Episode 189 — Digital Nomad Lifestyle

Sergio Paez is a Director and Story Designer who got his start working at companies such as Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Sony. He is also a founding member of Storyboard Art, an online visual story community, with both a content creation and educational focus to further techniques in visual storytelling. In 2012, Sergio authored the book Professional Storyboarding: Rules of Thumb which has become the go-to reference for story artists looking to enter the entertainment business.

Mitch Bowler is the Founder of Pencil Kings, an online community that provides world class art education for artists, whether they’re trying to get back into art or are working professionals. Founded in 2010, Pencil Kings has established a library of courses on illustration, comics, digital media, entertainment art.

In this Round Table Podcast, Allan, Sergio and Mitch do a live feed on the subjects of traveling as an artist, working abroad, freelancing in other countries, global networking, visas and much more!

Sergio Paez on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2876339/
Storyboard Art: https://storyboardart.org/
Professional Storyboarding: Rules of Thumb by Sergio Paez: https://www.amazon.com/Professional-Storyboarding-Rules-Sergio-Paez/dp/0240817702
Mitch Bowlder on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user5523877
Pencil Kings: https://www.pencilkings.com/



[00:51] 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!

[03:31] Please sign up for my VIP Insiders List: www.allanmckay.com/inside/. I will be sending out a lot of free guides, free crash courses and tutorials, starting in the next few weeks.

[52:51] 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!


[04:21] Allan: I want to introduce you, guys. This is Sergio Paez and Mitch Bowler. We’re going to talk about the lifestyle of Digital Nomads: traveling for games, films and VFX. Some people see it as a positive. Others don’t. As artists, we get to travel the world and work on different opportunities. Do you want to introduce yourselves and talk about the times when you lived in different countries?

Mitch: Sure, yeah. I’ve worked in different places in China since 2002. That’s when I first started to do this Digital Nomad thing. Then, I was bouncing between LA and Shanghai. I spent about half time in each place.

Sergio: I’ve been traveling since early in my career, since 2000s. I worked in Europe for a while. Recently, I came back after spending 6 months in Chile. I have all kinds of tricks. It is possible! For people who don’t understand or they’re scared of going overseas, it’s totally possible and it’s very rewarding!

[06:44] Allan: For me, it’s the same thing. I typically jump from project to project. I work on set a lot. I’ve had staff jobs maybe twice in my life and I got bored. I went to Boston for Equalizer and ping-ponged between LA and Boston. I worked on Superman for 2 years, in 3 different countries: in Australia, Europe, North America. I’ve also done different speaking engagements. If you were to tell me when I was 18 years old that I would be traveling, getting paid for it and getting per diem — I wouldn’t think that was possible. There is a good portion of my life, my Facebook status was “Homeless with Dollars and a Passport”. I literally didn’t have a home, just whatever I had in my duffle bag. That was my discipline. It’s a fun lifestyle when you’re younger. When you get older, it’s less convenient.

Sergio: But you’ve caught the bug from early on, right, Allan? You came from overseas and wanted to work in the U.S. It was an easier barrier for you to get over.

[8:25] Allan: I ate it up! My favorite song was the Mos Def remix of Traveling Man. I could jump on any project I wanted to, no matter what was happening in my city. You can pick and choose what you want to do. And you can use it to get life experience. I was recently asked to speak in Portugal. I nearly moved there when I was younger. The more you travel — the more you realize the world is small.

Sergio: It’s happening more and more. The crew that I came up with working in studios, as soon as the job ended, the last thing they wanted to is look overseas. But that’s the thing people should consider: Don’t just look locally — look globally! You can go somewhere else where they need your skills. And you’re so much more valuable. And the competition is less hard.

[10:47] Allan: What about you, Mitch? You’ve traveled a lot.

Mitch: If you’re in the U.S., the coolest projects originate here. If you’re already in the U.S., you’re just moving across country. When I first went to China, I realized whatever is normal [where you come from] is not, on a global scale. Wherever you’re at, places are different. Even being in Canada, you realize we’re lagging behind in 5-6 things. When I went to China, people were recruiting me to do all kinds of stuff. I was even being recruited to design ceramics (which I had no experience at). You’re the Belle of the Ball. You have those unique skills that no one else has!

