How to Become a Special FX Artist

man and woman working in a prosthetic special fx workshop

What is special FX? Special FX for film is a broad term for any practical effect seen on screen. Special FX includes makeup prosthetics, blood and gore that are applied directly to the actor on the day of filming. It also includes custom made props, and even puppets and animatronics. A special FX artist has to be the jack of all trades and prepared for whatever practical effects are required on set.

What does it take to become a professional in the highly competitive field of film and special FX? Here are a few things every FX artist should have in their tool belt:

Skills of the Trade

The term special FX covers a broad range of skills on set. A special FX artist can be anyone from the makeup artist to the technician preparing atmospheric effects such as rain or snow. Knowing a few extra skills outside of sculpting and painting will increase the likelihood of landing jobs in film. Having these skills in your arsenal will also give you the know-how to create bigger and more complicated pieces that will blow audiences away.

You don’t need to be a master of all these skills, but these are some handy basics most special FX artists might find useful:

  1. Sculpting – This is a big one if your dream is to create makeup prosthetics. Every latex monster costume starts out as a sculpture, which is then cast in foam and applied to the actor. Taking anatomy and sculpting classes will develop this skill.
  2. Painting – You don’t need to be a portrait painter, though it won’t hurt your chances, but knowing the basics of contouring and texturing is a valuable skill. Experiment with acrylics, water colours and airbrush guns to achieve skin textures, scales, spots and more.
  3. Electrical – For insurance purposes, large scale projects should be left to a licenced professional, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to hook up a basic LED to a 9V battery. This is a skill which is almost guaranteed to be used once or twice in your career.
  4. Sewing – Many movies require custom wig and hair pieces for their monsters, or even soft props such as dolls, bags and other accessories. You don’t even need to know how to properly thread a machine. At least knowing how to hand sew a seam or a button can be a life-saver on set.
  5. Carpentry – Once again, large structures which need to bear weight should be left to a licenced professional, but knowing your way around a saw and power drill will go a long way. You never know when a prop will need a little extra support or structure to ensure that it lasts through every day of the shoot.
  6. 2D and 3D Design – The industry is constantly evolving, and design based software such as Photoshop, Maya and AutoCAD are making it easier than ever to create intricate props and exact replicas of objects. If you have the opportunity to try out any of these programs or play with a 3D printer, take it!
  7. Puppetry and Animatronics – Puppets can be more than just your standard felt Muppet. Before the age of CGI, every creature on screen was either a costume or a puppet. Start by brushing up on cable operated puppets. They are simple and inexpensive to make with supplies from a hardware store. When you feel more adventurous, pick up some small motors from a hobby shop and see what you can make.

On Set Makeup Kit

Before even tackling big complicated foam latex pieces, every special FX makeup artist needs to build their on-set makeup kit. This kit should include everything you need to create simple wounds and practical effects on the fly.

What you should carry in your kit might vary depending on the project. Sometimes makeup artists are required to prepare a full cast of extra zombies or monsters for a film. In this case, it is best to come prepared with products that can be applied quickly, along with anything else which might be required for applying the intense show stopping pieces.

Some examples of items commonly found in special FX makeup kits are:

  1. Adhesives – Prosaide and Spirit Gum are standard adhesives. It is good to have both on hand in case of skin sensitivities. Always test them on a small patch of the actor or model’s skin to be sure they are not allergic.
  2. Latex – Special FX artists will go through a LOT of liquid latex. It can be applied directly to the skin to create simple wounds, so long as the makeup doesn’t need to be too thick. It is also handy for small patch jobs on bad prosthetic seams.
  3. Blood – Various types, and gallons of it. Blood will be different shades and thicknesses depending on the situation. For example, fresh arterial spray will be bright red, and old blood will be dark red or brown. It is good to have some of both on hand just in case.
  4. Paints – There are several different types of paints which offer varying degrees of coverage and durability. Water activated and cream based paints will give the best coverage for the price, and are usually fine around sensitive areas such as the eyes. It is also smart to invest money in alcohol activated paints. These paints are oil based, which means they will not wash off in water. Alcohol based paints are essential for any makeup which needs to stand up against water, sweat and long hours of wear.
  5. Brushes and Sponges – These don’t need to be expensive, especially if you plan on using them with Prosaide or Spirit Gum. Keep a wide variety of brushes and sponges to achieve different textures.
  6. Makeup Removal and Skin Care – Some artists can get so caught up in their monster makeup that they forget about the aftercare of the actor or model’s skin. Products like adhesives and alcohol activated paints will not wash off with soap and water. They require special makeup removers to take off. It is also highly recommended that your kit includes some unscented skin cleansers and moisturisers to use once the makeup comes off. Your model will appreciate it, especially if they are going to be filming for several days in a row.

