Episode 185 — A Call to Level Up

This is a personal essay on how to level up. I don’t think this Podcast is going to be for everyone; and if doesn’t resonate with you, it might not be the right time for you. I want to cut the bullshit and call it what it is: If you want to fucking level up — LEVEL UP!

I get asked a lot the following questions:

  • How do I get started? (www.allanmckay.com/184/)
  • How do I become successful?
  • Why are other people successful and I am not?

Having a Mentorship and helping my friends and students get their career going, it gives me inspiration. It makes me want to put more material out. On the other hand, the people who can’t seem to achieve success — they themselves are the reason for that. It’s not the city or the country they live in, it’s not that they aren’t smart enough — it’s the excuses that they make to prevent themselves from trying. They are either not willing to put in the work to make it happen. Or, if they’re willing to put in the work and time, but they aren’t thinking about what they’re doing.

In this Podcast, I want to talk to you about the importance of setting your Someday Goals — no matter how impossible they seem — creating your roadmap, learning, overcoming obstacles, using failures as opportunities to learn and leveling up, leveling up, leveling up!


[00:40] 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!

[02:17] I’m in Paris at the moment at the IAMAG Master Class: https://masterclasses.iamag.co/. I will be doing reel and portfolio reviews this time. Although I do this every year, I’m more of a guest of honor this year. I will be organizing a get-together for my students in Paris. (I may also do that for when I’m in Montreal. Please hit me up if you’re there!)

[05:08] I have a free course out right now. If you want to access it, please go to: www.allanmckay.com/vfxcourse/. Eight videos, 20 hours of high-end training. You can also access it by going to www.VFXcourse.com.

[45:13] 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.

[46:15] 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!


[07:36] A lot of us really weigh ourselves down by really setting the bar low. If you’re in a swimming pool and you look left and right to see how well you’re doing — if you know you’re beating everyone else, what’s your motivation to try harder? It’s the most poisonous thing to think that you’re the best in your circle, so you stop trying. It’s easy to find people who aren’t doing as well as you — so you can feel better about yourself. You’re setting the bar lower and lower. Instead, I want to be the less knowledgable person in the room. I want to be inspired by other people. If I’m in that swimming pool and I don’t see anyone who’s doing better than me — it’s time for me to change my swimming pool. I want to be the person who’s behind; that way I strive to do better. How do I get past them and level up? We tend to mirror the people around us. But when you want to do and be more, it’s frustrating. You need to leave that circle. If you start being around people who are doing better than you, you will get inspired and grow.

[10:32] Most people get frustrated with their careers and goals because they aren’t really setting or executing them. If you go to school and build your reel for 6 months — that’s a huge barrier but you never actually get out there and do something (look for a job or get rejected). You’re prolonging the failure. The more failures you get, however, the more you’ll start to fine tune. If you’re receiving failures, you will have to make change to get to your desired result.

Attack with Urgency — and Fail Fast!

[11:52] I always say: Attack with urgency — and fail fast! If you’re attacking your goals and you are getting results, you know you’re growing fast. If you’re failing — you’ll identify your lessons really quickly. If instead of taking 6 months to build your reel, you condense it to 6 weeks — you can see where you’re failing right away. Whether you’re applying for jobs or making a short film, the quicker you see those results — positive or negative — the quicker you can change your plan and double down. Most of us are afraid of failure. If anything, I’m too focused on the bigger picture to worry about my feelings of failure or rejection. Because I’m going to acknowledge it, it allows me to not worry about the self-pity party.

[13:37] If you think of Edison and his creating all those lightbulbs that didn’t work: He could check off the attempts that weren’t working. Either way, he is setting himself up for the big win. The only person holding you back — is you. Most of us haven’t been born into privilege but we still achieve success. When we reach failure, unfortunately, we tend to give up or try something else, or find an easier way. Instead, we need to acknowledge that it’s going to be hard and we need to overcome those obstacles. Nothing worth doing comes easy! I want to look back and see that I overcame the resistance and see the new skill I’ve acquired once I get past it. I’ve got friends who love to try different things. It gets to a point, when they start something else that’s new — I question if it’s going to join the portfolio of things they abandon. Maybe they should have a reason to do something. That way they choose something consciously.

