Episode 337 — My Experience Looking for a Staff Position
Episode 337 — My Experience Looking for a Staff Position
There’s such a shortage of visual effects people right now. It’s insane how many projects have been greenlit. And even for a 3D artist, there’s so much stuff out there – and that’s a good thing! Visual effects in general is such a healthy industry, but it’s also about where there’s room to grow. There’s always going to be new territory to cover.
It’s about training your brain to know what you want and then to see the opportunities to connect the dots. So, look for your opportunities! And when you start to pick up on it, you start to see that there are opportunities everywhere. It might simply be someone you meet and they mention that they’re doing a certain thing. But if you were just to mention what you do and what you’re interested in – or ask more questions about what they’re doing – that could be your next gig. That could be your next way to break into the industry.
You never know what opportunities are around the corner, but you’ve got to be aware that they exist. And the best way to do that – is to start figuring out what you want. Be more observant in identifying those opportunities, those omens that are hiding just around the corner.
In this Podcast, Allan shares his personal experience of looking for a recent staff position, how to determine what lifestyle you want and how to train your mind to look for opportunities that are meant for you.
[02:43] What Inspired This Podcast
[16:26] A Freelancer’s Lifestyle
[23:39] Looking for New Opportunities
[31:21] Making the Decision
[35:21] Creating a Change
[41:09] Defining Your Ideal Lifestyle
[49:42] Looking for Your Omens
EPISODE 337 — MY EXPERIENCE LOOKING FOR A STAFF POSITION
Welcome to Episode 337! This is Allan McKay.
I thought this would be a different Episode about my recent decision to take a staff position, my experience with job interviews and trying to decide where I wanted to work. This is something I haven’t done in decades!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:10] 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!
[53:36] 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!
MY EXPERIENCE LOOKING FOR A STAFF POSITION
[02:43] So I thought I’d do this a bit off the cuff and talk about a topic that I hadn’t really planned to talk about. I thought this would be a fun Episode about something that’s been recently happening with me: I’ve taken a staff position at a company. I realize that that probably isn’t a big deal to many people. It is to me. I started working on some shitty projects when I was 14, 15. I was working in video games, I worked on Half-Life and a bunch of other stuff. And for the most part, I’ve always stayed freelance.
WHAT INSPIRED THIS PODCAST
[03:43] I was always a hired gun, and I always enjoyed that sort of lifestyle. And I’ve definitely built a reputation around doing 911 jobs. I would come in to work on a project, usually when the tail-end of things have gone awry and they needed someone to come in and get the project back on track. That’s the reputation that I’ve built over time. One of my friends put that into context for me over breakfast: “Allan is someone who does 911 jobs. He comes in and puts the fires out when shit hits the fan.” That is kind of my track record.
[04:34] And so if I look back on my career, I think I’ve had three staff positions in my entire life, and each one I’d usually get to do for about a year. Usually, it was an opportunity cost. I’ve told the story of taking a full-time job at Cutting Edge in Australia. I was a senior TD there. A day after I took that job, I got the call to work on The Matrix. And I’m like, “I can’t because I’m working on George of the Jungle 2. So there’s been a few of those projects over time. I would always miss out on something really cool because I agreed to do a toy commercial or something less interesting. And I think that Cutting Edge is a good example where I was in a cushy job. I was getting paid pretty good money, I was working on pretty cool stuff. And I’d be getting all these calls to go work in Los Angeles and New York, Spain, Portugal. And I realized there’s so much more I want to do. So I just stayed freelance. It has made it really easy for me.
[06:13] It also meant that I wouldn’t get bored. I’d be able to take on more work if one project was going through a lull. I could take on multiple jobs. I could stay busy throughout my day. Multiple jobs meant multiple paychecks, and that kind of worked out lucratively for me as well. So there’s a lot of different benefits that kind of resonated for me at the time.
