Episode 200 — Interview with Allan McKay


Episode 200 — Interview with Allan McKay

Welcome to Episode 200! I cannot believe we’ve done 200 Episodes! I hope you’re getting a lot out of this Podcast. Please also email me if you have any feedback: [email protected]

In this Podcast, I am being interviewed by D2 Conference’s Fabio Palvelli. D2 Conference brings you content to keep learning and keep growing as an artist, so you can unlock your true potential. This is part of the Inspiration Series, a small collection of talks that help connect the creativity dots in and out of our professional fields.

In this interview by Fabio, I talk about my first creative breakthrough, the secret to my productivity and why I began teaching, as well the importance of becoming a business — as an artist!

Fabio Palvelli’s Website: http://fabiopalvelli.com/
D2 Conference in iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/d2-conferences/id1355692823?mt=2
Fabio Palvelli on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFN4VpkoUDkgvFzGb5E8Yhw
Fabio Palvelli on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FabioPalvelli
Fabio Palvelli on Instagram: @FabioPalvelli



[00:42] 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!

[04:23] I have a new VFX Training Course available right now. This is a brand new training based on Thanos from Avengers. It is a decimation effect using tyFlow, showing industry level effects. The training is entirely free and you’ll be able to download the footage, the assets. If you want to sign up, go to www.MarvelCourse.com!

[1:10:36] 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!



Hi, guys!

Fabio Palvellii here at the D2 Conference. At D2, we believe in bringing content for you to keep learning and keep growing as an artist, so you can unlock your true potential. This is why we have designed the Inspiration Series, a small collection of talks that help connect the creativity dots in and out of our professional fields. If this is your first time on your channel, please subscribe.

This time, I have Allan McKay as the guest. Allan will talk about the importance of social media, the first time he got in trouble as an artist and the importance of having ninja skills in the field of digital design.

[08:29] Fabio: Allan, how are you, man?

Allan: Doing great! How are you doing?

[08:31] Fabio: I’m here with Allan McKay. I’m going to try to make a really short introduction. But people probably don’t need that because your work speaks for itself. Allan is an Emmy-Award winning VFX Supervisor and TD who’s worked on the following films: Avengers, Superman, Star Trek, just to name a few. He’s also work on many video games like Call of Duty. Allan, you’re the real deal. You have your own studio in Los Angeles and you’re a leader in the community. Is this satisfactory enough for you?

Allan: Thank you for that! I’m usually the one interviewing other people [on my Podcast: https://www.allanmckay.com/podcast-list-page/].

[09:24] Fabio: I wanted to say that. I wanted to see how you react when you’re under the spotlight. I’m surprised by the quality of work you do and that you don’t have a bigger following.

Allan: It is kind of interesting. I’ve always made most of my content available to my VIP Insiders List (my email list: www.allanmckay.com/inside). It only recently occurred to me that I’m putting out a hundred thousand hours of free content. But I always want to reward people. Otherwise, everyone just clicks through stuff and doesn’t absorb it. I wanted to build a community of people. But recently, I thought I should be doing what everyone else in the world is doing.

[10:41] Fabio: You’re going to shoot for a hundred thousand subscribers from YouTube.

Allan: I was just chatting with Ryan Connolly at Film Riot (www.allanmckay.com/133). He’s got like 2 million, or something. It’s pretty mind blowing to see that there is such a huge audience out there. I was just speaking about branding earlier this year. I had a blast and I put everything I could into that talk. All these artists came up to me afterward to talk about building their brand. I looked at their following: All of them are at 300K people. I think they were doing pretty well already!

[11:43] Fabio: You have quite a story to share. I usually set these talks at 40 minutes, but I don’t know how you’re doing on time.

Allan: It’s okay. It’s Christmastime right now and my in-laws are here, and I’m hiding.

[12:04] Fabio: It’s something we should mention: It’s the 23rd of December and we’re making this. This is how much we care. I want to start this in a bit of a different way. I’ve seen you posting things on your Podcast and social media. I want to ask you the question that Tim Ferriss asks his guests: “Can you recall the first time that you got in trouble?”

