Episode 184 — How to Get Started in VFX

This is an Episode that has been a long time coming. This is easily the one question I get asked every day: How do I get started in visual effects? Where do I turn? I’m overwhelmed: Which software should I study? There are two ways to answer this question: One: The generic way of “Just do it!” or “Go to school!” Instead, I want to dive deeper and give you the specific answer, as well tell you which mistakes to avoid.

This applies not only to when you’re starting out. You could be a few years into your career but still figuring out what your purpose is; what you’re trying to do. I want to remind you what intrigued you about this career in the first place and laser focus on what that goal is.

In this Episode, you will learn to set your Sometime Goal, how to stay focused, choose the right tutorials and software, overcome resistance and roadblocks — and how to get closer to your Dream Job!


[00:44] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in 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. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!

[03:45] I’ve been posting a lot lately to my Inner Circle. I’ve been posting a lot of tutorials, including free training that will be coming out this week. Please join my VIP Insiders List to learn more information: www.allanmckay.com/inside/.

[04:58] If this Episode resonates with you, please share it with others. You can take a screen shot and post it on your social media. Just make sure to tag me.

[36:35] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!


[05:44] There are so many resources, tutorials and places to go. How do you know which the right ones are? How do you know you’re investing your time — and sometimes money — in the stuff that’s correct? Just because you pay money for something doesn’t make it better. I’ve put out hundreds of hours of tutorials over the last few years. I’ve had a number of people re-record my free training and start charging money for it. But there is enough free content out there! There is no reason to spend money on it! Ninety nine percent of the stuff out there isn’t that great, however. And even the good stuff, if you listen to it for long enough, it starts to conflict. It’s best to start out exploring different content.

[06:59] So find the material that you trust the most — and then go all in. I’m saying marriage ceremony, kids, house, all of it! Rather than consuming all this conflicting information from different sources — focus on the one source that works best for you. Cut the fat and invest in a smaller number of resources, coming from someone with whose thinking you align. But that doesn’t mean you can’t Google something whenever you hit a roadblock.

[07:49] The first thing you need to say is, “I want to learn visual effects.” That’s the start of the conversation. There are so many areas, concentrations, specialities, software! You could get into tv, games, film, VR, motion graphics. You can be a Generalist, a TD. You can learn different types of software — and then specialize in certain tools in that eco system.

  • If you want to do effects, do you want to be the water effects guy or a destruction girl?
  • Do you want more abstract motion graphics or do more fire and pyro effects?

It’s no wonder so many of us get overwhelmed before we even begin!

Find Your Someday Goal

[08:53] Here’s how to cut through the noise: HAVE A GOAL! The more specific your goal — the more laser focused you get get on your concentration. If you want to blow things up, like in Star Wars, think of the most exciting sequence in that film and about what appealed to you the most. Look at the visuals that inspired you and that gives you clarity on why you wanted to do this job in the first place. Here is an example: If you loved the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, that says the following: “I’d love to do character animation in feature films, in realistic animation specifically.” From there, you can look at which studio did that work. In the case of Jurassic Park, it would be ILM. Of course, there are other places that do that kind of work.

[10:15] It’s easy to say, “I want to learn everything about visual effects!” But this gives you a much more accurate goal. That’s your Someday Goal and it gives you a sense of direction. That’s the most valuable piece of advice I can give anyone! You need to have a laser focused goal! This is why some people succeed and others fail. Those who succeed have a specific goal towards which they’re heading. Your Someday Goal is going to change as new information and opportunities come in. Being “a creature animator at ILM” doesn’t mean you’re going to start working at ILM tomorrow. You may have to work at smaller studios to get there. But having that goal gives you a sense of direction.

Do Your Research

[11:54] Doing your due diligence really helps. By knowing your Someday Goals you have a place to model your path. That means you can take a look at what ILM is doing and start to align yourself with that kind of work.

  • You can start to research your dream studio and realize they animate in Maya;
  • You can start to look at their artists’ profiles on LinkedIn and see from which places they came;
  • You can look at their Vimeo accounts and see at what level they were when they started at ILM.

If you have a goal — if you have a dream place where you want to work — it’s easy to start to model yourself after that place. It’s more important to look at the studio and its artists and start to align yourself with them. And there is so much information out there! The artists who work at your dream studio are the proven model on how to get there. You can even contact those artists on LinkedIn and ask them a few questions. This needs to be a recipe after a while. This is where I look for the proven path.

[15:03] Having that clear recipe gives you the step-by-step instruction on where to spend your time to get the best desired results. It’s time to get obsessed:

  • Learn everything you can about the studio!
  • Learn about the skills of its artists — and what level they were at when they started.
  • Do your research: the tools, the people, what advice they can give!
  • Listen to podcasts with their Supervisors! (I’ve done multiple Episodes with Sups, I’m sure there are other podcasts that have done the same.)

Start by seeing what you want — and then deconstruct it to doable steps on how to obtain it.

