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Car chases, stormy nights, robotic limbs—these are all pieces of movie magic called “special effects.” In almost every movie or television production, there is some form of special effects and it’s up to the special effects supervisor to make it all come to life.
What Are Special Effects?
Special effects (also called practical effects or SFX) are done on set during production, and they are either manual or mechanical. Special effects are the explosions, earthquakes, car chases, animatronic dragons, and even atmospheric effects like fog and rain that have become expected of any live-action feature film.
Many people, when they think of special effects, think of digitally inserted effects, like the CGI dragons in Game of Thrones. Those type of digital effects are actually called visual effects or digital effects, and they’re done in post-production.
What Is a Special Effects Supervisor?
To make those special effects happen, the special effects supervisor (whose job title can also be SFX supervisor or SFX coordinator) manages an entire team of special effects technicians. The SFX supervisor is the senior-level position responsible for making sure the effects are executed smoothly and safely.
The SFX supervisor reports directly to the director and producers as early as pre-production to ensure that they understand the director’s vision for the effects. They also work closely with production designers and art directors to figure out the details—like how exactly to achieve certain looks, or what special equipment they’ll need to build.
What Are a Special Effects Supervisor’s Responsibilities?
A super effects supervisor has many responsibilities during pre-production and production.
- Meet with the director and producers. Many directors and producers have specific ideas for their production special effects, and it’s the SFX supervisor’s job to listen to their ideas and discuss with them what’s possible, especially within the production’s budget. It’s also up to the SFX supervisor to suggest to the director the best camera angles and other technical specs for scenes with special effects, since the SFX supervisor is the one who best understands how these effects will look on screen.
- Plan special effects execution. The SFX supervisor is also responsible for making detailed plans to execute all special effects as safely and cost-effectively as possible. If a director wants a scene in which multiple people are on fire, it’s the SFX supervisor’s job to determine all necessary equipment and stuntmen.
- Assemble the special effects technicians. From stuntmen to robotics operators, the SFX supervisor is expected to have a team of his own or be able to contact industry professionals to work on the production.
- Keep everyone safe. The SFX supervisor is managing a team often working in hazardous conditions, and it’s up to them to ensure safety protocols are met.
What Education and Skills Do You Need to Be a Special Effects Supervisor?
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Special effects supervisor is a highly technical position that requires extensive training. Special effects is a very competitive field, so a relevant degree (like industrial design, animation, engineering, or even film) is crucial in order to stand out. Special effects supervisor is a senior-level position, and you should expect to work years as an SFX technician before applying for the supervisor level.
There are also several skills that will help you be a great SFX supervisor:
- Familiarity with technical equipment. From fog machines to high-tech prosthetics, SFX supervisors are expected to understand, use, and even repair many complex pieces of equipment on set.
- Creativity. Often, directors have an idea for a scene without much detailed knowledge of how to make it work—and it’s up to the SFX supervisor to come up with creative solutions to these problems.
- Vision. Seeing an explosion in real life is a lot different than seeing it on camera, and what may look good on set often doesn’t translate to the theater. Good SFX supervisors can visualize how special effects will look on camera and can plan accordingly—with the right camera angles and distance—to make sure it will look great.
Special Effects Supervisor vs. Visual Effects Supervisor
Special effects aren’t the only effects in motion pictures—there are also visual effects, managed by the visual effects supervisor (also called the digital effects supervisor or VFX supervisor). The VFX supervisor heads a team of visual effects artists, who work to create effects through computer graphics and animation software. All visual effects are added in post-production, with computer animation software.
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