[17:03] I have goals that go for 10-15 years from now, but I pick and choose what goes into my calendar today. If I accomplish everything today, I can always go and grab things from that vault of Someday Goals. It will feel great to do that because I got done what I needed to do today. A lot of us tend to want to do so much — we set ourselves up for failure. Instead, you we should be saying: Why am I doing this and do I have a plan in place? For me, anything we set out to do — is achievable. But if you don’t have goals, you don’t have a sense of direction. I always think of an analogy to swim toward land. If I’m not paying attention, I could be swimming sideways. Goals are everything! To be moving forward, we need to have a goal in mind.

Cut Out the Noise!

[19:19] If I set out with a goal of achieving anything, I just need to figure out what it is. That’s the hardest thing to do! I remember I quit high school in ninth grade. Something came of it: There were so many people considered dropping out of high school, I decided that if I don’t go to school — I better make something of myself. It was easy for me to decide to do art and video games. I had passion for them. So that became a path. I was fortunate enough to not have people tell me I was going to fail, until I realized what I wanted to do and I started sharing that to others. I started saying, “I’m going to work in Hollywood in visual effects in movies.” So that’s when people started telling me about failure and their fears. The way they would do that is tell me to “be realistic”, “go back to school”, “get a real job”. If I were to listen to them, I have no idea what I’d be doing right now. Instead I was smart enough to ignore everyone — but also have a goal. All of us can do whatever we want to do — as long as we have that goal!

[21:51] I think it’s the hardest thing to admit to ourselves what we really want to do. We are afraid of being judged or think it’s not attainable. Setting a goal at the age of 14 to work in Hollywood, it seemed so unrealistic. But it didn’t stop me. My goals were all the way out there, so I focused on what I could do here. Did I have any experience I could leverage? Any skills? The one thing I had was passion but nothing else. I was starting from scratch with no internet when the world seemed so much bigger. I’d have friends giving me talks about “cooling it with that stuff”. I made me stop sharing things with people while secretly working until 6:00 a.m. about my goals. My friends were dealing with working at McDonalds. I was dealing with working for Disney and working at a university while I was 17. My goals were very different from other people’s.

Find Your Point of Origin

[24:13] But the biggest thing I could’ve ever done was set a goal. That sounds so silly and un-impactful to simply say what you want to do. But by knowing where you are and what you already have — you have that origin point. That means that you have to acquire all that to get to your goal. What do you need to work in Hollywood if that were possible? I’d start to break that stuff down:

  • I’d need some formal education;
  • I’d need to have contacts in the industry;
  • I’d need to have skills how to do it;
  • I’d need a portfolio;
  • I’d need a work permit;
  • I’d need to have friends in my network.

I didn’t have any of those things. I was a 14 year old kid and no one knew what 3D was. But I had a set of goals! The more I broke it down, the more the journey looked complex. It looked like a lot of work and overwhelming. But the difference was that a minute ago, none of it was attainable. Now, I had a plan for the next few years. The more I broke it down — the more attainable it was.


Set Your Goals

I needed to go to college, but being 14 years old, I was too young. So I did it online and paid extra to use the lab. That was so valuable to me to use those computers! I had computers I could use and I was in a room of people who were passionate about what I did. I spent all my time there and I’d start doing stuff that was attracting attention of like-minded people. I was in the environment. From there, I started to work on my portfolio and my first demo reel that would land me my first job. If I wanted to work in Hollywood, I needed 4-5 years of experience working in Australia. I would become obsessed with certain game studios and companies. I became obsessed with sending out my reel. I would get rejected a lot: I was that annoying kid who was applying and getting better. This was persistent.

[28:42] Looking back, I’d change one thing: After sending out 10 reels, if I didn’t hear back — I’d look at what I was doing wrong and change my approach. You can’t do the same thing over and over and expect the same result. After a while, I would work on a better reel. It did get to a point where I thought maybe I should’ve given up. I made that last reel and if it didn’t work — I would give up. Fortunately, that reel started getting me feedback. I met someone who put me in contact with the job that changed my life. From there, I got the momentum. From there, I was around people who were like-minded and inspired me to get better. I moved to Sydney to a 3-minute bike ride from my work. I was growing and learning constantly. I was going to forums, helping out, hanging out in chat rooms. By living in that obsession, I was bettering my skills.