[06:38] And it just meant that I always stayed freelance. So the way that I would typically pick the jobs would be really about relationships. It would be about who I want to work with or if there’s some really fun project going on. A lot of the projects that would pop up. I would usually turn them down or recommend someone else for them just because I’d need to be really excited about a project. Otherwise I would just go do something else that excited me more. My philosophy has always been that when you get to more of a senior or top level position, you have infinite opportunity, and the money is always going to figure itself out. In other words, you’re always going to get the money that you want – and you’re always going to be able to work on the projects that you want.
[07:46] So how do you pick these projects? That’s definitely been one of those topics that would come up with certain guests on my Podcast as well. Certain people are at a point in their career where they’ve done everything, they know everyone, so they can work on anything they want. They’re going to get paid whatever they want. The person who decides if they’re working on the project is usually themselves. They’re the ones able to say yes. Those select guests are the ones I’m always fascinated to hear their answers to. How do you decide what projects you want to work on? For me, it’s always been about relationships, and about the projects that excite me. So a good example: Chris Harvey was VFX supervising Bloodshot, the Vin Diesel movie. One of my friends, Dave Wilson, was directing it. So in a true 911 fashion, the movie had wrapped but there was still some major VFX work that hadn’t really hit the bar that they wanted. I got the call saying, “Hey, can you come in?” That’s the kind of stuff that would intrigue me. It’s like, “Cool. I get to work with Chris. I get to work with Dave. I get to be a part of his first film.”
[09:20] I’ve always wanted to make sure I’m available for those projects to come around, because it was always about realigning the projects. Other times it’s coming in to oversee a project and get it back on track. And so that’s kind of always been what interested me was putting out the fires. So for me, to now start looking for a staff position is a pretty fascinating subject. What changed? What is it like going through job interviews, which I haven’t done in decades? How do I go about looking for work?
[10:44] So the way that it all came to be was a mixture of things. I think I kind of missed working with teams. Because I’m doing multiple jobs at a single time, I’m not typically working too closely with everyone. Or I’m kind of coming in at the very end or at the very beginning. I’m either building the teams and hiring everyone or coming in at the very end when someone has derailed the project. So it’s not really a chance for me to kind of get intimate with everyone and at the same time, if I’m supervising, it’s very much like a one directional kind of hierarchy. I might work with the director. I might work with a producer. So it’s just not again as intimate as working with a team. And so it’s just that kind of appeal to me that I haven’t had in a long time.
[11:47] I look back at working at Blur, working on Transformers and Flight, these were projects where I was around lots of really great talent. And it’s just a fun thing. I’ve got people I’m leading and mentoring and supervising on a show. But I’m also working with the director. I’m working with a bunch of supervisors. There’s kind of a 360-environment that I’m in the middle of, and that has always been an appeal. The other aspect was when I was out drinking at the beginning of 2021 with my neighbor who is one of the execs at Autodesk, I mentioned that I was thinking about getting a staff job somewhere. His reaction is what kind of stuck with me. He was a lot more excited and fascinated. I didn’t see it as a big deal, but for him, it seemed like a really big deal. So that kind of stuck with me for a long time. Like, why was that such a big deal to me? Chad Wanstreet who’s also been on the Podcast was up here for a Warner Bros. tv show that was being shot in Oregon. So I decided to help out for a few days. We went around and scanned a few locations and did a bunch of stuff. It fascinated me a little bit more and more over the years to perhaps go client side.
[14:32] And so all those things, including the fact that I kind of just wanted to start working with the team, all tied together kind of nicely. And on top of that, like I said, infinite opportunity is one of those blessings and curses that I’ve experienced a lot. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m at a point in my career for the last 10 years where I’ve pretty much been able to work on whatever I wanted to work on. I can charge whatever I want to charge. And I’m in a pretty fortunate position to be able to pick and choose projects. And I’ve done that for a long time. But I’m also consulting, doing speaking gigs, speaking at marketing events. I’ve been doing courses and mentoring, and been helping out software companies. And it’s kind of been fun to keep things fresh. A lot of people I’ve had on my Podcast are in this exact position: When you get to a certain point, you know everybody because you’ve worked with everybody. You’ve got that reputation. So you’re typically going to be the person that they seek out, and you’re not the one seeking out the work. For as long as I can recall, I’ve kind of had that infinite opportunity, and in a lot of ways, it’s paralysis by analysis. It’s a lot of overwhelm.
