Episode 263 — Work from Home


Episode 263 — Work from Home

Because of the change that’s happening due to COVID-19 and quarantine, a lot of us had to shift to working from home. The day that the quarantine happened, everyone started to shut down. It got scary for a minute. But it’s really interesting how every studio was able to pivot and adapt to what was going on. And this is not just visual effects. This is worldwide! It’s reflecting on everything. The entire world had to learn to roll with the punches. 

The advantages are that you’re no longer stuck in a city where you have to work. That means you don’t have to live in an expensive city. You can move to cheaper countries. That also means that those of you that didn’t have an opportunity to work for ILM before, you now have a chance to do that. You don’t need a work visa. Bit by bit, things are becoming global.

In this Podcast, Allan takes a look at the consequences of having to work from home post COVID-19, breaks down different ways VFX artists can make it happen and the positive outcomes of transitioning into a truly global industry.



[04:15] Introduction

[05:56] Allan Talks About His Experience Working Remotely

[12:16] Allan Shares Additional Podcasts on the Subject

[12:31] The World-Wide Adaptability to Post-COVID Climate

[17:35]  Different Ways of Working from Home as a VFX Artist

[30:20] A Side Note About Hardware

[39:22] Being a Digital Nomad



Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 263! I wanted to discuss working from home, especially during COVID-19. But even if you’re listening to this after the pandemic, this Episode applies. I’ve been anxious to put this one out because we’re going through major shifts in the industry.

I get into a lot of my experience working from home, as well as how a lot of studios pivoted during the pandemic to have their artists work remotely. I wanted to discuss hardware and how to set ourselves up as being digital nomads. I know there is a trend now, at least in Europe, where people are able to work from anywhere. So why not work from Hawaii. There is something like flex location popping up right now as well. 

Please let me know what you think. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes as well.

Let’s dive in!



[01:01] 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!

[54:54] 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!



[04:15] I wanted to talk about the shift that’s happening right now with people working remotely and the change that’s happening due to COVID-19 and quarantine. A lot of us had to shift to working from home. At the beginning of all this, a lot of people were afraid that the industry was going to shut down. But it wasn’t the case: We all adapted and we all survived! The show must go on! Of course, as with any change, there has been some disruption. But there were also some changes with something like Technicolor downsizing. I feel that’s not as reflective of the industry. It’s more about how they’ve structured their business, how they’ve positioned themselves in the industry. It was more of an impulsive decision to lay people off, to cut the overhead, rather than [adapt to the new way of working]. And that’s what’s been interesting to see how these studios came together to figure it out. So ILM, Pixar and so many studios pivoted quickly and it was impressive to see how quickly they were able to adapt. I just want to share some thoughts on this, as well as the fact that I’ve been tapped into what’s been going on by speaking to a lot of industry leaders.  



[05:56] I’ve been working remotely for quite a long time. I’ve also traveled the world, working from my laptop. I used to have a Facebook page that said, “Homeless with Dollars and a Passport”. I didn’t have a permanent address for 3-4 years. I lived in hotels, had clients pay for these hotels; and I treated it like a vacation with a bit of work sprinkled in. I became obsessed with that way of life and it gave me the freedom to do what I wanted and live the lifestyle that I wanted.

[06:38] Working on Transformers, I had a pickup shot that Michael Bay had kicked back. At that point, I’d already left the set. I could either fly in and do the shot. Or I could do it remotely and send in the rendered frames. I loved experimenting with different ways of working so I would log into their network remotely; do the shot on their computer in 3DS Max — all on their end. In those days, it was unheard of! Now, it’s become more common. There were so many ways to work on a project and to experiment with it. Ultimately, I wanted to work on any project from anywhere. It did mean I’d have to turn down some work due to security issues. Marvel’s Thor was a good example. For that one, I was based in Santa Monica and I didn’t want to commute to Hollywood, in traffic. Ninety percent of projects I worked on in LA, I worked from my own studio set-up. Even on Call of Duty, Activision was across the street from me. It was a 3-minute walk. But there were other times I worked from my home because it was easier or my render farm was bigger. 

