How Special Effects Artists Work

Becoming a Special Effects Artist

Special makeup effects person Bryan Blair works on a mannequin for the TV show, "Crossing Jordan."
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.