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Career Letter

Every week I get a call or letter from someone who wants to work in the Special Effects Industry, below is an excerpt from a letter I sent to someone who wanted to get a job in a Hollywood Studio without any experience.

Dear Timothy,

A studio job in California is impossible to have without experience, even persons with many years experience may never work in one of the studios for several reasons. To get a job in a studio you must usually have a friend who is already working there. Then you must have a skill that they need. You prove your skill by having a "Portfolio", which is a bunch of photos that show your work. Then if you get that far you would probably have to be a member of the Union. The Union won't accept you unless you have experience. Most outsiders think that getting a job in film work is just a matter of desire, but they forget that there are many people, just like you, who have a great desire to work in the movies. This means that there are thousands of people who want work so that they can get experience. Every studio gets hundreds of letters every week from people who want experience.

Most studios don't do their own special effects any more, this work is done by smaller special effects shops. Each special effects shop specializes in only a couple of types of special effects, some do only rain and snow while others do computer or optical effects. Every shop is different and is usually run by a couple of guys who used to do the effects themselves but now like to be the bosses. The small shops are not usually Union Shops.

Every week someone asks me for a job so that they can learn about special effects. Most say that they'll work for free thinking that this is a good deal for me, but it isn't. Having a person without experience is very expensive. People without experience waste time and materials and they must be supervised so much that it really takes less time to do the job myself. Most people who want free training won't take classes, won't buy books or experiment on their own, this tells me that they really aren't sincere in their goals. People who are not sincere might take hours of my precious time, only to flake-out later. The people who make it in this business are the ones who all ready have spent much time experimenting on their own, they can show me their projects and explain how they made things. The most successful people in the business started when they were very young, just like Olympic champions. Stephen Spielberg started when he was eight years old. Many started while in their teens, very few successful people started beyond age 25.

Now that you are properly discouraged I should now like to tell you how to make it in the business. If you have these qualifications and follow these steps you will be successful. Once you have done everything you will be surprised to realize how easy it all was.



Think about it, suppose you are in charge of a big project and you have just spent $50,000 on a sculpture of a big monster and now you need a Mold Maker so that you can make duplicates of the monster for various shots in the movie. Suppose I come to you and say something like, "Hey, I really want to do this, I'll even work for free, just give me the chance and I'll do a great job, I promise." You ask me if I've ever made a mold of a monster before and my answer is no. You ask if I've ever made a mold before and my answer is no. You ask if I've ever mixed mold compound before and the answer is no. Will you ask me to make the mold for you? The answer is no. Who will you ask? Someone who has made monster molds before, someone who you know is good because you've seen their work. You also know that they are someone who is easy to work with. You know you need to spend a lot of money to make sure the job is done right. If the person you hire makes a mistake, he not only wastes time, but he ruins the materials and possibly the $50,000 sculpture. If you are a smart business man you will hire the best person for the job, not the cheapest person even if he or she has the best attitude.

Becoming prepared is really the fun part. But it is expensive and takes time. If you really want to do special effects you probably already have some experience already. Preparation can be divided into three parts:

A) EDUCATION. Most OUTSIDERS think that education is the most important part of preparing for a career in special effects. This is a false idea based on American traditions, after all don't most people get their jobs because of their schooling? In special effects TALENT is much more important than education. We'll discuss talent later, but the only time education is important is when it develops your self discipline and character. There are very few classes you can take that will really teach you what you need to know in order to be good in special effects. Education does give a person valuable exposure to things he or she would never be able to experience on their own.

B) STUDY and EXPERIMENTATION. These are things you must do on your own. If you are truly interested in special effects you will have already devoured everything you can get your hands on. Study is not learning all the names of actors and the titles of movies. That is movie trivia. Movie trivia will not help you in your career. Learn technical stuff. Learn about materials and methods and then make things on your own. Sometimes people will bring their crazy projects into my shop. They always feel silly for showing me their experiments, but I am very interested in how they solved a particular problem. The ways in which they construct things tells me how open-minded and clever they are. I have a shop, they only have stuff they find at the local thrift store. I'm very interested in someone who is innovative and clever, just imagine what they can do with the right materials and equipment.

