Episode 138 — Allan McKay — Ask Me Anything


Click here to listen on iTunes!

Get on the VIP insiders list!

Check out www.VFXRates.com.

Upload The Productive Artist e-book.

Allan McKay’s YouTube Channel.

Allan McKay’s Instagram.


Episode 138 — Allan McKay — Ask Me Anything

Hi, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 138! I’m doing the first ever AMA (Ask Me Anything) Podcast. This was a lot of fun. I did an announcement on Social Media recently about this Episode. I got hundreds of questions. I had to choose just 10 or so.

– If you enjoy this, please shoot me an email with your questions: [email protected]. Put “Ask Me Anything” as your subject line. Hopefully, you find this interesting.

– I have also put out this Episode on my YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/AllanFTMcKay/videos.

Let’s dive in!



[-[54:29] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. Typically, we go on job interviews and we get asked how much we want to charge. We either shoot ourselves in the foot by saying we charge less than we’re worth and getting the gig — but indirectly leaving tens of thousands of dollars accumulatively over time, on the table; rather than actually asking what we should be charging. At the same time you don’t want to alienate your employer by asking for too much and leaving yourself out in the cold.

I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your information — your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. This is something I’m going to continue to build and flush out over time.

The key thing is, I don’t want to just showcase how much you should be worth — I want to hand you the tools to grow and learn:

– to negotiate better,

– to ask for the right amount of money in the right way,

– lots of other tools!

The information is FREE! Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! Put in your information and you will get instantly notified with how much you should be charging per hour, as a VFX Artist. www.VFXRates.com!



This Podcast is Allan McKay’s first ever AMA (Ask Me Anything) session.

A while back, Allan has posted — on his social media — to ask any burning questions that you want to have answered about learning or pursuing a career in visual effects. Out of hundreds of questions, he selected about ten that would benefit most listeners and artists.

In this AMA Podcast, Allan covers the subjects like:


– Creating your some-day goals — and attacking them with URGENCY!

– Questions to ask a client before taking on a new job;

– Choosing the right training AND the importance of creating your own material.

– Getting your foot in the door as a VFX artist and the importance of communication.

– And a several other important questions!


[-53:04] A while back, I put it out there on social media to ask any burning questions that you want to have answered. I decided to dedicate an Episode of my Podcast to answering these questions. This will be my first every AMA — or, as one person has already put it, AAA: Ask Allan Anything. How ever you want to title it, I’m excited to do this Episode. Rather than writing really in-depth responses to each person, I thought it would be beneficial to answer these for everyone’s benefit. If you have any questions, shoot me an email at [email protected] with the subject line “Ask Me Anything”.

[-[51:54] After posting an announcement on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, I received a lot of great questions. However, I’ve tried to break it down to a couple really important ones.


QUESTION 1: Devon Dubost asks, “I’d love to hear the process for creating visual effects you’ve never done before: Do you brainstorm different approaches and take the one that you believe will work the best? Do you rush it into comp or do you typically R&D and make the decision which technique to expand on and then push it into comp?”

[-[51:35] This question is from Devon Dubost who is a student in my Mentorship. One of the things we talk about inside my Course is “always race to comp”. In other words, you want to see your effects in the context of the entire shot, how it’s going to work. 

– It’s very easy to work on something, get in-depth with it — and then realize you can’t render it out [because] it got too heavy.

– Or you render it out and realize the alphas are really transparent because you’ve been working on a black background the entire time.

– Or your effects are really staccato and don’t work with the composition of the shot.

Whatever it might be, the sooner you get into comp — the sooner you’ll get a better idea on how it’s all coming together.

[-[50:22] I always make it a rule of thumb to race to comp as soon as I can, even if it’s just a crude, rudimentary animation, just to get the timing right. And then once you can see it in the context of the shot, then you can go back and add all the nuances — to make it cool. I think it’s a good rule of thumb to have. What Devon is saying: When you start on a new shot, are you trying out different ideas or banking on one and try it all the way through? It really comes down to the shot context.

– If it’s something like a building being destroyed — where the timing, gravity, all the other factors are important — then I probably will [race to comp].

– If it is something where there are a lot of boxes to tick, I would wait to worry about comp. For me, it’s about figuring out the best approach.

[-[48:46] FX are very problem solving oriented. I was talking to someone at Weta the other day: You can figure out what you need to do before you even start the shot. I feel like the inexperienced people dive into effects “because it’s cool”. “I’m going to build this procedural rig that drives everything, I’ll just have one slider.” Then you realize later on that you don’t have control. You have go and break everything down again, to compensate for the fact that you don’t have the controls you need.

