Special Effects Technician

The Job and What's Involved

A special effects technician uses specialist skills to achieve convincing effects in a film or TV show.

Weather effects such as storms and fog, furniture that collapses during a fight, an alien craft flying through space, a battle scene or a spectacular explosion - all have been carefully planned and executed by special effects experts.

Special effects technicians may use various skills, including:

- Moulding
- Electronics
- Computer
- Mechanical work
- Joinery
- Metalwork
- Robotics
- Explosives

Special effects within the film and television industry are split into three fields:

Physical special effects - effects that are shot 'live' on camera, using devices such as mechanical rigs, robotics or systems where actors are supported by wires.

Pyrotechnic special effects - effects that happen 'live' on camera and involve explosions, fireworks or firearms.

Visual special effects - usually created by photographic manipulation or computer-generated imagery (CGI), and superimposed after the filming takes place.

A technician may:

  • Work with colleagues on planning the best way to achieve a required effect.
  • Set up a workshop to build and test effects.
  • Create the effects, using various tools and techniques.
  • Carry out tests and maintenance checks to ensure the effects will work correctly during filming.
  • Oversee the operation of the effects during the shoot.
  • Set up in-camera visual effects.
  • Assemble and superimpose visual effects onto the film during post-production.
  • Ensure that health and safety standards are followed at all times.

The work can be pressured. Directors may want to film an effects sequence several times from different angles. In other situations there may be only one chance to capture a shot.

Special effects technicians generally work as part of a team, reporting to a supervisor. They work closely with actors and stunt doubles, and may coach them in the safe use of the effects' mechanisms. They also liaise with the director, editor, production designer and props department.

Working hours are irregular and depend on filming schedules. Technicians often have to work evenings, nights and weekends, and start early in the morning.

Most technicians work freelance. It is common to have periods of intense activity, followed by periods of unemployment.

Technicians must travel to the shooting locations, and may spend long periods away from home.

The work is in studios, workshops and on location. Outdoor shoots are done in all weather conditions. The work can involve heavy lifting and handling hazardous substances, including gas, paint and explosives.

Freelance special effects technicians negotiate their own weekly rates. Trainees may earn between £200 and £500 per week, depending on skills. Rates may rise as high as £1,250 per week for technicians. Senior technicians and supervisors can earn £2,000 to £3,000 a week, or more.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Around 1,450 people work in special effects in the UK.

The employers are TV and film production companies. Most opportunities are based in and around London. Apart from a few full-time positions in television, most positions are short-term contracts.

An increasing number of special effects are being used in film and TV programme's. The UK special effects industry has a particularly good reputation, which brings US filmmakers here. However, the field is still small and competition for places is fierce.

Increasing use of computer-generated imagery has led to a decline in opportunities for physical special effects, such as animatronics.

Vacancies are usually filled through personal contacts. Some positions may be advertised in the national press. To gain work, entrants usually need to keep up to date with new TV and film productions and make contact with the special effects supervisor of each individual production.

Education and Training

There are no set qualifications. While experience in the field is as important as qualifications, employers will also be looking for evidence of skills and relevant experience, for instance in theatre stage crafts or in working with explosives and firearms.

Entrants may have completed a degree or diploma in a relevant subject, such as engineering, art, design, stage crafts or animation.

Some universities and colleges run specialist degree courses in subjects such as technical arts and special effects. Applicants usually undertake a foundation diploma in art and design before entry.

For a degree, applicants usually need at least five GCSE's (A*-C) and two A levels or equivalent qualifications. For an HND/HNC, entry requirements are usually one A level or equivalent. Entry qualifications for foundation degrees vary widely and applicants should check with individual institutions.

The BFI/Skillset Media Courses Directory lists more than 120 courses in the UK related to visual effects. See the BFI or Skillset website for more details.

The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant for this area of work.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

New entrants train by shadowing experienced technicians, whilst gaining a high degree of expertise. This allows them to build up a reputation and a show-reel of work to show future employers.

Technicians generally work as trainees for five years. For visual special effects, they train for two years, since this involves working in a less hazardous environment.

Trainees choose to specialise in one of the three areas of special effects. They may attend short courses to supplement their training, which they must fund themselves.

Working with pyrotechnic special effects involves licensing and examinations.

The field is strictly monitored by the Joint Industry Grading Scheme, which ensures that staff complete the required work experience before being promoted. All staff in the industry keep logbooks of the work they have done and the techniques they have used, which they submit to the grading scheme.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A special effects technician needs to be:

  • Practical.
  • Creative and imaginative.
  • Good at visualising how things will appear on screen.
  • IT literate.
  • Alert to health and safety issues.
  • Resourceful, to find solutions that work within a budget.
  • Comfortable working within a team, as well as on their own initiative.
  • Good at working under pressure.
  • Able to cope with criticism.
  • Adaptable.

Your Long Term Prospects

Technicians need to be pro-active about continuing professional development, searching out courses such as those provided by the Institute of Explosive Engineers.

They may advance to senior level after around ten years' experience in the industry. They may become a supervisor after a further five years.

Get Further Information

Animationmentor - online animation school.
Website: www.animationmentor.com

The Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT),
55 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9200
Website: www.abtt.org.uk

British Film Institute (BFI),
21 Stephen Street, London W1T 1LN
Tel: 020 7255 1444
Website: www.bfi.org.uk

BBC Recruitment HR Direct,
PO Box 1133, Belfast BT1 9GP
Website: www.bbc.co.uk/jobs

Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematographic
and Theatre Union (BECTU),
and the BECTU Special Effects Branch,
373-377 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT
Tel: 020 7346 0900
Website: www.bectu.org.uk

Joint Industry Grading Scheme (JIGS),
Room 2372, White City Building,
Media Village, 20 Wood Lane,
London. W12 7TS
Website: www.jigs.org.uk

Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT),
Procter House, 1 Procter Street,
Holborn, London WC1V 6DW
Tel: 020 7067 4367
Website: www.pact.co.uk

Skillset, Focus Point,
21 Caledonian Road,
London N1 9GB
Tel: 08080 300 900
Website: www.skillset.org

UK Screen & Regional Agencies,
UK Film Council, 10 Little Portland Street,
London W1W 7JG
Tel: 020 7861 7861
Website: www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk

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