The UK film industry benefits from the skilled work of special effects technicians, who help to create movie magic

As a special effects (or SFX) technician, you'll be behind the physical, pyrotechnic and visual effects seen in TV, film and some live entertainment events. From making 'real' snow, explosions, detailed models and fantastical monsters, the ability to wow often comes down to the skill of the technicians behind the magic.

SFX is a relatively small and specialised area of the UK entertainment industry, despite the many special effects used in TV, film and live events. Just 200-250 special effects professionals are currently on the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communication and Theatre Union (BECTU) list of special effects trainees, technicians and supervisors.

Types of special effects work

Special effects work is split into three main areas:

  • physical special effects - effects happening in front of the camera
  • pyrotechnic special effects - anything that happens in front of the camera and explodes, produces smoke or involves fire
  • visual special effects (VFX) - effects are not live but are added in later.

Physical special effects involve making realistic weather, mechanical tricks (perhaps using hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical or electronic elements), working with water (from creating tidal waves to burst pipes), creating models (from huge monsters to detailed models), wire work (such as hidden wires to make props or characters move) and prosthetics or special effects using make up.

Pyrotechnic special effects could be the effect of a bullet hitting a wall, or using high explosives to blow up a building on camera. Even smaller elements using fire (such as a character holding a burning torch) require SFX technical support to make sure that the effect is safe and effective.

Both physical and pyrotechnic effects are known as practical effects.

Visual special effects (also known as VFX) are added after filming. This can include some practical effects, such as making real model miniatures, but the majority of this work is now digital, and includes animation, CGI, digital image capture and digital compositing. For more information about working in VFX, see the VFX artist or animator job profiles; these are increasingly separate areas from SFX technical work.

Responsibilities

As a special effects technician you'll need to:

  • work as part of a team, under the direction of the senior technician or supervisor towards the execution of the effect
  • ensure that you work safely, particularly when working on practical effects.

Depending on your role within the team, and whether you're working on physical, pyrotechnic or visual effects, you might be required to:

  • build new equipment or other elements for use in the film - using woodwork, metalwork or other workshop skills
  • assemble or check equipment or other elements
  • deploy what the team has made to create the effect in front of the camera
  • safely remove and store equipment after use
  • use high attention to detail
  • work on a computer to model or trigger the effect.

Salary

  • Trainee special technicians earn a minimum of £9.70 an hour, or a day rate of £126.
  • Technicians (with five years' experience in the industry) earn a minimum of £28 an hour, or a day rate of £365.
  • Senior technicians (with 10 years' experience) earn a minimum of £32 an hour, or a day rate of £415.
  • Supervisors (with 15 years' experience) earn a minimum of £58 an hour, or a day rate of £756.

This covers those working in pyrotechnics and physical effects, but currently doesn't include special effects make up technicians or prosthetics staff. Rates are always negotiable and individuals who are well regarded in the industry are in great demand and are paid well above the rates listed.

Full-time, permanent contracts are very uncommon in this industry and it's common to have a contract of just a few weeks. 6 to 9 months of work on a major studio picture would be viewed as a long contract. You'll be given a payslip and are entitled to rights as a worker or employee. Or, you may work in a self-employed capacity as a freelancer, with a flat rate agreed for a set piece of work.

Income data from BECTU (2019). Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

A typical working day is usually viewed as 10 working hours, plus an hour for lunch. When working on a major film contract, it's common to work as long as production is running each day. Overtime is typically paid at 1.5 to 2 times an hourly rate for special effects technicians on the BECTU register.

Given that contracts are not permanent, it's common to work long hours while you have a contract and to take rest in between periods of work.

Weekend work and unsociable hours are possible, depending on the needs of the production. Bank holiday work is typically paid at 2 times the hourly rate.

What to expect

  • Travel is often required for those working in physical and pyrotechnical effects, where it's common to work away from home on location.
  • Safety and risk are a big consideration when working with practical special effects, particularly pyrotechnical elements. Insurance limitations can require staff to be 18 to work in hazardous environments, and it's important to trust those around you and to take the work seriously.
  • Contracts (particularly for major studio films) can be exhausting, with very long hours, although these also offer some of the highest earning potential.
  • To keep getting contracts it's important to keep in touch with industry contracts; most work is found through word of mouth.
  • Working freelance means that it's important to manage your own finances and tax obligations, as well as living with a fluctuating income.

