Episode 202 — How to Take Your Career to the Next Level


Episode 202 — How to Take Your Career to the Next Level

Welcome to Episode 202! This is a Live Stream session on How to Take Your 3D Artist Career to the Next Level.

In the creative industry, the main thing is to focus on how to get that first job. We tend to be more strategic when looking for our big break. But once we get in, most of us stop trying and our careers become stagnant. The key thing for a lot of us is to look at that as the second phase. Once we’ve gotten in, that’s not the end. It’s just the beginning!

In this Podcast, Allan McKay talks about learning to look at your career in phases: how not to get stagnant, how to leverage each job and how to make choices that propel your career forward.


[00:41] 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!

[03:13] 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!

[1:07:35] 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!



This is a Live Stream session on How to Take Your 3D Artist Career to the Next Level. If you’re interested in participating in these Live Streams, feel free to check out my Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube.

By the end of the session, I want us all to have a pretty clear idea on how to become strategic with jobs and how to maximize our careers. I’ve been working as an artist for over 25 years. I want to talk about how to level up our career. So far, I’ve talked about how to leverage our careers, how to break into the industry (www.allanmckay.com/195) and how to create an effective brand for ourselves (www.allanmckay.com/197). In the creative industry, the main thing is to focus on how to get that first job in the beginning. We tend to become more strategic. But once we get in, most of us stop trying. Our careers become stagnant.

The key thing for a lot of us is to look at that as the second phase. Once we’ve gotten in, that’s not the end. It’s a beginning. So you need to start to look at how to be strategic throughout your career.


[05:56] Looking at my own career, when I got in initially and I was working day and night. I had a lot of traction! I moved as close to the studio as possible (a 3-minute bike ride), so I could watch my renders overnight. I’d ride in everyday and use the render farms at night. When everyone left, I would shift gears and work on my own stuff, and publish it online. I think about that. When I was at Blur 5 years later, I found the folder with all of that work I’d done. I found that folder in their reference folder, at Blur! That blew my mind! It captured the attention of other people.

[08:29] When it comes to my career, I started as a junior artist. By the time I left, I went to another studio as a Senior Technical Director (at the age of 19!). I did that by putting in late hours, coming in on weekends to use their render farms, asking lots of questions without being annoying, taking advantage of the fact that I was surrounded by these amazing people. In the beginning, we start out alone. As soon as you get into the first job, that’s when you start to really learn. You’re surrounded by this amazing talent, with great technology and budgets. I always say that your first reel is a throw-away reel (www.allanmckay.com/myreel). Once you get your first job, you can create this amazing high-end stuff for your second reel. I sent my second reel out to Blur as a joke. I expected, maybe, a rejection letter at best. Instead, Tim Miller emailed me and said, “We love your work, can you come work for us?”

[10:11] I always recommend that you start working in commercials when you begin. That’s a great place to start because you will work on a new project every 2 weeks. The advantage of that is that you’ll have all that great, high end stuff on your reel. If you get into a big film studio, you will work on a shot for 2 years (and you may not be able to add it to your reel, at the end). In commercials, you will grow fast. By doing that, I moved on to being a Senior TD by the age of 19. When I started that, I started to turn down big projects because I wanted to go back to my home city. The challenges became lesser and lesser. And although I was surrounded by great people, it wasn’t at the level when I began. So I got stagnant. There was this giant spike in the beginning of my career. By now, I was hanging out with people who were fun. It happens a lot: We get comfortable, instead of living in a city with lots of jobs and opportunities to push ourselves. We treat our job as a job. After a while, we look back and realize that you’re too stagnant.


[13:13] I still think of that time as a really important phase of my career. I started getting insecure about ever getting a job again. I had a few friends that were going on to Lord of the Rings, and I would be insecure about leaving the comfort. That’s the stuff that holds a lot of us back: The what-if’s! The what-if’s should be about other options that are out there. But it takes getting out of your comfort zone to do that. I’ve now interviewed hundreds of amazing artists and supervisors. Whenever they got to work on a massive project, they always say there was a big risk involved. It was always between choosing the easy or the scary route. And they chose the scary one! They look back at it as taking a risk. That’s the thing to think about right now: Are you stagnant in your career? Did you have dreams before you started this? But pursuing those dreams means getting out of your comfort zone! One of my friends decided to do a short film when he was 22 and he approached the studio we were at and asked them for 6 months off — unpaid! He got to do the film with the security of having a job to come back to! You have to keep thinking about where your passion is!