[08:43] Another example is when we were shooting The Equalizer. We were shooting that in Boston. I was in LA and I’d fly out to do a week in Boston and then get back to LA. It got ridiculous after a while. I had to change between my and their workflow. It didn’t work very well. After filming was done, I decided that I’d work from LA. There were so many ways in which a shot could get lost in the mix (and I’ll get into that). But it made more sense for me to be on their network. There are many different ways to do this. I would use a VPN and access their network. I would have my own network set up and my render passes would get renamed using their file naming convention and publish the shots where they should be on the network. It became very seamless. 

[10:21] That’s how I started working on the FXTD Transformation Course. I started developing these tools and I decided to showcase how everyone else could be doing things. I’m always starting on version two of each shot which is a very intuitive way to work. I just brought these tools back up for my current Sony project and I saved weeks by doing that!

[11:10] Typically, the only time I’d work on site is if I was supervising a project or if I was lonely. And that’s a thing. When I was working on the 10th anniversary for Halo at Blur, I came back for that because I’d been working from home a lot and I just wanted to be around other people. That was a big driver for me to do a certain job. So when COVID-19 hit, I didn’t even blink. I was already set up to work remotely. For me, when this quarantine happened, it was business as usual. 



[12:16] So I’ve been doing this for a long time .I have other Podcasts that talk about how to work remotely:



[12:31] The day that the quarantine happened, everyone started to shut down. It got scary for a minute. But it’s really interesting how every studio was able to pivot and adapt to what was going on. Pixar moved 1,200 employees home; they just shipped their computer stations to each employee. Digital Domain did it half and half, so some people were still at the office. Some people who had licenses could separate and work from home. I do remember talking to some of the guys about that experience. ILM, Framestore sent thousands of employees home in the midst of this. Everyone else pivoted quickly as well. The funny thing is that schedules didn’t really change. Marvel and some other big studios still wanted their movies done even though security was such a big issue. You aren’t able to have a cell phone on you when working at the studio. Marvel and Disney have the tightest security. But suddenly those security issues weren’t a big deal. Like I said, “The show must go on!” So there have been some shutdowns. Technicolor was one but it had more to do with the way they did their business. But they are such a big company, they have a big overhead. But mostly, studios have been doing fine.

[15:11] And this is not just visual effects. This is worldwide! It’s reflecting on everything. The entire world had to learn to roll with the punches. We’re learning and adapting more. A good example would be Google and Facebook. They started by telling their employees they could stay home, but now they’ve moved their stance to, “You can stay home forever.” In fact, I just did a call with Tom Ross who is the CEO of one of the biggest design agencies in the world. They didn’t think they could [have everyone] work from home. But now that they’re doing that, they’re forced to question whether they’ll ever go back to working onsite. Or if they can work from home and just meet up for beer once a month, for the sake of the company’s culture. A lot of companies are finding this is cheaper for them and the workers are more productive. Either way, this may be our way for quite a while. 

[16:21] This would never be the way but because our hand has been forced, there is proof that it works. So I think it’s an exciting time for us, including for people who couldn’t get into production before given their location or lack of work permits. The good news is some of the studios are starting to go back to filming anyway, and we are going back. But I am doing a live stream with one of the Sups who’s going back to set next week, in LA. As we’re starting to roll back to filming, visual effects is now open to working in the new way that it would have never considered on such a huge scale before. 



[17:35] Let’s talk about the different ways this could work. You could do an off-line solo PC with render farms. That’s 99% of what I do. I have a render farm and access to the iCloud. I offer a boutique service more specialized. I have access to render farms of studios when I need to. But I have my own render farm, my own licenses, my own location. I am able to provide the end result. All the things I’m going to get into, I’ve done in the past. But now, I’ve positioned myself as more of a boutique vendor rather than an individual. And this is after I’ve had a larger studio. It’s not difficult for me to shrink to a one-person studio. But this is where you could make more money, but it’s also a way to segue to becoming a bigger studio. With my company CatastrophicFX, it was just me in the beginning until I started to grow and began needing more people. Eventually, we got an office space and we kept growing.