[-[48:00] When I get asked to do a demo for Autodesk or places like that, when it comes to real production shots aren’t as elegant as you might think because you need that absolute control. What is elegant about them — is the way they were approached. The smarter you are, the more senior you’re, the more you’re going to tackle the important things first. If I’m doing explosions, I’m more interested in getting the timing right. Making it look cool isn’t just as important as getting the broad strokes. The cool looking stuff comes later. A lot of the times, I’ll sit down with pen and paper and figure out the best way to do something. I’ve seen so many juniors start something, get 5% in and hit a wall. Then, they have to go try something else; and they’ll do this over and over. Two weeks would go and they have 20-30 attempts, all at 5% in.

[-[46:08] Once you figure out if it’s going to work, it’s better to go through the whole pipeline, then do the fun part. There were so many projects for which I’ve hired people and they would detail the one thing that looked amazing. When the deadline comes around, they can’t render it out: it’s too heavy or it looks like crap. I’d rather get it through the entire pipeline and then go back and start revising. Then, if I get resistance, I know I can dial it back because it got heavy on the displacement, for example. But when you’ve never got it through comp, you’re never going to have a solution. In 3D, things are time-consuming, things go wrong all the time. I’d rather figure out the solution. Once I choose a direction, get it to the point where it’s working — and then go through the whole pipeline; get it to comp and see how it looks. Later, I know at some point it was working. It’s just a matter of where to troubleshoot at that point. Do the planning up front! Front load the planning as much as you can.


QUESTION 2: Ali Abbas asks, “Can you explain the parameters that you lock on the first meeting with client? What are those questions that can help understand what the client wants?” 

[-[43:09] This is a really great question about what I would ask clients. This question is underrated, yet 90% of the time, the problems that we run into down the road stem from not doing your due-diligence: From not front loading the questions and figuring out that you’re on the same page with your client.

[-[42:34] Typically, when I come onto a new project, I am going to ask more questions than they ask me:

– I want to get a better idea of what I’m walking into.

– Also, I want to communicate the things they may not have thought themselves.

I. When I first get on the call, one of the first questions I ask is: What’s the schedule? How soon do you need me to start and when are you looking to deliver the project? That sets the content for everything else. Let’s say they need you to do a cliff crashing into the ocean. Later on, they come back saying it’s due in 3 days. Same deal with money: You may have negotiated a rate for 3 days, while the project is looking to be a 3-month project. The more you’re able to educate them what you plan to do, the better.

II. [-[40:53] From there, I would talk more about the project. Specifically, I’m going to ask them: Do they have any reference (film, images, concept work, design brief)? Usually, they would send me the NDA and the material — and I would tell them we can chat later in the day, after I’ve reviewed it all. It’s better than having this long discussion about what you’re doing. If it’s a cliff braking off in the water, you need to know where the camera is. If it’s on the cliff, you need to focus on destroying houses and people running. Whatever that may be! You need to know the context of how it’s coming together.

III. [-[39:44] The other thing is money. I will bring up money early on. I’d rather get on the same page right away. A lot of people are afraid to bring it up. If you don’t flag the red flags, you may be agreeing to something you can’t deliver. Either way, your giving excuses later is not going to make you look good. Depending on the client, I would ask, “What’s your budget?” If you’re a junior or mid-level artist, you may not be able to ask a question like that. But with certain clients, you get to a point where you are both going to show your hand. They have done their budget.

IV. [-[38:05] Once you get these things out of the way, you can start to talk about the project more freely. I mention these things because they’re are the ones that will come up to bite you later on, or create resentment. If you’re both on the same page, you can both focus on getting the job done. It’s a business, this is how it works. You get those out of the way, and you can focus on the job. If you bring up resolution and it’s 2K stereo, it’s going to add to the cost. Asking questions about details, you may not have time to deliver them all:

– If it’s a cliff falling into the ocean and there are many houses, and they need you to deliver in a week, you might come back with a solution that the dust from the crack in the cliff covers up most of the action. They can come back with a yes or a no. It’s hard to talk about hypotheticals like that.

– If you’re working remotely, bring up the rendering up early on as well. I’ve had one job when I flew from Sydney to New York to find out that they had 30 machines but with 30 people working on them. So ask how many available render machines they have.

[-[33:33] I keep mentioning that you have to be on the same page. The project might sound like a really cool idea. But then you get there and it’s a nightmare. It’s better to know what you’re walking into. I’m about to fly to LA to do a project. I nearly walked out on the job because of how tight the NDA’s were. They couldn’t show me anything. I had to make sure I could deliver. It’s better to educate them as much as you can, offer solutions, agree on the final output and delivery details. All these things, you never know until you start asking questions. The more questions you ask, the more likely you’re to discover a detail that’s a red flag. I hammer the questions but deliveries are so important, including for reviews! You have to be on the same page when they can expect thing. Clients will get nervous when they can’t see things. All these problems are because of poor communication upfront.


