Film & TV Special Effects Explained


‘Special Effects’ covers a wide range of disciplines and techniques, and for the beginner who wants to get into the industry it can be daunting to see the many areas of work that special effects encompasses. We’ve broken down the main areas to explain them in plain terms and illustrate the main points.

Special Effects

Special Effects (also known as FX, F/X, Special FX and SFX) have been used in films ever since film making began. Today, people generally apply the term to anything seen on screen that is not as it would be in real life like animatronics, props, prosthetics and models, and other artificially generated elements such as wind, rain and snow (when machines are used to produce it). It is also often applied to computer generated imagery (or CGI), although each of these areas have there own terminology which is recognized within the industry to differentiate between them. Here’s a brief rundown of the elements:

Physical Effects

Nimba Creations was hired to construct a ‘fall apart car’ for a TV commercial – a car which would drop to pieces, leak oil and let off steam on cue. This comes under the heading of ‘Physical Effects’ – an item that is constructed that will carry out specific physical functions. This can be a grey area as physical effects can often be classed as animatronics or props but if you imagine rigs that will, for example, throw around large objects in a controlled way on cue (such as the car falling through the tree in Jurassic Park) these will generally be classed as Physical Effects.

Visual Effects / CGI / Digital effects

Any animation or effect that is created within a computer will fall under these headings. These days, computers are used to great effect to draw together many elements of ‘effects shots’ in films (like many of the amazing scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and so they often deal with props and models to complete the final effects seen on screen, but the digitisation and animation of all these real elements (and many that are fabricated within the computer themselves) are commonly referred to as CGI or Computer Generated Imagery.


This is the name applied to artificial snow, wind and rain. Companies who deal in atmospherics supply specialised machinery to create these natural elements when they are dictated by scripts. Getting a scene in a film or TV show requires many takes and applying these elements artificially insures that the amount and direction of wind, rain and snow is consistent between takes and different camera angles.


Pyrotechnics is perhaps the area of effects which leaves the least room for error, as it involves fire and explosions. Pyrotechnicians are highly skilled, licensed professionals who utilise explosives (and a range of other items such as primer cord) to create controlled fires on cue for films and TV shows. While it’s OK to create your own props or prosthetics, never attempt to become a pyrotechnician by experimenting in your own home – the consequences could be fatal. The National Film & Television School do training courses to learn this and other disciplines.

Special Effects ‘proper’ and the areas that Nimba Creations Specialises in.


In Special Effects, an animatronic is any model, prop or prosthetic which moves using cables, servos and piston-driven mechanisms. The way animatronics are created and animated is endless, and it’s seen as very high tech area of the special effects industry as a good knowledge of pneumatics, hydraulics, electronics, computers, motors and mechanisms are all important elements of the industry. However, they can be startlingly low-tech too, depending on budget. Cables attached to manually operated levers can be very versatile and useful for all kinds of creations, such as Nimba Creations original T-rex head and neck animatronic made for a live show in 1997.


Prosthetics and prosthetic makeup’s are a very popular area of the Special Effects industry, and requires skilled sculptors, mould makers and artists to create appliances to transform people into creatures and characters, as well as produce bruises, scars and mutilations on actors. A vital process of prosthetics is life casting, where moulds are taken of the body to produce custom made appliances to fit a specific actor or even to produce fake limbs such as severed heads – these limbs can also be classed under props. Nimba sells pre-made lifecast’s for sculpting directly onto which eliminates the life casting process.

Props & models

Regular props such as chairs and books aren’t classed as special effects unless they do something out of the ordinary or there is actually no such item in existence, such as a futuristic weaponry. A chair which breaks safely and easily on impact is a classic prop used in movie fight scenes which falls under the heading of special effects, but of course it also covers more exciting items. Props can often cross with animatronics if the item needs to also perform a certain function, like for example the puzzle box from Hellraiser.


Miniature building entails creating scaled down versions of objects and buildings to replace full size items in a shot. This can either be because there is some sort of explosion or damage which has to occur which is not viable in real life (or on full scale), or simply because a location doesn’t exist and building a miniature version is far more cost effective (and easier to film) on a smaller scale. A recent example of wonderful use of miniatures is in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Beautiful miniatures like that of Rivendell are a perfect example of the great skill needed to create convincing miniature sets.

Special Costumes

‘Special’ costumes are anything that is worn by an actor which is more than a straight forward outfit. Tom Lauten (Nimba’s Projects Director) built many special costumes for Games Workshop. Complex costumes had to portray Space Marine characters from the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 series, and had to be made from foam, fibre glass and plastics. Elements of prop building and animatronics are often part of producing special costumes.

Set Pieces

Regular sets aren’t regarded as special effects, but many set pieces that are created can fall into the category. Polystyrene sculpting is often used to create oversize set pieces such as the many large stone statues seen in Tomb Raider.

That covers the basics of special effects and the different skills and disciplines it encompasses. At our website ( you can go Behind the Scenes to see us creating some of our favourite pieces including a full size Tyrannosaurus Rex, & you can also learn how to begin a Special Effects career by downloading our exclusive guide, ‘How to get into Special Effects’.

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