Episode 65 – Every Tool I Use To 10x My Day

Episode 64 – Negotiating Creatively
September 27, 2016
Episode 66 – VFX Roundtable w/ Mark Theriault & Anselm Seherr-Thoss!
October 11, 2016
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Episode 65 – Every Tool I Use To 10x My Day


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I’m going to assume you’re probably just like me. I’m forever curious, I’m constantly trying new things out, tweaking things, revising and using anything and everything in ways they’re not intended, just to see what results I’m going to get.So if you can imagine my apartment, it’s full of devices and weird things, from every phase of experimentation I’ve ever gone through. From different wine aerators and whiskey bitters variations to stand-up desks and inversion tables (apparently I like to hang upside down like Batman).

If you’re interested – I’ve just put up a new Podcast episode that covers all the tools here pretty in-depth.

You can listen to the Podcast episode here..

I’ve gotten into so many conversations about the gear lying around my house from camera equipment to art on my walls with friends and with everyone on Facebook when a photo gets posted that I thought I would share some of these things. Better yet, I wanted to share the devices, apps and services I use almost DAILY to freelance and get my work done, work faster, more efficiently, even if it means coming off a bit weird with some of these things!

Oh and lastly – I have no affiliation with any of this stuff, other than I use it, no profit or gain from sharing this, other than if I get to start seeing people standing on foam rollers at their stand up desk one day, I’ll feel a little proud inside. So I just wanted to get that out of the way ;)

So, here goes..

Must have Software and Tools

Folder Git – This lets me save folder paths to my right click menu. So I can easily right click and jump to the projects folder on the network, Renders, Dailies, Texture Ref drive etc. And it’s free. Here’s a link to a video I made a few years ago on it.

Dropbox (Also Google Drive, Amazon etc.) – Especially freelancing it’s great to have a drive you can keep all your shortcut keys, templates and personal files, all the things we regularly use in a place that we can access anywhere. I also regularly use Dropbox with clients, Aspera for those who need something more secure.

Due & Invoice Home – I used to use Google Docs to knock out my invoices to clients. Now I use either of these tools. It tracks all your invoices, when they’re due, automatically sends them out or reminders, makes them presentable, plus it’s great for tax purposes.

ItsAlmo.st – Elegant countdown timer with an actionable deadline. I like having this on my screen to constantly remind me to keep focused on whatever my task is. There’s loads of timers out there (I have 3 physical timers on my desk) but just having something to snap you out of the distraction-mode at times can be critical.

Evernote – I take notes. Lots of notes. I’m still a pen and paper guy, but Evernote is my savior. I use it to organize and manage my day, share group collaborative documents with friends and colleagues. There’s not much I don’t use this for. (Microsoft One Note is also great, and typically what I use for writing content up for my Podcast).

HelloSign – This works on my iPhone, as well as on my laptop. Great for signing NDA’s and other documents quickly, without needing to even download the document. Just click the attached PDF and it will let you drop your signature into the document and auto-fill a lot of the other information out for you. As well as allow you to kick it back for the other party to sign before sending the final signed form out to everyone. I love this thing (I’m still using the free version).

Google Docs – I shouldn’t really need to mention this, but Google Docs is amazing. I use it to build presentations, make PDF’s to send out you, to build surveys, write documents, build charts and track artists and manage multi-million dollar visual effects sequences. And it’s free.

FileSeek – This is a free windows tool that lets me search files fast, but also the contents of the file. I use this a lot when coding as I can simply search my scripts for any piece of code i might need so I can copy and paste it into my script.

Epic Pen – Everyone seems to always want to know what pen tool I’m using in my online webinars/classes. I love this free tool that lets me draw allover my screen, and allover everyone else’s work just to try to get my point across.

Camtasia – I’ve been using Camtasia since 2005 (I think?) There’s a 30 day trail and it’s great for recording videos for my team, as well as of course recording tutorials. So if you ever want to make some videos, check it out!