QUESTION 3: C.K. Hisks asks, “I have an audio / photo / video background but haven’t spent much time in these fields lately. Is the best path to growth to start cranking out test projects or plunge into structured learning?”

[-[29:46] I think what C.K. is saying is: Is it better to start doing R&D and testing, to try things out; or to go through a specific course? I think the answer is in finding the resources that you really trust and going all in with them. But there is so much out there, you don’t know which source to trust. It’s frustrating to have so much contradicting information and knowing to which source to go. I think it’s better to discover the right training that’s going to give you better results and double down on that.

[-[28:57] I’m going to mention my Mentorship. I’ve spent a lot of time ironing it out and making sure the pacing was right. I like making people sink or swim at the beginning. I front load the hard work up front, so the rest of the Course is easier. Depending on who you go with, it’s important to consolidate and find 1-2 go-to resources. Whoever you go with, it’s important to do your own projects and put what you’re learning into them. If you’re going through a training material — it’s cool! — but it’s always going to be very protected and within the environment that they set up. When you try to go film things yourself, you’re pushing yourself to take ownership of the work and problem solving on your own. 

[-[27:58] Really take ownership of your shots. Go through and apply the things. That way, you have a unique shot that no one has. You’re also running into your problems too, which is really beneficial to have a shot that you make your own. The journey is a lot more rewarding. [For example], if I’m ever learning a new software. I usually have a shot in mind that I want to do and I start going through the software IN that shot. It’s a lot easier than playing with tools but not pushing them toward an end-goal you’ve set.


QUESTION 4: Zac Willey asks, “What advice would you give to a student who is just starting out in VFX software and wants to pursue the film industry? More specifically, what kind of portfolio should they be building?”

[-[26:36] This is such an open-ended question. It’s worthwhile saying, especially when [talking about] Visual Effects, you have to put in the time! You can’t go and get a job in a month or two. You’ve got to look at it as an investment and people might realize along the way that it’s not for them. You have to be passionate enough to make it, you have to put in the time. Otherwise, you may not be able to put in the work to get final results.

[-25:59] In the beginning, it’s more about playing around and getting excited about what you’re doing — and finding what you’re enjoying and getting sucked into it, rather than trying to beat it into what you want it to do. Later, when it’s actually time to get a job, you can feel like it’s time. You have to feel good enough to work on your portfolio and reel (allanmckay.com.com/137). When it comes to the demo reel, I would say, do one good shot and make it everything that it can be.

[-[24:53] The most important thing is that you take a shot from start to finish. That way you can show you can do the work. Otherwise, hiring people is a really expensive gamble. Being able to demonstrate that you can sit down tomorrow and do the work is more important than diversity of shots, or doing all these tests that don’t demonstrate that you can make the shot final. 


QUESTION 5: This one is from Istagram. @Itsbishop2 asks, “First of all, I love the show! What tips would you give to a runner in a VFX company, especially about trying to hit the next level and become a junior artist or similar.”

[-[23:59] Thanks, Miles! I was talking to Kathleen Ruffalo at Framestore the other day because they have a runner program. The concept of a runner comes from the U.K., where you would run the tap and work your way from the bottom up. I feel like in 2018, we can land in great positions from the get-go, while before you would have to earn your stripes. I think it’s cool some places still have these positions, whether it’s a runner or a service person, or a tape operator. Smart people will do anything to get their foot in the door and then move around. I’ve also met people who think these jobs are beneath them.

[-[22:38] I have a story from back in the day about my friends Kate and Rob. Rob was turning down jobs left and right because he only wanted to work for Weta. Meanwhile, Kate wanted to work as a Compositor but came in as a client service person. She would fetch coffee and make sure the client had anything he needed. Fast forward a few years, she is now a Senior Compositor. Rob still hadn’t had the right job. That to me sums it up. You have to get your foot in the door, it doesn’t matter what you do. Be smart about it and move up from there. 

[-[21:43] The most critical thing is communicate what you want to do. No one is psychic. You need to communicate what you want and need. Assuming they’re a good manager, they might invite you to sit in on a meeting. The more hard work you’re putting in and communicating where you want to go, the more people will see opportunities for you. But if you don’t communicate that to anyone, they will continue seeing you as your starting job.

[-[20:33] The other thing is to learn on your own. You can then tell them and show them your stuff. No one is going to say no to seeing your work. You have a chance to sell your skills to that person. You have a resource there already! Whatever it might be, the more you’re asking questions and showing your initiative, the more people see you in that light. Just figure out ways that aren’t intrusive to other people. No matter how cheap you are, you’re still asking people for their time. Be ambitious without being overbearing! And see where you can get those opportunities. It’s not about waiting for other people’s permission, however. Keep doing it until you’re good enough to transition to another department. Because you have access, the right opportunity will eventually come along. Just make sure to communicate where you want to be. But again, keep doing it on your own time, that way people get excited once you get better.


