Special Effects Technician

  • Special Effects Technician

In live production, special effects can involve any elements consisting of water, fire, haze, pyrotechnics, confetti cannons, and similar atmospheric or mechanical devices. This department works closely with the scenic, automation, and props crews, and may see some overlap between them.


Duties

Special effects technicians work under the direction of the SFX supervisor, stage manager, and technical director. They are responsible for the installation and operation of special effects systems during a live production and will be accountable for maintenance of those systems, in addition to ensuring the safe storage of hazardous material. During any live event, such as a theatrical production, concert, or similar performance, each technician is assigned a specific show track, which is a list of tasks and cues to perform before, during, and after the performance. This show track is extensively rehearsed during the tech-through and final dress rehearsals before the opening of the show.

Pre-show responsibilities vary depending on the quantity and type of effects in use but include preparing effects, like loading confetti cannon and flash pots, and test firing each effect to see that the rig is operating normally. During the show, manual effects that require a technician to trigger will be executed according to the cue in the script or by an order from the stage manager. Some cues may be automated to run through a show control system and are triggered by the lighting console operator. Others, such as on-stage effects triggered by a performer in context of the scene, do not require a technician to operate.

In post-show, special effects technicians are responsible for striking effects rigs and disposing of leftover material. Again, the exact duty will depend on the nature of the show and type of effects in use, but may include clearing pyrotechnic firing devices and failed shots, cleaning confetti from the stage, and emptying the reservoir for a rain curtain. On a resident production that does not travel, haze machines and large rigs are typically left in place, and only expendable materials and those which could pose a safety hazard are removed. On a touring show or temporary event, the special effects technicians will be accountable for dismantling rigs, packing road cases, and loading trucks.

Skills & Education

A college education in theatrical production and stagecraft is recommended, but specialized training pertinent to the operation and preparation of special effects systems is required. A special effects technician should be familiar with basic effects rigs like haze machines and compressed air cannons. Advanced knowledge of hydraulic systems, mechanical engineering, carpentry, and rigging is also necessary. Regulations concerning the use of pyrotechnics and fire effects exist within most state and local governments, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives enforce federal laws that are applicable to the use of such materials. A government issued license is required for a technician handling pyrotechnic devices. Safety training is imperative to this career and a component of government-sanctioned licensing courses. Work as a special effects technician demands an individual who is alert, meticulous, and careful. 

What to Expect

Regular duties of a special effects technician will involve frequent interaction with hazardous chemicals. It is necessary to understand and follow safety procedures at all times and use appropriate personal protective equipment. Theatrical haze and smoke produced from small pyrotechnics is not dangerous to those in proximity, but exposure to these substances in large quantities, ingestion, or skin contact can cause injury if not properly handled. Safety is of the highest priority for this crew, and each individual is equally responsible for the safe operation of effects rigs and for ensuring a secure environment for the storage of effects materials. In the course of a technician’s show track, he or she may be required to climb scaffolding or truss at heights over 50 feet, operate machinery, and handle live incendiary devices. Also common is contact with electricity as well as high-pressure hydraulic and compressed air systems.

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