Episode 211 — Why FX Technical Directors Have the Coolest Job in the World!


Episode 211 — Why FX Technical Directors Have the Coolest Job in the World!

Welcome to Episode 211! This is something I’m really passionate about: Why I think that being FX Technical Director is the coolest job in the world! I’m really excited about this one. I am excited about being an FX Technical Director and I want to talk about:

  • All the pros of being an FX TD;
  • What a Technical Director Position involves;
  • And how you — can become one

I also want to get rid of a lot of misunderstandings or false beliefs around this job.

Let’s dive in!


[00:49] 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!

[03:08] I have a new VFX Training Course on how to become a Technical Director available right now at www.VFXCourse.com. This is a massive Course and you can download all the assets!

[51:55] 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!


[03:28] I remember wanting to get into VFX. I didn’t realize you could do this job full-time. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to blow things up and flood things for fun! I remember looking around and trying to figure out what I wanted to be. And there was this guy called Michael B. Comet. He wrote an article back in the 90s about what a Technical Director was. This is someone who was an artist and a technical person. He bridged the two technologies together.

[04:29] That’s what always surprised me: I finally found my thing and it defined what I wanted to be. It was cool to identify that! These TD jobs are usually at the end of the pipeline. They’re usually the most lucrative, they pay the best, they put you in a more high demand / low supply positions, whether it’s lighting, compositing and effects. Those three positions are the most stable and the highest paying in visual effects. A lot of the things at the beginning of the pipeline tend to be more saturated. There are many people who are competing for those positions! Also, these are the positions that are often outsourced and don’t pay as well; and eventually, these jobs could be replaced with technology. I’m not saying that if you’re a modeler, your jobs sucks. Not at all! I’m just saying that’s a very competitive industry.

[05:56] I’m always going to look at your ROI (Return on Investment). You dedicate so much time to your craft, you want to eventually be in a pool where you aren’t competing on your price. With VFX, it’s a highly saturated industry. But on top of that, there are climate shifts as well. You want to make sure you aren’t getting laid off, that the studio isn’t going to close down on you, that you aren’t being replaced by cheaper labor.

[06:30] The three things you want to look for in your career:

  • Volume: How saturated is the market?
  • Climate shifts: How volatile are the market shifts?
  • Re-numeration: How well are you compensated for your work?

On top of that, you want to look for a position that’s challenging to do, is fulfilling and fun and it’s not going to get extinct — so it has legs to it! With our industry, you could work in tv, film, VR, etc. There are all these different areas you can move into!


[07:14] Like I said before, there is a lot of positions that are over-saturated: modeling, animation, roto. Because of that, you have to look at where those positions would be 5-10 years down the road. You will have technology to learn and fight against. For instance, with modeling, there is photogrammetry is the thing that’s coming out now. With roto, [for example], you have to look at automated roto nowadays. It makes it hard for you to stand out when there are all these technological shifts along the way.

[08:40] With being a TD — and this is why I love our industry and what we do — there is compositing, lighting and effects. Those are the three most lucrative things in visual effects, as well as the highest in demand. There will be fewer people to fill those positions, so you can ask for better rates. Lighting, effects and compositing are you at the end of the pipeline, so you’re the one finishing the shots. For all of these, there are Compositing TD’s, Lighting TD’s and Effects TD’s. And typically, in each of these roles, you know a bit of each. You need to understand the other area so you can communicate to the other departments so you get the right things back. There is Nuke, Eddy tools for fluid sims. In lighting, you don’t create effects; but you do need to bring in assets and know how to light them, work with shaders, etc. So these areas feed off each other and you need to know each of them a little bit. That’s where you can specialize and become a Compositing TD rather than a straight up compositor. And all that means is that you’re bridging the technical area, like learning scripting or color theory.

