01/14/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

All The Doors to Hollywood and How to Open Them -- Special Effects

What does special effects do?

According to Dave Beavis, special effects essentially "recreates physical things that can't exist, or can't exist conveniently, on a sound stage -- rain, snow, mist -- natural elements. And normal things like airplanes and landslides and fires. All to order, in front of the camera".

On The Conspirator, for example, Robert Redford's movie about Lincoln's assassination, "we had to make certain items appropriate to the period -- such as converting electric lights to gas, and hiding the electrical parts." Computer generated images (C.G.I.), on the other hand, "creates things that don't exist at all."

Forty years ago, Beavis says, "We used to do some of what technology does today. But certainly not all of it. The younger directors, brought up on video games, tend to copy films like Jurassic Park, with a lot of computer-generated work. Those dinosaurs attacking a Jeep couldn't have been created without C.G.I. effects. And it would have been impossible to make Superman catch a plane in midair."

But often enough, he explains, an effect requires the meeting of special effects and computer generated images, as in Roger Rabbit. "There, for instance, the C.G.I. cartoon characters interacted with real people -- and special effects had to create the cartoon characters' shadows, as if they were real. Or, in Jurassic Park, they had to create the vehicle the C.G.I. dinosaurs attacked. There's a sort of gray area between the two skills. It can require the best of each.

And special effects crews make models and big rigs, "whatever the script calls for." For Noble House, for instance, we recreated the large floating restaurants in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbor. We have the equipment to do what others can't, like working with heavy metal -- steel. Or creating storm waves and whirlpools in water tanks."

What was your background? When did you start in the film business?

"I started when I was fifteen on a movie called Alfred the Great." He followed that with David Lean's Ryan's Daughter, with Robert Mitchum, John Mills, Trevor Howard and Sarah Miles. "My career beginning", he says, "was kind of a family thing. We lived near Pinewood Studios in London. My mother's father was a carpenter there -- my parents actually met in the commissary where my mother worked."

Beavis began at Pinewood as a laborer, "carrying stuff from the truck to the set, and bringing tea and such. I had to gradually learn what I was carrying and why, and how it worked. I had to learn to clean up. By my early twenties, I was doing small effects jobs on my own. By my late twenties, I had my own team."

What skills are needed for your special effects crew?

"Well, carpentry and welding, mechanics and electrical know-how -- an artistic eye for color and shape and design, a sense of timing, the ability to listen and understand -- and basic common sense. You have to be something of a jack-of-all-trades. Willing to take on anything -- dirty, dangerous, able to work under the radar. The rest of the set may have no idea what's really going on! And you've got to be able to say no to high-powered directors." A lot of it, he laughs, "is just doing stuff kids like to do -- make models, blow things up!"

Where have you worked?

"Everywhere -- Africa, Turkey, Switzerland, Macao, Croatia, Hong Kong, Portugal, France, Trinidad."

What have been some of your favorite adventures?

"I don't know if this is exactly a "favorite," but what comes first to mind is working on a glacier in Norway, in the dead of winter, with a blizzard coming on for the movie Gulag. There was just blue ice, no snow yet". The problem was that Beavis had to help get the crew off the ice as soon as possible -- but there were more people than vehicles to carry them. "We soon couldn't see a thing, not even our trucks and deep track vehicles. We got some crew down, and then had to go back up for the rest in full blizzard conditions. We made it -- but it was a lucky escape."

Some favorite people you've worked with?

"Robert Redford's certainly one of them. The man's really on his game. He knows what he wants, and at the same time, he lets his people do their thing. He inspires confidence in his actors and crew."

What do you enjoy about your work?

"It's great to agree up front with the production on your price, have them pretty much hand you a wad of money and hear them say, "We'll meet back here in three months." In other words, "Go and do your thing." And then there's that first moment, the mystery, when you've gotten the job and look at what it entails -- it's a thrill moment. You think, "I've never done this before." And then comes the challenge, the figuring it out. And you know the very first time you'll actually find out if you've really solved it will be the critical moment in front of the camera! I guess that's true of every film department. But every time, it's really something!"

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Learn more about Anne M. Strick