Ten Steps to Landing Your Dream Special Effects Job in Film

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Essential advice for pursuing a career in movies. Sean Blakeley discusses ten critical points to keep in mind, as well as practical recommendations for increasing your chances of landing a job in special effects work.

Getting a break in cinema special effects is difficult, but not nearly as difficult as you may believe. The following ten items will go a long way toward assisting you in obtaining your dream career.

1) Gain an understanding of the industry

If you wish to work in special effects, it’s critical to understand not only the distinction between a Stag (stagehand) and a Director, but also the divisions within special effects. The days when Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) would isolate himself in a shed with a small crew and create all the special effects on his own are long gone.

Everything is now dispersed across multiple teams and departments. Therefore, if you enjoy sculpting sets and big monsters, you should consider working as a film sculptor; if you prefer smaller, more technical projects, you should consider joining the model unit.

2) Maintain a sense of realism

It is not simple to work in the creative industries, notably the film sector. You’ll frequently be faced with difficult projects and strict deadlines, and dozens of different people will be waiting for you to finish so they can finish their own assignments. You’ll need to create a balance between the amount of time available and the quality of the job you do; you cannot become too attached to your work.

Not only that, you must promote yourself — all special effects artists are self-employed, and you must seek out available work.

3) Investigate Art

Whether self-taught or having attended an art college, it is critical to have a strong passion in art in order to work in special effects. If you are asked to sculpt a life-size Roman-style statue or an Egyptian coffin, it is quite beneficial to have a mental reference point. However, more importantly, it will make the task more fun.

You may spend the weekend leafing through an art book and then be asked to duplicate one of the paintings you’ve been admiring on Monday morning.

4) Illustration

All technical drawings in the film industry are created by draughtsmen in the Art Department. Is this merely padding to obtain the elusive ‘ten’ steps? Not at all. If you wish to construct any three-dimensional item, particularly the human form, it is critical to learn to sketch and to practise constantly. Sculptors frequently compare their work to drawing their subjects in clay from a variety of angles. As with sketching, the key to successful sculpture is delineating the lines and shadows.

5) Exercise

This is self-evident, but it is also critical. If you spend your free time making and sculpting things, you will improve. Additionally, it is also beneficial to reproduce the sensation of working on a film – thus limit yourself to reference images (rather than a real model) and set a challenging deadline for the project. A little more challenging, but equally useful, is experimenting with new mediums. You may be a master in steel building and welding, but these skills are worthless until you join the engineering side of a special effects or metal work team. The films are often made of low-grade potter’s clay and polystyrene.

6) Easily approachable

Almost everyone in the film industry is self-employed, and so understands that the only way to secure employment is through self-promotion. This does not mean you should visit potential employers’ homes or launch bizarre self-marketing campaigns; it just means that the majority of people in the sector are approachable. If you cold phone a relevant Head of Department (HOD) and demonstrate your commitment and want to learn, they will frequently agree to meet with you for five to ten minutes to review your portfolio.

7) Perseverance

When you eventually meet the man or woman who you hope will become your future boss, do not end your search there. They’ll accept your information, but it could take up to 18 months for them to find an appropriate project and contact you. You should meet as many potential employers as possible and, if you are brave enough, stop and chat with other members of the department.

Leave a card or, better still, copies of your favorite one or two pieces of work with your contact information on them (and ideally your online portfolio address if you have one). Then, give them a brief follow-up call every six months or so — even if they are unable to offer you a position, the amount of information you will receive about various prospects is astounding.

8) Personal portfolio

Critical. Simply put. Simple rules govern a successful portfolio:

Diversity – display a variety of different types of work you’ve completed — you may be pleased with your series of 18 statutes, but don’t exhibit them all. Additionally, while you may not believe that a 30ft polystyrene snowdrift demonstrates your expertise as a sculptor, it does demonstrate your variety, therefore include it.

Honesty — this should be self-evident, but it isn’t. Only one thing earns a HOD’s support more than seeing a significant piece of work with someone claiming to have done it entirely on their own, and that is seeing a piece of their own work claimed by someone else. Believe me when I say that it does occur. Therefore, be candid. If you did a giant’s left foot, state it plainly and without ambiguity.

Concise – make the most of your opportunity. 10-12 photographs are more than sufficient to demonstrate the breadth of your work and abilities.

Finest Foot Forward – The majority of people will get an opinion about your work after seeing 2-3 examples, therefore place your best work at the top.

Presentation — avoid strewing shreds of paper from your moth-eaten portfolio. Invest on a lightweight A4 portfolio with binders made of plastic. Utilize your Photoshop talents to enhance the presentation of your work. You are not required to bring an example of your sculpture – you will be presenting it to professionals who are accustomed to evaluating work through images.

Information — you may have created a full-scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, but if it took three years, it is of little use to the film industry. Make a point of noting the scale of each example of your work, the materials you used, and the time required. These minor details are critical for HODs and will be much appreciated.

Online Portfolio – if possible, have an online portfolio created and ensure that any contact information includes your address. Ideally, you should obtain the HOD’s email address so that you may forward the link to them. Any time you update the portfolio’s contents, it’s an excellent opportunity to email the HOD with another link to your work.

9) Relationship building

While networking might be awkward and embarrassing at times, it is critical to learn about available positions. After a few jobs, you’ll receive the phone digits of a few coworkers; make sure you call them. However, be careful that if you are the first to learn about a new James Bond film and then inform everyone else, you will find yourself in line to present your portfolio. This is not to say you should not share information about upcoming positions; rather, it implies you should keep in mind that everyone is looking for work. Additionally, it’s a good idea to monitor movie news websites.

10) Film Viewing

A fantastic advantage for times when you are not working — you may watch films and claim them as study. While it’s exciting to see your own work on the big screen, it’s equally thrilling to see the work and names of familiar persons. After your first or second job, you’ll rapidly develop a sense of belonging to the sector and begin to recognise names and faces. Additionally, for those tasks that you lost out on, you can vent about how you would have done it better!

Working in the film industry is not for everyone; but, if you are persistent and continue to grow your skills and knowledge, you are likely to be given an opportunity to demonstrate your abilities. Best wishes!

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