What Does a Special Effects Supervisor Do?

Alan Rankin

A special effects supervisor is responsible for the creation of all special effects during the production of a film or television series. This person oversees the effects created by special effects technicians, each of whom may have a different specialty. Special effects in this case are distinguished from visual effects, which are created during the post-production, or post-filming, process. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is a class of visual effects. By contrast, special effects are created on the set with cameras rolling, requiring long, careful, and often expensive preparation beforehand.

A fog machine can be used to create an effect.
A fog machine can be used to create an effect.

“Special effects” refers to any technique used to create an illusion in a motion picture or video production or even a still photograph. Most people associate the phrase with the flashy, spectacular effects used in big-budget science fiction and fantasy films. Many other films and TV series use special effects, however, including mainstream dramas, low-budget independent films, and even nature documentaries. Examples include the use of water jets to simulate rain or large fans to simulate wind. Another common special effect involves filming an actor behind the wheel of a car as if he is driving, when in fact both car and camera are being carried on a trailer.

Special effects supervisors may be asked to simulate a car crash.
Special effects supervisors may be asked to simulate a car crash.

In film and television production, special effects include simulated weather, explosions and gunfire, and car crashes. Makeup effects are another category, including fake wounds, age effects, and elaborate processes that can change almost all aspects of a performer’s appearance. Set design can also incorporate special effects, such as to simulate a collapsing building or other catastrophic event. Each effect is the responsibility of a separate technician or effects team. The special effects supervisor manages all these different departments, working with the director and other high-level technicians, such as the stunt coordinator.

The job of the special effects supervisor has changed greatly over the history of the motion picture. Before animated or digital effects were common, most special effects had to be created on set during filming, requiring very expensive and elaborate preparation. In the 21st century, many sequences that would be difficult or impossible to film are created in post-production with CGI and other visual effects. CGI can be expensive and time-consuming, however, so many effects are still created on set. In film jargon, these are often called “practical” or “in-camera” effects.

Creating special effects, particularly explosions and car chases, can be dangerous. The special effects supervisor is responsible for ensuring the safety of a production’s cast and crew. In the event of an accident, it is often this person, and not the director or producer, who is liable. The special effects supervisor is also responsible for the overall quality of a production’s effects. If an important effect is unconvincing or otherwise amateurish, the entire production can face criticism, and the special effects supervisor may have trouble finding another job.

Special effects may be used to make a car chase more dramatic.
Special effects may be used to make a car chase more dramatic.

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