Episode 149 — Should I Be a Generalist or a Specialist?


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Episode 149 — Should I Be a Generalist or a Specialist?

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 149! I’m answering the age-old question: Should I be a generalist or a specialist? This is a solo Episode, and I’m really excited about it. I just did a launch for my FXTD Mentorship and I got this question a lot. I wanted to answer the shit out of it!

Let’s dive in!



I. [01:26] I have a brand new updated website now: www.allanmckay.com. It has a lot of free content: e-books, guides, assets, talks, tutorials. In 2014, I built a new website and I hated it. It was so slow. I went through this dilemma where I would drive people away from it.

Finally, I’ve built a website that’s fast loaded and makes me excited about putting up new content. I’ve also been doing my YouTube channel and I will be doing a lot more solo Episodes. Interviews are easier to do while Solo Episodes take a lot more work. The amount of work that goes into it is exhausting. BUT: I see the value in Solo Episodes and I get a lot of feedback from you. The Podcast will be more focused around that!

II. [-04:52] I will be segmenting my Email Circle List: www.allanmckay.com/inside/. When you sign up, you’ll have a chance to select the content you want. I want to start customizing it a lot more. Eventually, there will be two separate lists.

III. [-[05:51] I will be launching a new company called Creative Lab which will be focused on evolving all of us as artists. I’m going to be putting out content around our careers:

  • How to launch your own studio.
  • How to build your brand.

IV. [-[06:40] I will be working on a book for building a career as a freelancer.

Having the website means having the glue that holds all of this stuff together. That’s my rant! I hope you’re excited about this as much as I am.



The big question is: Should I be a generalist or a specialist? That’s one of the most common questions I’ve gotten lately and it applies to every creative industry: games, film, design. This is something you should relate to: Should you niche to a specific subject or should you raise your hand to every job that comes along because you’re a generalist?

This question has more to do with a mindset. More importantly, if you are to be a generalist: you’re allowing for every job to be applicable to you, but it will also be applicable to every other person.

  • So how do you single yourself out as the obvious expert?
  • Do you want to be jack of all trades, master of none?
  • Or do you want to laser focus on the service you provide.


Know Your Market

[09:27] Think of it this way: The person who is doing the hiring (and you have to put yourself in their shoes to understand what they want) isn’t going to put out a notice, “I’m looking for someone in 3D”. And if they do, it’s not going to be a consistent job. You have to think about when they sound like a client who isn’t looking for a specific thing — and how much experience they might have (including with paying you). They’re also most likely not thinking about the technical work and the amount of hours required to go into this process. To them, it may be a bunch of pixels.

[10:46] By specializing, the advantage right away is that you’re in a much smaller sandbox. If you were to describe yourself as a “3D Artist” on your business card, you’re playing with a lot of people in the same sandbox. But if you say, “Hi, I’m an FX TD specialized in water simulations,” it’s much easier for you to stand out because you’re defining yourself that specific. The goal here is to become the go-to person, on your client’s rolodex, or for your city — or the entire world. They will think of you when they have that need.

[11:50] When we hire, we’re looking to solve a problem. When a movie gets green lit, we don’t go, “Okay, I need a bunch of 3D guys.” Yes, there will be some generalists brought on. But if you’re thinking how to negotiate a higher salary and get the things you want, it’s harder to do it on paper with a position that isn’t solving a problem. The generalist positions usually come with a specific budget. If you were to come along with your experience and ask for more money — it’s harder to get what you want because it’s not corresponding to one of their pain points. Their pain points are how to handle the creature work, or destruction. They can hire the next guy for the generalist.

[13:44] Flip it around to the specialist position: When we’re hiring a creature modeler to sculpt out that Godzilla, or the nuclear blast, or a dynamics person for the city, we’re looking for the right person for a specific task — a “pain point”. In those areas, you can negotiate a lot more. It’s easy to say, “You’re outside of our budget, but maybe we can borrow from other areas to pay you.” That’s the key point: The more specialized you are, the more you can command the fees you deserve. There is time and money assigned to these pain points.

[-[15:25] I should make it clear: You can still get good money as a generalist. The key thing is that if you want to get the money you want, it’s harder to negotiate it with a fresh team. If you keep working with the same client, they will see your worth — and you fee — go up over time. The longer you stay with them, the further up you’ll go. If you leave, you’ll have to rebuild that rapport with with the next client.


Build Your Brand

[16:55] As you specialize, you’re building your brand. You’re putting in the steps for that. Any subject I can think of — key artist names keep coming up. Who makes character designs, for example? There are human gods who are amazing at that work. Same goes for environment artists or animators. When you think of that subject, you instantly think of that person. If you change that to generalists, it’s harder to have those name resonate right away.