[19:31] Another approach — and I’ve talked about this before — was a VPN on a solo network. This was for Equalizer. I just used a VPN to connect to their network. I could access their render folders as if they were mine. That’s because I was working in Boston and LA and it slowed things down. However, knowing I was on my network, I wanted to remain on it. I built a bunch of tools that allowed me to work the way that I work. But then I’d hit publish and the passes would get renamed and get published in their folders and get extracted. It was cool because I could get the latest assets from their folders, or the later shots. It would pull the camera, the camera track geometry, the plates, build a comp, scene assets. I was doing a lot of cool stuff and I removed the barrier. You don’t need to do that far but I felt compelled to remove the extra steps. But at least being on their network made a difference. It used to be I’d have to email them where the file would be, but there were way too many people trying to communicate. (I’ve worked on Superman. I remember there was a time before the film was announced, 4 days before, I’d be getting the shots. After a while, the notes seemed the same until I realized they were looking at the same passes. There is so much room for miscommunication!) The VPN was at least something I could do.

[23:22] The next option would be to use a VPN to connect to their network but you’re using Teradici or a PCoIP network. Teradici specializes in this but there are other options out there. This is becoming the general way most of us are working. And what that is — is basically a remote desktop. You’re remoting through hardware into their network. Everything is secure. The simple version of that is Blur Studio. They set up a temporary studio in France. I talked to their head of IT about this. Their whole approach was: They were using an HP built-in desktop solution or they were using regular Windows. Both worked really great. It meant that all these massive files could be done without having to send them. And that’s something that saves time. It’s just better to be on their network. 

[25:31] Now at ILM, they had another secret studio in LA 6 years ago. It was called the Hub. It was their way of testing it out because they had so much talent in LA. It was one of those rebellious things that Lucas was one of the first rebels able to function outside of LA. In a way, that’s that stance. The Hub was a temporary space. It was basically a PCoIP. Everyone had a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. There was no computer. There was a small Teradici box and it was connected to an ultra fast internet connection that would connect to ILM’s network, and that connected to the actual physical computer that’d be in San Francisco. And it’s like being there. The big benefit is having all those computers at a central location.

[27:19] The other option is virtual machines like AWS or Amazon. Some studios are doing that. There are computers on the network that connect to AWS and they’re able to use a computer. That’s how all the cloud rendering services work. But you can log into an actual computer and you can use different ones. And that’s the future where things are going. There are some curveballs with that, especially with render licensing. With video games, that’s where they’re going. I always pictured it would get there. You don’t need a lightning fast computer or playstation. You can have a simple system that connects to a super computer. One of the Amazon Fire boxes and there are these smaller boxes and you have every movie on that box because the actual movies are on the internet. The stuff has been going in this direction for a long time. But the whole idea with AWS is that you would essentially rent a computer. Same thing for disk space. That means you don’t need a computer yourself. At this point, all you need is a laptop. 



[30:20] A bit of a side rant: Whenever I see people boasting about these mega powerful laptops. I remember spending $10K on a laptop. Anything you’re buying on a laptop, it’s compact and it will cost a lot more. Ultimately, they become old really quick and you can’t do what you can do on a PC. To loop back to remote desktops, ILM does that. I did this on Transformers. I also worked on Flight, and for the first three quarters of that I worked remotely. Based on what I discovered on Transformers, it’s better to work on my own set-up, up to a certain point. Once we get into revisions and other people are using my assets, it makes sense for me to be on their network instead. That set-up works pretty well. In the last few weeks, it’s important to have people in the same room, for communication’s sake.

[32:47] For me, one thing I did a lot is have a laptop connected to a super computer. I had an office in Santa Monica. A lot of the time, I’d be traveling or even working from home. One time, I needed to go to Australia while I was working on 7 different movies at the same time. I flew to Australia for an emergency but all I brought was a laptop. I couldn’t work on those 7 movies from a laptop, but what I could do is have a system with a workflow and a render farm in LA. From my hotel room, I would basically work from my laptop. The stuff was pretty light but it was heavy for simulation. I would hit a button and the file would be submitted to simulate. And that would be in LA. It would render there and then sync via Dropbox or a VPN. I could review the renders on my end. That worked really well. Yes, I wrote some tools for it. I am training my student to do that. I’d work, fire out a render and work on something else. I could kick things off and I was able to juggle 7 projects at the same time. You don’t need to write tools but it saves a lot of time. That planted the seed that I could work from anywhere in the world for my laptop. I went to Mexico to travel and worked on projects from my hotel room. It was ultimately a test.

[36:47] You could also take a pocket projector, a keyboard and a mouse — all of which would fit into your backpack. It wouldn’t weigh more than 5 LBS. You need to make sure that you have a fast internet connection and you need to be aware of what you’re signing up for. You could project on the wall and that would be your screen. That would be a fun thing to try out.

