Special Effects Supervisor

  • Special Effects Supervisor

Computer-generated visual effects have transformed film and television forever, and the applications grow ever more sophisticated. Yet there’s nothing like a live-action fireball resulting from the bad guy’s SUV careening off Mulholland Drive and onto the hillside below. For the real-life disaster drama of explosions, tidal waves, and earthquakes, the film and television industry rely on the talents and training of the special effects team. 


Simply put, special effects are anything that gets blown up, smashed, crashed, destroyed, or otherwise demolished. SFX also covers artificial weather, water, fog, smoke, and other atmospheric effects, as well mechanical and electrical effects. At the head of the crew of mad scientists is the special effects supervisor; this person is responsible for supervising the planning and manufacturing of all SFX elements during pre-production, and will manage their safe and proper operation on set during principal photography. Additional responsibilities include preparing the department budget and scheduling crew. During production planning, the special effects supervisor works closely with the production designer and art director to establish the concept for each SFX shot and creates a breakdown of the script to identify location and relevant information related to the construction of special effects rigs. He or she will also participate in pre-production meetings with the director and cinematographer to plan for all necessary equipment, camera angles, and safety protocols in relation to shooting a special effects scene. With that information, the supervisor turns to his or her team of SFX technicians to prototype and test different rigs. When the director is pleased with the results, a final rig is built and delivered in anticipation of shooting.

On set, the special effects supervisor is in charge of setting up all special effects systems and operating the rigs. He or she may delegate responsibilities to additional crew as needed. This person is tasked with establishing safety procedures concerning SFX scenes, and will give a briefing to all cast and crew present on set during those shots. The SFX team may take as much time as required to ensure that all precautions have been taken to prevent injury or unplanned damage to equipment and property. If required by law, the special effects supervisor will cooperate with local and state officials and fire marshals to perform inspections before the cameras roll. Following the execution of a special effects scene, the supervisor will supervise the strike and suitable storage of all related equipment and materials, including the proper disposal of hazardous materials. It is the SFX supervisor’s job to see to it that the set is cleared and safe before shooting can resume on the set.

Skills & Education

A college degree in film and television production is useful, but a formal education in electrical engineering or mechanical engineering is encouraged. Training is necessary in handling explosives, high voltage, firearms, and other hazardous material and equipment. Courses in physics, advanced mathematics, and chemistry are recommended, as special effects are a science, not just movie magic. Both state and federal laws apply to the use of explosives and live firearms in entertainment production, and certifications and licenses may be required, depending on the nature of the work. You should be familiar with the applicable laws and take part in regular training updates concerning changes to regulations.

What to Expect

This career carries with it the immense responsibility of ensuring the safety of everyone on set, a duty that must be taken seriously. Considerable training and experience is necessary for this senior-level role, which requires several years of professional employment at the junior level. Special effects personnel are eligible for membership in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents technicians and artists in film, television, and live production. Entry-level roles within the special effects department on a union project are available for trainees and laborers as needed, providing apprenticeships under skilled veterans in order to learn the trade. Non-union positions also exist on union shows, and are often referred to as permit status workers. With experience on several productions, you may advance through the tiered structure of SFX assistants, beginning with the role of third assistant special effects.


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