Allan: I can’t think of anything personal. I got in trouble all the time. I spent every lunch break in the principal’s office as a kid. I would get in trouble. I don’t know what that says about me. But professionally: I was 18 years old and I was a generalist at a big studio in Australia. I was given a logo job. I would always go through 3D steps. What it came down to going through the motions. This was one of the big breakthrough moments for me. Most people were impressed with my work. But this was the time when my boss, who was pretty influential in my career, pulled me aside and said, “Allan, this is the worst logo I’ve seen in my entire career!” It was one of those things that didn’t surprise me. I gave zero shits about it. This was the first moment when I got called out on my BS and I realized it reflected on how much care I put into the projects. I realized I should take pride in what I do.

When someone says, “Go make an explosion that’s 20% bigger” and you go into script lister and you type in the values. That’s the mindset I had when I was younger. Whenever I do my work now, I step out of my body and look at my work. “They asked for 20% bigger. It seems too big. Maybe I’ll give them two versions”. That was the aha moment that changed everything for me. I started to anticipate the feedback I would get. Anticipating these things makes me get to results quicker and taking those extra steps. Now as a Sup, I’m always trying to anticipate the steps that are going to go wrong.

Time is money, especially when it comes man hours. I’m typically someone to ask [a client] more questions than they’ve ever been asked in their entire life. I am anticipating everything that’s going to happen. These days, that’s my biggest strength. I’m able to look at a project and really ask the right questions, so things go smoothly. The worst thing [for production] is when things go wrong and artists start to burn out. Especially in 3D, everything is going to go wrong. But all of that spawned from that moment: Looking at a bigger picture and steering it in the right direction. I love those moments when you’re able to drip feed them their versions [that you’ve already thought of]. As juniors, we’re so ready to tell everyone how great we are and to impress other people. But that means we’re less likely to really listen. I know that I want to do things a certain way, but it’s the director’s vision and I have to do what they want — not what I want.

[20:01] Fabio: There is a couple of things I want to point out. A lot of things you’re saying apply to the field of architectural visualization. And it’s important that they realize that when you have to make an important change in your life. The reason I love this question is because it makes you think about making a change in your life after making a mistake.

Allan: It just took me a few minutes to wrap my mind around it. Whenever my fiance asks me about past, I realize I don’t live in the past. I’m always thinking about now. I feel like I’m always slow to start.

[23:34] Fabio: That’s totally fine. It would be interesting to know how does one get into visual effects? There are architectural visualization artists who move into that field. I’d love for you to talk about your experience.

Allan: You’re totally right! There are so many artists coming from arch viz. They move into an industry where you can see more variety, see your stuff on the big screen — and destroy rather than create. There is always a roadblock of thinking, “I’m 30 now, it’s too late to start.” There are people who don’t want to start from scratch and they have more responsibilities, partner, kids. It’s not as straight cut. So most people see it as a pipe dream. That’s the most common question I get:

– How do I get started?
– Is it too late for me to start? (Which is a grown-up version of the first question.)

The things is: I always say you have to start off as a generalist and specialize later. It’s an evolution. Bit by bit, you learn everything and then start to brand yourself later. If you’re a generalist, you can be a rockstar in your city. It has to do with the fact that no one knows how to define you. It’s different when you can say, “I’m the guy who makes amazing explosions”. If you’re looking for a job and you say, “I’m a 3D artist”, they don’t know which bucket to put you in. Start as a generalist and then niche it down. Later on, you can become a Sup and get your head into all the departments. Your career makes a full circle. Learn all the necessary tools. Which is why so many arch vis artists [get eaten up] by studios like Blur: They know how to take a shot from start to finish! They understand how to render things on time. In a way, these artists are the best of the best. The foundation is the critical part which is why professions like arch viz are really well rounded.

[26:55] Fabio: Actually, did you know that architects are often the ones that push the boundaries of software development? In 3D, when you’re rendering, the reason these engines are able to eat all that geometry is because architects keep pushing the limits. The VFX guys, they’ll find a way to change things. They’ll put some planes with matte painting.