Rescue Time / Time Doctor – I’m throwing this in here because I attempt to use both, and instead I just get emailed reports about how I’m spending only 15% of my day at the computer (although my mom would be proud of that). But these tools track how much time you’re spending in any given program and gives all sorts of analytical data back. I think this is great when you need to see where your time goes, and to validate the fact that you’re spending wayyyy too much time playing Call of Duty.

Wunderlist / Todoist. There are so many note taking tools, but I’ll list these two. I like Todoist because it’s so simplified, Wunderlist because it’s so robust. But these are great for making task lists you can check off throughout the day. I tend to use evernote and it’s checkbox settings for mine, but I still think these are great, and they will sync your lists over your phone, laptop, everywhere as well as with other people.

Focus @ Will – I’m using this right now. I have been using Focus @ Will I think for 7 or 8 years. A long time. It’s something like $5 a month, and lets you choose the tempo you want, and the type of music you want. The idea is to have ambient repetitivee music that will just drown out the distractions around you and allow you to be more productive. There’s so many experimentall settings, no matter what type of personality you have you’ll find the right one (from running water, ambient ‘cafe chatter’ to classical and the ADHD setting!). Probably one of the most underrated services to own.

Mint – One of my fave tools, this online tool allows you to monitor your money and expenses, build target budgets and goals. You can’t transfer or do anything other than see all of your transactions in one place, so it’s completely secure and one of the top money management sites out there.

This is great as it will consolidate all of your accounts into one, and allow you to see every expense and have it suggest ways to save money. There’s loads of features. Andre Cantarel (upcoming Podcast episode about his contributions as CG Supervisor client side, for Independence Day Resuregence will be coming up soon) also highly recommended this when I posted on Facebook ‘What are the best tools you can’t do without?’

Toggl – Great for tracking your time also, personally I haven’t used it but now I kind of want to. Lee Johnson also swore by  Klok.

Notepad ++ or Sublime
Everyone should learn to do a little coding! I love Notepad ++ it has many extensions, so whether you use MaxScript, Python or C ++, whatever your needs are it will let you open and format your code elegantly. Free beer to whoever reminds me what the other popular one is that everyone uses, it’s been a while, did it start with a V or something?

Adobe Media Encoder – Not free but I use this for everything. From creating proxy’s and dumping out DNG’s and R3D’s after film shoots, to converting masses of lessons and offline’s, conforms and file sequences easily on Mac or PC.

LogMeIn (or Team Viewer) – There are free google chrome extensions you can get as well, but this is great for being able to log into your desktop remotely. I have literally completed over a dozen feature films 100% inside of LogMeIn now, and even been at bars or BBQ’s or on a plane and managing my render farm while I’m traveling or stuck in traffic on the other side of LA. Remote Desktop and PCoIP is a big subject I’ll be covering very soon so stay tuned. Lastly, dropbox at some studios is blocked, as obviously it’s a security hazard being able to transfer files outside of the studio easily. Personally I’ve only ever seen one studio block it.

1 Password – Store all your passwords in one secure place

Jing – This is a free tool that sits in the corner of your screen and lets you easily take screenshots or capture video and quickly share with others or save to your drive. I use this all the time and can’t stress how useful it is.

Email Tools 
FollowUp.CC - I’ll follow up about this in another post, but this tool is so powerful. You can see when peopel open your emails, set reminders for emails to kick back to you if they haven’t responded or a dozen other things. Loads of power, really great secret weapon to have!

Rapportive – I love being able to put a face to the person I’m emailing. This tool let’s me see their linkedIn and Google Plus profile next to the email.

Mailstrom – I typically use this to sort my email easily. As I can sort by month or day, or by subject heading, type of email (ie. all shopping like Amazon or social media like Twitter). This tool basically allows me to quickly jump into massive amounts of email easily and organize it, before I go into the trenches of organizing and responding to email.

Email Game – and then I use this tool to force myself to knock out my email fast. It will figure out the length of your email and assign a time limit to respond within suitable to it. As well as having an emoji up the top to make you more accountable, I can’t help but feel like I let the little guy down whenever I skip over an email without responding or archiving it.

