Episode 195 — How I Would Start My Career in 2019


Episode 195 — How I Would Start My Career in 2019

This is a Live Stream I did a while back. I walked about what I would do differently if I were to start my career again now.

I started my career 25 years ago. I’ve been doing 3D for a bit longer than that. I look at what it took to get my career to where it is: It was a lot of hard work, a lot of persistence, a lot of failure too. But it would be different if I were to start today. Back in the day, there were fewer studios and less competition. In 2019, it would be a different journey. So I want to talk about how I would fast track my career these days.

In this Podcast, I talk about the two levers you need to launch your career, give advice on how to learn, how to build your first reel, how to network — and what it takes to eventually get your Dream Job.


[00:46] 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!

[02:00] At the moment, I’m doing daily Live Streams on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/allanfmckay/. I find it a great way to connect with you. If you would like to join me, please go to my Facebook page (listed above) and you’ll find them there. They’re also published on my YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/AllanFTMcKay/?sub_confirmation=1.

[03:54] I have a new VFX Training Course available right now at www.VFXCourse.com. This is almost 20 hours of high end live action training. This is a massive Course and you can download all the assets! It won’t be up for much longer, so go get it now, for free!

[1:28:36] 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!




[04:45] I started my career 25 years ago. I’ve been doing 3D for a bit longer than that. I look at what it took to get my career to where it is: It was a lot of hard work, a lot of persistence, a lot of failure too. But it would be different if I were to start today. Back in the day, there were fewer studios and less competition. In 2019, it would be a different journey. So I want to talk about how I would fast track my career these days.

I’ve been wanting to create a course titled A Creative Career Breakthrough. [When I was starting out], the struggle for me was the rejection. There were so many times I wanted to quit! Until someone gave me that first chance, I would work day and night on that first reel. I remember having a conversation with a Supervisor at Blur and he told me he got rejected 12 times, or something like that. He eventually attached a $1 bill to his resume and wrote, “Is this what it’s going to fucking take to get a job here?!”


[08:39] The first key thing is to really know the lay of the land. We need to set our goals in the beginning: Which in the beginning just means getting your foot in the door. From there, you can start achieving the success you want. But the first creative career breakthrough relies on two levers:

  • Your demo reel;
  • And your relationships.

Without a demo reel, you cannot prove that you can do the work. There is a misconception that having a degree might land you the job. But I want to stress how important it is to prove that you can sit down in that chair tomorrow and do the work! Having a piece of paper isn’t going to demonstrate that! That’s really critical to understand. You demo reel is the only thing that can prove you’re able to do the job. But at the same time, if you don’t have those relationships, to whom are you going to send your demo reel?

[10:24] When you look at 2019, the most relevant problem we have is that there are so many people coming out of the top VFX schools. But as I’ve mentioned before, the demand and the number of jobs is also high (www.allanmckay.com/192). There are so many opportunities today, and they’re global now! You can be anywhere in the world. On top of that, the internet opens up the access. The thing to consider though is that there are more people applying for these jobs as well. And that means that you have to rise above the noise. Being talented and just showing up — is no longer enough.

[11:36] A while back, I put together a Demo Reel Guide (www.allanmckay.com/myreel). Now, I’m the person who comes in to build a team. Most of us are naive to think that if we mail our reel, it will be watched. If we aren’t being creative and hustling, we’re all falling into the same bucket. Keep in mind people in HR are more in the management position; they are not VFX artists. They get all these reels and there are so many ways that your reel can never show up in the right department. Maybe it never even makes it. While you’re working on your reel, you need to be creating your relationships simultaneously (not get to that point after you’ve finished cutting your reel). You have to think ahead! If you’re doing the minimum — you will get minimum results.

[13:55] If I were to try to get a job right now, it would be all about getting my foot in the door. Once I’m in, that’s when I can do my work. It’s a terrible analogy from Season 2 of Game of Thrones: They discover this luxurious city, but the people in that city tell them to prove that they belong there. It’s the same with our demo reel. The first King tells the story that he came from nothing. Who cares how you get in: renderer, client service person, etc? Just get in — and then you can course correct. On the outside of the wall, you have to figure out how to get in.


[16:04] What you know before your first job doesn’t matter as much as the stuff you learn once you get in. In my career, I freelanced for the first 5 years. I can’t compare that with the first 2 weeks of actually working in a great studio with talented people. I learned so much more than I wouldn’t have learned in those 4-5 first years. I remember working next to this artist who would talk and drop so much valuable information. I was a sponge! Because I was learning, my reel got better. (As I always say: Your first reel is a throw away. Once you get your first job, you start working on new studio-level stuff — and throw away all the crapy stuff on your first reel!)