Allan: Well, yeah, because we work with a locked-up shot. Arch viz make everything visible. With motion graphics, you’re doing things outside of what the software is designed to do. Everyone is coming to you with weird things. You have to figure out how to make the software to do that. You want to be pushing boundaries. I remember talking with Kathleen Ruffalo at Framestore (https://www.allanmckay.com/146/). When they hire people, they aren’t just looking for artists to destroy things. It’s pretty easy. They want more well rounded people. The more you can do — from the foundation of a generalist — the more confident you will be in your requirements.

[29:09] Fabio: I want to know about your learning curve. What helped you learn your tools and how did that help you develop your vision? Sometimes, it’s the vision [of an artist] that pushes the software to do things. So I want you to expand on this. I want to understand how you understand an explosion.

Allan: In terms of learning software, I came up at an exciting time when none of this was possible. I started in mid-90s and there weren’t any schools. I couldn’t even explain what I did to people until Toy Story came out. It meant that I had to figure out how to do that. I was on F-net (the 3DS channel). Everyone I know who was running ILM or Pixar, they all came from that channel. We were all hanging out there. For me, VFX was interesting. You had to figure things out from photos. That’s why I started making tutorials. I loved when I spent weeks figure something out: I wanted to share my knowledge so that others didn’t have to go through that pain. The curiosity of figuring out the how is what makes one grow. That’s been a big explorations. I would pick up a package and work it every way I could.

I am doing this VFX Case Study right now but it keeps getting flagged by YouTube because it has some footage from a Sony movie. I was talking about it to someone else: I could now make a tutorial on How to Get Your Video on YouTube Without Getting Flagged. That would apply how I would troubleshoot 3D:

  • Figure out the reasons why something isn’t working.
  • If nothing works, save your work, break it down and work backwards.

Whatever it is — it’s the same process!

To segue into how to make killer effects on screen, I think that it’s just process. I teach this in my courses: As soon as you start a shot, you want to get it through the whole pipeline and see how it’s going to look on the screen. Your viewport is not how it’s going to look. Most VFX artists make that mistake. They get bogged down and try and make things technical. Instead of getting to the finish line, they’re too busy showing off. I see it all the time when I supervise. Someone gets something to look really good but then it won’t render and they have to start working backwards and dial things down, just to get it out. Instead, you should try to get it through the pipeline — and then dial it up until you hit walls. If you can see it in context, you might see where your eyes focus on. You start prioritizing based on the final output. The biggest thing: Get it into comp and dial things up.

[35:57] Fabio: I really like this and there are so many similarities with our field! So many artists get things technically correct but then they don’t render. I think artists still fail to understand: Although there is a technical aspect to this job, it must be an artistic job, still. I wanted to ask you this: I know you teach and you work with clients. These are two activities that take a lot of time. What I find fascinating: You [send out] 2-3 emails a week, you curate your lectures, you shoot your videos, you tend to your social media, you work with clients. I’m getting crazy just thinking about it. How do you keep head above the water? It feels like you’re doing a lot of things.

Allan: I was thinking that someone has a course on how to publish content. Someone has figured it out — because I haven’t. This year has been really interesting. I’ve worked really hard trying to figure out a few protocols and make a machine out of what I’m doing. I want to stay consistent. You’re right: It can get really chaotic and derail you. Yesterday, I was doing my goal planning for next year, more in terms of the theme of the year (which I think is even more important): Consistency.

I’ve talked about this before: 2015 was my year of saying no. I wanted to say no to everything that came through unless it aligned with me. There were some really amazing opportunities that came up, amazing directors asking me to work on their next 3 films. But unless it aligned, I had to say no. That’s because the year before that I was saying yes to everything and the quality was starting to suffer. I was wearing myself down. The interesting thing about 2015 was that it doubled my profits by turning away projects. I have some notorious choices: I would turn away Matrix to do things that I’d just agreed to a week before.

So I think that theming your years is very important. What is this year really about for me? I think 2019 for me is about consistency. I think just by breaking it down, I’m able to put out 66 pieces of content — per month! The problem is when I get a call to go work on a movie, all of that can get derailed. But I haven’t cracked the code. So far it’s been about:

  • Planning;
  • Having goals;
  • And staying consistent.

