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How Special Effects Artists Work


Special Effects Degrees
Special-effects artists create models for movies such as "Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World," which also featured Vanessa Lee Chester (pictured).
Special-effects artists create models for movies such as "Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World," which also featured Vanessa Lee Chester (pictured).
© Dave Allocca/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Special effects is an increasingly technical industry. Special effects houses don’t have the time or money to invest in training new employees on how to use the software required to do the job. To land a job with one of these companies, you need to come in the door with proven skills and a portfolio of work. The best way to get training and experience is through a special effects degree program.

For modelers, makeup artists, puppeteers and pyrotechnic artists, there are many technical schools and small programs that offer introductory associate degrees. These are part-time or full-time degree programs that can be completed in less than two years. These programs teach the core principles of modeling, sculpture, anatomy and animatronics, giving students a chance to build a small portfolio and make some industry contacts.

The majority of degree programs in visual effects and computer animation are found at art schools and film schools. The most common undergraduate degree for a career in special effects is a Bachelor of Fine Arts in visual effects, animation, computer animation, illustration, sculpture or film and video. The coursework for a BFA degree usually involves core classes in drawing, sculpting, modeling and hand-drawn animation, then upper-level classes in 3-D character modeling and animation, digital matte painting and lighting, as well as involvement in independent film projects.

Some art and film schools also offer Master of Arts or Master of Fine Arts degrees in visual effects and computer animation. These highly focused degree programs offer in-depth exploration of a particular facet of computer animation and visual effects. There’s usually an emphasis on collaborative projects, which is an excellent opportunity to build up an impressive digital portfolio.

Outside of art schools, there are a few programs at four-year colleges and universities that offer special degrees or certificate programs in digital effects for film. Carnegie Mellon University, which is renowned for its computer science program, has established the Entertainment Technology Center that awards a unique Master of Entertainment Technology. The program is project-based, bringing together artists and technically savvy students to work on collaborative, cutting-edge projects. Johns Hopkins University has the Computer Career Institute from which you can earn a Master Certificate in special effects design.

For more information on special effects artists and related film-making topics, check out the links on the next page.