[18:35] The key thing is to learn with intent. I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a guy who wanted to work at ILM, so he was going to learn Maya “inside and out”. When devoting all that time to learning a new package, how is that going to move the needle? How is that going to help you get that job? You might be a walking encyclopedia but how do you know Maya is used at ILM? (At ILM, they only use Maya for animation but nothing else.) Learning with intent is so important! I talk about result-based learning. I want to learn something just in time — not just in case. Everything you’re learning now should be focused on making that first reel. I know people who work on a reel for a year and a half. I want to say: That is such a waste of time! All you need is a couple of shots on your reel. Anything longer than that — and no one is going to watch it. I talk from experience of hiring people. I’ve seen it so many times when a reel gets taken out of the competition because of one bad shot. And the thing is, you aren’t in the room to defend yourself. You’re just being dismissed.

[21:39] So keep that in mind: All it takes — is a couple of good shots. You should be learning what you need to make that first reel. If you decide to make a shot of an explosion and shot of a car smashing into a building, start looking up those effect. Cut the rest of the fat! Learning a software package entirely isn’t going to be productive. But being able to prove that you can make a shot from start to finish — that’s what’s important! For example, I think it’s cool to see explosions on black. But that’s not what we do in real life. That’s why I highly recommend my course: www.VFXCourse.com. I take you from a high-end production shot from start to finish.

[23:06] I was in Montreal last week talking to a director from Lucas Film. We were talking about this rule that studios don’t like you imitating the work that they do. I think that’s a bullshit rule! I completely disagree! If I’m working on something like Godzilla and I see someone make a shot that shows a giant lizard smashing a building — I think that person is perfect for the job! As a studio, that’s always been a key thing for the reels that get my attention. Cut a reel specifically for the studio to which you’re applying. The client is looking for a solution for their problem. When you cut a reel for a studio, cut it to provide a solution to the problems they might be dealing with.


[25:15] So again: If I were to look for my first job today, I would be cutting my first reel and that reel would be custom cut for the studio where I’m applying for that job. The key thing is to get the first wind. That’s why we need to understand the landscape: Do you want to go to Vancouver where there are so many studios? Or do you want to work at a smaller studio in your city? (By the way, I’ve heard that excuse so many times: “There are no studios in my city!” That is so not true! There are tv stations and 3D places all over the place.) It’s all about that first wind, it doesn’t matter where that is. In the beginning, you shouldn’t be “too good” for any job! Look at your local studios, research who they are, what software they work with, who works for them (on LinkedIn). It’s about mimicking the requirements of the studio where you’re applying. Look up the artists that used to work at that studio and look at their junior reels; mimic those. That’s how you create the list of steps you need to take [without wasting] your time.

[30:02] Doing your research is great — but you should also be reaching out to these studios. Ask what they’re looking for! You don’t need to send them your life story. Just send a compact email, “Here is who I am. I love the work you do! What kind of artists are you looking for?” Don’t ask them to look at your reel! It always comes off selfish. Approach your interactions as: What can you do for them, not the other way around! Make it about them, make your email genuine. The more you do this — the more you start to get responses. The other thing you’ll realize is that, “Wow! This isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be!” This is where you have to put in the work. The more you do this, the easier it gets!

[32:03] Also, try going off line. Start asking for tours of studios. You never know what can happen. You have to build your network. All it takes is 1-2 people to take you under their wing. You can also save up some money and go live in LA for 2 weeks, to do those studio tours. The more you do that — the more opportunities you’ll have. And the big plus is that you go where the work is. Some studios organize mixers at bars. You start meeting people like that. Anything is possible! But you have to be in it — to win it! The ones who get out of their comfort zone are the ones who actually succeed. You need to stand out and increase your opportunities.

[34:48] I told one of my students recently to go to Vancouver and “Hustle like a motherfucker!” He emailed me a couple of weeks ago that he landed his first job at Method. Being in that environment, he was able to show up at the studio and do events. Another student of mine just ended up at Scanline. I asked him how and he told me he applied everything he heard on my Podcast. It took a little while but he is now working on a dream project. (Of course, he can’t tell me about it [because of the NDA]!) I always say, “You could be the greatest artist in the world, but if no one knows who you are — how are you going to get a job?” I think that’s really critical.

[37:03] Looping back to the learning for a bit: When it comes to learning — if you want to make two shots for your reel — all it takes is Googling sometimes. Learn with intent. Go learn car rigging if you want to rig a car; go learn deformations if you want to smash that car. Make a list of things you need to learn — and Google those things. Find the clip that resonates with you and get your answers (even if one answer). That’s how I’ve learned most of the software I know. Most of us are waiting for that one tutorial. Instead, just break it down and write down the list of what you need. And then dig up some tutorials that answer each question. It’s an intent-based learning. Don’t learn everything!