C) EXPERIENCE.. This is often the hardest thing to get, but it need not be. Most newcomers want to jump to the top. They want to go to Hollywood and be an apprentice to some master special effects artist. This is only possible if you were his son or daughter. I'd say forget Hollywood for now and see what opportunities exist locally. The best local opportunities are Haunted Houses, Student Films and School Plays. Just these three things alone will keep a person with busy all year. Every time you work on a project make sure you take a couple of good photos of it, you'll see why in a moment.



All professionals in special effects have either a portfolio or reel. They each have a résumé. A portfolio is a photo album of work you have done yourself. A "reel" is a VHS tape of work you have done yourself. A résumé is a paper that lists all your education and experience. If you don't have these things you may never work professionally.

Your presentation is simply the way you sell yourself. It is a reflection of your work and your style. In special effects a person never really interviews for a job, he interviews for a project. If your presentation shows pictures of the type of project the producer is going to make then you have a good chance of getting that project. Before we continue with presentation in general we need to discuss the three main tools of your presentation;

A) PORTFOLIO. Like I said before, this is a photo-album of things you have made. Be sure to take good pictures of everything you make, and take more than one, from different angles. If something you have made is published in a photo or article, then include that too. If others worked on your project, you must give them proper credit.

B) REEL. The term "reel" comes from the old days before VCRs when artists would literally have a short reel of film that they would show the producer. A reel today would have three to five minutes of video tape showing your work. Clips from finished films are most impressive, but you can use video tape of anything that shows your work. Professional Special Effects houses will have their reels professionally done and will spend tens-of-thousands of dollars to present their message.

C) RÉSUMÉ. A good résumé is very important. There are books at the library that can show you what a résumé looks like, but it's more important to have good experience on your résumé. That will take time. Every time you do something new, make sure you put it on your résumé. Don't try and fool yourself in thinking you don't need a résumé, Busy executives don't remember anything, your résumé is what they will look at when they want to give you a call. Don't try to be too fancy on your résumé, experienced professionals can see right through a phony résumé. Don't try to exaggerate on your résumé, you will hear some people say that they stretched the truth a little to get the job. That is a very bad idea, experienced people can tell when you really don't know how to do something and they will secretly think you are a liar. Don't think that just because something is put down in print that people will automatically believe it.

D) Interview. Of course the most important part of presentation is YOU. You, your family and your friends are around you all the time and are used to you and your appearance. But think about an executive meeting you for the first time. What kind of things will he notice? Strange jewelry? A tattoo? Were you late? Do you look honest? Do you look like you have a drug problem? Are you nervous or intimidated? Do you apologize a lot? Do you need a bath? Did you come with your mom?

In special effects and other talent related fields producers realize that there are a few "eccentrics" with a lot of talent. For the most part being eccentric will not prevent you from getting a project, but your eccentricities my determine how long you keep it. It just depends on what it is. Some people don't like to work around people with eccentric behavior. If you want to work in special effects you will work with eccentric people. Many eccentricities come from exceptional intelligence or ability, some eccentricities come from deep unresolved psychological problems. Eccentric behavior can be everything from a man who dresses in women's' clothes to an adult who throws temper tantrums. It is not your business to try and solve their "problem". It is usually best to be accepting and open-minded and hope they will be the same towards you.



The quickest way to get fired is to be dishonest. The most common reason to get fired is to be undependable. The reason most co-workers want you fired is because of your bad attitude. Drug abuse is the secret that everyone knows.

Unfortunately most workers don't realize the importance of character and personality when it comes to keeping a job. You may get a project because of your qualifications, but keeping a project depends on your personality.