A FREELANCER’S LIFESTYLE
[16:26] But I kind of fell in a lot of ways that I wasn’t very fulfilled. I didn’t know where I wanted to put my focus. So I kind of turned down a lot of stuff. I’d agree to certain things, and it’s just kind of this kind of hard to describe. It just felt like nothing was moving, even though everything was moving. Either way, I just kind of had this epiphany at the end of the year where if I had one thing to focus on and it’d give structure to my life again. Things like doing the Podcast would feel comfortable knowing that I got a regular paycheck. This kind of ebb-and-flow lifestyle felt very chaotic and not very stable.
[18:38] So all of these things kind of aligned where it just made sense. And it meant that going to Los Angeles, there’d be a chance to catch up with some people and kind of look at what opportunities were around. So the rules that I set out for myself were that I wasn’t going to look for a job. I wasn’t going to apply anywhere. I went down there for Thanksgiving to see some friends, but also casually brought up in conversation with a few people: “Hey, this is what I’m thinking about. What are your thoughts?” I was staying at the Huntley Hotel out in Santa Monica. The penthouse bar is there and usually I run all my meetings out of there. I ended up having breakfast with someone from Apple and then later that day having lunch with someone from Warner Bros, a few meetings with people in a casual setting, just catching up for a meal or a drink. That’s where I would say, Well, actually, I’m thinking about taking a staff position in 2022.
[21:26] Just to back pedal for a second, one other thing that’s been driving me nuts this year or last year – and it led to depression in a lot of ways – is that I’ve been spreading myself so thin over the span of the year. I kind of feel like I haven’t really been doing anything, even though I’ve been busy every single day. But it also meant that when people said, “What have you been up to?” it’d stress me out because I wouldn’t know what I’d been up to. I’ve been busy every day, and I’ve been stressed every day, but I can’t really put my finger on what it is I got done today? I was getting so stressed with how to answer what I’ve been up to that I’ve alienated a lot of my friends over the past year. I avoided them because I didn’t want to answer that question. And that’s what I’ve been wrestling with the past year, especially. And that’s also why this became a big pain point for me. And I kind of didn’t realize it until the end of the year.
LOOKING FOR NEW OPPORTUNITIES
[23:39] So all of these things just kind of made sense. So getting back on point, though, with looking for work, that’s exactly what would happen. Just mentioning what I’ve been up to while I’m looking for work. That kind of led to certain opportunities popping up. And there were three types in a way that I was looking for. One was a video game. Someone contacted me, a good friend of mine, and he had recommended me for a position at Electronic Arts. This was to be one of the directors on the new Battlefield game. This would be the next one that’s public knowledge. So I feel comfortable saying that. This would be the fourth director position at the company, basically the fourth director position on Battlefield. And again, that’s what I recall. But that kind of intrigued me.
[24:44] And I even said this to EA that if it were any other game, any other IP or any other position, I wouldn’t be interested. But for whatever reason, being a director on the Battlefield franchise really appealed to me. And that’s something that got me really excited. So that was one of the opportunities I talked quite heavily with EA about. Just perfect timing, just word of mouth. And this is why I said, even back in the very first Episode (www.allanmckay.com/1), that the only thing more important than your reel – is your network and the relationships that you. They’re the ones that are going to continue to grow over time. And as you help people, they help you. And everything is symbiotic. So that was one category: a video game.
