Episode 201 — Should You Go to School for VFX?


Episode 201 — Should You Go to School for VFX?

Welcome to Episode 201! I want to answer a question I get asked all the time: Should I go to school to study VFX or should I study online? And what school should I go to? What are my options? I want to offer my honest opinion. I did talk to other teachers at colleges before doing this Episode.

I don’t mean to say, “Those who can’t do — teach!” I’ve had a lot of success in my career and that’s why I’m putting all of this information out there, via my YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/AllanFTMcKay/?sub_confirmation=1) and Podcast. But I do think that there are some colleges that tend to have certain payback. In production, the salaries are much higher and it’s difficult for schools to afford the best artists as teachers.

I want to get into the pros and cons of the following three choices:

  • Studying in college;
  • Studying online for free;
  • Paying for online courses.

I hope this is something you’ll find valuable.



[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!

[04:16] 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, from start to finish, to build a high-end, realistic Hollywood live action shot. 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!

[59:42] 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!


[05:05] One of the key things that all of us need to think about is the certainty of going to college. Some of us believe that in order to have a profession, you need to go to college to get a degree. Because of such traditional way of learning in the past, that’s seems to be the norm. But technology has shifted a lot and it isn’t the same. Of course, if I were to go to someone to do brain surgery on me, I would hope they went to school. At the same time, technology has changed so much and it’s a bit of gamble: Do you go to college and pay 40K a semester? Or do you deal with the uncertainty of learning on your own? On top of that, when you go to school, you need to relocate and pay for the cost of that. It’s a massive investment. Is the pay-off worth it in the long run? Like I said before, how do you know you’re going to land a job after you’ve invested all that money in your schooling?

[07:22] The other key think to think about is: What if you could get a job right now? Instead of spending 4 years to learn all that stuff, you could learn what you needed to get a job and then learn by doing it, in the industry. I always think that if I were to study for 4 years, where would my career be? You could fast forward past that struggle. By the time you graduate after 4 years, you’re back to square one. Now you’re going to go look for job, build a resume and reel. Instead, you could already be working and commanding your own fees.

[08:26] So those are the options to consider:

  • Do you go to college?
  • Or do you go study online for free?
  • Or do you purchase online courses from industry experts?


[09:03] If you were to take the traditional route and go to school, the pros are:

It’s more structured. One of the benefits of going to college is that you’re going to have a curriculum provided for you. All you need to do — is show up. Studying on your own, and even working from home, can be really difficult because of that accountability factor. It’s also easy to get overwhelmed when you study on your own. Your teacher could curate all the information for you, in school. There is the accountability factor. Someone is expecting you to show up and take the tests, to pass the courses. If we all could have more time to sleep in, we would! But because you’re expected to be on a certain schedule, you know you have to get up.

[11:31] One of the bigger benefits of going to school is building a network. I’m not talking about the teacher, but the friendships that you’re building there. One by one, each of you is looking for jobs in the real world. When one of you gets hires, they pull everyone with them. I call that “barrel of monkeys”. Whenever I see a junior artist get hired, sooner or later they refer their friends [to the same company]. What if you get a job before everyone else? You’ll probably bring your friends with you. If you’re sitting next to someone really talented in school, it’s probably a great idea to make friends with them.

[13:26] Another key benefit is that you’ll be able to talk to your teachers. That is a big benefit if you don’t know how to find your own answers. That’s a great benefit to get some feedback from a teacher. I also think when you go to a college, it’s not the teachers who are going to teach you the most. It’s usually that one kid who is going to roll up and do cool stuff in 3D. I always feel like there will always be that one person in your class who will know more that the teachers sometimes.

[14:55] The other key benefit to going to college is that you will get discounted software licenses. On top of that, you have a computer lab to work in. The biggest mistake I see from junior artists: Maybe your talent is really good, but the work that’s coming out doesn’t reflect it. If you have a crappy computer, there’s just so much you can do. So having a computer lab is a big plus.


[15:47] In regards to cons, the biggest one is that it costs a lot of money. People are in debt for years after they graduate. It’s crazy how much money you can invest in something — but where is the guarantee you’re going to get a job? You’re also investing time. I think time is way more valuable than money. When you’re starting out, you could spend a year looking for jobs. But then you get in — and you start to gain momentum. Two years later, you’re making good money. Looking back at the college version, you will have all that struggle ahead of you after graduation. Time and monetary investments are a big thing to consider.

