk and The Foundry also give us discounts or try to donate licenses to us. In terms of hardware, we have been working with Melrose Mac, who is giving us discounts on computers for the school and studio.


Check out Exceptional Minds Website for more info.