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There are quite a few sub-specialties that can be listed under the general heading of special effects artist. Basically, however, a special effects artist is someone who makes things happen in the movies or on television that normally would not occur in real life.

Special effects have been showing up in the movies for 100 years. But it wasn't until 1975, when the movie Jaws ushered in the era of the modern “blockbuster,” and 1977, when Star Wars broke new ground with special effects, that the actual field of special effects became one of the most popular and fastest-growing in the film industry. Within the broad field of special effects arts are career possibilities in computer effects, creature effects, visual effects, and puppetry.

The computer effects artist must have a background in animation and a general technical background in computers in order to do computer graphic images. Computer graphic or digital images often are used when filming the real thing might be too difficult, dangerous, or expensive. For example, a scene may call for six dolphins to jump simultaneously, creating a beautiful arc over a sunset. Trying to get this shot from nature might be next to impossible. That's where computer graphics come in. The computer effects artist works on his or her computer to create the image, making it look so real that film-goers will have no idea that they are not watching an authentic nature shot.

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was just recently adapted to film because only in the past decade or so has computer technology become sophisticated enough to create the fantastic creatures that are seen throughout the film. This technology also was used for things as simple as making actors Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen seem vastly different in height.

The creature effects artist creates unique creatures that no one has seen before. He or she uses imagination and talent to think up and create creatures that fit the director's needs as dictated by the script. The creature designer must first read the script and see what is needed for the story. Then, using previous art training, he or she will create what is necessary for the film. With help from a sculptor, mold maker, foam latex runner, painter, and mechanic, the creature effects artist produces an exciting new creature for each film.

If your background leans more toward mechanics, you might consider a career as a creature effects mechanic. This is the person who creates the framework and musculature of the creature so that it can move and function properly. He or she is responsible for putting in the controls to move the creature's face and limbs. The mechanic is the tinkerer, the person who is always curious to know how all of the little gadgets and doodads work. He or she needs to understand mechanical parts and how they can be put together to work. An understanding of air compressors and hydraulics as used for movement is a must. An understanding of electronics will help you, too.


The special effects artist needs a background in the arts, which includes drawing, sculpting, and fine arts. Take as many art classes as you can. A mechanical background is of great help as well. Take classes that deal with mechanical things, like shop. Special effects artists often have specialized knowledge that can only be obtained in specific ways, such as learning to handle explosives, which may require a military background.

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