[37:32] There have been other times where I was at a beach and I did a project for Dolby. I would take client calls on the beach. And there is also an idea of having a bunch of creatives in the same house (of course, this breaks away from the whole COVID-19 quarantine culture). Maybe there are some housing codes you’re breaking, but I’ve worked for studios that would rent giant houses for creatives. It goes away with having to pay rent for a permanent office location. (I just canceled my rent for my office because of COVID. I’m not going to need that anytime soon.) That way, you have dedicated room but you can be around other creatives.



[39:22] The advantages are that you’re no longer stuck in a city where you have to work. That means you don’t have to live in an expensive city. You can move to cheaper countries. The cost of living in a place like Thailand versus San Francisco is drastically different. That means you could quadruple your income because of the lower cost of living.

[39:53] That also means that those that didn’t have an opportunity to work for ILM before, they now have a chance to work on these things. They don’t need a work visa. Bit by bit, things are becoming global. I was talking to a group of creatives today about how tax incentives would work. You can employ people from anywhere so you’re removing borders. In a lot of ways, you’re removing all the borders by doing that. You will get people from other countries working on your projects. At the same time, people living in NY, LA, San Francisco or Vancouver no longer have to live there. I’m excited about this way of leveling the playing field. I was talking to Mike Janda (www.allanmckay.com/221) and he brought up the idea of having people in India tell him they can’t get paid what they should be. Anyone contacting an artist in India expects cheap work despite his or her talent level. What Mike mentioned is that you can work from Thailand on bigger movies. You can tap into bigger markets because now, there are no borders. You can start getting the fees that people in LA get. That’s where the disruption will happen. It will force people to pay proper rates. At the same time, for people who live in these big cities where the work is, that is no longer an advantage. It’s interesting to see these disruptions.

[43:56] Other things I’ll mention:

  • You can stop trading dollars for time and shift more into a vendor position. You can focus on deliverables instead of focusing on hourly exchange. You can market yourself as a boutique studio. I always talk about the difference in rate between being an artist versus a studio.
  • In visual effects, we never get to see our family. This new climate changes all that. Maybe you’ll start to see your family a bit too much. You can start having the hours that you want. The disadvantage is for junior artists. In my Live Action Series course, the point is to be able to show that you can do the work. It’s the same high end work that is done at studios. I think it’s more on junior artists to study now to be on that level. As a junior, you want to learn from other artists. But it’s worth choosing where and how you learn. That’s what I’m doing right now every day. I’m making time to do that.
  • I do think that as new hires come into the studio, it may be harder to get integrated into the culture. Since everyone is working from home, you may want to still meet up in person once a month. You can also do virtual drinks over Zoom. (There is something to be said about drinking as colleagues. It builds camaraderie.) 
  • I do think mental health plays a role as well. When I went to work on Halo, I was feeling lonely. Delcio Gomez who works at ILM was on my Podcast (www.allanmckay.com/38). He’d go and get frozen yoghurt with me. The reason I have a Podcast is because Delcio sparked the idea in my head. Which is why I know there is a communication aspect to it. There is also no on or off button. There is an insecurity aspect that kicks in in isolation. You can burn yourself out. It’s healthy to be around other people.
  • Distractions used to happen in an office setting. People are finding to be more productive right now. But you can still distract yourself. So you have to build your own disciplines. I used to get dressed to work in my apartment. I’d go to a coffee shop to take a break, but then I’d come back to my apartment dressed for work. That’s my ritual. I am doing this right now.
  • As everyone starts to switch working from home, studios are expecting to use their computers. But a lot of the younger generation just has tablets. So there has been an extra thing of having to invest in computers. I think it’s important to have the right resources. I am looking to release a hardware guide for this.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your burning questions? Please email me those at [email protected]

I’m really excited for the future and how we’re all going to work from home; where we’ll be 5 years from now. I think that this is a really exciting time. Again, maybe I’m just being lonely, but contact me and let me know your thoughts on this.


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Next week, I’m going to do something really fun. I’m going to revisit my Episode with Jordan Mechner from earlier this year (www.allanmckay.com/244) and break down what I’ve learned. There is plenty of cool Episodes coming up!

While you’re on iTunes, please share this Episode with others. Thanks so much for listening!

Rock on!


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