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How Special Effects Artists Work

Types of Special Effects Artists
Special effects artists often rely on computers to create realistic characters and scenes.
Special effects artists often rely on computers to create realistic characters and scenes.
© Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Computer animation is one of the most sought-after skills in Hollywood. Teams of computer special effects artists create 3-D digital models of lifelike characters, realistic sets and vast landscapes. The models are first created as wireframes that establish the underlying structure of a character or object. Then specialized artists add realistic surfaces, skins and textures. Using mathematical algorithms, animators have developed hair that sways in the virtual breeze and clothing that rumples realistically when a character moves.

Character animation is a slow, painstaking process that requires incredible attention to detail and a deep understanding of natural human movement and facial expressions. For the most accurate replications of human movement, more and more computer animators are moving to motion-capture technology. This technology records and captures real-life movement and then transfers it to the computer. For example, "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson used actor Andy Serkis' movements to create the character Smeagol/Gollum.

Modelers are still a crucial part of special effects teams. They create miniature versions of large objects, buildings or entire sets. Modeling is often associated with old special effect techniques, like the miniature spaceships that roar by the camera in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. Interestingly, there were many more miniature models created for the most recent "Star Wars" movies than the originals ("Episode 1" had more models than "Episodes IV, V and VI" combined!) [source:].

Even with computing power, miniatures are still the most cost-effective way to create realistic sets and landscapes [source:]. Models are also used in different ways now. In "Episode III," for example, the special effects team figured out that they could create more realistic digital sets by first creating a detailed miniature model. The miniature model was then scanned digitally and wrapped in the surface textures created by the modeler.

A special effects make-up artist is part modeler, part sculptor, part painter, part chemist and part beautician. Makeup artists need to learn how to mix different chemicals to create moldable materials that are safe for close contact with skin. They must be skilled modelers and sculptors who can create a three-dimensional alien face using character designs from the art department. Then, they need to be able to apply that mold to an actor’s face. They also need to be able to use more traditional makeup techniques to seamlessly blend the real and the artificial.

Animatronics is the art of creating incredibly large or small mechanical puppets that can be manipulated using remote controls. Animatronics requires a team of specialized artists and engineers. When building an animatronic monster, for example, every part of the monster needs to be built from scratch. Its skeleton and limbs need to be forged out of lightweight graphite or metal, and its skin needs to be sculpted from foam.

Then mechanical engineers design small motors and hydraulic systems to move the large limbs around. Electrical engineers then design customized circuit boards and remote control devices to be manipulated by trained puppeteers. Sometimes it takes a whole team of puppeteers to control one large creature. Puppeteers can even control digital characters and 3-D models in real time using technology developed by companies like the Jim Henson Creature Shop [source: The Jim Henson Company].

Pyrotechnic effects artists are licensed professionals trained in the safety precautions involved in large-scale explosions, fire, bullet hits and small-scale explosive devices that are attached to an actor’s body. Aside from an extensive knowledge of explosives, these effects artists design customized pyrotechnic effects that achieve the director’s vision.

So how do you get these jobs? What kind of experience and education is required? Read on to find out.