Case study

Special effects technician and SFX makeup artist — Lea James

Lea was inspired to work in SFX by her love of film and work experience on fashion and film shoots. Discover her top tips for getting into this field

How did you get your job in special effects?

I studied hair and make-up at college, starting out with an NVQ in hairdressing and theatrical and media make up. I then moved to London and gained experience assisting on various fashion and film shoots. I've always been a huge fan of listening to and studying film experts, including watching documentaries and behind the scenes footage, and this inspired me to work in SFX.

I wanted to learn more advanced special effects and found a course (through Creative Media Skills) at Lifecast in Elstree Studios, and then at Longcross with the incredible Oscar winner Neil Corbould.

I would say it's better to do a course based at a studio, like these. I learned so much and really developed my position in the make up FX industry. The more short courses I do, the more I learn and the more my production value increases.

I now freelance as a special effects technician and an SFX make-up artist, and my work can be seen on Instagram at @Leajamesfx. My current job title depends on the project. If I like the project I'll do it regardless. I love film so this isn't an issue for me. So on any one job I might be a make-up artist, or a head of department, or a special effects technician.

What are your main work activities in SFX?

The activities I need to carry out in a day depend on the project I'm working on.

On studio days, I start early (at about 7am) and I'll either need to arrange accommodation or drive early to get there on time. I always arrive 30 minutes early, to be on the safe side.

On location shoot days, the day can be both spectacular and gruelling. The weather is a beast and you never truly feel prepared for what may happen. For example, filming in Iceland we were given a sandstorm, a hurricane and lots of cold wet weather to deal with. However, you soldier on and try to create the best job you possibly can, and troubleshoot when you need to.

What do you enjoy about your job?

There are so many exciting parts to my job, such as designing the frames for atmospherics (the rigs that create weather effects). It's amazing to see the special effects and how they look - how they start or degrade. Meeting the crew and actors and getting to see the screen grabs after - capturing everyone's hard work on screen.

What are the most challenging parts?

The main challenges can be budgets, time and continuity. For example, smoke direction can change as the wind changes direction, but we need to keep each shot consistent and that can be very challenging at times.

As a BECTU special effects trainee I keep a log of all the special effects I do in film. It takes about 5 years as a trainee to gain the film hours needed of each atmospheric or pyrotechnic to move up the ladder to become a technician. You can be fast tracked if you have previous experience. Your log must be signed off by a supervisor.

Apprenticeships are available at studios, so you can go into this field straight from school or after other qualifications. There isn't a log like these for SFX make-up, but there might well be one in the future as the profession grows.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

I would love to have my own studio at some point, but my main aim is to keep working in the film industry at any capacity. I really couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Any advice for someone hoping to get into special effects?

My advice to anyone is to gain experience, however possible. For example, a production assistant role gives you the chance to meet people and gain connections. At first I joined sites like Mandy. Sometimes the work was unpaid, but I gained so much from doing that and it eventually led to paid work as the people I met also become more senior in the industry.

Be nice to everyone as you never know what they'll end up doing in the future. You can meet runners on jobs who end up directing, and they might be keen to work with you again when they remember how helpful you were. No job for me was impossible, I would make tea and help every department - something I still do. I firmly believe having a nice working team shows in your work.

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