[17:53] For me, the bigger frustration with going to college has to do with teachers. Most college teachers will be talented, but there will be people who won’t be. Before I decided to talk about this subject, I talked to a few teachers. And there are some amazing teachers out there! When you go teach at a college, you will get paid $25-50K a year. If you work in VFX and you’re at a certain level in your career, you could get paid $100-$150K per year. (I mean that on the high end, of course!) A lot of colleges aren’t able to pay their teachers that much. Because of that, there will be a selective way of hiring people. You have to keep that in mind. Not everyone who is teaching comes from the industry. I have seen the top students [in colleges] going straight to teaching. I don’t want to dis on teachers. But there are some people who are teaching — and they haven’t even been in the industry. My point here: Do your research, check out your teachers’ credentials before you apply for a college. Gnomon is known for bringing industry experts, at least to do some evening sessions. There are going to be places like that.

[21:34] The problem with curriculums is that they don’t get updated too often. A college does a 3D course: modeling, animation, FX. But what happens at the very beginning? NERBs! The tools may not reflect on what’s getting used today. It’s almost expected that the information you’re learning is already out of date. You’re going to devote years of your life learning something that’s not really being used anymore. That’s something to think about: Are you learning the best stuff?

[22:47] My personal opinion is that the best learning happens on the job. I’ve worked from home in the beginning of my career before I started working at a studio. And in my first couple of weeks on the job, I’ve learned more than I did in 4 years of working on my own! That’s where the real learning begins. That’s why I think you should accelerate to get the job and learn on the job. A lot of people go to college to prolong the process of looking for jobs. They use it as a bit of a buffer. They delay the tough part.

[23:32] This is all colleges in general: The level of standard is going to be set low! Every course is designed at the level that everyone can do; so the level of expectation is quite low. If you’re hungry and you want that success, you can get more success. When someone sets the bar really low, they’re not challenging you to step up. I used to lecture at a University after being in the industry for 3 years. The big frustration I had was that at a leading college in Australia and I got frustrated because I wanted the students to get results but the higher-ups wanted me to give them the minimum. I ended up switching from a full-time lecturer to teaching part time: to beginners and another class to the advanced level students. The school was making money but the students weren’t set up for success. There is no guarantee that you’ll get a job after college. Again, I would rather fast track your process by applying for jobs now. No one looks at a resume in VFX and says, “Let’s hire them because they went to school!” The piece of paper doesn’t matter. The only place it does have an impact is when you’re applying for a visa. But in most situations, the most important thing is your reel which proves that you can sit in that chair tomorrow — and do the work.


[27:30] Option No. 2 is studying on your own: going online and self selecting what you study. That means that you won’t have a curriculum to follow. I think it’s the better way to learn. That’s how I started: I studied on my own because there weren’t any schools at that time. But it meant that I chose what I studied. I do think it’s important to start out as a generalist. But if you naturally gravitate toward something else, you can choose that as you specialty. Whatever excites you — you can go and learn that. That means cutting the fat and going at your own pace. It can work out for you because there is so much information out there!


[29:27] The cons of studying online on your own is that it’s really hard. There is no accountability factor, so you have to have your self-discipline and structure. You have to create your own curriculum. It’s so easy to get distracted and it takes a special person to stay focused. The same goes for working from home. I remember working from home on Superman Returns and having to build my own rituals. I had to mentally build that structure. I work from home at the moment as well. I pay money to rent an office to tend to other business.

[31:13] In addition to that, you’ll need to have a PC that’s fast enough. That’s the thing that holds some of us back. Sometimes the results don’t reflect the talent that we have. People ask me all the time what the best laptop is. My desktop PC is faster and cheaper. I’d rather expect my money for a great PC because a laptop is never going to be able to do the same level of work. You’ll also have to have all the licenses for the software.

[33:25] You’ll have to be responsible for finding your own solutions. If you’re stuck, it easy to just shut down. You have to figure out how to find the right information to fix your problems. A bunch us at Digital Domain would check out the tutorials on YouTube: You’d watch one for two hours only to hear at the end, “Well, that didn’t really work, but you get the idea.” You don’t know where you’re investing time. I always say: Find a few resources your trust and go all in with those.

[34:59] When you study on your own, how do you build a network? At least in school, you get to create relationships. If you do it on your own, you have to be working on creating such relationships on your own by going to mixers and industry events.


