Special Effects Degrees: Associate, Bachelor's & Online Class Info

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What kind of job can you get with a degree in special effects? Find out program requirements, online options and info on courses and special effects programs.
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Studying Special Effects: Degrees at a Glance

Today's special effects industry is a mix of practical and computer-generated effects. Practical special effects include the use of makeup, prosthetics and camera tricks. Computer programmers and animators usually use software programs to create computer-generated effects using visual and audio components. Most computer-generated effects are added after the movie or TV show has already been filmed.

Very few available undergraduate degree programs will teach you about practical or live-action special effects; therefore, this article will focus on degree programs related to computer-generated special effects. Potential majors include entertainment and arts engineering, digital media, multimedia art and motion graphics design. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), multimedia artists and animators were expected to see an 8% increase in employment opportunities from 2010-2020. The continued need for special effects in movies, TV and video games, as well as mobile devices would drive the need for multimedia artists and animators.

Associate Degree Bachelor's Degree
Who Is This Program For? People who want to learn about computer animation, graphics and image manipulation Graphic and multimedia artists who want to learn the technical skills needed for creating special effects in television and movie industries
Common Career Paths (with approx. median annual salary) - Motion designer (salary unavailable)
- Special effects artist (salary unavailable)
- Graphic designer ($44,000)*
- Multimedia artists and animators ($61,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 4 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Pass core classes in motion graphics or digital media
- Meet elective requirements
- Create a professional portfolio
- Complete core computer science or digital media courses
- Participate in special effects internships, if applicable
- Pass special effects concentration coursework
- Complete general education requirements
- Complete final projects
Prerequisites - High school diploma
- High school diploma
- Some postsecondary computer science coursework, if required
Online Availability Limited Limited

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate Degree Programs Related to Special Effects

There are not many associate degree programs under the title of special effects; however, programs in digital media or motion graphics teach you how to create computer-generated visual effects. These programs may examine topics in graphic design, sound integration, animation and special effects design. Some programs focus more on postproduction special effects, which are effects added to already filmed scenes, while other programs teach students about the steps involved in creating special effects, from conceptual design to finished product.

Most of the coursework involves the exploration of highly technical computer skills through digital media classrooms and labs. Students learn about concepts related to image manipulation, including digital layering, touch ups, coloring and animation, as well as gain an understanding of creating special effects for different media, including television, Internet and movies. The majority of associate degree programs related to this field do not provide internship opportunities, which may limit your ability to gain industry experience.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Most degree programs culminate in a portfolio development or design project course, which can be used to demonstrate your skills to potential employers
  • You can use your special effects training for career fields outside of the film industry, such as video game design and advertising
  • You develop technical skills to create visual effects using industry-standard tools and techniques, as well as explore various design styles

Cons

  • A large percent of multimedia artists hold bachelor's degrees, which means you will be competing with candidates who hold higher degrees*
  • Job growth in this field may slow down, since more companies are hiring cheaper labor forces from outside of the U.S.*
  • Practical experiences and internship opportunities aren't typically available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Besides technical classes, other courses in these programs may cover information about visual effects and marketing. Not only will you learn about creating special effects for commercials, but you may also learn how special effects relate to product branding, logo design, Internet marketing and social media. You may also take courses in storyboard design, media writing and communication strategies.

Common coursework may include some of the following:

  • 3-D modeling and rendering
  • Digital imaging
  • Computer drawing
  • 2-D animation
  • Digital video editing

Many programs require students to complete a final project. The final project may include designing a professional portfolio, which displays examples of your best works.

Online Degree Options

Programs in special effects or animation are available; however, program availability may be limited compared to on-campus programs. While the online curriculum is nearly identical to campus-based programs, online programs use demonstration videos and live chats to provide students with instruction in motion graphics and animation techniques. Additionally, you may be required to meet specific computer requirements and purchase software to participate in classes.

Stand Out With This Degree

To graduate from this degree program, you will most likely have to complete a portfolio. However, to stand out to potential employers, you could go beyond the basic portfolio requirements. For instance, some degree programs may require that your portfolio contain a basic demonstration reel that shows 2-D graphics and animation. To add on to this basic requirement, you could try to make almost every final project from every class portfolio-ready. This way you gain a highly diverse portfolio that shows the breadth of your talents. Additionally, you may want to use exhibition opportunities offered with the school to your full advantage. Exhibition shows that bring in recruiters and special effects artists within the field can help you to network with others and build potential contacts for employment upon graduation.

Bachelor's Degree Programs Related to Special Effects

Many bachelor's degree programs related to computer-generated special effects are structured to include a large amount of technical training, including courses in mathematics, computational algorithms and object-oriented programming. Several of these degree programs are also designed specifically to train artists to use computer software programs and technologies in special effects. Depending on your background and program, you may need to take additional computer science prerequisite coursework before moving on to core classes.

You gain interdisciplinary training, allowing you to use technical skills to manipulate software programs and creative skills to design stunning visual effects. Most degree programs allow students to practice their craft using industry-standard technology, including Open Frameworks, After Effects and Vizrt.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Some degree programs have professional relationships with special effects businesses, which provide students with internship opportunities directly in the industry
  • Multimedia artists career opportunities in software publishing were expected to increase by 49% from 2010-2020*
  • Many programs combine computer science topics with animation, allowing you to develop the computation skills required for motion graphics

Cons

  • Growth in the motion picture and video industries for multimedia artists was predicted to decrease by 5% from 2010-2020*
  • Multimedia artists will face competition in the job market*
  • Due to the hands-on nature of the field fully online programs may not be available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Courses and Requirements

Degree programs that are based on a computer science core often include courses in computer organization, computer structures, algorithms, software applications and computer operating systems. Concentration requirements related to special effects may include 3-D modeling, film animation, interactive designs, collaborative works and visual design strategies. Many programs may also have studio lab requirements, and these lab sessions may focus on different special effects topics, such as space, timing and image creation.

The majority of programs also require students to complete one or two internships. During these internships, you often work with experienced professionals and learn about meeting the demands of the special effects industry. Other graduation requirements may include completing a final project, which could involve creating a short length film that incorporates different types of special effects.

Online Course Options

There are not many accredited online bachelor's degree programs related to computer-generated special effects. Some degree programs may offer blended learning opportunities, such as posting lectures online for students to access if they miss a class or need review. Other programs may allow students to complete some general education courses online, as well as a few fundamental core classes. Generally, students need to be in the classroom due to the large amount of hands-on learning with design equipment and software.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

While in the degree program, students can get ahead by gaining as much technical training and experience as possible. Required classes provide basic knowledge, but elective classes may provide training that is more advanced. You may want to talk with an academic adviser to determine which electives may provide the best training for your career goals. For instance, according to the BLS, people who design special effects for animated movies often need training with creating backgrounds and designing characters.

Instead of completing the minimum amount of internships, students can participate in additional internships to gain more experience. As a way to impress potential employers, you may want to complete internships in different special effects areas, such as cinema, animation and advertising.

Degree Alternatives

If you're interested in creative design and animation, but are interested in the programming behind the special effects, you may want to consider completing a degree program in computer programming. Computer programmers typically complete a bachelor's degree program in computer science or programming. You may examine concepts in code writing, debugging programs and computer languages. You'll learn to use code libraries, expand existing programs and design programs. According to the BLS, computer programmers were projected to see a 12% increase in jobs, which was about as fast as average from 2010-2020. Additionally, in 2011 computer programmers earned a mean annual wage of about $76,000, stated the BLS.

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