[25:31] The other one was client side of the VFX supervisor work. And that’s why I was chatting with Apple and a bunch of other opportunities around that. I felt like in a lot of ways I’ve hit a bit of a glass ceiling with visual effects. And you can take that how you want to take it. I don’t know how that sounds, but the visual effects industry is a great industry. I love it! I’ve been doing it my entire life. In a lot of ways, I can say that that’s all I know. It’s what I’m known for, and it’s what I’ve been doing for the last 25+ years. And I do feel like at this point, there’s not really much else I could do. There are definitely positions I could take that would allow me to grow. There was a lot of stuff that was popping up. It was all on the vendor side, and I feel that just doesn’t appeal to me at all. So those opportunities were easy to squash. And if I were to stick in the vendor side of things, it would need to be at a bigger studio. I was seriously considering going client side for Amazon or Warner Brothers. I’d be a visual effects supervisor tied to a TV episodic or a feature film. That was primarily the thing that I was entertaining.
[29:11] And the only thing about that is that I wouldn’t be working with a team again. I’d work with a great crew of people. I’d work with a VFX producer, I’d work with the producer and the director, but it would be a very one directional conversation, working with all the vendors, telling them what’s good, what’s bad, giving them notes. That had some appeal. But I’m just not really that interested in vendor side work. The client side, which does appeal to me, but it doesn’t tick all the boxes. And then there was the director position on the next Battlefield. And that one really intrigued me in a lot of ways, just because it was a good package. It was a great opportunity! I ended up doing 8 hours of job interviews. With a position that high up in a company that big, it makes total sense for me to actually interview for it. And that was a lot of fun! I think I spoke to probably 20 people in total. At least, it felt that way. That was kind of my experience with all these different things. And then while I was waiting for the formal offer, I’d got a verbal offer for that position on Battlefield. All the other offers had been made, and because that last one was taking so long, there was one more opportunity for a company in San Francisco. Which is actually who I ended up going with. But I think in a lot of ways, the deciding point was that while I was waiting for that final offer, to start negotiating.
MAKING THE DECISION
[31:21] I ended up talking with this other company in San Francisco called Stage Glass. The CEO was pretty adamant about getting me onboard, ended up flying up, and he flew out some of his other teammates as well. And we end up spending a couple of days just kind of talking through the job, the company and just the opportunities, just hashing everything out. And in a lot of ways, that ended up being the kind of deciding point for me: having that face-to-face time with the right people and fully understanding what makes that opportunity unique over everything else. So in a lot of ways, having a company really willing to go out of their way for you – as well as getting to know the people behind the company on a more personal level – allowed me to get a better feel for it while I was trying to make up my mind. So when the offer came in, it matched the parameters I was looking for (or at least it was in the ballpark).
[32:22] So I ended up taking a job in a completely different industry to what I’ve been known for and where a lot of my career has been. But I feel like I’m at a point in my career where the majority of jobs that do appeal to me are more on the business side. It’s more about managing successful teams. And that’s what appealed to me about the director position, as well as the fact that I’m more interested in getting everyone else to be the rock stars on the show. I’m more interested in helping and mentoring. All the other artists stepping up and being able to do something great – that’s a big appeal to me!
[33:34] I have actually, for the first time in decades, been looking around some open opportunities. It’s a weird timing thing. I’ve taken an executive position as CPO on what they’re working on, which I definitely will talk about down the line. I’m getting to work with some really amazingly talented people like Johannes Lindqvist and some other really great people. I’m kind of excited about this opportunity because it’s so different to what I’ve kind of looked for in the past. And here I am now looking at what’s the next chapter for me? What do I want to be doing? What’s the lifestyle that I want to start to design? That doesn’t mean that you need to take a staff position somewhere and go work at a different company to begin to have that discussion with yourself. But for me, that is the catalyst for what started all this. I was just chatting with Ash Thorpe the other day (www.allanmckay.com/56) because he’s doing some interesting stuff with designing cars now. And I’ve got a lot of friends who are at the peak of their careers, looking at what’s next as well.