[17:15] I want to hammer that home: Are you stagnant in your career right now? I remember when I was freelancing. That was when I was insecure and questioning my worth. There were 1.5 studios in Brisbane at the time that were even doing VFX, and I was working at one of them. I quit that job and that was so scary! Four weeks later, I was an FX Lead in Hollywood, working on a major project. Then, Blade happened and I never looked back. I lined up 3 options and continued to do business lunches in the meantime. That way I knew I would be okay. I had to be out of my comfort zone to get to that place. But the thing is to always think, “Now what?” You get a big win and never downplay it. It’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come. But from there, we have to think what the next phase is. When you finish working on that amazing project, how can you leverage it? You can reach out to studios and tell them, “I’m not working for a new job right now. I’m working on the Avengers. But please let me know what other stuff you’ve got coming up.” You’re demonstrating your value and you multiply that. You could write something for a 3D magazine and you may get other offers. Think about the traction you could get!


[22:14] I talked about it yesterday when I talked about branding (www.allanmckay.com/197). I got Avengers: Endgame because I did all that ash work on God of War. God of War was because of Blade. It’s all a chain reaction. When people associate you with that thing, they’re likely to hire you. In my Mentorship, I post other artists’ work who are in my class. I get contacted to get in touch with that student. If everyone knows your work, you’re that guy that did that cool stuff. That’s going to blow up your name. Do you think you’ll have any problem looking for future work? One of my friends at Pixar Victor Navone did The Alien Song and it went viral: www.allanmckay.com/104. (This was before there was such a thing as “viral”.) He made this video and people would email it to each other. He got the President of Pixar to contact him and offer him a job. How amazing is that! It’s about leveraging that kind of success.

[24:47] There are so many amazing artists out there, far more talented than I’ll ever be. But they’re sitting secretly at a studio and getting paid 50K a year — and the studio owner is happy about keeping them complacent. What if you directed your own short film or a commercial? The result is not just getting attention from people. You will start to have multiple income streams: You could put up the models from your project, you never know. One of my friends loved describing Turbo Squid as “extra pocket money”. That extra money can change everything! You can put out your artwork on Art Station and it will draw attention. The more you leverage your staff, the more traction you get, the sooner you can start on the next thing. I just finished Avengers: Endgame and I can go to the next studio and leverage that into a raise. The thing is that it means that you can get PR and attention and more work. There are things that make you more valuable. You have to keep looking at what your next phase is!


[29:05] To think about it this, in our careers: Start to pick and choose your jobs. You cannot do that in the beginning. In the beginning, you can say, “Now what?” Whatever that step is, by doing it — you’re gaining clout. You’re gaining value. The whole point that you want to get to a point where you pick and choose your projects. In your career, you should be able to walk into a studio and get a job. Once you’re able to pick and choose — that’s the next level. You can choose what freedoms you want to have: You could pick jobs that pay a lot of money but they suck. That money will give you the freedom to go do stuff. The worst thing is to have a sucky job and still have to be there because that’s your only choice. A lot of us what to do the jobs we like, but they may not pay much.

[32:04] I created a system that I called 3-6-3. Looking at my career, I broke it down [to the following pattern]: I’d work on some shitty jobs that would at least pay well for 6 months. That meant that for the rest of the year, I had the freedom to do what I wanted. (It wasn’t 6 months in a row either. It could be 3 weeks of work, then I’d take a break! But it would accumulate to 6 months in total.) For 3 months, I would take a vacation, travel, work on my passion projects, do talks, etc. That meant that I would have balance in my life. For the other 3 months, I would focus on where I wanted to go in the bigger picture: Filming a short film, moving our career forward, launching a company, etc. That’s critical for you to think about: You could work your ass off for 6 months, which will allow you to take the 3 months to direct a short film. The 6 months allow us the freedom to focus on what we really want to do. You’re making time for the bigger picture. That way you don’t look back in 5 years and wonder where the time went. Make the time now! You can put in a request for an un-paid leave for 3 months at your full-time job. You’re never going to get to where you want if you don’t have time. That’s what happened when I created my Mentorship. I worked and killed myself on Halo at Blur, and then took the time off to work on my Mentorship.

[36:38] Being able to have job that pays is one thing. But also, you should think about clout: The bigger projects that you could leverage down the line. If you work on Star Wars, do you think that on the next projects, you wouldn’t be able to negotiate more money? A friend of mine worked on Titanic. He’s Australian and he went to Digital Domain in LA; then came back to Australia — and for the rest of his life, he was known as “the guy who worked on the Titanic”. So always think about what’s next. You can start targeting jobs that have a lot of clout. One or two of those will be enough to get you work for the rest of your career. I look at Avengers: Infinity War. During the award season, Digital Domain was being seen everywhere. They had this amazing movie and they could leverage their work on that project. Clout is an important thing that allows you to get the next opportunities. If you’re applying for a job with 20 other people and your first sentence in a cover email is, “I just worked on Avengers” — that’s going to get you clout! These are ways you can stand out.

