Special effects technicians work to make the illusions in movies, theater, and television seem real. When a director wants us to see a man turn into a wolf or a train explode in a fiery crash, it is the job of special effects technicians to make it happen. They work with a variety of materials and techniques to produce the fantastic visions and seemingly real illusions that add dimension to a film.
Special Effects Technician Career History
At the turn of the 20th century a French magician-turned-filmmaker named Georges Melies invented motion picture special effects. To film futuristic space flight in A Trip to the Moon, he made a model of a rocket and fired it from a cannon in front of a painted backdrop. By the 1920s, special effects, or “tricks,” had become a department of the major film studios, and technicians were steadily inventing new techniques and illusions. For a tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz, a miniature house was filmed falling from the studio ceiling, and when the film was reversed it became Dorothy’s house flying into the air. Effects departments still make extensive use of miniature models, which are easy to work with and save money.
In 1950 the Supreme Court broke up the movie studio monopolies. Independent, lowbudget films began to proliferate and to affect audience tastes. They helped to make realistic, on-site shoots fashionable, and studio special effects departments became virtually extinct. It was not until the 1970s, when George Lucas brought his imagination to Star Wars, that special effects were revived in force. The crew that Lucas assembled for that project formed the company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which still commands prestige in a field that now includes hundreds of large and small special effects companies.
The industry experimented with computer-generated imagery (CGI) in the 1980s, with such films as Tron and Star Trek II. By the 1990s, the movie-going public was ready for an effects revolution, which began with James Cameron’s The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and reached full-force with 1993’s Jurassic Park. Twister in 1996, Titanic in 1997, and The Matrix in 1999 raised the stakes for movie effects, and Star Wars: Episode I— The Phantom Menace used 2,000 digital shots (compared to Titanic’s 500). Digital inking and painting, along with a software program called Deep Canvas, gave Disney’s Tarzan its great depth and dimension and detail unlike any other film in the history of animation. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and Sin City (2005) featured settings entirely generated by computers and blended with the performances of live actors.
The Job of Special Effects Technicians
Special effects technicians are craftspeople who work in a variety of areas to provide seamless, illusionary effects for film, television, and stage productions. Their work is very creative; they read scripts and consult with the director to determine the kinds of effects that will be required. Often the director has only a general idea of what he or she wants; technicians come up with the artistic specifics and functional designs, and then create what they have designed.
There are several trades that make up special effects, and special effects companies, known as shops, may do business in one or several of these trades. The services they may offer include mechanical effects, computer animation, make-up effects, and pyrotechnics.
Mechanical effects specialists build the props, sets, and backdrops for film, television, and theater productions. They build, install, and operate equipment, working with a variety of materials depending on the effects required. They are usually skilled in several areas, including carpentry, welding, electricity, and robotics.
Computer animation specialists use computer programs to create effects that would be impossible or too costly to build otherwise. Computer animation/CGI has made advances into television commercials as well as film. These effects make it possible for a human face to transform or “morph” into an animal’s, or for a realisticlooking bear to drink from a soda can. Computer animation specialists typically work in offices, not on location as other specialists do. They must be highly skilled with computers and keep abreast of new technology.
Make-up effects specialists create elaborate costumes and masks for actors to wear in movies or on stage. They also build prosthetic devices to simulate human or animal heads and limbs. They may be skilled at modeling, sewing, applying make-up, and mixing dyes.
Pyrotechnic effects specialists are experts with explosives and firearms. They create explosions for dramatic scenes. Their work can be very dangerous, and in most states they are required to be licensed in order to handle and set off explosives.
Special effects technicians who are union members are contracted to provide a specific service and rarely work outside their area of expertise. Nonunion employees may be required to help out with tasks that fall outside the union members’ areas of expertise. This may involve constructing sets, moving heavy equipment, or helping with last-minute design changes.
Special Effects Technician Career Requirements
Special effects technicians rely on a mix of science and art. To prepare for this career, take all the art courses you can, including art history; many filmmakers look to historic art when composing shots and lighting effects. Photography courses will help you understand the use of light and shadow. Chemistry can give you some insight into the products you will be using. To work with computer animation, you should have an understanding of the latest graphics programs.
While there are no formal educational requirements for becoming a special effects technician, some universities have film and television programs that include courses in special effects. Some special effects technicians major in theater, art history, photography, and related subjects. Many colleges and universities offer masters of fine arts degrees. These are studio programs in which you will be able to gain hands-on experience in theater production and filmmaking with a faculty composed of practicing artists. Some of the CGI technicians working today have not had any special schooling or training, having mastered graphics programs on their own.
Certification or Licensing
To work as a pyrotechnics specialist, most states require you to be licensed to handle explosives and firearms.
Special effects work is physically and mentally demanding. Technicians must be able to work as members of a team, following instructions carefully in order to avoid dangerous situations. They often work long days, so they must have high stamina. In addition, the work on a set can be uncomfortable. For example, a mechanical effects specialist may have to work under adverse weather conditions or wait patiently in a small space for the cue to operate an effect. Freelance technicians will often have to provide their own tools and equipment, which they either own or rent, when hired for a job.
Computer animation specialists may sit for long hours in front of a computer, performing meticulous and sometimes repetitive work. Make-up effects specialists spend most of their time working in a trailer on the set or in a shop where they construct and adjust the items required by the actors. Special effects technicians must work both carefully and quickly; a mistake or a delay can become very expensive for the production company.