[12:04] Allan: Moving to the U.S., I had a pretty good run with my career. After moving here, I knew that if I were to go back to Australia, I would be an instant veteran, at least at that time. It would be a great negotiating pond. With globalization, it has leveled out. Sometimes it’s worth making that sacrifice in the beginning. Then you can negotiate.

Sergio: I also want to talk about networking. When I work overseas, I have friends and contacts I still keep in touch with. You’re going to build a much bigger network — and stay a lot more active as an artist. And also, [you’re going to learn from them]! I’ve met some amazing artists when I was over there whom I still follow. Anytime I’ve left the country, I’d be like, “Wow! These guys exist!” But you’d never know unless you left the country.

[14:24] Allan: Whenever I’m at a theatre, watching film credits, I’m trying to see where my friends are. It’s fun to keep tabs on people! Thank you, everyone on the chat, for your comments. [Here is one]: “I’m 37 and single and I want to travel. I’ve never worked for a studio. Where should I start first?” I remember seeing this post from Rising Sun in Australia. Someone jumped on there and said, “Big studios don’t hire juniors!” I stay the hell out of these conversations. It’s not the studio that has a say — but the government of that country. They can only approve people with higher skill sets. If anyone who wanted to work in Hollywood came here, no U.S. citizen could get a job. That would disrupt the economy.

Check out some of my Podcasts on Visas:

Work Permits in the U.S.: www.allanmckay.com/52/
Everything You Need to Know About Visas for Working in Canada: www.allanmckay.com/83/
Phillip Trott — U.K. Immigration Lawyer: www.allanmckay.com/109/
Willy Sussman — Work Permits in New Zealand: www.allanmckay.com/128/

The main thing you need to prove is that the no one in that country can do the job you’re getting hired to do. It’s essentially what you need to do. It’s a bit tricky in the beginning of your career to do that. But if you want to travel, you need to find a way to stand out. What software trends are in demand? Let’s say substance painter came out and it was cheaper than Mari. Go learn that! That way you can be in a situation of high demand — low supply. You can be the specialist. You can post on forums and help out. That positions you as a specialist. That stuff would happen to me all the time.

Mitch: In terms of the online stuff, a lot of people are knocking down education. And yes, there is a lot of bad stuff out there. But I will say that having a degree came in handy for me when I was applying overseas. Allan and I were working on similar projects.

[18:12] Allan: I don’t think we ever worked together. We just drank together!

Mitch: But having that piece of paper was necessary. The studio that I was working at in Canada, that film was also being worked on in LA. I think I was one of the few people who actually had a degree, so I could work in the U.S. That’s the kind of thing you have to realize: Sometimes, it’s not who is the best artist in the game — it’s about who can legally show up to work tomorrow.

Sergio: That visa issue — it always comes up too! If I’m going to jump overseas, there are some hoops to jump through. I think the U.S. is one of the hardest places to get into. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some places / markets out there where the paperwork is a lot easier. I’ve worked in Spain. In a month, I had my work visa. I’ve also applied for a visa in Chile. The hoops are a lot easier [to jump through].

[20:02] Allan: Absolutely, you’re right! It’s good to think about those countries where it’s easier to get in. Japan makes it really difficult for foreigners to come in. In a place like Canada, last time I checked, had 48% of foreigners. It used to be if you’re an Australian [because we’re part of the Commonwealth], you could just go online and fill out a form (as long as you were under 32 years of age). Even now, that’s an easier way to get in. It gives young people an opportunity to come and get experience. There are times when employers don’t want to wait for a visa. They ask you to come work on your vacation. It’s really risky! If you get caught, you get kicked out. You’re rolling the dice with that.

Mitch: On top of that, I would advise people to not do that. [The consequence] could be a 10-year ban on a country. You might think, “It’s not a big deal.” But then, you’re banned from a country. It’s not worth it!

