Education / Training and a Job, in Special Effects

"There are as many ways to get into this field
as there are people doing it!"
, (the people doing it)
"Talent will win out", Sally Fields
"Remember it's called Show business not Show Art", Lilly Tomlin

We're not claiming to be experts as to how, just passing along what little we know, in hopes of less non-business email and happier site visitors.

Which field of special effects?  Here are four major areas.

Live action special effects and pyrotechnics, a.k.a. floor FX,
practical FX, mechanical FX

Make up special effects, there are other more qualified people out there, here's a good start! Stan Winston Studio

** Miniature special effects, a.k.a. model making.

Visual special effects a.k.a. Computer Graphics, CGI

Training - film making, most cover basics of special effects in all fields
Nearly every college in the U.S. has a film or video school, and since basic film making has been unchanged since the early masters, the *knowledge is much the same, it becomes more about contacts made in school, than about curriculum. Having said that, here are a few well known schools, rich in content and contacts!
American Film Institute,
UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television,
UCLA Animation workshop,
I have to qualify that - CGI or high tech capabilities from school to school will unfortunately be different, make sure they have what you want! To find out what you need (for a CGI career, equipment & software) look through the job offerings from the CGI biggies listed below.

Training - Live action special effects
This is the tough one! The early days of studio training were exceptionally thorough. Working your way from one dept. to another learning all the crafts of the film industry ( there has been much talk in the unions of reviving this system ).  Nowadays, a specific skill, often high tech and or high skill in nature gets your foot in the door but may leave you *without a follow up job, and poverty sucks!  If you're lucky enough to have an IATSE local union in your area who's roster is low, you may be able to enter through the front door, provided you have the necessary skills to jump in the fire!
While keeping a pulse on your local union's roster, check into every small effects shop you can find.  The entertainment industry has several directories like the L.A. 411 where you can find many effects companies across the US  The Hollywood Reporter is another good place to look for adds and production schedules. Expect to work for free or nearly free at first, unless you have a special skill that's in demand.
** Model making is part of the special effects union;  Most model makers are skilled in live action effects ("learning all the trades") and many model makers have pyrotechnic licenses, welding lic., diving lic., etc., diversify, diversify!
Any idiot can blow things up, getting it on camera SAFELY is quite another matter! Most state Fire Marshals issue pyrotechnic licenses and tests for advancement in license qualifications.  In addition, the Federal Government issues licenses through the BATF, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.  The Alliance of Special Effects and Pyrotechnic Operators, ASEPO, keeps its members informed on safety issues, licensing, and the skillful art of pyrotechnics.  Special effects unions also keep their members updated. I highly recommend involvement with your local, state, national and pyrotechnic organizations. Staying well informed keeps everyone safe! There are some schools which teach high energy explosives, most notably the military, secondly mining blasting schools. But our world of explosives are meant for visual impact rather than physical impact, so even these skilled technicians have to learn another phase of pyrotechnics.
* kinda related - yes it's true, live action effects is feeling the dominance of CGI.  It's the natural evolution of an industry founded on Arts & Sciences.  Will live action effects disappear? It's doubtful, smaller yes, but actors still like to interact with their surroundings. so as long as there are actors...

Training - Visual Effects, *a.k.a. Computer Graphics, CGI
Here are a few well known CGI companies that have employment qualifications on-line, look for the programming languages and applications you should know.
Digital Domain
Disney employment
Industrial Light and Magic
Small visual effects companies appear (and disappear) all the time, they are probably the best place to start and gorilla effects gives you a true feeling for the business! Hit your local book store or newspaper stand and look for periodicals on special effects. There are many adds by current FX companies so there's your list. (and those already mentioned)
* Originally visual effects had nothing to do with CGI, but for this document we'll consider them synonymous.  For purity, a visual effects person should also have a fundamental background in film making, specializing in visual effects.

Training - Miniature special effects  - part of live action fx
Because miniature effects life time is inextricably linked to CGI's next step, many model makers have wisely embraced CGI, learning both trades. If you can model in 3D space,, then you can model in CGI! There are still Art Design centers that teach model making and prototyping, but a career in model making alone (for film), sadly, is way to scary to contemplate. If you absolutely must do it, then by all means do, but keep your ear to the rail!

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