Goal 1: To know enough.
Goal 2: To make a reel.

So learn with the intent of making those things happen. Look at what [a studio where you want to work] needs: What do they require? That’s where you do your research. Look at their reel, the reels of their artists, the kinds of artists they hire. That’s what people in business do: They model a company after something. You need to make yourself the right person for the job they need to get done.

[40:47] Again, no job should be beneath you. If you were to start thinking more creatively about this, look around what other jobs are around. Maybe they do internships. I always got annoyed when we hired render managers (they get paid minimum again to make sure nothing crashes overnight), and they would sit and play video games or sleep on the couch. Then one time, we hired a guy who would do 3D while rendering. Then he would show us his work. When you see someone putting in such effort, it’s no a brainer to offer them a job. Even if your job is to be a valet at a studio (which is part of client services), you would get to know everyone in the building. One version is that you treat it as a temp job. The other version that you would get to know people and use it as an opportunity to mention that you want to do 3D animation. Bit by bit, you can apply the advice they give you — and you can ask to work on the next step. That’s really cool! First, you get in — and then you course correct.


[45:35] As I mentioned, the key thing is to build a network (www.allanmckay.com/193). I had to go off line (before the internet). I was a teen obsessed with 3D. (Even today, going to work on a cool movie is a dream come true!) Back in the day, I would read everything about studios and their execs. I’d read that some CEO would be at this event to promote a new game. I would go to that event, even at 14 years old! Everyone was telling me I was crazy and that I was wasting my time! I was putting in all that time. And I wanted to find out from the source if I could work at his studio. I waited for the right moment, walked up to this CEO and asked if there were any age restrictions for being hired. He turned and said, “If you’re good — we’ll hire you! It’s as simple as that!” I remember running home with fire under my butt and getting back to my desk.

[48:48] Most of us aren’t going to do that. But that’s what it takes. I knew this student who organized an industry event. When enough people said yes, that’s when she went to a bar and put together a bar tab. She’s organizing this to bring people together (instead of just asking for job). I remember meeting her at that mixer and telling her how impressed I was. I always thought about that. Eight years later, I came to a meeting at this big studio and I remember the producer introduced herself: She was the woman who organized that event! That’s what it takes! It takes your getting off your ass and going the extra mile. A lot of you aren’t going to do it, so a few of you who do — those will succeed! I’ll tell you another story: I was at this bar and these 4 guys showed up one night. They told me someone told them I was hanging out at the bar. They wanted me to work on their commercial. I didn’t care how bad the commercial was, because their showing up and buying me a drink convinced me to work for them. It goes both ways. Putting in the effort — where no one else does — makes a difference!

[53:45] Internships and render management positions offer you face time with all these people you wouldn’t know otherwise. And the more people you know — the more opportunities you have. The only time I’ve ever been fired was when I was 17 years old. The thing is though: I already had a job lined up before I even left the building. I got to know so many people over the past few years, it was easy to reach out. The people just asked, “When can you start?” What happens if you get laid off? What happens if a job goes under? It’s helpful to know you have this rolodex of people you can reach out to and ask, “Do you have anything going on?” At ILM, there is a Starbucks next door. If I were a teenager, I would just hang out there. You can see 3D people a mile away! I would offer to buy them coffee in exchange for viewing my reel. The more creative you are — the more you’re going to stand out!

[56:19] You can go on CG Groups and Facebook Groups and build your network naturally. If you’re involved in a community and helping out to answer questions, you never know where some of the other people on those forums work. They could refer you to their studio. The more you get to know everyone — the more opportunities you’ll have. And people will refer you happily if they are proud of your work. I know a lot of us don’t do this. But that’s what it takes!


[59:06] But the first thing that’s critical is getting that initial wind. Everything we do works in phases.

Phase 1: To get in.
Phase 2: To get the job you actually want.

I have a student who wants to do VFX but wasn’t able to get any offers. He was able, however, to get a camera tracking job. I told him to take it! Because as soon as he’s in the studio, he will get moved up if he works hard. As long as you’re showing an initiative, you will get the job you want. My friend Kate wanted to work at Cutting Edge, a studio in Australia. No one would hire her. So she got hired as a Client Services Person and she worked her ass off! But she did communicate her needs that she wanted to be a compositor. It took her a year but she did become one. Within 2 years, she moved to Montreal to work for a bigger studio. All because she was willing to do what no one else was willing to do!

[1:01:35] The other thing to think about: The software is not important. If you want to get a job at a local studio, you shouldn’t care what software they use at Framestore. You can learn any software package and then transfer that knowledge to another package. The software doesn’t matter. It’s about meeting the criteria. If your local studio uses After Effects, your laser focus should be on learning that. If you’re going to New York, don’t learn Maya. Most studios there use 3DS Max. That’s what’s going to move the needle. So model your career after what’s required.