[18:22] When you see a job offer in your inbox and then another email from the same company, what’s going on there? You want to be in that position! When they sit down and brainstorm on whom to hire for the tsunami effect and everyone leaves the meeting and contacts you because you’re “the tsunami girl” — that’s the effect of branding! However you’ve managed to brand yourself, you want to be the go-to person. You don’t even need to be the best in the world. You just need to find your circle. Initially, you’ll be the go-to person with one or two clients. And then, you can build it up in your country or in the world.

[20:38] If you can’t tell other people what you do for a living, they’re not going to have an easy time doing that either.

  • You need to know your sound bites.
  • You need to know your canned material.

When someone asks what you do for a living, you can say, “I create large water simulations. I’m one of the experts in my industry who gets the first pick.” That helps the other person brand you.

[21:35] The key thing to think about is branding yourself. I’ve gone back to this over 15 years. Someone comes up to me an any event and hands me their business card: “3D Artist / Wedding Photographer”, what you’re communicating is that you’ll take any job and that doesn’t give me confidence in your ability. If another person hands me their character that says, “Character Modeler” — that person will get the call when I’m looking for that particular person. I’m not going to go over a dozen business cards. I’m going to look for the Character Modeler.

[24:10] A good parallel would be that a family physician can make $150K a year, while a specialized doctor will make $700-$800K. People go to a specialist when they have a problem when they have an urgency. Simply put: By specializing, they advertise that one thing. The more you specialize — the more you stand out and the more your name is attached to that one thing.


The 80/20 Rule

[25:19] The 80/20 rule states that most of us have the fear that by being a specialist, we rule out the 80% of jobs we’re applying for. You’ll qualify only for 20% of the job. But at the same time, you’re also eliminating 80% of the competition. Now it’s a smaller pit of people. By specializing, you’re eliminating your competition. The more you specialize, the less competition you’ll have. And you can specialize in more than one thing. This isn’t about typecasting in one trade for the rest of your life. It’s about being able to advertise your service to the right person at the right time. They have a problem — you have a solution.

[26:55] In the marketing world, there is a great analogy. When you walk into a drug store with a migraine. You pick up one bottle that says, “Cures all aches” and another that says, “Cures all headaches”. Which one are you going to spend your money on? The one that cures all headaches because that is your pain point. It doesn’t mean that the other medicine was worse. It’s just more generalized. When it comes to marketing, a lot of companies will put out the same product, but with different labels. When you’re looking at all the other drugs on the shelf, if this one communicates the solution for your issue — that’s the one you’re going to pick. That applies to medicine, shampoo, etc. So this is what you need to do when you realize who your potential client is: You’re the qualifying person; the right medicine for them. Everyone else will be the “Cure for all aches and pains”.


It’s an Evolution

[29:24] Just because you’re a specialist, doesn’t mean that you start out as one. The way I see it — and every one of my guests on the Podcast has seen it — it’s better to start out as a generalist and evolve into a specialist overtime. From day one, you don’t say, “I’m a character animator”. When I first moved to the States, I was shocked to see so many people who learned to do that one thing. If you don’t see a specialty as an evolved thing, it’s going to cause problems down the line because you didn’t learn to problem solve. In the 90s, every artists outside of the U.S. had to learn to do everything. I eventually became an FX artist, but I did my time as a generalist and evolved into what I naturally excelled at. Because 3D or VFX has been around longer in the U.S., that meant that people could step into the specialist roles. Whenever I would ask other artist to fix something, they didn’t know how to do anything outside of their specialty. They were missing the foundation.

[32:29] By having the understanding of all other areas, it’s more about understanding the pipeline: Where your work is coming from and where it’s going. Knowing that I’m an FX person, I can communicate to the modeler about what I need: “Make sure your STL’s are checked to make sure there are no leaks in the model because I need a concave closed surface, etc.” Whatever it might be! Being able to communicate to other people what my needs are makes my job easier. It would be embarrassing if I can’t communicate why a model looks wrong and what I need. Same goes for the compositor, “Do you need me to render it out in deep, etc.” If I were a compositor, knowing some 3D helps me communicate as well and know where my work goes. Understanding the foundations allows you to understand the process.


Become the Trifecta

[34:24] I’ve talked about the trifecta. In any area that you’re in, understand the three areas around yours and learn about them as well. Scripting, compositing and lighting influence what I’m doing. I can also communicate things or do things myself. If you’re a rigger, learn some character work and scripting. With character work, learn modeling as well as lighting. The more you understand the surrounding areas, the better you can perform. That’s what the trifecta is.

