How Special Effects Artists Work

By: Dave Roos
Special-effects artists built a miniature model of the White House to create this scene in the movie "Independence Day". See more movie making pictures.
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In the movies, nothing is impossible. Living, breathing dinosaurs roam the Earth. Humans rocket to distant galaxies and war with alien races. Monsters rise from the sea and destroy New York City. This type of cinematic magic is made possible by the hard work of special effects artists.

Next time you go to the movies, stick around for the credits. If the film is one of those big summer blockbusters, get comfortable; you’re going to be there for a while. Thousands of people collaborate on these million-dollar projects. And a big part of what makes these movies so much larger than life is special effects. Hundreds of computer animators, model makers, explosives experts, puppeteers and make-up artists spend thousands of hours crafting these on-screen realities.


When we think of modern special effects, we tend to focus on computer generated, or CG, effects. Computers have had a greater impact on special effects than any other tool. But you might be surprised at how many old-school effects tricks are still used in movies, like precise miniatures, creative makeup and good old-fashioned dynamite.

Most often, however, good special effects are a blend of both physical techniques and digital wizardry. Computer animators might create a digital Tyrannosaurus Rex that races through a forest. Pyrotechnics experts set up controlled explosions that splinter tree trunks and branches as the digital creature crushes through them. When it’s time for the beast to grab the hero in his teeth, the animatronics team creates a giant mechanical puppet of the T-Rex’s head. After the T-Rex has had his snack, the makeup artists paint a gruesome wound on the hero (he lives, of course).

So how many different types of special effects artists are there and how do you break into such an exciting industry? Does it take a college degree or can you just work your way up? Read on to find out more.


Types of Special Effects Artists

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.


Becoming a Special Effects Artist

Special makeup effects person Bryan Blair works on a mannequin for the TV show, "Crossing Jordan."
© Phil McCarten/Getty Images

The best way to become a special effects artist is to start young. Absorb all the information you can get your hands on. There are dozens of Web sites and specialty magazines that cater to special effects professionals and hobbyists like "Cinefex," "Fangoria," "The Modeler's Resource" and "Amazing Figure Modeler" [source: essortment]. You can also order how-to videos or scour online video-sharing sites for free tutorials.

Take out books on anatomy and movement. Go to ballet performances and take trips to the zoo. Watch slow-motion recordings of people and animals in motion to see how bones and muscles move while the body subtly shifts weight.


Then it’s time to start tinkering. Build your own models, either from kits or originals. Play with different molding and sculpture compounds and learn how to make your own. Volunteer at your local haunted house and see what kinds of scary and innovative gags you can come up with. Get together with your friends and make your own low-budget horror films.

While a degree in special effects isn't absolutely necessary, it may be the best way to quickly get experience and basic training in all of the special effects fields. Most college programs offer introductory classes in art history, drawing, sculpture and traditional animation and movement. They also offer training in 3-D modeling, computer animation and computer graphics. This is a great way to get experience with professional computer animation software like Maya and Flash.

Some people like the structure of a classroom education, while others are much more productive and creative working on their own projects and learning as they go. Whichever path you choose, the most important thing is to gain experience and familiarity with the tools and techniques of the particular industry in which you want to work. Take work wherever it’s available, without worrying about getting paid. School and community theater is great, as are projects with independent, local filmmakers.

Document and take pictures of everything you do. When it’s time to start looking for an industry job, you’ll need to assemble a portfolio of your work. This usually consists of photos of your work, plus a DVD featuring your best clips. Then you’ll need a one-page, well-written résumé that lists your education and work experience.

Spend some time researching all the different special effects houses. Most Hollywood special effects aren’t done at the movie studios themselves, but are contracted out to independent SFX houses that specialize in a particular type of effect, whether motion capture, digital matte painting, creature modeling, animatronics, et cetera. Find the company that matches your particular talents and start looking for job openings.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the interview process. Not only do you need to present yourself well in your portfolio and reel, but also in person. Special effects is heavily collaborative work that requires strong communication skills and personal responsibility. No one wants to work with someone who comes across as flaky, lazy or overly eccentric.

If you find the perfect company, but there aren't any job openings in your field, consider taking any job that will get your foot in the door. Traditionally, these are production assistant or runner jobs that have little to do with actual special effects work, but will allow you to meet the people on the inside who can help you take the next step.

You’ll most likely have to move to Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area, since that’s where most special effects houses are located.

Now let’s learn more about special effects degree programs.


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).
© 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.