[10:57] With Technical Director roles, there is pay. These are high-in-demand positions, and because of that, they pay a lot more. I’ve mentioned that before: You can get paid a $100-$150 an hour. I’m communicating that there is no ceiling. I’m not saying that you’ll be getting that rate right off the bat. I’m saying that there is room to grow. These are the areas where there is growth. I’ve had a lot of people contact me and ask something like, “Should I be a lighting or a roto artist?” There are people who make a career out of being a roto artist; but most of the time, you start out there. Bit by bit, you’re able to evolve into different areas. This is where you can start asking for higher fees. It is the way to get your foot in the door, however; but you won’t be sought out after because there is so much competition. If you look at this as a circle, this is Level 1. What you want to get to is the core position at the center. That’s where experience will set you apart.


[13:25] As I mentioned, I think FX TD is the coolest job in the world. We get to blow stuff and do these really cool things! The more you embrace what this role is, the more you’ll become irreplaceable. You’ll have more options and opportunities. On top of that, you’ll get to see some cool stuff because it’s the FX TD’s who do hero shots. Sometimes, FX will be outsourced. I’ve always found it hard to find good FX TD’s. I mention this in my Mentorship: Typically, I want to refer people to jobs because it’s been a difficult task to find a good FX TD. I remember working at Blur and the team and I were looking at demo reels to find good talent, but we couldn’t. If you think about it: If you’re good at FX, you’re already going to have a job. Every time someone emails me to see if I’m available and I say no, they always ask for my referral. But anyone I know who’s good, they’re always employed. They’re always lining up jobs after jobs.

[15:24] That’s the critical thing to think about: These are positions in which there are more opportunities. A lot of people want to do FX, but you have to go through the hard yards first. This is why I started the Mentorship. I wanted to train people I can recommend to ILM, Weta, Scanline. I see it all the time! They steal away from my students. That’s because there is such a high demand for good people.

[16:05] What I wanted to talk about is what makes good or bad candidates. In general, what makes a bad candidate is when you’re just doing the tutorials. Artists in general see a tutorial and follow the settings. You need to take those from start to finish. That’s why I’m shamelessly plugging my Avengers Course right now (www.AvengersCourse.com) because it shows you how to take a shot from start to finish. [16:43] The biggest thing is I don’t want to gamble with bringing someone on to make an explosion without knowing:

  • Can they work with other scene assets?
  • Can they follow directions?
  • Can they integrate Live Action?
  • Do they know how to split all the passes, get them into comp?

Those are all critical aspects. That’s why it’s so hard to find good people who can finish the shot. There are people who can follow direction. In general, when you follow my training, I tell you, “ Don’t follow my settings — look at what I’m doing!” I get sick of people (and this is me speaking as someone who hires artists!) who are able to follow a tutorial. But the minute that tutorial is out of context, you hit a wall. This is why it’s so important when you’re doing training with other people, you need to apply it to your own stuff. That’s when you really start to learn.

[18:31] This is something that’s come up a lot recently: [18:39] I always think that people who are most successful are the ones that take responsibility. In other words, they aren’t likely to blame others or problems for the reasons they aren’t getting where they want to be. They don’t blame the software or the machine crashes. They’re the ones asking, “WHY is it crashing?” The more you understand that, the more you’re able to get the result you want and push through those barriers. [19:21] So what makes a good candidate is someone who can take a concept and take it through to the end — and apply the knowledge to his own stuff. When someone says, “Make that explosion 10 percent bigger”, you can be the person who says, “BAM! Here it is!” Or you could be the person who hears that and looks at things externally not as an operator but as an artist. Maybe 10% is too big or too small. Taking ownership of it — and to make it something special — that’s what makes you the perfect candidate.


