UNIQUE TALENTS ON THE SCENE
Films From Autism Spectrum gala
He’s all of eight years old and he’s helping a 12-year-old guitarist lay down tracks on a music video for a stop-motion animation project — which is way beyond my pay grade.
Others are fiddling with virtual reality headsets and digital movie gear. Others still are sketching cartoon sequences on iPads or editing films on computers.
It’s non-stop action seven days a week at Spectrum Productions, housed in a retrofitted factory space in Mile End, where participants ranging in age from eight to 35 hone their filmmaking skills. Participants come from all walks, but what they do have in common is that they are all on the autism spectrum.
“For too long, those on the autism spectrum were viewed as people having limitations rather than specialized skill sets,” says Dan Ten Veen, co-founder and director of Spectrum Productions. “We focus on abilities, not disabilities.”
This is a production house unlike any in this country. And apart from one in Los Angeles, Ten Veen doesn’t know of any others. Since opening in 2009, hundreds of participants — almost 500 last month alone — from around the city have not just dropped in to learn about the craft, but have also created more than 1,000 videos and films, ranging from cartoons to documentaries to dramas. Some have become so adept that they are being hired to make public-service commercials for a host of institutions, including McGill University and the federal government.
But outsiders have to see to believe. On that note, Spectrum Productions presents its eighth annual Screening Gala: Films From the Autism Spectrum, on Sunday at the Rialto Theatre. More than 50 shorts — featuring a wide range of animation, docs, live action and experimental fare — will be presented.
There is so much material, in fact, that Spectrum Productions is planning to launch a weeklong Autism Film Festival in April.
The Rialto event also serves a fundraiser for Spectrum Productions, which operates on a shoestring budget of $300,000 a year. Last year’s screening netted $55,000.
Spectrum Productions is operated by five full-time and seven part-time employees — several of whom are former participants — as well as a host of volunteers.
While funding is spotty from various levels of government and private sources, the long-range hope is that in-house productions, staffed in large part by those on the autism spectrum, will eventually cover the studio’s costs.
“One of the most gratifying situations for us is that we are getting more and more production contracts,” Ten Veen says. “This year, we’ve had more than 30, which has been responsible for one-quarter of our revenues. The social-enterprise piece of our operation is really expanding. In 2016, we paid 27 per cent of our wages to individuals on the spectrum. And this year, it will be much more — we just haven’t had the time to add it all up.”
In addition to its other activities at the studio, Spectrum Productions also operates a summer camp here. Plus, word of its work has spread to Toronto, where the group has also set up a two-week summer camp and a screening.
“Now we’re trying to connect with broadcasters and set up new partnerships around the world as a result of our winning a scholarship to attend last June’s Banff World Media Festival,” Ten Veen says. “A lot of folks are really interested in the talent pool that we’re developing here. We take a lot of pride from the fact this was something started in Montreal and it’s about to really expand out from here.”
Ten Veen and co-founder Liam O’Rourke had previously worked with young men and women on the autism spectrum within the city’s special-ed school system at Giant Steps. They were quick to discover the talents and technical aptitudes of autistic students and to conclude that media production would be a perfect outlet for them. So they decided to pursue this course of action on a full-time basis.
“I didn’t realize then the skill level that was possible,” Ten Veen says. “I had this idea that this would be a way to advocate for creativity, but I had no idea the extent to how talented and creative these people are.”
What was initially seen as a demand and a need for a service to give people on the autism spectrum a voice has since evolved to another level.
“These really unique talents are now being put to application within the workforce and creative marketplace. These filmmakers have this ability to see things from a new and different angle, which is a real asset these days. And to see them explore these pathways on their own terms is so rewarding. It’s really been so encouraging to see perceived stigmas being broken down as they are now.
“It’s so positive seeing people going from their school years into adulthood by entering those creative industries and seeing how employers have become so much more open to that. Eight years ago, that wasn’t even an opportunity to pursue.”
One of the most gratifying situations for us is that we are getting more and more production contracts.
Dan Ten Veen, with actor Kieran, Anthony on audio and Leo manning the camera for the short film, Interrogation. “For too long, those on the autism spectrum were viewed as people having limitations rather than specialized skill sets,” Ten Veen says. “We focus on abilities, not disabilities.”