[36:18] Just because you’re good at one thing doesn’t mean you don’t know other areas. You’re just building a brand around that one subject. You can be a specialist in as many areas as you want. I’ve spent two years in my career where I didn’t do any TD work. I’ve done production or even directing. I have a Podcast that’s focused on ALL creatives and that hopefully inspires to break out and succeed. If I’m speaking about different subjects at a conference, I will put forward the skills that service that subject. You can be an expert in a dozen different things.


There’s Nothing Wrong with Being Pigeonholed

[39:13] The term “pigeonholed” has a negative connotation. Early in my career, a lot of my friends were asking why I wanted to do effects, as opposed to character work. I was addicted to solving problems, the things that didn’t have good solutions at the time. My friends kept warning me to not get pigeonholed into doing effects for the rest of my life. It got beaten into me that that was a bad thing. At 18-19 years old, there were 3 people who specialized in effects in Australia. None of us were competitive with each other. Instead, we were a strong network. If one of us was busy, we’d recommend the other guys. That worked out better for us because clients would never go out of our circle of us three. The idea of competitors is really petty. And when you look at a big picture, there is nothing better than having each other’s back.

[41:47] In 2004, I worked on Blade where I did all the vampire ashes. There was a team of us. After that, I’ve worked on dozens of projects and wherever I went, I was approached to do vampires turning into ashes. In 2007, Daybreakers landed on our laps. Two of us teamed up for that project. The directors described that they wanted something similar to Blade. Our team of two was easily overqualified to do that job. After that, I started turning down ash effects. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed and I didn’t mind doing something different. In 2010, I was on set and I got a call to do God of War. I took on that project in LA (my client was in NY). After that, people would come to me wanted to do the same work. This is one example. Rhythm and Hues came across my work and asked me to create their fire department. I was “the fire guy” at ILM. All I did was create a brand around a certain area. When certain things came up, I became the go-to guy. That’s the power of specializing. It’s called effective branding. You don’t have to be in one niche, just do it effectively. 

From Micro to Macro

[46:55] In the book I wrote this year, The Ultimate Guide to a Successful Demo Reel, one the key things I discussed was the evolution of building a specialized reel. At certain point, you will need to build your studio reel. There isn’t that much difference: One is micro reel, the other macro.

  • A lot of artists are allergic to business. If you start to look at what studios do:
  • They take pride in their work.
  • They become conscious of time and money.
  • They are conscious of branding and marketing.

When it comes to getting work, you’re not going to send your studio reel. You’re going to cut a specialized reel that aligns with their needs. Studios do tests when they apply for a job. From there, people who may not have been on the radar will get considered. If I were to send a reel with Godzilla destroying a city — to a studio working on a Godzilla movie — how do you think it’s going to increase my chances of getting hired? I am doing something specific and that sending the message that I’m willing to do extra work. I’m already ahead of everyone else.


The Billionaire Mindset

[50:32] I wanted to mention the billionaire mindset. I attended a private master talk. One thing the speaker discussed was the growth of companies like Uber that looked into areas with high demand — but low supply. Look at the market and see where there is a high need. I can look at the reels and see that there are a lot of generalists and roto people, and compositors. Are there a lot of FX people? It’s the highest in demand and lowest in supply position. Demonstrating that you can finish shots, knowing how to grow as an artist, all these things come into play. If there is a low supply in large scale water effects, I might apply myself there. I’m going to position myself as the go-to person.

[52:55] If you look at Scanline VFX, that’s how they created their niche. They created Flowline which is a proprietary water simulation tool. By doing that and taking on water jobs — which were the trickiest jobs at the time — they earned the confidence of studios. Then, they grew enough to start branching out. That’s important to think about as well. You can see the potential. If you start to look at the market and observe new software and there isn’t much competition — or new trends — you can jump into. Become the futurist of the industry! See what’s coming, what’s the future, what the new movie that’s being green lit. Know the needs, step up and provide that service.



[55:49] It’s not about being a specialist or a generalist. A specialist is just the evolution from a generalist. You can remain a generalist your whole life. You can move up to being a supervisor or create your own short films as a director.

  • Be strategic.
  • Create your niche.
  • Single yourself out.

Whatever your thing is, this is a chance to niche down and go vertical. Eventually, you’ll get the calls and pick and choose your projects. You’ll have roles created for you. That’s when you have the negotiating power as well. You can be a specialist in several areas, but being pigeonholed is a bad thing either. When it comes to being a specialist, you want to be the one person qualified for the job.

I hope you find this helpful. I’m not bashing on generalists or specialists. I want you to look at specialists as being part of the evolution from generalists.


I’ll be back with the next Episode. Please check out my website in the mean time: www.allanmckay.com.

Until then —

Rock on!



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