[22:23] Allan: There are some questions from the chat. Here is one, “Do you think VFX Industry is at a saturation point?” No, absolutely not! I think if anything, there are more opportunities. But because there are more artists, it levels out. Which is why it pisses me off when I hear people, “You have to travel to get work because there is nothing in my town.” You’re probably not targeting the right employers / places. You could also work online.

I will also add: If someone is flying you somewhere, you’re probably offering something no one else can do. They’re bringing you in as a specialist. You can’t ask for that as a junior artist. Keep that in mind! You need to get to the point when people fly your around. But it doesn’t mean you can’t start knocking on doors yourself.

Mitch: On that point, I heard this one time: “How can you be guaranteed a $100 a year in your career?” It was to put “Scuba” in front of whatever you do. If you’re a cameraman, put “Scuba Cameraman” so now you do all the underwater shots. In video games, the equivalent of “Scuba” is “Technical”. So if you learn scripting or programing, there is such a high demand that you’re putting yourself into a rarefied area. Everyone loves having “Technical Artists” on their team. In my experience, most artists aren’t interested in being technical. They want to learn their art. But you can learn this stuff and start to stand out!

[25:29] Allan: So true! The advantage of having a degree is that you have that as proof. Visas are getting better in general right now. Switzerland has the best system, while the U.S. was one of the last on the list. People are starting to catch on that having a degree is not necessary unless you want to do brain surgery. It’s becoming better.

Sergio: I wanted to bring up a point: You could do this as a freelancer as well. One of the advantages of that is, at least where I live in Los Angeles, it’s expensive. You could spend less in rent in other places on cost of living. You just take the basic equipment with you. I bought a powerful laptop and a portable Cintiq monitor. That’s good enough! I’m all set to do my drawings on that. I can go anywhere in the world and work from there. If you’re making U.S. money in other markets, you could be living pretty well. And you have more savings! And you’ll have more stories to tell about living elsewhere.

[27:45] Allan: Mitch, you’ve been to Thailand, living in a hut with your laptop, making pixels, right?

Mitch: Yeah. I spent a few years living out of my backpack. I had all of my podcast gear, video gear. It’s really an amazing experience. You should try to do it. If you can do it on your own and go somewhere with a different language, it challenges your brain. You get 2-3 years of experience, because you have to figure out and learn new ways. You’re in a totally different culture. You quickly realize you’re a lot more resilient than you think you are.

[28:56] Allan: I strongly think the more stay out of your comfort zone — the more you challenge yourself. You can work as a freelancer and I have a few Podcasts on that as well. That’s one thing that for me, at one point I was working on 7 projects from a hotel, in a different country, on a laptop. You can do all that. You can always make a lot of money. You can go somewhere where the cost of living is less expensive. Because of that, you’re doubling your money automatically. If you live in India, target places where they make U.S. dollars. I’ve always hired people from other countries, for my business.

Sergio: Maybe, how about some of the roadblocks? We’ve talked about the benefits: you get to travel, you get out of your comfort zone. But what are some of the things you, guys, discovered that you had to get over?

Mitch: I think when I was going between Activision studio in Los Angeles and a studio on Shanghai, it would be a month in each place. It was hard to maintain relationships. I was trying to date at that time. Once I started to realize, my routine was also in jeopardy. Whenever I would go somewhere, I would lose 1-2 weeks of productivity. I’d just be out of whack. That’s one of the downsides.

[33:14] Allan: I’d say that’s the number one downfall when you’re traveling around: You fall out of your routine. You jump on a project and the schedule is pretty crazy. That’s why they’re flying someone in. You’re working crazy hours. It’s hard to keep a routine. You’re probably eating out all the time, if you’re living in a hotel. So you’re also eating crap all the time!

Sergio: One thing I found to get over that is to have extended stays. That helped with the productivity. You’re usually lost for a couple of days whenever you go somewhere. If you go for [at least] a month, you can take the first couple of weeks to get settled — and then get into the production mode. When you come back, give yourself a bit of a buffer.

