Episode 186 — How to Learn VFX

A lot of us find out that when we start to learn an new subject, we read up everything and get basic information, often without knowing how to apply it. By having a set goal, the learning becomes more intense and we have apply it all in a context. It allows us to connect the dots and come together in a context. And it also means you’re going to start to see your progression as you go along — and really measure your success.

Check out some previous Podcasts I’ve done on this subject:

In this Podcast, I talk about how to find the right teacher, how to learn and retain information — specifically when starting in VFX — and the importance of setting learning goals.


[00:53] 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!

[29:19] 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!



[01:55] The critical thing about learning is to have a set goal to apply it all to. A lot of us find out that when we start to learn an new subject, we read up everything and get basic information. But by having a set goal, the learning becomes more intense and we have apply it all in a context. That way, as we go through everything, we have something to apply it to. It allows us to connect the dots and come together in a context. All the information will come together.

Find a Trusted Source

[02:45] It’s also important to have confidence in who you’re learning from. I remember when I was at ILM, a lot of us went to learn Krav Maga at night time. But I remember the first time going to class and sitting there for an hour while the instructor talked about Martial Arts. And I just wanted to see him kill somebody just so I knew he was the real deal. All of us want for our teachers to prove who they are so that we can be more confident that they’re the right person for what we want to learn. There are a lot of ways we can get burnt as we go through the course: You could go through all the steps and then toward the end find out that some are missing. No matter what the training is, we sometimes feel ripped off.

[03:47] As we go through our training, it’s important to find the right people to show us how to get this result. That’s why it’s important to find 1 or 2 platforms you really trust — and go all in on them (rather then trying to follow too many resources, getting overwhelmed and wondering why you’re getting paralysis by analysis). Find that one platform you want to learn from. It’s okay to Google solutions along the way. But when it comes to following a course, it’s best to choose the one that resonates the most with you. Even if you’re listening to the best people, sometimes the information will conflict from those different sources. That’s why it’s best to choose that one path, one journey!

Have a Reason for Your Learning

[05:39] Having the reason why we’re learning all this information is really important. Otherwise, we start going down this rabbit hole of learning too much information that’s not relevant to us. By setting a clear goal, “I want to accomplish X” — everything you’re learning needs to align with that. Rather than trying to read the manual fro one end to the other and none of it is going to stick. Also, by having a desired goal, it means that you’re going to start see yourself progressing. Saying, “I want to learn Maya inside out” isn’t going to help you grow. You’re going to read the manual and go through every tutorial, at the end, you won’t know if you can do anything. If you say, “I want to have a destruction shot for my demo reel”, then everything you’re learning is going to align with that goal. And it also means you’re going to start to see your progression as you go along. If you say, “I want to learn everything about 3D”, you can’t really measure your success.

Learn Just in Time — Not Just in Case

[06:47] Learning just in time — instead of just in case — is also another really critical thing to keep in mind. If you don’t, none of that information has a reason to stick. When you’re learning just in time, you’re solving a specific problem with a specific deadline. There is Parkinson’s Law which states, “A task will expand or shrink depending on how much time is left to complete that task.” I am sure I’m going to get my taxes done a week before they’re due. In other words, the task that need to be done immediately will get done. The tasks that have longer deadline will take time to complete. Keep that in mind with everything you’re learning: you have a goal and timeline in mind.

Know the WHY

[07:58] Having a specific goal in mind also helps not just with the WHAT but with the WHY. In other words, if you want to get a job at ILM, learning “everything about Maya” isn’t going to help you with that goal. This is an example I actually encountered. Learning “everything” is not going to get closer to that goal. Instead, you could say: “I know ILM is working on the next Godzilla movie, so I want to learn building destruction and large scale creature effects.” That’s something you could send to ILM because it actually aligns with the time of work that studio is doing. Having that goals allows you align with them and you would be learning specific things and cutting out all the noise. Rather than taking 5 years to learn Maya (after which you would still have to build your reel), you could spend several weeks working on specific shots for your reel:

  • Learning dynamics;
  • Learning atmospherics;
  • Learning particle systems;
  • Learning creature effects.

By having that goal, you can focus on the stuff that really matters.

[10:01] When you have a desired goal, a lot of questions are going to arise. The more you test yourself — the more you’re going to run into real case scenarios and learn to troubleshoot. And it will prepare more for the actual production experience. This is really important!

Be Passionate About What You’re Learning

[10:55] It’s also really important to be passionate about what you want to do and fully immerse yourself in that learning. Not being passionate will mean that you will find every excuse not to do something. You’ll be distracted and everything will be greeted with resistance. And if you can’t find the reason to get excited, find a way to reward yourself. After an hour of a lesson, you get to have lunch, or go for a walk, or get a massage. Total immersion is really important. When I’m learning something, I like to have a podcast to listen to and book to be reading. That little bit of information will resonate everywhere. I have my students listen to my lessons while they’re on a bus, to continue with the training.