[1:04:36] I look at any career as momentum. It is hard as fuck to get that first job! You’re going to get a lot of rejection. I nearly gave up myself. But once I got in, I never stopped working. I made sure I would be knocking on doors and meeting new studios on my lunch breaks (even though I was happy at the studio where I was at). When it was time, I went to a new studio and double my rate and work on cooler projects. I continued to evolve and it got easier. Right now it’s hard for you! So many of you want to give up. But once you move into your career, you’re going to start to learn bad places to work too. Unfortunately, you have to eat shit in the beginning. But once you’re moved up, you can avoid the bad jobs and terrible places at which to work. Your money is going to get hire and your jobs will get easier. Your first jobs are the investment until your momentum picks up. By the time you’ve been around, your friends will trying getting you in as well. Just get in the fucking door! Once you’re in, you can start to course correct.


[1:07:48] To recap:

I. Learn with intent: Get a laser-focused reel that targets the job. As long as you can prove that you can sit down and do the job right now, that’s all it takes. So make a shot that demonstrates what the studio you’re targeting does.

II. Don’t learn a software inside out. Learn what you need to achieve your first job.

III. Nurture your relationships. As long you’re doing that 24/7 — online or off line — you will be building a network. It’s so easy to do these days! These are the people who will get you jobs. They will ask for your reel. But you need to know those people to send your reel to.

IV. Do whatever it takes to get in. Be the Trojan Horse. The first job is the hardest to get, and then you can just follow the momentum.

V. Do online courses. Degrees in VFX are bullshit. All studios need is proof that you have the skill they’re looking for. The only place where a degree helps is if you’re from another country and it will help with your work visa (www.allanmckay.com/52). I will be doing more Podcasts on that. But if you go to, say, Gnomon, you will spend $180K and prolong starting your work. Think of how much you can learn within those years! I’d rather spend that money on online courses. But if you don’t have the discipline to learn on your own — then schools are great for you.

I would recommend taking a look at my Demo Reel Guide: www.allanmckay.com/myreel. I’ve written it from a perspective of someone who does the hiring. I’ve seen so many things that cost people jobs. So I want you to get ahead! (And it is free.)

Again, I have the VFX Course out right now which is also free: www.VFXCourse.com. The Course teaches you the hard skills you have to have.

The two levers you need: the soft skills (your contacts) and hard skills (your reel and technical skills). You can also put your demo reel into your email signature. There are so many things you could do. And you do need relationships: You need people outside of HR you could email to get your job. So many of my students got jobs and then brought in their friends from my Courses. I have so many students who’ve done that at Scanline, FuseFX, Encore Hollywood. One person comes in and they refer their friends.

I’m going to leave it there. I hope you got a lot from this.


[1:17:03] QUESTION: Some of you, guys, are asking about Work Visas.

With immigration, I’ve done some Podcasts on the subject:

Work Permits in the U.S. – Amanda Gillespie on the Ins and Outs of the Visa Process: www.allanmckay.com/52/

Allan McKay’s Advice on Working Visas: www.allanmckay.com/54/

But I will be doing more Podcasts in the future. Amanda Gillespie is the best in the business.

[1:18:56] QUESTION: Someone is asking about Blender.

I’ve been following Blender since 2006. I was pretty blown away by that software. I wouldn’t worry about if this is “the best software to learn”. Just like I mentioned here, it’s about what’s going to move the needle. What studio is going to be your first job — and what they’re using. It always changes. Think about what’s going to get you the first job. That’s when you’re going to work your ass off and build a new reel. I don’t use Blender, but I’ve seen Blender Guru and he has a massive following. Some of his stuff looks great!

[1:21:47] QUESTION: What’s the preferred program for pyro?

If you’re doing fire explosions, again, model after the studio where you want to work. Pyro Effects in Houdini and 3DS Max, and Phoenix FD are great. It depends on the studio though.

[1:22:39] QUESTION: How do you switch from being an animator to VFX? Would you need to start from the bottom?

That’s the beauty of our industry! Once you’re in, you don’t ever have to start from scratch. I remember one of my friends in Paris, when I made my Particle FX DVD. I’ve seen so many animators do cool stuff. The big thing I hammer into my students is learning the principals for animation. I think it’s more about being able to demonstrate what you’re doing. I always think that for magic effects, you need to have character animation. Another piece of advice: One of my friends does lighting and eventually he had to play hard ball, “I am not taking any more lighting positions”. Bit by bit, you’ll have to transition. I would never look at it as starting from scratch. Experience is everything. You’re moving sideways.

I hope you got a lot from this Episode. Please take a moment to share it.

I’ll be back next week with Spin VFX doing a round table.

Until then —

Rock on!


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