[35:43] The third option I want to get into is studying online in paid courses, rather than studying for free. You would go and be taught by experts. You’re still studying online, but you have a specific result that you’re after. I remember working at ILM and then figuring out some cool idea and making a tutorial about it. Having the stuff that’s most relevant and industry specific is important. I still spend thousands of dollars on online course because I figure: I could either spend hours trying to figure it out or I can learn from an expert who already figured it out. That’s why I say, “Learn just in time, not just in case.”

[37:32] That’s something to keep in mind: Figure out who you’re learning from and learn from the experts. By learning on your own, you can be selective with what you learn. If you know how make a tsunami, what else could you learn to push it further, to imitate what people in the industry do?

[38:24] I also would like to say: Paying for an online course is a steal in comparison to what people pay for universities. For my online FTXD Mentorship, the tuition varies but it’s usually around $1,500 for 12 months. An entire year of training! One of the key things with an online course, you want to have access to the teacher. I do Live Reviews and I get to critique people’s work, the same way people do in the industry. So make sure that you get face time with the instructor. In cheaper courses, you may not get it but you may not need it. When I go to a conference, I pay more to get to have a sit-down with the speakers and to be able to ask them questions.

[39:53] If you’re being smart, you’ll take full advantage of a course. In other courses I’ve done at CG Society, some of my students came from there. This is your chance to continue that relationship. The key advantage with doing an online course — is the community. I’m mentioning my Mentorship not to promote it but to tell you that what I’m most proud of — is the community we’ve built. That’s been really important! We meet online and in person whenever I’m in different cities. My students have gone to get jobs at Scanline, ILM and other studios, only to go and recommend other students for job openings there. If they launch their own studios — they hire their classmates as well. Having an online community and building friendship is really important.

[42:03] One thing we always say in my courses is: Paying for courses is better. I’ve published some of my best material for free, but because it’s free — it goes right over people’s heads. There are some great courses out there for $15, but people don’t pay attention because they cost $15. We always say, “Those who pay, pay attention!” I know for a fact that when I go and do a course for $10K, I take full advantage of it. If you’re willing to put in the money, you will be willing to put in the time. I’ve bought courses for a thousand and I don’t do them and they expire. You’re the person responsible for learning, at the end of the day. There are people who sign up for my course but then sit on their hands. I cannot force them to learn! So it’s on you to show up and do the work! You’re paying someone to cut the fat and curate the information. Usually, the teachers would be more selective, for you.

[44:33] I post my students’ work on Instagram all the time. I’m so proud of what they’re doing. What happens is I get contacted for referrals, too. People get to see my students’ work. It’s an effective way for me to get people jobs without doing much. You never know what can happen.

[46:15] The most crucial part about online courses is that you have to find the right person. There might be artists who are great at what they do, but they aren’t great at communicating and teaching. That can be a frustrating factor. So think about that factor: Can they teach? You can check out their sample lessons or any free training that they’re published. It frustrates me when I hear my friends studying with someone who is holding back information. They teach to get their name out there because they think that makes them legit. So watch out for those intentions. Some people publish courses for extra money (and there is nothing wrong with that). But then they have to share everything they know. They don’t want to give away their secrets. They feel threatened in their job and don’t want to be replaced by other people. These are the common things that I hear and that frustrate me.

[50:00] I’m hoping this resonates with you. Pick the people who are in it for the right reasons. Look at their work: Does it resonate with you? It’s important to look at their student work as well. Look at the work they’re putting out. Is that up to what you expect? If their students’ work sucks, that says a lot about them.


[51:05] So a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Do you research.
  • Figure out what resources provide what service (not just what they’re saying).
  • Think about getting into the industry. You have to show up and do the work, and push yourself. Once you get a job — you’ll really start learning.
  • Look if any teachers / colleges have relationships with actual studios. I do calls with certain studios and recommend my best people.
  • It’s important — if you’re studying with a teacher– you want to study with people who call you out on your shit. I want to study with someone who’ll push me and not bullshit me. That’s the only way I’m going to grow.
  • Make sure you’re learning from experts. I spend thousands of dollars on courses because I would rather learn from the experts and learn from them. I also pay to have access to them.
  • If you want to learn on your own, instead of going to college, reach out to a college and ask if you can pay to use their lab. You don’t have to go to college to actually use their computers. You can use better equipment and renderers while you work on your own stuff. But of course, you need to have that discipline. While you’re in the lab, you can still meet people as well. Later in your career, you will end up working with these people.

If you have any questions, let me know. This has been a lot of fun! Please share this Episode if you can! That would mean the world to me!

Until next week —

Rock on!


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