[20:25] It’s also about being able to show results. Artists are gambled higher if they’re able to prove themselves. You want to be able to show that you can finish a shot. Any studio isn’t hiring you to get 50% or 80% through. We’re hiring you to finish the shot. I always say that you get from 0 to 90% in the first couple of days and then you spend a couple of weeks on the last 10% and it’s always the hardest. It’s more of a mental thing: What makes a good VFX candidate is someone who embraces the challenge. You need to be able to see things through. It’s not easy what we do. The Avengers Course (www.AvengersCourse.com) I’m doing right now, I’ve spent 5 weeks creating it. I thought I’d spend 2-2.5 weeks doing all of it. And two weeks later, I was still frustrated. Most of it was just over one shot: a close-up on Thanos’ face. I was pushing TyFlow to its limits. I know for a fact there are people who start something to be easy. With what we do, it’s painstaking problem solving. VFX is that industry. You don’t ever do a shot the same way for the rest of your life. There will always be something crashing, or different challenges. We’re always troubleshooting. [22:51] So what an FX TD is — is someone who is good at problem solving.

[22:56] I did have a student in my Mentorship who communicated from earlier on: “I’m not good at problem solving. I want to do this course, but I expect to hit a button and it’s done.” But what an FX TD is — is someone who is good at problem solving. If you were to get a job at ILM or Weta, there will be jobs that require for you to hit a button. But that makes you highly replaceable. What if someone else can push that button better or cheaper than you? You can have the technical knowledge to position yourself as someone who solves problems. One of the bigger challenges I had with Thanos was the geometry. If you don’t want to do that, then you are going to be in a highly replaceable area.

[24:42] There is a service on Amazon called Mechanical Turk. It’s a service where you get paid to click buttons. You can get paid 1 cent per click. It’s cool but that person is very replaceable. What we want to do is position ourselves in a high demand / low supply job. We won’t have that roof for how much we make. We can eventually demand high fees, and it’s all about positioning.

[26:03] I get asked all the time: Can I be an FX TD? Who can be an FX TD? Realistically, anybody can! You can have to explore the technology and have the thirst knowledge. But it’s so critical to always look at what innovations are coming out. When Particle Flow first came out for 3DS Max, I had already ditched 3DS Max. But I remember moving to LA and sitting on the coach at my hotel and I had PFlow on it. I started putting out tutorials on it. The more I messed around, the more I came up with cool concepts. [27:13] That is something you put in your pocket: Alright, I’ve already figured it out. Later on, when a challenge comes up, you’ve already figured it out. The more you explore — the more you have the bits and pieces to connect together like Legos. The only time I’ve taught this way before, but Prime Focus / Frantic Films flew me out to teach their senior artists on VFX. Instead of showing them the most difficult stuff, I just focused on showing how to do certain effects for 2 days straight. Any shots that they wanted to do — or a problem they had on a movie — I’d show them how to do something a hundred different ways. I would show them 5-10 things that I would utilize differently. [28:45] It’s all about exploring and problem solving. The more you play around, the more you deal with challenges — the more you can become an FX TD. Anyone can be an FX TD!


[28:54] One thing that I’ll touch base as well: People say, “I want to be an FX TD — but I’m not good at math!” I want to make this crystal clear, guys! I quit high school at 13 years old. So if anyone is illiterate — it’s me! I’ve got no education! But what I did have was a passion for art. I was willing to live and breathe it. Whenever there was a challenge, that’s what sparked an interest in me. I remember trying to explain why I was fascinated by clouds to a girl once. Clouds aren’t made of hard surface so it was very hard to create them in 3D in 1998. I sounded like the biggest nerd on the planet! That was the truth: Things that were hard to do, those were the things I wanted to do. I loved to explore, I had a passion for it. I hope that makes sense that having the pursuit and being fully immersed is what’s important! I’ve learned a bit of math over time. You don’t need to do all this stuff, if that’s the obstacle holding you back. In my Mentorship right now, the first thing we do is a lot of scripting. The reason for it is because I want you to realize it’s not as scary as it sounds. You go through the training, that information is marinating in the back of your mind. And then one morning, you’ll wake up and it clicks! I am teaching scripting the way I learned it. Whenever I watch tutorials, I have no idea what’s going on. It’s because programers teach as if they were teaching other programers. I teach like I would teach artists. Whenever I start an FX shot, I write it down on paper, including the challenges I may encounter. The more you’re doing that, the more you realize that Maya and Houdini consist of buttons that just execute the script.

