Students interested in special effects first need to determine whether they want to pursue a mechanical or animated special effects degree program. Associate's, bachelor's and master's degree programs are available for both. Program fields include theater, animation, visual effects, multimedia arts and pyrotechnics. For theater programs, students may emphasize stage makeup or set design.
Live production special effects students learn to utilize mechanical stage props, scale models, make-up and pyrotechnics to manipulate the appearance of scenes and actors. Special effects animation programs teach students to simulate visual effects through the use of digital, optical or computer animated imagery. Those interested in pyrotechnic special effects complete federal- or state-approved pyrotechnic training courses that prepare students for licensure.
To enter an associate's or bachelor's degree program, you'll need a high school diploma or GED. An undergraduate degree is required for admission at the graduate level.
Programs are commonly available online.
Many associate's degree programs focus on the mechanical aspects of special effects. Students take courses in theatrical makeup applications, stage design, casts and mold making, lighting techniques and prop applications. Students pursuing associate's degree programs for special effects animators take courses in digital imaging, drawing, 3-D modeling and computer generated imagery.
Bachelor's degree programs in animation, special effects or multimedia arts train students to bring 2-dimensional sketches to life via computer animation software. Students complete courses in animation principles, storyboarding techniques, digital imaging, 3-D modeling and design fundamentals. Students pursuing bachelor's degree programs in mechanical special effects often take part in college or community theatre programs. Coursework includes dramatic analysis, technical theatre, scene design, stage make-up applications, digital theatre design and costume design.
Graduate degree programs for mechanical special effects provide comprehensive coursework in theatre production, stage lighting design, costume design, digital theatre design, period productions and stage scene design. Students also take courses in theatre history, drama criticism and comparative drama.
Graduate degree programs in animated special effects emphasize technical skills and encourage sophisticated storytelling. Students take courses in advanced animation, computer-animated visual effects, computer/human interfaces, simulation technologies and studio production management. Additional coursework may include sound and visual production, advanced life drawing, pre- and post-production special effects processes and graphic design.
Pyrotechnics Training Programs
Students interested in creating live special effects, such as firework displays, complete pyrotechnic training programs that are regulated by federal, state and local governments. Beginning coursework emphasizes the importance of safety regulations, special effects design, display set-up and clean-up and emergency hazmat procedures. It also includes courses in hands-on firing and display scripting. Advanced coursework includes commercial firework management and operations, safety strategies for purchasing and storing fireworks and multiple-shot fusing. Students also learn how to design and engineer special effects displays and take courses in timed musical orchestration and multiple-display arrangements.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), most animated special effects artists pursue bachelor's degree programs. Mechanical or optical special effects degree programs provide theatre or studio classrooms that simulate practical production scenarios. Students also build hands-on job experience by completing internships with local theatres, film or television production companies or animation studios.
Although laws vary by state, pyrotechnicians are required to apprentice under more experienced technicians while they complete a set number of successful live productions. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, apprenticeship experiences last 1-3 years.
Licenses and Certifications
Mechanical or optical special effects artists are not bound by licensure or certifications standards. However, it is common for pyrotechnic special effects artists to be licensed through federal, state or local municipalities. Typically, this requires pyrotechnicians to complete approved classroom-style training and supervised apprenticeships in order to seek licensure.
It may also require pyrotechnicians to hold commercial driver licenses (CDL) with hazmat endorsements. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) sets regulations and guidelines for this industry.
Workshops and Seminars
Professional associations, such as the International Animated Film Society and the American Association of Community Theatre, offer annual film festivals and conferences for special effects artists. These film festivals showcase mechanical and digital special effects productions and provide a forum for artists to collaborate on ideas, projects and industry issues.
Additional Professional Development
Ever-evolving special effects technologies require professionals to continue their education and training throughout their careers. Mechanical and animated special effects artists often stay current in their industry by attending film festivals, reading trade journals, such as Make-Up Artist Magazine and Animation Magazine, and completing specialized coursework as required. Pyrotechnicians may also be required by law to complete regular safety and operations training courses.
Depending on the field and specialization an individual is interested in, training in special effects is available at the associate's, bachelor's, and master's degree levels and also through governmental training programs. While certification/licensure isn't a requirement for optical and mechanical special effects, it is a common requirement for pyrotechnicians.