A Special FX Workshop or Work Space

The process of building special effects makeup and props is messy, and absolutely not something you want to do on your kitchen table. This is an unavoidable truth about the industry. Many of the processes involved in sculpting, moulding and casting involve the use of chemicals and power tools. It creates dust and hazardous waste which can be harmful to pets and children.

Set aside a space in your home or garage for your special FX work. You don’t need a large workspace, although for larger projects it might not be a bad idea. Most independent FX artists make do with a solid work table and a few basic tools.

Some things you will want to keep in mind when creating your workspace:

  1. The Table – Your work surface will get covered in latex, plaster, silicone, plastic resin, and about a dozen other substances. Putting painters craft paper down on your work surface will help cut down on your clean up later.
  2. Storage – Keep in mind, if you are going to use your garage as a workshop you will want to store your materials inside. Especially if you live in areas where the weather can get cold. Materials such as Prosaide and silicone will separate if they freeze and become unusable. Plastics and resins may not cure properly if exposed to too much moisture. Set aside a dry, room temperature, area to store these products.
  3. Tools – The type of tools you will need will vary based on the project. As a general rule of thumb, common handheld tools such as a rotary tool, drill, jigsaw and so on will be used daily. Other, more specialised tools, such as a vacuform machine or airbrushes are also a worthwhile investment.
  4. Oven and Ventilation – Never use your kitchen oven for baking latex or heat curing silicone. The process of curing these products can release harmful airborne chemicals, which can cause long-term and lasting damage to the body. It is highly recommended that you purchase a separate oven and place it in a well-ventilated area for safety reasons.

Sculpting and Casting Tools

Mould making is one of the most important skills a special FX artist will use. Each custom prosthetic seen on the big screen started out its life as a clay sculpture. Because each latex appliance is used only once, the prosthetics much be made in multiples, and each pull from the mould must be identical. If the mould doesn’t work properly or is damaged in any way, it can cost valuable time and resources to fix.

A few standard tools of this process include:

  1. Alginate or Body Double – These products are skin safe and used for life casting your actor or model. They have an extremely short pot life, or curing time, which is essential for getting your actor in and out of the cast as quickly as possible. Always remember that it is a person’s face you are casting, so you want the process to be as quick and painless as possible.
  2. Plaster Bandages and Fibreglass – Silicone and latex moulds need to have a strong outer shell to provide support, prevent tearing, and to keep your castings from distorting. Plaster bandages are the product of choice for applying over Alginate or silicone because it sets quickly. Fibreglass is commonly used for making strong and light moulds for props and final castings. Buy in bulk! You will use a lot of these products.
  3. Release Agents – This is easy to forget but absolutely essential. You would not want your mould to become locked and your piece trapped! For some purposes, such as protecting body hair, Vaseline will work fine. Companies which sell moulding and casting products also offer their own range of release agents which will not harm the mould or leave any undesirable textures on the working surface.
  4. Gypsum Cement – Gypsum is a fine-grained cement which comes in a variety of densities and is ideal for capturing detail. This is the product most commonly used to make the replica of your model which is then used to sculpt the prosthetic.
  5. Clay – The standard clay used for sculpting prosthetics in the industry is Monster Clay. It is a tough oil based clay which will hold high amounts of detail. Normal ceramic clay can also be used, but special care must be taken to keep it moist and wrapped in plastic while not being worked, or shrinkage and cracking will occur. Ceramic clay is also soft, easy to work with, and excellent for building large scale pieces quickly.
  6. Sculpting Tools – Keep a wide selection of tools on hand to create a wide variety of effects. Most craft and hobby stores will sell basic sculpting tools cheaply. Also keep an eye out for objects which could be used to create new and interesting textures in your sculpts.

Problem Solving

As a special FX artist, it is your job to bring the director’s vision to the movie set. Exactly what that will require of you will change from movie to movie. One film could be a slasher flick, full of arterial spray and oozing wounds. Another day you could be asked to turn a bunch of extras into a horde of flesh eating zombies.

The key to success, and being prepared for any project that comes your way, is arming yourself with the right tools and the right skills. Always keep learning new techniques, sculpting, taking painting classes, digital design and more. The more skills you have at your disposal, the more amazing your movie masterpiece will be.

Have you ever considered becoming a special FX artist? Have you found this article useful? Let us know in the comments section below…

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