[12:51] Having stakes is important as well. Having repercussions in mind — if you don’t achieve something — can be helpful. If you want to have that shot on the reel by the end of the week, if you don’t achieve it — find a way to punish yourself (you don’t get to hang out with your friends and have to stay home to learn more tutorials). A lot of us are more motivated by loss than gain. It’s also been proven that we learn better by having spaced learning. You can learn the same task with some gaps in between. By giving it some time allows you to really embrace it. Stepping away occasionally helps this information stick.

Break Down Your Goals

[14:22] Let’s recap for a little bit. I want to learn a subject but I have to have a reason behind it: “I want to learn Maya so I could get a job at ILM. Therefore I’m going to have the shot that’s going to give me that outcome. I’m going to have a week to do that. Everything I will be learning will be applicable to that one goal. I will have a condensed goal so I can measure my success.”

[15:19] Some of the goals may be too large, so you’ll need to break them down into sub-categories and tackle each one of those. If you want to learn building destruction, you’ll need to learn how to do some structuring, how to make it stick together or do joints systems. The really big questions will have to be broken down into smaller tasks. If you want to learn tsunami, you’ll need to learn how to do wave shapes, white caps, mist, fog, how to have objects sit on top of it and bounce around in the ocean. Whenever a task is too overwhelming, it’s important to break it into these smaller parts and learn to solve each task.

[16:27] With learning, it’s more about proficiency rather than being an expert. You become an expert overtime. The outcome is to be proficient enough to do something. If you want to learn Spanish, you want to be proficient enough to have a conversation with someone. You want to be proficient enough to get a job at ILM — and then you can keep learning. It’s easy to get trapped in wanting to become an expert before you can even demonstrate you can do it.

[17:15] So here is my process:

Once I’ve set the goal and the desired outcome, and the timeline, what I’ll do is:

  • I’ll go through the training at 2X speed. I want to watch it as quickly as as I can, to get the general idea. This gives me the context.
  • Once I’ve done that, I’ll have the bird’s-eye view of what the process entails.
  • When, I go into the trenches and do it step by step. I’ll take hand-written notes are important because of muscle memory. You will also be taking the given information and translating it into your own language. You will be summarizing the information, in order to put it down on paper.
  • Then I will type up the information that I’ve written down while going through the lesson again.
  • Then I’ll go an apply that information step by step.

[19:47] I love to immerse myself into something I am learning. Then, I can talk about it to people or teaching it. The more I learn and teach, the more I can explain it to someone else. But to process it, you have to put it on paper. As you write stuff down, you can draw stuff out. I know people who do that for their public speaking. These stick figures or diagrams with some key words around them.

[21:31] From there, I will type out lesson to myself, step by step. As I type, I will go through the lesson again and tweak the information, or add information that I’m learning myself. But having the initial notes is the critical part of the process. Then, I’ll go and apply that information to my project. I prefer to apply it to a brand new project. If I learned building destruction, I will apply it to my own version. Because when you go into production, you won’t be dealing with the exact situation from your tutorial. Reapplying everything to your own shot is important, that way you run into your own problems. That’s why you have your digital notes which you can update.

[24:04] In addition to that, post your questions on forums, Facebook, etc. Post your work and ask for insight for troubleshooting. Once you have the work completed, you can start revising by talking to friends and your community. You get the idea! Once you get to the finish line, you can examine how you can improve the process. So you should be posting your work constantly and getting feedback. You should be talking to people about your process.


[25:22] Let’s recap on everything we’ve covered:

  • We have to have a reason for learning any subject. That way it’s measurable.
  • You have a set expectations that you can measure your success against.
  • Limit yourself to 1-2 resources and go all in. Block out all the noise. You can still Google along the way, to troubleshoot.
  • Have a desired outcome or goal. If you want to blow up a building in effects, everything you’re learning should be applied to that. This will force you to ask more questions.
  • Have a timeline to accomplish all that. Apply Parkinson’s Law: “A tasks will expand or shrink in relation to the amount of time you have to complete it.” What gets measured — gets managed.
  • Become obsessed and fully immersed in what you’re learning. Don’t just read a book.
  • Listen to podcasts on the subject, watch tutorial, post in forums. That way you’re become a sponge for what you’re learning.

[28:31] I hope you found this information valuable. I’ve got some great interviews coming up soon. I will also be doing some life streams and tutorials.

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.

Until next week —

Rock on!

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