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PHYSICAL AND VISUAL EFFECTS - Job Title: Pyrotechnician Or Special Effects

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionPHYSICAL AND VISUAL EFFECTS - Job Title: Stunt Coordinator, Job Title: Aerial Director/coordinator, Job Title: Visual Effects Supervisor


Job Overview

Pyrotechnicians devise and orchestrate effects involving fire and explosives, and build the electronic devices used to create those effects. Examples of pyrotechnic effects include blowing up a building or vehicle, burning down a building, setting a person on fire, creating smoke effects, or staging fireworks.

Special Skills

In addition to his skills in pyrotechnics, special effects supervisor/pyrotechnician Robert Hutchins's background in theater proved an asset to understanding the theatrics of creating effects. An understanding of the filmmaking process is also important.

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

The best way to get into this field is to apprentice under a skilled pyrotechnician. California law requires that pyrotechnicians be licensed by the state. “It's an apprentice program in California,” explains Jim Gill. “You get a 3 card and work under other people. After you've done that for a couple of years and shown you have safely handled a number of kinds of work, they will vouch for you and you advance to the 2 card, then the 1 card. Then you can run off and blow things up yourself.

“I recommend people learn as much as possible about computer and digital effects, because that's the future.” Contact pyrotechnicians to ask if you can observe them at work, and see if you can get an apprenticeship. Another option is to contact companies that stage fireworks displays.

Professional Profile: Robert Hutchins, Special Effects Supervisor and Pyrotechnician

From the time he was in junior high school, Robert Hutchins was involved in theatrics. He took drama classes, acted in productions, and worked on stage crews in high school. After graduating from high school in 1972, he took a few courses in radio and television production at Pasadena City College, then went to work full time at Magic Mountain in the entertainment department, “running sound, lights, and pushing chairs,” from 1974 to 1976. Thereafter, he periodically returned on a freelance basis to work on special promotional events.

What do you like least about your job?

“What I like least is lifting heavy objects.”—Robert Hutchins

What do you love most about your job?

“What I like most is the variety. No two jobs are the same … it's always a different location, working with different people.”—Robert Hutchins

“The big thing [at Magic Mountain] was Halloween. We dressed the park to be spooky and hired actors to run around as ghouls or whatever.” Hutchins was part of the crew charged with staging an alien attack on the train that ran through the park and surrounding pastureland, using pyrotechnics to create special effects. The park employed several technicians who normally worked in the film industry to orchestrate these effects. By working with them, Hutchins learned some basic techniques in pyrotechnics and fireworks displays, and made contacts in the film industry. One of those contacts was Joe Viskocil, who later won an Academy Award for his work on Independence Day.

Viskocil became a mentor, helping Hutchins refine his skills and referring him for film work. He went on to stage manage the “Kingdom of Dancing Stallions,” before going to work at Cinnebar, a set construction and special effects house in Los Angeles. Starting out in construction, he moved into the electronics show, staying with the company for eight years. Having only a class 3 card for pyrotechnics, Hutchins hired Viskocil to help him on jobs requiring a higher classification. In turn, Viskocil hired him to work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day and other productions.


* Be willing to go “the extra mile to make an effect look as good as possible.”—Robert Hutchins

Hutchins left Cinnebar in 1993 and picked up freelance work, creating effects for commercials, designing programs for computer games, staging fireworks displays at Magic Mountain, and working as a pyrotechnician on feature films that included Apollo 13 and Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. His first special effects coordinating job was on the straight to video production Mercenary, the result of a recommendation from a friend he had worked with at Cinnebar. Hutchins also coordinated Virus, and moved up to special effects supervisor on Pavilion of Women. When not involved with a feature, he continued working on commercials and staging fireworks displays.

The relationship with Viskocil also continued. Hutchins was hired to work with him on True Lies, Independence Day, Alien: Resurrection, Dante's Peak, and Godzilla.

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