Qualifications

You don't need a degree to work in practical special effects as skills and talent are usually viewed as more important. For example, you can join the BECTU grading list as a trainee to work as a special effects technician without any qualification or experience (although you do have to pay a fee, or join BECTU).

To get hired for work once you're a trainee, it's important to show that you have skills that would be useful for the special effects team. It can therefore be advantageous to hold any certificate or a qualification which evidences useful practical skills, and/or be able to evidence those skills through past work experience or extra-curricular activities.

Most trainees gain their first trainee role by simply being proactive and contacting a special effects company to communicate their enthusiasm and the skills that they can offer.

Some apprenticeships exist in this area, working with individual production companies and studios usually at Level 3, although this is currently a less common route into the industry.

Skills

You'll need to have the following:

  • creativity and ingenuity
  • attention to detail and thorough approach to safety
  • good teamwork skills
  • a highly adaptable and flexible nature - for adjusting to working in different environments
  • problem-solving ability and initiative
  • the ability to stay calm under pressure
  • a proactive approach - for keeping in touch with contacts and securing further work
  • relevant practical skills - such as the ability to use hand tools and to work with a variety of different mediums, such as wood, metal, electronics, engineering, mechanics, make up or model making.

Work experience

Finding direct work experience in SFX can be challenging, as insurance, safety and confidentiality concerns can prevent employers providing unpaid or volunteering experiences to individuals not yet in the industry. Seeking initial paid work as a trainee is more likely, where you'll be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of your contract, ensuring that no details of the movie are leaked ahead of publicity.

You can gain work experience in the film and TV industry more generally by looking for production assistant or runner roles on set. Try using sites like Mandy to find opportunities for 'crew' roles.  Bear in mind that many opportunities are likely to be unadvertised. A proactive approach to contacting production teams and building your network of contacts is therefore worthwhile and may result in an opportunity to get started in the industry and learn more about different roles in a typical film crew.

To evidence your passion for working in SFX, it can be more compelling to show employers what you've built/created outside of a production set. This can include models that you've made for fun, equipment you've made for amateur dramatic performances, items that you've crafted or designed to sell or give away, or trade work that you've undertaken.

Employers

Employers are likely to be specialist SFX companies, studios or film/TV/events production companies. Work is largely gained through word of mouth.

Look for vacancies at:

The Knowledge is a useful resource which you can use to research special effects companies to approach.

As most work is gained through word of mouth it's important to be friendly, helpful and willing to get stuck into whatever needs doing whenever you're working with a team. Trust between team members is important, particularly when working with practical effects which could potentially prove hazardous. Being a trusted, helpful team player is what will likely gain you future work.

Professional development

Once working in the industry most professionals take specific short courses with industry-specific training companies (often based at major studies such as Pinewood) to gain additional skills and continue to build their skillset and value as a freelance hire.

If working in pyrotechnics, there are specific courses that must be passed as part of your professional development in order to progress from trainee to technician to senior technician to supervisor, run by the Institute of Explosives Engineers. Full details are available to BECTU members on their website.

Career prospects

The BECTU grading system requires staff working in this industry to keep a log of the SFX work that they do. After 5 years as a trainee in the industry you can apply to be regraded to a special effects technician, based on your log of experience.

Different numbers of days or weeks of experience are set for the technician level requirements for different SFX aspects (such as physical and pyrotechnic). It's possible to achieve a regrade in just some of these areas. After 10 years in the industry, and with further proof of your experience, it's typical to be regraded to the position of senior technician - and to special effects supervisor after 15 years.

As your reputation grows in the industry, it's likely that you'll be able to command higher rates of pay, and increasingly find that the work comes to you based on your track record.

Eventually, if you achieve the status of special effects supervisor and have built a strong reputation, you may be able to set up your own special effects company and employ other special effects technicians.

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