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Special and Visual Effects Technicians

The Job

This article focuses on two types of effects technicians: special effects technicians and visual effects technicians. Both types create effects that amaze viewers as they watch movies, but they use different methods to go about creating movie magic. Special effects technicians deal with practical constructs and "in camera" effects—meaning those that are shot while the camera is rolling during a scene. Visual effects technicians use computer software programs to create scenes digitally or to add or improve effects after a film is made. The following paragraphs provide more information on these two effects sectors.

Special Effects

Special effects technicians are crafts persons who build, install, and operate equipment used to produce the effects called for in scripts for motion picture, television, and theatrical productions. They read the script before filming to determine the type and number of special effects required. Depending on the effects needed for a production, they will mix chemicals, build large and elaborate sets or models, and fabricate costumes and other required backdrops from materials such as wood, metal, plaster, and clay.

What’s known generally as special effects is actually a number of specialized trades. There are companies—known in the industry as special effects shops or houses—that offer specialized services in such diverse areas as computer animation, make-up, and mechanical effects. A special effects shop might provide just one or a combination of these services, and the crafts persons who work at the shops are often skilled in more than one area.

Make-up effects specialists create elaborate masks for actors to wear in a film or theatrical production. They also build prosthetic devices to simulate human—or nonhuman—limbs, hands, and heads. They work with a variety of materials, from latex plastic to create a monster’s mask, to human hair they weave into wigs, to plain cotton cloth for a costume. They are skilled at sewing, weaving, applying make-up, and mixing colored dyes.

Mechanical effects specialists create effects such as rain, snow, and wind during movie productions. They may also build small sections of sets and backdrops that have an effect in them. They might also create moving or mechanized props, such as a futuristic automobile for a science fiction film. Because of a production’s budget constraints, they are often required to construct miniature working models of such things as airplanes or submarines that, on film, will appear to be life- or larger-than-life-sized. Mechanical effects specialists are usually skilled in a number of trades, including plumbing, welding, carpentry, electricity, and robotics. At some film studios, the construction department may be responsible for some of the more labor-intensive responsibilities of mechanical effects specialists.

Pyrotechnic effects specialists are experts with munitions and firearms. They create carefully planned explosions for dramatic scenes in motion pictures and television broadcasts. They build charges and mix chemicals used for explosions according to strict legal standards.

Most professionals working in the field of special effects offer their services as freelance technicians. Some also work for special effects shops. The shops are contracted by motion picture or television broadcast producers and theatrical productions to provide the effects for a specific production. After reviewing the script and the type and number of the special effects required, the shop will send a special effects team to work on the production, or hire freelance technicians to assist on the job. Depending upon their level of expertise, many freelance technicians work for several shops.

Often, nonunion team members are required to help out with tasks that fall outside an area of expertise during the production. This may involve setting up and tearing down sets, moving heavy equipment, or pitching in on last-minute design changes. Union technicians are contracted to provide a specific service and rarely perform work outside an area of expertise.

Visual Effects

Visual effects technicians, also known as animators and multimedia artists, use high-tech computer programs to create entire movies, scenes in movies, or effects that are otherwise impossible or too costly to build by traditional means. They typically work in an office, separate from the actual filming location. Because much of the technology they use is on the cutting edge of the industry, computer animation specialists are highly skilled in working with and developing unique computer applications and software programs.

Visual effects technicians often work as freelancers; some own their own businesses. Others may be employed as salaried workers by visual effects, animation, and film studios.

Special and visual effects coordinators lead teams of special effects or computer animation specialists to provide effects for motion pictures, television shows, and commercials.