Keep Learning

[31:12] I finally took another job in my home city and worked there for 2 years. Then, I went back to Sydney to work on Happy Feet, but I posted a random job on High End 3D website. I got an email and a phone call, followed by, “Can you move to LA next week to work on our game cinematic?” I worked on meeting other people at lunch, meeting people for drinks at night and networking. Everyone wanted to meet me because I was this little kid from Australia. The thing is: Going to Hollywood to reach my pipe dream — while everyone had told me it was impossible — I’m still shocked. When I went to ILM, people would come up to my table and tell me, “It’s so good to meet you!” People already knew who I was. Suddenly, I was getting asked to work on Blade and all these big films. Leveling up and leveling up!

[33:44] And all it took — was doing the work. Being willing to fail and get back up! Most of us when we fail, we look at other stuff. If we were to realize failure was part of the process, we’d learn more from out mistakes. Some people had all the support and had stuff handed to them. Once they had failure, they would give up. I look at failure as part of the process. You have to eat shit and it makes you tougher. I respect people more for having done the hard yards. I have friends who ask me for favors and handouts all the time. But I would be doing them a disservice if they hadn’t worked in the industry before. They haven’t proven themselves! It’s so critical to go through, for all of us, to toughen us, to have rejections because the things that are worth it don’t come easy. Looking back, it was brutal for me and how unsure I was of myself. But if anything, it made the victories that much sweeter. It made me feel accomplished. If this were easy, I wouldn’t be who I am and I wouldn’t appreciate everything that I have.

[36:28] So everything has lead up to this. Every turn! I was even homeless once at 17 years old. That stuff made me paranoid about being fired again. It was a surprised when it happened. It happened all at once and scared me for easily for half a year. But it meant that I would never allow for that to happen again. That made me follow up with my managers on my next jobs, all the time, to see if I could do anything else. I would do anything I could from that ever happening again. I do that in my relationship: to make sure everything is good. That way these negatives turn into positives, into valuable lessons. I look at my biggest failures as opportunities to learn. The same goes for my wins: That was great but what else can I do better next time? The more we do that, it becomes second nature.

Expect Some Resistance

[39:52] In our careers, there will always be resistance in the beginning. Most of us don’t realize that the hard yards are in the beginning. The people who get through — and more importantly, the ones who examine what they could do better — they are the ones who get the success. Getting the foot in the door is the hardest thing to do. Once you are in, however — you’re in! When you’re 20 years into your career, you should’ve been growing and pushing yourself. You should be going off to supervise and direct movies. You’ve got to have a goal! You’ve got to check in with yourself and see what you can be doing to step up your career! You’re the only one holding yourself back.


[42:29] We’re so fortunate to have careers in a creative industry. But there is this myth of a starving artist. But we get to prove that myth wrong:

  • We get to have the money we want.
  • We get to travel the world.
  • We get to work on things that everyone gets to see.
  • We get to be challenged every day.
  • We get to move around in that eco system and work with amazing people.

In other careers, people don’t get that. You get to make games that inspire people. You get to make animation that makes kids laugh. Whatever it is — we’re here to do all of that! I’m grateful I get to do what I do. I look back at my life, I said I wanted to work with people at Blur, or at ILM, work on DOOM and talk to the original guys on id Software, or get to walk the halls of ILM. All these things that some people considered impossible. But I chose not to listen to those people. Instead, I chose to set goals and be smart about it. It wasn’t a myth anymore and I had my roadmap. It would take all this hard work to accomplish it — but nothing worth doing is easy!


[44:48] I hope you find this Episode valuable. I’m not sure it’s for everyone.

Next week, I will be back with an Episode on learning. I’ve done a talk like this before. After that, I will be interviewing Derek Speak, a Primetime Emmy Award Winning Special Effects Supervisor.

Until then —

Rock on!


Click here to listen on iTunes!

Get on the VIP insiders list!

Upload The Productive Artist e-book.

Allan McKay’s YouTube Channel.

Allan McKay’s Instagram.




Let's Connect

View my profile on