I plan everything. I am a pen-and-paper person. Most people roll their eyes at this. One of the key things is to be present (putting everything on hold and pushing through). I work in a 90-day turnaround. Instead of setting a one-year goal, I set goals for a quarter of a year. Whatever note taking system you use, just break it down by weeks. As we do this call, it’s a week 52 of the year. All the goals this week line up with the bigger picture. If you’re setting 90-day goals, you can see if you’re falling behind really quickly. Next year will be about solidifying this system. But this year is about getting a lot of things done without neglecting things. I think I’m figuring out a few great systems.

[43:11] Fabio: This is so motivating and inspiring. That thing you said about saying no to people, I can vouch for it. I did it at the same time. It was not really a strategy. I was telling people “to go f*ck themselves”, I was really mad. You know how clients can be sometimes, “I have 200 Euros for this job”. It’s offensive to even come up and ask me to work for that money! Those things put me in a position of power. They were a game changer. It’s not that they brought me more projects — they brought me better things: a teaching job, growing my Conference, etc. When I allowed myself to heal, I started to become better in my art and I started managing projects better. This resonates with me so much!

Allan: I spent a lot of time in 2018 with pricing psychology. I work in marketing and other sides of business. I’ve done talks this year to big groups of people on this subject. Tim Ferriss and I have a lot of mutual friends because we tend to speak on similar subjects. What I find really interesting with saying no to clients: When they come to you asking for the world for 200 Euros, what I find is that those are the worst clients to have. It’s a sign of a bigger problem of their being out of touch with what we do. For 200 Euros, you would have to take on 10 jobs to make up the money you need. The problem is that these jobs would suck the life out of you. Most clients aren’t used to hearing no. They may come back with the right rate. Or, other clients that come in with the right budget will be more hands off. The ones that are asking for the job to be done for 200 Euros will most likely be calling you all the time and changing concepts the entire time. They probably don’t know what they want. The person who comes to you with 50K Euros is already successful. They know what they want, they look to you to deliver, they trust you as the person to deliver that. They have a thousand more boxes to tick. I’ve experienced that a lot!

I found that when I do my courses — and they tend to be more long-form — the main thing I discovered was: If someone purchased that course for $100, you’re going to hear from them all day long. They aren’t committed or invested. I do publish free content — and even then I hear people complain. The person who spends $2,000, they’re going to get their money’s worth. The more value I put on my course, the more serious and committed students I get. The cheaper the client — the cheaper the quality of the client. That’s what I found.

[49:35] Fabio: I’m very happy we’re having this conversation. I’m looking at all the questions I’ve planned — but you keep giving me all the perfect segues. Here is another question: Why did you decide to do your own thing? This is about your teaching. I’ve had people take this course and testify that it was the best course, in terms of quality and clarity. And the second question is: Do you recall a turning point in your career? I’m going out on a limb but I suspect these two questions will intersect.

Allan: Okay! In terms of teaching, it’s always been about giving back. As I said before, once I took all that time to figure something out — how to make a cloud, or how to make fire — I would want to share it with others, back in the others. There was also a frustration. I remember there was this new director and I saw something on his screen. I was just complimenting him. And he responded, “Why would I tell you?” That kind of stuff always bothered me. If you’re clinging onto your secrets, you aren’t going to grow.

I recently had to tell someone that they have to be a problem solver in order to be in VFX. Their answer was, “I don’t want to be a problem solver. I want to push the button and not question why I’m doing it.” I told him he could find a job like that. But what happens when someone else can push that button better than you? Your job becomes obsolete. When I look at these corporate retreats at bigger companies, it’s because after leaving school, only 11% of us continue to grow. If that’s where you’re set, then other people who are hungry and continue to study, you’re going to get left behind.

That’s why I have my mailing list and send out all this material, tutorials, e-books. It’s because I want to reward those who are willing to invest in themselves. I’ve been very successful in my career. I’m no longer worried about it, I can pick and choose what I do. These days, there is only a few jobs I want to do. Digital Domain was just pitching Godzilla and I thought, “Maybe I’ll go do that because it’s fun (not because I need to put food on the table).” I think that’s where we all want to get to. You shouldn’t work to live. You want to get to the level of freedom to choose what you do. That was the point for me: My career is fine, I’m pushing to get to my goals — but I’m more interested in others’ success. I just had a student get a job and he wanted to negotiate money at the interview. I taught him how to negotiate it in 3 months from then. I’m always trying to help others to get to their dream jobs, move to the countries where they want to work. It’s so rewarding in so many ways!