[34:52] Allan: One thing I’ll talk about really quickly: One thing that frustrates me with artists who are doing a big projects and are at the end of it. When you ask them, “What are you doing next?”, they respond, “I’m going to take a week off and cut a new reel and start looking for jobs.” Why weren’t you doing that this whole time? This is why I talk so much about career. Most artists just want to go make art. They don’t look for the new job, while they’re not working anywhere. If you were going out for drinks and lunch meetings — while you were working — you would be in demand ALL THE TIME. Same thing for when you’re traveling. If you got flown out to LA, you should be emailing everyone in LA for a studio tour, events and try to line up the next gig. Or at least, build relationships. That way when they have a new job, they have you in mind. They can extend your stay, too. You can use one job to position yourself for the next job. Face time is so critical with studio folks. They’ll know who you are. Use that one job for your next one.

Sergio: That’s a super great tip!

Mitch: It’s surprising how many people will give you studio tours. Even if you’ve never opened Photoshop! I’ve never been turned down for a studio tour!

[37:59] Allan: I’ve applied for a job in my home city. I kept getting denied, for 2 years. I emailed them one time for a studio tour — then I ended up working there full-time for 3 years. It’s a nice way to get their face time. You don’t want anything from them. But it’s a nice way to get in.

Sergio: It helps to have your act in order. Have your reel together, have professional presence. You can’t just cold call someone. Make a contact on LinkedIn, make a connection. Then be prepared to show your stuff. Make it worth it for the person you’re trying to contact.

Mitch: But also don’t delay things too much. Your passion can go a long way. Don’t wait too long.

[40:52] Allan: All it takes is taking an initiative. I like organizing mixers. If you go to the right community, you can find all that. I’ve had so many students reach out and help organize events. That’s how you build relationships. You can always find and organize such mixers. I’ve seen so many people launch their careers this way. Because you appear as someone who has their shit together.

Next question: “When applying for jobs in the U.S., should I mention my location?” One thing I’ll mention is if you’re applying for jobs: Give a little bit, then give them the whole thing. Reach out and peak their interest. After a while, you will have a chance to mention it. Drip that information out. I’ve helped a friend just this way. You don’t just tackle it on.

Sergio: Here is another question, “Do you think it’s a good idea to apply for an internship for no pay?” The studios I know don’t do unpaid internships. It’s a legal thing. Some studios do internships for credit if you’re in school. But don’t announce you’ll work for free! Look on their website and see if they have openings. When you hit them up, you can send your material.

Mitch: I agree with what Sergio is saying. Make your own projects. If you don’t have footage, go find forums or buy footage. You can work for free — for yourself! — right now. You can find so many things online now. I grew up before the internet. We had to figure out the steps on our own. Don’t just wait for someone to hand you this stuff!

[46:41] Allan: I agree! I’ve talked about this with Kathleen Ruffalo, Framestore’s Recruiter: www.allanmckay.com/146/. They have internships at their locations. It‘s like trial by fire. I’ve known people who worked at render farms late at night. This is how they got their foot in the door. They’d keep late hours and do their own artwork while running renders. It’s better to get your foot in the door how ever you can. Internships can also be very competitive. I think working for free isn’t a bad thing. If you’re being used, that’s terrible. Creating opportunities, however — while working for free — is a great choice. If you offer to work for free, it also disrupts things for other artists. So I say: Get your foot in, any way you can. I told my buddy to take the camera tracking job offer and the move the VFX position he wanted.


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Mitch and Sergio for doing this interview. (I’m pretty sure we’re in Montreal right now, doing our Mastermind Group.) We hang out on regular basis and share ideas and hold each other accountable. I hope you have a group like that. If you don’t, look around and figure out which people you want to have around.

I have a new VFX Course that goes through high-end visual effects, from start to finish. It’s 9 videos. Go to www.VFXCourse.com to check it out. Tag me if you create any effect with this course.

Next week, I will be back next week with VFX Sup Alessandro Ongaro.

Until then —

Rock on!