Episode 197 — Should Artists Build a Personal Brand?

Episode 197 — Should Artists Build a Personal Brand?

In this Podcast, Allan talks about the topic of branding. As he’s said before, “You could be the greatest artist in the world! But if no one knows who you are, then how are you going to get work?” This Live Stream because with the question: Should we, as artists, use social media?

It’s not just about social media, however. When it comes to personal branding, the key thing is building awareness. In other words, you want to do this with an intent, or what Allan calls “Effective Branding”. In addition, you have to think of yourself as a one-person studio on a micro level and do the work that a successful studio (at a macro level) would do!

In this Podcast, Allan talks about overcoming your resistance toward becoming a successful business, which includes building an effective brand, creating opportunities for yourself and investing in your social capital.



[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!

[03:19] 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! Consider going through it this week.

[1:13:06] 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!



[03:51] I wanted this to be a session about the topic of branding. This morning, I saw a comment on YouTube asking whether we should use social media as a tool, as artists. I think it’s a valid question. I think the bigger question has to do with personal branding. So I don’t just want to focus on social media alone.

[05:44] With personal branding, the key thing is building awareness. In other words, you want to do this with an intent. You aren’t saying, “Look at how great I am!” You are saying, “I’m here, doing my work.” This is an opportunity to showcase your work on a bigger scale. Some of us don’t want to show off or seem like a sell-out. I personally think those are just excuses to not do the work or because we don’t understand it, or because we’re afraid of judgement. At the end of the day, it will be polarizing. You can’t get everyone to like you. If you’re trying to do your artwork, not everyone is going to love it. Think of Jackson Pollock or Vincent Van Gogh. You’re either going to get a “Hell, yeah!” or a “Hell, no!” (The worst thing to get would be, “Meh!”) Day to day at your job, you also want people to love what you do or tell you how you can do better.

[08:16] As I mentioned, building a brand is more about brand awareness. In other words, you want people to be aware of who you are. I always say this: “You could be the greatest artist in the world, but if no one knows who you are then how are you going to get work?” You have to think about the fact that you are a business, whether you like it or not. A lot of you may be thinking, “I don’t want to be a business. I want to do my art.” A lot of you don’t like being managers. I always think of this on a micro / macro level. A studio goes to a VFX company and they do their artwork and get paid for it. What do we do as artists? We do the exact same thing but on a smaller level. We go to a VFX company and we do their artwork and we get paid. The only difference is that a company is doing PR, promoting their work, pulling all these levers to be successful: They’re doing the IT, the invoicing, the accounting. They’re being a business. But a lot us just want to do art in our mommy’s basement. We don’t want to do the business part.

[10:31] Here is the underlying message: You could get a full-time job and just show up, sit there every day and do the work (as long as no one else show up and takes your job). I’ve seen that happen. But then you’re making 40K a year, instead of 150K. Your boss is telling you you’re doing okay. You are an artist who is a hidden secret for the owner. You do great work but you don’t know what they’re worth. Imagine if you put your reel online and everyone notices. Suddenly, you’re getting messages! I feel that way a lot about VFX artists in Japan and Korea. Occasionally, someone would leak something out and we’re talking about that work for the next year! If any of these people were to come here, they would bring a whole new level. So if you’re getting those opportunities offered, it would change your outlook. You can be doing what you’re passionate about — but you now have options.

[13:18] I love social media — and I fucking hate social media! I think it’s the decline of our civilization in so many ways, but at the same time — it’s such a powerful tool! It’s a polarizing thing. I tend to not touch my phone until I’ve done my morning routine. It’s a love / hate relationship. It is about having a presence online and going global. You could be in a tiny city but you’re well known because of your work and social media presence. That’s something you need to think about. If you were on people’s radar, it would change things for you. You would be creating opportunities for yourself. Being a young kid in Australia, I always dreamt of working at a big studio in LA. Everyone told me I would make it. Hollywood meant a whole different thing, a thing on tv. It was a pipe dream! But I had that goal. I had to mail VHS cassettes across the globe and wait. These days, you can include your link in an email. You can put your reel into your email signature. You never know what could happen! But it’s about increasing your chances for people to know who you are.


