How To Become a Special Effects Artist

Special effects are used with spectacular results in the entertainment industry, whether live or on film. The job of a special effects artist is one of the hottest jobs around today, and with some hard work and training, you can also become one! Special effects are generally characterized into special categories – computer graphics, theatrical/film make-up, animation and trick photography.

Read on to find out how you can become a special effects artist in any of the above categories.

Special effects make-up

The job involves using make-up, wigs, prosthetics and other props to transform normal-looking actors into monsters, ghouls, fantastic creatures and more. While there is no single degree which provides educational qualifications, this is a skill often picked up on the job, through watching and learning from other experienced professionals. Special courses in cosmetology, theatrical make-up, filming techniques, air-brushing, etc provide the extra advantage.

Special effects: Cinematography, graphics, animation and visual effects

All these sub-categories of special effects or FX require technical knowledge and training. Across America, there are many vocational and trade schools or traditional universities and colleges which offer various programs in film and TV cinematography, visual effects, computer animation and graphics. However, many FX professionals working today started without the benefit of any formal education in their fields, their career paths were created with working as interns, gophers or assistants without no or little wages, building up a portfolio over time, working with as many producers or companies as possible.

If you are young or still in school, you will have the luxury of time to work your way up as above, but obtaining a diploma, degree or even certification in these fields will provide that extra push. Some courses you can look at, to gain expertise and qualifications in lieu of work experience are listed below:

  1. Associate/bachelor’s degree in graphic design, still and cinematography, animation – manual or computer, etc.
  2. Proficiency in computer software and programming specific to the entertainment industry, for example, Adobe has several programs such as Dreamweaver, CS4, After Effects, etc.
  3. Online degree or diploma courses in Animation & Visual Effects, Computer Illustration, Commercial Art, Computer Graphic Artist, Visual Effects, etc.

Getting started

  • Read up as much information as possible on careers in special effects and the different specializations within this field, in print publications as well as online resources.
  • Network with current professionals to get an idea of what is involved and tips on starting a career in special effects.
  • Look for summer or short-duration jobs where you can assist in local film and television studios, independent production houses, theatre groups, etc.
  • Experiment on your own with computer graphics and animation in creating special effects; build up a portfolio of your work, which you can carry with you when you go for an interview. Ditto for your CV/resume!

Hard work, dedication and experience are the key factors in building up a career as a special effects artist; with a little help from colleagues, peers and mentors along the way, of course!


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