Special Effects Designer
The execution of special effects on stage is a complicated and intricate process; as the audience is live and up-close, directors do not have the luxury of another take, such as in film or television, and there is no polishing in post-production. Instead, all effects must perform correctly the first time and do so repeatedly for each performance. This calls for intense collaboration between design departments, as well as the skill and expertise of a highly trained professional.
The special effects designer is hired by the technical director or production manager and begins work early in the pre-production process. This person’s first step is to read the script and identify all instances where an effect is explicitly mentioned. Several creative meetings will take place between the director and designers, like the lighting designer, costume designer, set designer, and others. At these meetings, the SFX designer will discuss with the director his or her vision for onstage effects and collaborate with all of the other design department heads to plan for their implementation. Numerous interdepartmental concerns must be addressed, depending on the particular type of effect. The set designer has to accommodate SFX rigs into the scenery during the construction, fire effects require costumes and building materials to be fire rated, and so forth.
The next step in the design of special effects is to prototype a rig to meet the needs of the show. Simple effects, like fog, require little pre-production work because commercially available machines can be easily purchased or rented. More complex effects include fire, water curtains, explosives, or the discharge of firearms. The designer must take into account the actors on stage, the scenery, dimensions of the stage, and the limitations of the venue. There are also local and state regulations that may apply to the use of special effects on stage, and the SFX designer must understand these laws and make the proper arrangements to comply.
When a prototype has been successfully tested, the SFX designer will construct a final product. During rehearsal, he or she will supervise the special effects crew or other technicians in the installation of the rigs and is present for technical rehearsal and dress rehearsal. If modifications must be made, he or she will make the adjustments and shall train the appropriate crewmembers in how to safely execute the cues. In many instances, cues will be automated through a control console. This may be the responsibility of a dedicated SFX technician or can be routed to the lighting console that can operate as a show control system.
Skills & Education
A diverse practical education is necessary for a career as a special effects designer. A college degree in theatrical design is encouraged and should include an emphasis on stagecraft. Specific training should include carpentry, mechanics, automation, and similar crafts—there is no such thing as an overqualified SFX designer. Classes in computer science, drafting, advanced mathematics, physics, and chemistry are invaluable to this professional inventor and mad scientist. This position demands an individual who is innovative, clever, and an excellent problem solver. It is necessary to be knowledgeable about the health and safety regulations that govern the use of special effects in a theatrical venue, and the SFX designer may be required to carry occupational licenses issued by the state, as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Mandatory training is required to obtain such licenses.
What to Expect
The special effects designer is a master of many trades, with extensive experience in the theatrical arts. Prior employment as a professional carpenter, set designer, stage automation engineer, or special effects technician is helpful and applicable to this career. Designers may work as freelancers or may be employed by a scenic shop, prop house, or theatrical special effects company. Just as important as having the talent to innovate new effects rigs is doing so in a manner that ensures safety to the actors, technicians, and patrons in attendance at the show. The SFX designer takes on a great deal of liability in coordination with all parties involved, including the producer and venue, to ensure that those operating the systems and those in proximity to the effects are trained in proper safety procedures specific to each effect.
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