[18:50] Here is a phrase I’ve talked about: Effective Branding. For me, effective branding means that people associate you with a certain thing. For example, if they need a really good lighting artist, they can say, “Let’s go call so-and-so because that person is the best at lighting!” When people say they need a specialist in After Effects. With whom do you associate After Effects? I would say for me, it’s Andrew Kramer. He’s done such effective branding that everyone on the planet knows Co-Pilot and who Andrew Kramer is because of his work in After Effects. When I think of Zbrush, I think of my buddy Raf Grassetti because he does such a great job. When I think of VR and speed painting, I think of Goro Fujita (www.allanmckay.com/177 and www.allanmckay.com/200). He works for Facebook and he is so passionate about VR, you see his love and understand how it changed his life. He inspired me to paint! There are so many talented people who built their brand around something.

[20:57] That’s what’s really important to think about: To think how you want to stand out. That doesn’t mean that you’re trying to say, “What’s the software or plugin that I need to associate myself with?” Instead, you’re trying to see what the need is, out there. For example, I see so many shows with plane crushes, I could build a studio that focuses on just those. Scanline VFX focuses on water and their built Flowline to do that type of work. Nowadays, you can tell Scanline’s work just by looking at a movie trailer. When you think of creature design, you think of Aaron Sims (www.allanmckay.com/179). I think of really cool creatures in movies, I think of Weta. It doesn’t mean that you’re stuck with that association. It means that people will start to think of you in a specific context. You don’t need to be the best artist in the world [either]! I want to beat that down because that’s just another excuse. I think for a lot of us, what’s holding ourselves back — is ourselves. I want you to catch yourself at that. One of my students wasn’t applying for jobs because he was afraid of being rejected. I think it’s important to examine our fears. We all fall into those.

[26:16] Keep in mind: To do effective branding, you don’t need to be the best artist in the world. You just need to be the go-to person for doing 3D logos at your local tv station. That’s not a tall order. That’s all you need! You don’t need to be the best artist in the whole world. And if you become the number one person on their rolodex, what if you become that at more places. My fiance is a designer of vehicle wraps. She’s working with all these celebrities. Whenever a client is a pain in the butt and pay very little — while other clients are great to work with and they pay really well — I tell her, “Forget the first type, you need to get more of the second type!” If you keep getting people from CG Talks posting your stuff, do more of that. But don’t be afraid to try!


[29:02] Whether it’s online or off line, you need to think about that. You want to have more people be aware of your work. I was on set in Baton Rouge and I got an email from this studio in New York. They emailed me these story boards about a story that involved [ash effects]. They were so cool! I fell in love with this job. We had this big talk. At the time, I hadn’t seen anyone do ash effects. They told me they wanted to talk to me because I had done Blade and all those vampire movies. So I ended up getting this job because I’ve built an effective brand around doing ashes. I turned down so many jobs before that because they involved ashes. Again, it didn’t mean that I would do ash effects for the rest of my life. I did specialize fire before that. Bit by bit, you’ll start to occupy other things. Whenever people want a certain thing, you want them to think of you. I got a call a while back for a movie poster which I almost turned down because they wouldn’t tell me what it was. Eventually, I found out what it was and did it. This is the day Avengers: Infinity War came out, but we had to make a movie poster. (That was the job.) The reason I got that job is because they’ve see my work on God of War.

[34:04] Another thing to consider: A buddy of mine is a Senior VFX Sup at Digital Domain told me that I was always getting jobs not only because of my work but because I’m a fun guy. I never heard that before. He explained that when it’s between me and two other people, people will hire me because I would make the job that much cooler. Because I have the personality that will make it fun. It made me think. In a way, that could be your brand: You could be this good, humble, fun person!

[35:42] I want you to think of this as a machine. If you start to work on your branding, you would become your own PR person. Make sure to show your work. Being talented in 2019 is no longer enough. You have to figure out how to rise above the noise and stand out. Part of that is building an effective brand. When the employers are going through a pile, they should want to hire you because you have an effective brand. Having a network is also really important. That’s the other lever. You’re a business whether you like it or not. These are just a few levers you have to pull in 2019!


[37:49] I want you to think about HOW to actually do that. There are so many people posting on their website or telling people to follow them. Come on! What are some of the more successful ways to promote your brand? If you’re trying to sell yourself, you want it to be about your work.