QUESTION 6: Another one from Istagram. @rjunemagu asks, “I would like to know how much, in your opinion, will it take to get to an expert level in VFX? And what approaches do I need to apply?”

[-[16:15] I left this one in here. Out of all the questions it’s worth addressing: We all have this rush to want to get there. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I don’t know everything there is to know. VFX is always changing and improving.

[-[15:40] It’s important to start out as a Generalist, learn everything you can — and then later on niche down and grow out of there. If you’re ever coming into VFX and expecting to get a job in 2 months, it’s not how it works because you need to invest time — and it’s such a long journey! But if I were to give advice on how to speed it up and make most of your time, surround yourself with mentors and better people who can pull you up. 

– Always be learning;

– Always be experimenting;

– Don’t just do simple things;

– Try and shoot live action;

– Try to show the end result.

[-[14:35] The more you’re exposed to the entire pipeline, the more you have that birds’-eye-view of how it all works. I’ve gotten so many questions about the best software, I want to do a video on it separately. If you want to learn software, learn one — but learn it inside out. The other ones will be easier. If you learn them all at once, you will learn 10% of each.

[-[13:53] But the really critical thing is to have goals and a timeline applied to that. You will have a clear direction and will be able to measure the success you’re having. If you’re driving a car, it may seem to you that you’re moving really slowly. But if you look to the side, you’re whipping past things. You have to have that understanding of where you are and where you want to be. How else are you going to achieve anything if you don’t have goals? The more you have goals, the more you’re able to measure it. I always say: Attack with urgency and fail fast. I’m always hitting my goals hard — in three months or three weeks — so that I can see my failure fast as well. I’m attacking my goals with urgency and failing fast.


QUESTION 7: Eddie Gomez asks, “My question is a business one. As an artist doing VFX, do you use your own contract when working for a client or theirs? And is there specific language that as an artist you should ask to have in the contract?”

[-[10:28] It’s more about the context. If I’m going to work onsite and they have a contract, I can go over it and tell them if I’m not comfortable with something. For example, ILM “owns the rights to your likeness”, in other words if they want to make a video game about you, they can. That’s because they make a lot of Behind the Scenes and they don’t want to give you a release form every time. They also say if you have any intellectual property, to state in the contract. That’s standard at a lot of places. They want to make sure you’re comfortable in their environment. At the same time, if you’ve already made a water tool, you need to state that — to protect it.

[-[09:03] Generally, I don’t give clients contracts. I’m looking at look putting some contracts on my website for you to look at. These days, email counts as a contract. It’s enough of a paper trail. I work with the same clients a lot and I have the trust with them. But I think it is a good practice to make agreements and when they send a contract, I have a lawyer to look at it. With contracts, they have to hold up in law. It means that you need to write it in lawyer’s talk — which can get pretty expensive. Keep that in mind!

[-[07:02] The paper trail for me is really important. Let’s say I get on the phone with clients. What I’ll do, once the call is done — I follow up with an email. Just a friendly follow-up to what they said in the meeting that they can respond to, “Yes, that sounds great!” I think it’s better to communicate and cover your butt. Whatever stuff that can happen — because it does — people forget what people said on the phone. It’s easier to have it confirmed via email. I usually say, “Hey, great chatting with you! I’m going to send it to you next Friday and it’s going to cost this much money. Before I start, please confirm.” That way, they need to take action before you start working on something.

[-[04:44] Same thing if I go on a job interview. That’s so critical to have a follow up. It’s going to make you fresh in their mind. It’s really critical. Things are so fast paced anyway, there is no time to go back and forth with lawyers. And an email will hold up in court.


QUESTION 8: Troy Buckley — who is part of my team — asks, “How you stay determined in pursuing your goals — especially when those goals are not achievable?”

[-[03:34] This is a really good question. All of us have goals. A lot of the time, it can feel impossible because it’s so far off. It’s good to have some-day goals. These goals might feel unachievable, but the more you break them down, the more you can make set of achievable ones. That way you get some wind from achievements. You need to start taking steps today. It feel unachievable because you’re not doing anything to work toward that goal.

[-[02:40] With the goals that seem impossible, it’s important to break them down and understand what makes them feel unachievable. Let’s pretend it is achievable. What would you need to get done to get there? It’s about changing your mindset. Then you can start breaking it down and achieve it bit by bit.


These are just questions I’ve gotten. I want to answer more and I hope you can get inspired. If you have questions, send me an email to [email protected] — and I’ll do another one of these.

– I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Please review this Episode on iTunes.

– For info on registring for my Mentorship, please sign-up for the free VIP Insiders List at allanmckay.com/inside/.

That’s it for now. Until the next Episode —

Rock on!



Let's Connect

View my profile on