Exploring Special Effects Technician Career
Students who like to build things, or who tend to be curious about how things work, might be well suited to a career in special effects. To learn more about the profession, visit your school or public library and bookstores to read more about the field. Browse magazine racks to find Hollywood trade magazines and other related material on your area of interest; Animation Journal, Animation World, Cinefex, Variety, and Hollywood Reporter are all good places to start.
Since experience and jobs are difficult to get in the film and television industry, it is important to learn about the career to be sure it is right for you. Working on high-school drama productions as a stagehand, “techie,” or make-up artist can be helpful for learning set and prop design, methods of handling equipment, and artistry. Community theaters and independent filmmakers can provide volunteer work experience; they rely on volunteers because they have limited operating funds.
Alternatively, if you find you are adept in computer classes and curious about advances in computer animation, you may wish to pursue this field by continuing your learning and exploration of computer techniques.
The top special effects technicians work for special effects houses. These companies contract with individual film productions; one film may have the effects created by more than one special effects company. Industrial Light and Magic is the top company, having done the effects for such films as Star Wars: Episodes I & II, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Pearl Harbor. Other major companies include Digital Domain (Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Day After Tomorrow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Banned From the Ranch Entertainment (Titanic, Starship Troopers). Some special effects technicians own their own effects company or work on a freelance basis. Freelance technicians may work in several areas, doing theater work, film and television productions, and commercials.
Internships are a very good way to gain experience and make yourself a marketable job candidate. Film and theater companies are predominantly located in Los Angeles or New York City, but there are opportunities elsewhere. Again, since theater and lower budget film productions operate with limited funds, you could find places to work for course credit or experience instead of a salary. Special effects shops are excellent places to try for an internship. You may find them in books and trade magazines, or try the yellow pages under theatrical equipment, theatrical make-up, and theatrical and stage lighting equipment. Even if one shop has no opportunities, it may be able to provide the name of another that takes interns.
You should keep a photographic record of all the work you do for theater and film productions, including photos of any drawings or sculptures you have done for art classes. It is important to have a portfolio or demo reel (a reel of film demonstrating your work) to send along with your resume to effects shops, make-up departments, and producers.
Special effects technicians may choose to join a union; some film studios will only hire union members. The principal union for special effects technicians is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists of the Allied Trades of the United States, Its Territories and Canada (IATSE). To get into the union, a technician must complete a training program, which includes apprenticing in a prop-making shop and passing an examination. Union members work under a union contract that determines their work rules, pay, and benefits.
Good special effects technicians will acquire skills in several areas, becoming versatile and therefore desirable employees. Since many work on a freelance basis, it is useful to develop a good reputation and maintain contacts from past jobs. Successful technicians may be chosen to work on increasingly prestigious and challenging productions. Once they have a strong background and diverse experience, technicians may start their own shops.
Some technicians have steady, salaried employment, while others work freelance for an hourly rate and may have periods with no work. The average daily rate for beginning technicians is $100 to $200 per day, while more experienced technicians can earn $300 per day or more. A member salary survey conducted by IATSE shows that employment in digital effects can pay very well, even in assistant positions. When adjusted to show annual figures, the survey found that character animators, CGI effects animators, and art directors had median yearly earnings of around $100,000. On the low end of the scale, these professionals earned around $55,000, and on the high end, $350,000. Effects assistants had beginning wages of around $45,000, and median wages of $60,000.
Those working freelance will not have the benefits of full-time work, having to provide their own health insurance. Those working for special effects houses have the usual benefit packages including health insurance, bonuses, and retirement.
Special effects is an excellent field for someone who likes to dream up fantastic monsters and machines and has the patience to create them. Special effects technicians must be willing to work long hours, and have the stamina to work under strenuous conditions. Twelve-hour days are not uncommon, and to meet a deadline technicians may work for 15 hours a day. Many special effects technicians work freelance, so there can be long periods of no work (and no pay) between jobs.
Because motion picture scripts often call for filming at various locations, special effects technicians may travel a great deal. Work environments can vary considerably; a technician may remain in a shop or at a computer terminal, or may go on location for a film or television shoot and work outdoors.
Special Effects Technician Career Outlook
The competition for jobs in film special effects houses is fierce. For over 20 years now, films of all genres have incorporated computer graphics and high-tech effects, inspiring a whole generation of young people with computers and imaginations. Many of today’s top effects professionals credit their love for Star Wars with directing them toward careers in the industry. As the cost of powerful computers continues to decrease, even more people will be able to experiment with computer graphics and develop their skills and talents.
Though some special effects companies are very profitable, others are struggling to make enough money to meet their expenses. Production companies are attempting to tighten their budgets and to turn out movies quickly. Therefore, a contract for special effects goes to the lowest bidding effects company. The costs of the effects, including salaries for top technicians, are increasing, while film producers decrease their special effects budgets. This situation will either be corrected by effects companies demanding more money, or only a few of the very top companies will be able to thrive.
Digital technology will continue to change the industry rapidly. Experts predict that within 10 years, film will be eliminated and movies will be shot and projected digitally, enhancing computer effects. Filmmakers will edit their movies over the Internet. And it may not be long before filmmakers are able to make entire movies with CGI, employing only digital actors. Some companies are experimenting with taking screen images of past and present film stars and digitally creating new films and performances.