[36:36] The way I like to think about it is: With programs we use, they’re built for everyone, whether you’re building building, FX, jewelry, architecture, etc. They are quite vague and aren’t ultra focused on just FX. If you were to work on the movie Blade, what if you uploaded Maya and it was designed to create and kill vampires? You can have that just by customizing tools. You could realize that all these buttons are scripts, you start building these tools that you could use day to day. Whenever I do something over and over, I start to automate things. Every time I submit my render, for example, I want to make sure it makes a directory of the render path. That way I don’t need to go set it up manually. I will save time and remove the element of human error. When I started juggling projects, I started making buttons for everything. The more time I free up — the more I’m able to be an artist. Once I do that, for the rest of my life, I’ve saved myself hours of time. And that’s where being highly irreplaceable comes in. Once you make that tool, what if you give it to 20 other people? Suddenly, all those people are saving time as well. The more you automate, the more you’re able to do the things you love.

[41:18] I’ve seen this so many times when studios lay people off. I guarantee that anyone with a scripting ability are the last people to go. If someone has a need, you can help them out with it. Even recently, I wanted to post a lot of social media videos. I wanted to give credit to the artists from my courses because I wanted studios to see their work — and ask to hire them. What I did was write a Max script and it would watermark the video with the artist’s name. It’s ridiculous that I’m using such expensive software to do my social media for me! So think: Where are you wasting time that you could remove with automation? This is where it’s so critical but most of us don’t want to do it. I do feel for you, guys, though! A lot of the time, the training out there are for programers by programers — not artist teaching artists. You just need to find the right resources.


[43:48] I wanted to open your minds that anyone could be an FX TD but be prepared to be a problem solver. On top of that, realize you don’t need to know coding. With knowing the concepts of 3D, you can apply it to any software package. You can start learning. Don’t learn something intimidating if it’s going to stop you from learning. You have to learn something that’s going to allow you to proceed — and then transfer that knowledge to anything. Most TD’s don’t know every software package but they’re able to jump from one to another because they’re dealing with all the same shit. Learn one — and apply it to everything else! Getting frustrated and battling resistance toward learning is where we get stuck. I always say, “Nothing worth learning is easy!” A lot of us what the easy path. I put out my Thanos Training and someone on Facebook commented, “Do all the videos have to be an hour long?!” A lot of us are looking for shortcuts. I commented back because I wanted to help this person out. Sometimes it takes decades to become good at something. The key thing is to realize there are no shortcuts. If you want to learn a tutorial, but you aren’t going to attain anything. The reason being you need to apply it to your own stuff. You can’t look for shortcuts. That’s my frustration a lot of times!

[47:58] When it comes to learning how to become a TD:

– Part of is learning how to problem solve. The training I put out, I kept banging my head against my desk, “Why isn’t thing working?!” I had to problem solve all the way.

– Don’t commit to just one software package. Learn one in the beginning and then keep learning.

– Look at everything a bit differently. When you see some cool work on Instagram, what makes you a TD is asking, “How did they do that?” I’ve bookmarked so many people’s work on Instagram. I want to steal it or it inspires me.

I hope this is inspiring you and exciting you to become a TD! Because I think it’s the coolest job in the world! It’s fulfilling and challenging, there is always something new. You’re never going to know everything. In the beginning of our careers, we feel like we know everything. But then we realize we don’t know shit! And that’s where I’m at! I love learning. Sky is the limit and it’s exciting. I hope we all get to work together and create some cool shit!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. If you have any questions, please message me or email me: [email protected]. If you leave a review on iTunes, it would mean the world to me. Please share this Episode around.

Thank you for listening! I will be back again next week.

Until then —

Rock on!


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