  • Go out and put out good work all the time on Instagram, Art Station, etc. Bit by bit, it will land with the right people. That makes them aware of you.
  • You can also go on Forums, CG Stations, etc. That’s really valuable too! I got so many jobs that way, back in the day. When Particle Flow came out, I would be there to offer help. I was constantly helping people. The more I was helping people, the more I was building a reputation as a problem solver.
  • Use your real name on Forums. I was in a Podcast recently and he mentioned our Forum names. We knew each other from 20+ years ago. If you are using weird names, I’m not going to remember you. That way you’re building a brand around you. Chris Costa is a Modeler at ILM, he’s so amazing! People only know his user name on Instagram but not him. Start stepping up with your branding.
  • Use a picture of yourself. People are visual so don’t waste that opportunity. People will eventually start identifying your picture with great answers on the Forum.
  • Post all the time and give back! Be everywhere!
  • Re-post your work. You can build a machine around your work. If you work on a commercial, post the stills on Instagram. Put the commercial on Vimeo. (I know directors are always looking for talent on Vimeo.) Put your stuff up on YouTube. It’s really effective!
  • Re-purposing is a huge thing. You have to be in it — to win it! You can put up a clip for the making-of. People love that stuff! Whenever I do talks, I provide both sides. People love to see the behind-the-scenes stuff for some reason. That’s the thing they talk about the most. Do more of what people love.
  • Shred it: Show every single thing for everything. Put your work on your reel, on Vimeo, on YouTube, make a making-off post, post stills on Instagram, etc.
  • Imagine posting your reel on YouTube and it gets a million views. This is an actual story from a friend of mine. Can you imagine what a million views would do? Do you think he needs to look for work ever again? (The flip side of that was he wanted to charge $1 per view — and that seemed a bit arrogant.) You can put up a reel with the right SEO and have it be successful. Some guys at ILM would tease me about “The Allan McKay Effect”. I would like a reel on Vimeo and they would get more attention because of my following. I have people ask me to like their reel. I have companies offer me money for hashtagging their stuff.
  • Build your website. I have an Instagram account that got hacked. Keep in mind that you don’t own your audience. If you build your website, that website is yours. Make sure it’s an address that’s easy to remember. I remember looking for this one guy when I was ILM but I couldn’t remember his URL. I finally found it and everyone at ILM agreed we should hire him. Keep that in mind.
  • Keep mentioning your name all the time and posting your picture.
  • Have your reel in your email signature. Have your picture and title in your email signature as well.
  • Have your contact information on your website.
  • Niche down to what you do. Don’t just call yourself a VFX artists. Figure out what people need the most and become that. It would happen with friends of mine: They would show me their stuff and I’d say, “I had no idea you did that!” I would just remember them as VFX artists. Be congruent with your message. Anchor yourself!



[1:00:12] Some of you may say, “I don’t need to build a brand because I’m not good enough to be a brand!” We’re all a work in progress. So many of us are focused on getting more skills as opposed to changing our mindset. Even if you aren’t great, you can go online and see people getting paid for the same level of skills. Start thinking of yourself in a positive way: “I’m getting there!” I see it with my students. They are really struggling and then it suddenly clicks. Seeing that progress is the most inspiring.

[1:02:32] Some of us view this as selling out. But you are a business! You need to think about what you would do if you were to build a jewelry store. You would have to put up some ads and billboards. That’s when people will start coming to your store. You’re the same way. When people see your stuff online, they will notice you. Your value will eventually start to go up! It’s all about being visible. There are reasons behind that.

[1:04:17] Some people might think this is a lot of work. It is! Nothing great comes easy. Nothing easy is worth doing. It will take a lot of work but the accomplishment of it is worth it. If everyone knows who you are — and you get laid off — do you think you would be worried about the next job? It is work. But you don’t have to do all of it: Just do what works! I launched the Podcast to tell you what it takes, what other skills you need to acquire outside of doing tutorials. You have to build and maintain relationships, you have to network. I came to Facebook and YouTube to post about soft skills. (Instagram is more for eye candy.) That’s when I realized that I found my audience on each channel.

[1:09:31] The ultimate goal for me is to wake up in the morning and scroll through job offers in your email inbox. I’m so grateful to be in that situation! I hope we all get to that place. How different would it be if they created a job specifically for you? That happened to me on Call of Duty. Any of us can have that! But it’s about planting the seeds now. Be everywhere! Make your reel rank well! Communicate how people should categorize you! Make sure to do it consistently! You need to be the go-to person in that person’s rolodex when they’re looking to solve a problem.

I hope you found this Episode helpful. Please take the time to share it.

I will be back next week. Until then, if you want to keep working on your skills, please check out www.VFXCourse.com. It’s available for free for a little bit longer.

Until next week —

Rock on!


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