Most people overrate their own value to a company and expect everyone else to put up with their problems because they are so important. People with this attitude are the first to go. Special effects is very demanding work. The job must be done regardless of any excuses. People who are can't be counted on are the first ones to be cut from a show. Often a deadline requires a team to work all night on a project. The crews I've worked with are very dedicated to the project, and they will work extremely long hours to get something done. A professional crew will have very few conflicts or outbursts during this very stressful time. People will stop for rest only when they are becoming unproductive or dangerous. No one complains except through humor. It is during these times that I can see the best in people, I see self-discipline, focus and patience. It is during these times that I chose people I am going to work with next time.

Right now is the time to be working on the things in your personality you will need for later in life. People who are hard-working and honest will always be recognized, if not rewarded. Think about the people you like to be around and see what they do that makes it that way. Don't be caught up in popularity, as an adult, it won't mean much. You are much better off to develop kindness and the ability to listen. Be humble; special effects is exciting because you learn new things everyday. If you are proud you will spend all your energy trying to convince people you are smart and you won't learn anything. Learn to finish projects that you start. Learn not to brag. Don't be jealous, jealously destroys a lot of careers. The best way to avoid jealousy is to be very good at what you do. If you are good and are not conceited about it, you will have no reason to be jealous of other people. You can admire them and they can admire you.



To be successful you must have talent. Talent is often something you are born with. Some people are born with it but it gets destroyed for some reason or another. Parents, bad teachers and tradition can destroy talent. For example, suppose you have artistic talent, but you have been born into a family of lawyers. Your family may put a lot of pressure on you to become an attorney because that is what everyone else did. People who are forced into things often rebel later in life. Lasting happiness in your career usually means that you do something that makes you happy. That makes sense but you'd be surprised how many people don't do it. Money, status or positions mean very little to a true artist.

Super talents are very rare, and if they do something people like, they are recognized and rewarded for it. Stephen Spielberg is a very rare storyteller. Very few people have his ability and he is rewarded because of it. Not only does he make a lot of money, but more importantly, Mr. Spielberg is rewarded with more and more opportunities to practice his craft.

Most artists over-rate their own ability. This means that they think they are better than they really are. For some reason we all seem to do this to ourselves and we stop getting better because we think what we are doing now is great enough. I would say the best way to avoid this trap is to study the work of people who are really good. Study the very best. Try to study their work in-person if you can. Photos and videos are just not good enough.

Don't waste time with criticism; study success, not failure!



The secret of success is to do one thing better than anyone else, period. People who tell me they can do it all are really telling me that they can't do anything. A friend of mine grew up making model submarines. That's it, model subs. He never dreamed that someday he would be making models for TV and film but that's what he does. He is regarded as the world's best model submarine maker and he's only in his twenties. So the first step of your success is to find one thing that you really like to do and do it extremely well. Of course this means you must try a lot to things to see what you like. Try models, make-up, mask-making, camera work, machine work, plastics, mold-making or any of the many things people do when they do special effects. It will probably take you many years to find something you really like, but it's a lot of fun trying many different things.

The importance of doing one type of thing can't be overemphasized. Just think about it, would you want a mechanic to fix your deer rifle? A house painter to paint your portrait? Would you fly in a Boeing 747 piloted by a truck driver?

People who understand this principle will always have work. If I were to run an ad in tomorrow's paper for a "Fast food worker", I would get hundreds of applicants, right from my own neighborhood. Fast food workers are unskilled and easy to train so I don't need to pay them more than minimum wage. I really don't care who I hire because if they can't do it I have 200 more to choose from. If on the other hand I need someone to build a model submarine, I know there's only one or two people in the entire world to choose from. That means I must call my friend Tony and he doesn't come cheap. Because Tony has such a rare talent everyone else in the world must depend on him to do their work. Tony can charge tens-of-thousands of dollars for his work because he knows no one else can do it. Stephen Spielberg can charge millions for is work because no one else can do it the way he does. This is the secret for success in your career.


Sincerely Yours,
Steve Biggs, Mechanical Animator