Focus on the Momentum

[15:59] What if you’re leaning the wrong software or wrong techniques? By setting your Someday Goals, it demystifies so much stuff that you can run into. There are multiple hops you need to take to get to the studio. Just because a studio uses certain tools, shaders, solvers in their pipeline, it doesn’t mean you have to learn all of that yourself, right away! You can get easily get overwhelmed with that. Knowing what you want to do is important — but it’s all the way over there. You want to focus on HERE: Here should be fun! Here should be easy-ish! Here should be about gaining some powerful momentum!

[17:16] So many people start hearing words like Maya, Houdini, Python and they think they have to learn all of that. It’s a process. If you’re starting out and you start chasing all of this technology, you can easily overwhelmed. Instead, you can learn one package — and easily apply it to others. That’s not to say you shouldn’t start with the more powerful tool. But maybe Aftereffects may resonate with you at first. So find what resonates with you intuitively and know you can always branch out to other tools and as you get more hungry for knowledge. It’s about getting the momentum now. But don’t be surprised that while animating dinosaurs is what resonated with you at first — it may be VR and video games that interests you more later. The tools and direction can be completely change. Focus on the winds — not the overwhelm!

Stop Listening to Weirdos

[18:41] There are a lot of weirdos who are going to tell you, “The software I use is the best! You’re wasting your time with all that other stuff!” A lot of Houdini users talk that way. That’s despite the fact that all this other software — Maya and 3DS Max — are completely obliterating Houdini in terms of sales. All of these packages are great! But there are some weirdos out there who are that insecure in themselves that they have to convince you that their software is the best — just to validate their choice.

[19:39] I personally use all of these tools depending on the clients’ and the project’s needs. But I’m not that insecure to convince other people to use whatever I use. A lot of junior people are advertising to drink their Kool-Aid. That’s why it’s so easy to get distracted by all of this information instead of doing your own research. There is so much gossip floating around: “I hear Maya is going to go away.” Do you research and the companies that make them. Question what people say. Then start learning one software and understanding its concepts — and making it fun for yourself! Focus on what works for you. Everything is transferrable.

[22:41] I’m not worried about what people are using. I’m not worried about which software is going to die tomorrow. I can go into a new software package easily — and transfer all the concepts from 3DS Max into it.

Let’s Sum It Up!

[23:38] The big secret — is setting the goals. If you decide you want to blow up a building in effects, you can start learning specific tools that help you do that. Instead of learning everything, you can focus on the most important skills for now. That way, you can also measure your success and can get excited about what you’re doing. You can start applying the knowledge you’re learning to a set task. That’s the important part!

[25:06] Instead of saying, “My friend’s dog told me this was the best software so I should go learn that software,” you could go learn what excites you the most: game cinematics, games. Then do your research: What was the studio that worked on your favorite piece? Who were the artists? What tools did they use? Everything will help you get a clear understanding of what you need to learn. And all of that information is so available nowadays! You can look up the names of the artists in the movie credits and then research them. You can then start to do your outreach and make contact with these people who are already in the industry. The more you do it — the more opportunities you create. I also have lots of free material on my VIP Insiders List, including email templates: www.allanmckay.com/inside/.

[27:11] So learn with intent. If the software you need to learn is too expensive or complicated, learn which tools you have at your disposal right now. That helps with you a better idea on which tools to invest in. You can Google an introductory lesson to 3DS Max. But none of it is going to stick. It may be better to Google how to make a specific effect and study that. That way it’s something you’re really passionate about. Tutorials are great if the person creating them is good. You can just recreate what they’re doing and Google the points you don’t understand. After that, you can start to branch out. It’s going to give you ideas and questions.

[29:48] The best way to learn is not just in case — but just in time. In other words, whenever I want to learn something, it’s just in time for something I need to do. That way it’s more applicable. It’s going to be really goal focused. It tends to be more natural if you’re doing it around a set goal. It’s important to get the momentum right now. I have a lot of courses online. But for right now, I’d recommend trying the free stuff and see what resonates with you. I do recommend joining my free VIP Insiders List. I give a lot of career advice and release free tutorials: www.allanmckay.com/inside/.

[31:49] Doing tutorials is really great but staying consistent is really tough. You need to start building habits and routines. You should be dedicating 7 hours a week on learning a new skill. It feels great to mark these goals off! Part of learning is the resistance that comes with it as well. It’s all part of the process. A lot of us expect things to be easy. Learning requires problem solving and it feels great that you’ve overcome it. Resistance is part of the process as well. Once you overcome it — it’s going to feel great. That’s the whole point: to grow and improve ourselves!

[34:01] It’s also helpful to find a community of people. The more you feel part of that community — the more you’ll stick to learning. You can get learn and get inspired from them. And make sure to post your work constantly. That way you can see your progress over time. It’s so easy to get lost in that. And tag me in your posts (Allan McKay’s Instagram)! I’d be happy to give you feedback or comment on your work.

[35:50] I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I will be back next week with another Podcast.

Don’t miss out on my free content. Go to my Insider Circle and get the reward of getting free tutorials and career advice: www.allanmckay.com/inside/.

Rock on!


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