[39:08] Another thing that people should take a look at with their careers — is relationships. I talked about the value of networking. You can think about how to leverage a job. Maybe you do a project for little or no money but you get to work with some big director, on his short film. There are some of us who’ll say, “I don’t work for free!” Look! I do pretty well in my career. I make about 6 figures as a freelancer, so you can earn that too. But that also means that I do projects for free all the time. I will work on a proposal for free, but that means if we land the job, I could make that money back. So I’m not thinking small. It’s important for a lot of us to think about. You don’t want to be taken advantage, of course. You don’t have to get paid minimal wage. But if you get to follow James Cameron on his film — while you get paid peanuts — you could leverage that! James Cameron will know who you are! There are points in my career where I took on projects for the clout. I worked on a car commercial which wasn’t too exciting. But I asked to sit in on the meetings with that high director profile who was working on a project. One of my friends Ryan worked with Robert Zemeckis. After that, he went on to start his own VFX Studio with his friends. But because he’s worked with Zemeckis, whenever Zemeckis would do live action films, he would go to my friend Ryan’s studio. Think about that! That’s where these opportunities come from. Relationships are everything! You never know what will happen.

[45:41] For most of us, when we pick our jobs, we’re coming in and saying: “I’ll do whatever!” Instead, you should think about how to pick and choose projects based on your goals. There were so many times I missed out on cool jobs like The Matrix because I took on some crappy commercial. But if I were to hold out, I could work on things that would be great for my resume. So think strategically! ILM doesn’t pay as well as other studios because they’re ILM: But you will get a massive pay bump after you’ve worked with them. Think bigger! Think about your demo reel as well. It could be cool to get some high end shots — so you can work on some cooler projects. I talked about this earlier: I worked on Avengers because I worked on God of War. I worked on God of War because I worked on Blade. Each job leads to the next thing.

[49:26] Some artists negotiate money because they’ve won some awards. It’s the sort of thing that will give you instant authority. It’s uncomfortable to start using in the beginning, but it will give you more money and clout. When I worked on Avengers, there was another guy on the job who won an Emmy. It does make you stand out. Once you can get to a certain point of your career, you can pick and choose. You’ve paid your dues, you’ve put in the time. I usually do my outreach to studios in December and January to see what they’re working on. If they send me some amazing storyboards (and I’ve had some of those!), I sign on!

[52:52] Pick and choose projects based on your experience. If you want to get to the next level of your career, or move from 3D to VFX, take that chance. Sometimes you need to chase the experience. You can negotiate shadowing a VFX Sup on a project. If they’re paying you less what you’re asking, you can negotiate these extras: tag along on set, sit in on important meetings. Even if you have a full-time job, it will make you more valuable to the company. I have a friend who founded Zerply. He negotiated being a Lead on a project. He wouldn’t have gotten that experience if he didn’t ask for it. After that, he could negotiate Lead artist rates on his next job. Sometimes you have to be strategic. Always think of Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3 of your career.

[56:44] Think about this: If you pick a job that doesn’t get your career forward — but it doesn’t have location as a factor. When I was 17, I was offered to work in Portugal. I didn’t take that job because of visa stuff, but think about the lifestyle of that! I’ve taken a job to go live in New York. Once you get there, you could think, “What’s next?” You could reach out to other NY studios and get tours of their studios. People love to talk about what they’re passionate about, so I’m sure you can get tours of studios in that city. You will get so many opportunities after getting that face time. I have so many students who’ve done that! I remember I went to a studio in LA and it was an awful experience. But every lunchtime, I would go to Blur and other companies and have business meetings, handed out my reel, went to SIGGRAPH. At the end of the job, I went to another studio and worked my ass off again. After that, the owner came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in working on Blade. Just by going to work in LA, I created all these opportunities! All because I leveraged my location. Even though it was a horrible job, but I would never take back that experience!


[1:02:26] Just to recap:

Most of us get very stagnant in our careers. We fight so hard to where we want to be. But after that, we settle into a reactive mode. We just expect people to notice our hard work. Everything you do, should be about what’s next:

  • Can you get experience on set?
  • Can you get great shots for your reel?
  • Can you ask for a better title?
  • Can you use the clout of your current job?
  • Can you take a job to build relationships?
  • Can you pursue a job for its location?
  • Can you use a company to teach you to use their high-in-demand software?

About that: Some jobs you can do because they will train you on a specific software package. A friend of mine took a job at a studio that trained him to work in Flame; but the next job he got, he could charge $1,200 an hour to be a Flame compositor. (That’s right, that $1,200 PER HOUR. Crazy money!) So think about how your next job advances your career.

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. If you’re interested in participating in these Live Streams, please follow me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/allanfmckay/). Also, please take a minute to share this Episode on your social media. That would mean the world to me!

  • Next Episode will be on the subject of A.I. and whether those damn robots will take away our jobs!
  • Feel free to grab some free training at www.VFXCourse.com.

Until next week —

Rock on!


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