[56:06] Fabio: Let me just add to that: My commitment in the last 6-7 years was to improve the lives of artists. Only those who have done that can see the rewards attached to that kind of work. That’s why I admire you for what you do. I hear that it’s the best and consistent course. I want to ask you one more thing: The learning part and the understanding the business part of being an artist. You do such a great job of that! People need that inspiration person and say, “I want to be like that guy.” If you could pick one person you look up to, who would that be?

Allan: Oh, man! I can’t answer that at all. I don’t think there is one person. I do think it’s a valid point that most people have that paralysis by analysis. YouTube is such a great place to get information. But there is so much conflicting information. Or you spend 2 hours watching someone’s tutorial and realize they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s better to commit to 1-2 sources you trust and go all in! I’m not good with having one person to be inspired by. I do love reading. I’m constantly doing courses. I probably spend a 100K a year. I’m constantly learning. If I go for a walk, I’ll listen to a podcast. I’ll be waiting for an Uber and listening to a lecture. So find 1-2 resources — and go all in!

For me, I think business is just as important as being an artist. I was interviewing Aaron Sims the other day (www.allanmckay.com/179). He and his team created pretty much every creature you’ve ever seen (Stranger Things, AI, Ready Player One). We were talking about art and business. I was speaking with Noelle Triaureau (www.allanmckay.com/175). She is a director at Sony. Most artists are allergic to business. That’s were the whole mentality of a starving artist comes from. We think we need to bleed for 200 Euros a day because we think that’s going great. The more you understand the business, the more you get to do what you love. And money is not the only currency.

As a VFX artist, we are a business: We are the brand, the product, the marketing team, the IT (when the computer breaks down). We’re all those things! If you’re functioning as one thing, you have nothing happening around you. You need to embrace all these things. Chris Do is going to be on your series. He is a great guy and a business owner (www.allanmckay.com/125). In terms of other people, it’s tricky. There are so many out there. I am getting an art piece commissioned right now about Jay-Z. I originally wanted the piece because there was this one line, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man!” It’s a visual reminder of what he is and what we’re all doing as well. This is a symbol of all these things. You could find so many amazing inspirations, whether they are in business or other areas.

One last thing: I was hanging out with Chris Do’s EP one day. We talked about this one guy who was looking for work. That guy was such an arrogant person. The EP really disliked him. I’ve also ran into that guy. He used to walk into the room and demand things and he would get them. I thought maybe there was something to learn from that. Most of us are polite and we don’t ask for things. It’s the person who asks for the promotion that gets one. You should have the balls to communicate what you want. I remember the EP was shocked I was complimenting that guy. But there was a lesson there. You do want to be polite as well, but respect yourself as well.

[1:05:34] Fabio: When I did the workshop with Chris Do back in Milan, a year ago…

Allan: I remember he was telling me he was in Milan! I was in Paris at the time.

[1:05:49] Fabio: I got to meet some great people. It was an exciting time. One thing I learned from Chris Do is to be blunt and ask for what you want. At the end of the day, when a client comes with a low budget, it’s like a person going to a car shop and wanting to buy a Ferrari. You can’t afford it — so you can’t have it. We as artists try to fix that problem.

Allan: Yup.

[1:07:03] Fabio: Allan! You’ve been great. This was a big learning experience for me. I can’t wait for people to listen to this piece. I want to thank you for taking the time.

Allan: Thanks so much for this! It’s been a great opportunity to chat. Let me know when the D2 Conference is on. I want to show my face. Thank you!

[1:07:38] Fabio: Absolutely, man!


I hope you enjoyed this Episode and found it valuable. I want to thank Fabio for taking the time to interview me.

I am so excited that we’ve done 200 Episode! Thank you for all of your amazing support! Here is to Episode 500 and beyond!

  • I have some free training available at www.MarvelCourse.com. This is my gift to you! Get it while you can!
  • Next Episode, I will be talking about a taboo subject: Should you go to college for VFX?

Thank you again for your support! Until next week —

Rock on!


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