Boomerang – This gmail extension allows me to boomerang my email, or send it away and have it come back at a designated time. So if I am responding to a lot of course related material, I can make it Friday 4pm, or Monday 9am, and have these emails come back then. A great way to remind myself to respond to an email if I send one and want to follow up if they don’t respond. I can also schedule emails to go out (did this yesterday, as I uploaded all the best takes from a recent shoot and didn’t want the email to go out to the producer for another 30 minutes until the uploads had completed).

VFX tools

XNView – Great image viewing tool. One of the most commonly recommended when I put out a post on Facebook and LinkedIn asking for what everyone else uses.
Post Haste – Create project directories on the fly from templates (props go to Jeff Hafer for mentioning this one inside of our private student Facebook group)


Pyrat Cask 1623 – My favorite bottle of alcohol in the world. Followed by Zacapa Centario XO and MacAllans 25. Also I love me some Prisoner.
Crossy Road – Andre Cantarel recommended this on Facebook, after getting stuck in Traffic in my Uber last night I decided to give it a try and I’m instantly addicted. Kind of like a 3D version of Frogger.

Ice Cube’s – If you love your Scotch or Rum I love the Sphere Ice Molds purely for the sake of getting a perfect ice sphere to cool your drink without destroying the alcohol. Here’s an example which might make more sense? And these are the large ice cubes which around LA are becoming pretty industry standard.

Inversion table – Great if you want to hang upside down like Batman. Also really great in general just to stretch out your spine daily. One of the things that’s absolutely changed my life for the better!

TED talks – Ideas worth spreading!

Overcast – By far the best Podcast player out there. Love it.

Chrome Extensions
Instapaper – Great way to instantly capture any web page or blog post to view offline later, on your phone or wherever you are. One click.
Vimeo extension to repeat – One of the students in the mentorship mentioned this during a live webinar review a while back. Really great tool to allow Vimeo to have playback speed controls, as well as let you loop your videos. Really great for speeding up videos or slowing them down!

Facebook Feed Eradicator – Since I installed this Facebook no longer has a hold over me. Simply disabled the Facebook Wall when you visit Facebook. No longer will you get caught up watching cute kitten videos or what Will Ferrell’s been up to lately. Instead it’s simply replaced with a random quote. You can still access Facebook as you would, but you’ll be surprised how much time you don’t spend on FB once you use this tool and realize “nothing’s going on” whenever you instinctively log into FB in-between renders.

My Freelance Gear

Bose QC 15’s
These guys are so old now but I keep just buying new leather ear thingy’s for them for $20 and they’re good as new. I love these noise cancelling headphones plus they kind of scream “Allan is working, do not disturb” when I have them on .. even if I have them on just to fend off the people looking to ‘hang out’ by your desk sometimes. Here’s the ‘ear thingy’s I usually get (apparently they’re called Ear Pad Cushions)

Headphone Stand

I know this won’t improve your work, but I own two of these, one I take with me on off-site gigs. But I really can’t do without having a headphone stand now for my headphones, am I weird?

VariDesk and UpDesk

I have an episode coming out shortly about work/life balance and more importantly about health. Because sitting all day, every day is one of the worst things do to ourselves. For the past 3 years I’ve started using a stand-up desk at my office. Meaning I’m free to move around, I’m not compacting my spine all day, and I have a fair amount more energy just by standing up (although I do have my lazy days and when you’re first getting used to it, it can kind of suck at first).

Back at ILM, we had desks we could wind up and down from sitting to standing, it was so cool. At the time I didn’t really understand why people would ever want to stand, until I completely obliterated my spine in 2012 sitting doing all nighters on deadlines, and realizing how we really overlook our health and prioritize work way too much..

I love my UpDesk, but it’s big, heavy and expensive (I think mine cost me around $1,000~ USD. But it works great, easily one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. You can find articles online on how to modify a cheap IKEA table into a stand up desk for around $50, so just do some googling to match your price range. I love the UpDesk because it can keep over 400lbs of weight on the desk, and at a push of a button can go from sitting to standing. We tested it with 3 people in the office the day I got it, not the funnest theme park ride, but it was cool to see it lift us 6′ into the air like a forklift!

