A special effects coordinator — also known as a special effects supervisor, SFX supervisor, SFX coordinator, or FX coordinator — designs and executes the mechanical or manual special effects that are done on set during production for film, TV, and other types of video production.
What Are Special Effects?
Special effects, also called SFX or practical effects, are illusions in movies. They can include car crashes, explosions, and weather effects like snow on trees or fog on a field. Basically, special effects are anything that gets:
- Blown up
- Demolished in any way
Special effects also include atmospheric effects, such as:
- Artificial weather
SFX includes electrical and mechanical effects, as well.
What Does a Special Effects Coordinator Do?
A special effects coordinator is the behind-the-scenes person who creates natural disasters, explosions, and more that a director requires on a TV or film project.
Duties and Responsibilities of a Special Effects Coordinator
The special effects coordinator is responsible for:
- Meeting with collaborating filmmakers: Projects typically start with a meeting with the production designer and art director to go through the script scene by scene, gaining an understanding of the kind of effects they need to create and how to create different elements.
- Planning the execution of special effects: Then, they work with the cinematographer and director to frame shots so that they can set up the equipment in a way that allows the camera crew to safely shoot the scenes.
- Assembling all special effects technicians: After figuring out the logistics, they begin work on planning the budget for their crew and scheduling shifts for their workers. If they’re on a bigger production, they may also work with a special effects foreman, who helps them direct the crew.
- Keeping everyone safe: During filming, it’s the special effects coordinator’s job to make sure everything goes smoothly — and safely. The special effects coordinator must get all necessary permits and work with all required officials, such as fire marshals, to ensure the safety of everyone on a production. They operate most of the equipment themselves to keep everything safe, and they make sure each and every shot can be filmed without anyone getting hurt.
Primary duties of a special effects coordinator include:
- Creating visuals
- Creating sounds
- Sourcing the right equipment and technicians
- Following safety procedures to prevent injuries and property damage
A special effects coordinator also acts as a:
- Team player, working with:
- Art directors and production designers to determine concepts
- Directors and cinematographers to determine necessary equipment, camera angles, safety protocols, and desired effects
Special Effects Supervisor vs. Visual Effects Supervisor
In addition to special effects, films and other media include visual effects, as well. A visual effects supervisor (also known as the VFX supervisor or digital effects supervisor) leads the team that creates effects in post-production through animation software and computer graphics. SFX supervisors/coordinators, on the other hand, create practical effects on the day of filming, which allows performers to see what they’re interacting with.
Requirements for a Role as a Special Effects Coordinator
This role requires certain education, skills, and training.
Skills and Education Needed To Become a Special Effects Coordinator
While it’s useful to have a college degree in film and television production, formal education in mechanical or electrical engineering is also encouraged. Since special effects is a very competitive field, a relevant degree can help you stand out. Relevant degrees can include:
- Industrial design
SFX is science, not magic, so most special effects coordinators have taken courses in subjects like:
- Advanced mathematics
State and federal laws govern the use of live firearms and explosives when it comes to entertainment production. You must become familiar with applicable laws and participate in regular training on changes to regulations. You also may be required to obtain various licenses and certifications. Regardless of your background, you’ll need to complete training that covers:
- Hazardous equipment and materials
- High voltage
Other important skills and traits of successful special effects coordinators include:
- Attention to detail
- Creativity and creative vision
- Familiarity with technical equipment
- Positive attitude
- Collaboration and communication
Expectations for a Role as a Special Effects Coordinator
A special effects coordinator works in the special effects department of a project. When you’re just starting out, you should gain an understanding of the hierarchy of your department as well as honing the skills you’ll need to succeed.
As a special effects coordinator, you report to the director and producers of a project. You also need to constantly communicate with cast and crew, particularly with the production designer and director of photography. Special effects coordinators typically have a large team to assist them, including:
- Special effects artists
- Special effects foremen
- Special effects technicians
According to Glassdoor , the average base pay for visual effects coordinators is $43,342. According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2019, the median special effects technician salary was $72,270. As a more senior position, special effects coordinators typically make even more than that. However, earning potential will depend on factors such as experience, how many special effects are necessary for a given project, and the budget and size of a given production.
How To Become a Special Effects Coordinator
Special effects coordinator is a senior-level role that requires considerable experience and training. Your career path might look something like this:
- Start as a production assistant: Many special effects coordinators also start off as production assistants (PAs) or runners. This experience can help you learn the basics of the filmmaking process and life on set.
- Get an apprenticeship: After some experience as a PA, you can move into the special effects department as an apprentice or trainee. Many union projects have roles for trainees and laborers that provide apprenticeships alongside skilled veterans so that you can learn the trade.
- Gain entry-level experience in SFX roles: You can apply for an entry-level role in a special effects department. You can also find non-union positions on some union shows; these positions are usually called permit status workers.
- Advance into other SFX roles: After gaining some production experience, you can advance to working in special effects roles such as:
- Model maker
- Prop maker
- SFX makeup artist
- Complete safety training and other relevant education: Before or while working in SFX roles, you can complete courses or a degree in film production or another relevant field and complete safety training for the use of fire, explosives, and other materials you might use as an SFX coordinator.
- Apply to become an SFX coordinator/supervisor: After working for a few years as an SFX technician, you should have a comprehensive resume and portfolio of work in the industry, which you can use to apply to a position at the supervisor level.
Resources for Special Effects Coordinators
SFX personnel can join the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), a union representing artists and technicians in industries including:
- Live production
You’ll find plenty of resources for finding a job, too. Then, explore guidance from industry professionals about:
- Finding work
- Acting in a project with lots of special effects
- Read an interview with an SFX professional
- Read another interview with an SFX professional
The more you know about film, the better equipped you will be to succeed as a special effects coordinator. You can learn more about film and how you can improve your skills by applying to the Nashville Film Institute here.