The other item, is the VariDesk. I take this thing with me wherever I freelance. It’s a table top desk, that you can put on top of the desk you’re on, and fits two monitors, cables, keyboard, you name it. So you can sit down, and then when you want to stand, simple pull the two levers and lift, and it transforms into a stand up desk. This guy goes for about $350~? (For those in the US, do the regular shipping, there’s an express shipping, which was almost the same cost of the desk, and the free regular shipping took the same amount of time to arrive).

Foam Roller

I love having a foam roller close by, for practical use. But on top of that I’ve started using it as a great foot stand at my desk, but (yes, I’m weird) when I’m at my stand up desk, I tend to stand on this roller, you can rock back and forth and stretch your calves, there’s just loads of great uses for it, as you’re constantly stabilizing your core this way and getting your stretch on while blazing out your film shots.


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  1. Colton Fetters says:

    Another Awesome tool that you didnt mention is Mindmeister. https://www.mindmeister.com/ Really cool for visual people to put together thoughts.

    • amckay says:

      Thanks Colton! Honestly I was on the fence about mentioning it! I love Mindmeister I’ve used it for everything from blocking out some of the more complicated articles I’ve written like Overtime vs Productivity where I had so much info and wasn’t sure how the hell I would structure the article, to scheduling projects, courses, teams, you name it. I also really like xmind, if you want to work locally. But thanks for bringing it up, I wasn’t sure how many other people are mind mappers or not,, so there’s a lot of tools I felt I could add but maybe they’d be a little outside of the general spectrum, so again thanks for bringing this up!

  2. StephenSherry says:

    FreeCommander is windows explorer on steroids.

    It has tabs that can be pinned and lots, lots more features that will remove the need to use Windows explorer ever again. This will also properly remove the need for folderGIT.

    There’s a x64 version for the paid version.
    15$ (I think) for lifetime upgrades. http://freecommander.com/en/donation/

    Right click context, move and copy file to location.
    FREE: http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/windows/add-copy-to-move-to-to-the-windows-explorer-right-click-menu/
    Install .reg file.

    Clean up your desktop icons automatically.
    10$: http://www.stardock.com/products/fences/

    Speedfan: Monitor system temps etc.
    FREE: http://www.almico.com/speedfan.php

    Stickies, again (windows version sucks).
    FREE: http://www.zhornsoftware.co.uk/stickies/

    Arsclip: Clipboard manager: Store upto 9,000 previously stored copied text,image clips (has search function)
    FREE: http://www.joejoesoft.com/vcms/97/

    • amckay says:

      Thanks Stephen these are awesome, Free Commander kind of reminds me of Norton Commander for DOS. Really great additions, thanks for these!

      • StephenSherry says:

        Only difference is the UI!! ;)

        Forgot to mention.

        Open Broadcaster Software for recording tutorials. Less RAM, CPU hungry than any other I’ve used

  3. MichaelTornberg says:

    Were you thinking of VIM perhaps? Some notable editors are also UltraEdit and Atom, which is quite like Sublime but is totally free and open source.

    As for music etc.. I usually write music myself for the situation. Like if it is an action thing, or ambient space scene whatever. I will make (or simply play an old) loop what will put me in the mood.
    But yeah, I do that too. It’s really great. Especially during coding. Maybe I’ll put some of that on Facebook?

  4. MichaelTornberg says:

    Inversion table (or boots ) are good, *but* it is important that you should consult your doctor if you have any of these issues: Diabetes, heart problems, glaucoma etc.. or high blood pressure. Because things could get very bad very quickly if you have these problems and don’t check with the doctor first. Try to have someone with you the first time, even if you think you are healthy, because there will be a lot of blood rushing to your head after all :) I’m not trying to frighten you of course, most don’t have these issues. But I still think it is good to keep that in mind, since we were talking about health.

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