CREATING A CHANGE
[36:21] I think for a lot of us, it’s worth having that discussion of: If I were in control of my career, what do I want to do for the next few years? Where do I want to go? And it all goes back to setting those goals. Knowing that you are somewhat in control of knowing what you want to do, there’s so much going on around you. You can’t process everything. But your reticular activating system (RAS) is something that allows you to see certain things that you may be interested in – and it helps you filter out all the noise. So for me, deciding that I wanted to look for a new opportunity meant that I’d connect the dots with certain conversations. Things would just kind of start to happen automatically because I’m putting intent behind it. I’m keeping an open mind to what’s next for me. I did notice that in the beginning of all these discussions, I was kind of more passive. I was more just answering questions and having conversations. But towards the end, I was very aggressive. I always interview everyone more than they interview me. But it got to a point where it was more pitching to everyone. Like, let’s just cut through the fat. So a lot of times, it was just fun sitting down with certain companies or studios, deciding I wasn’t interested in the position – but having talked with them for a couple of hours, I could see what they needed to do. And if I were to come in, this is what I’d want. This is how I would fix the company or fix the project, or what I would probably want to work on. I was quite aggressive and just kind of pitching them exactly what I wanted. And so that kind of became a bit of a recurring theme for a lot of the discussions I had.
[37:53] And that, to me, is kind of a different approach. I’m not usually the guy who pitches. And I’ve had certain discussions in the past where early on, I might be discussing a company partnership with another company. And you have two business owners who kind of don’t want to mention the”p” word [partnership] or don’t want to make anything too official. But in a lot of ways, it’s just about laying it all out on the table. That was like a valuable lesson for me. It was about listening, understanding, asking the right questions, building a picture in my mind of what they need – and then just telling them how it is. And even with EA, that was a really fun opportunity where a couple of the producers asked me, “What would you do first when you come in?” And I think that was always the trick question. For me, the answer was, “I’d be coming in to learn. I’d be interviewing everyone outside of my departments and getting to understand the problems they have and their needs; and working my way inward.” The whole approach to all this would be listening and learning, and devising a plan.
[39:26] That’s why I’ve mentioned before the importances of practicing that interviewing muscle. I think it’s a brilliant thing to do, especially if you aren’t comfortable in those situations. It was really fascinating to go through a top level position interviewing for that and interviewing everyone who’d be working under me:
- What can I do for you?
- What are the problems you guys are running into?
- How can I make your life easier?
DEFINING YOUR IDEAL LIFESTYLE
[41:19] And that’s kind of where I’m at in my career. I’m really excited about the position I have taken on, and that’s going to be really exciting and really challenging in so many different ways, and it still ties into everything that I’m doing. It’s still related back to doing real time graphics and rendering, and solving a lot of the bigger problems. It leads to a successful team and to raising the bar with everything we’re doing. But no matter what, there’s always room to grow. And I think that’s an important thing to think about, too. I’m looking for the next step in my life, and it isn’t about the title. It isn’t about money. It isn’t about whatever popular trends are. It’s about finding fulfillment in my day-to-day. And that’s why a staff position is so important to be the right fit. And I think that for a lot of us, you might be at the beginning of your career, but it’s important to start thinking: What is the ideal lifestyle? What is the ideal career that I want?
[42:56] It’s ridiculous how much work is around! There’s such a shortage of visual effects people right now. It’s insane how many projects have been greenlit. I’ve got so many friends that are literally supervising 4-6 projects right now. But this is because there’s such a shortage of good people that they’ve got their hands on everything. And even for a 3D artist, there’s so much stuff out there, it’s just ridiculous! And that’s the good thing! Visual effects in general is such a healthy industry, but it’s also about where there’s room to grow for me. I’ve run a studio. I’ve managed multiple studios. I’ve produced. I’ve directed a few commercials. I’ve done software development. I’ve done character animation, texture, just a whole gamut of stuff for 25+ years. And that’s why I’m looking for the next challenge. There’s always going to be new territory to cover.
[44:26] And like I said, probably 80% of the opportunities that did come up that week, I ended up shooting down. A lot of stuff that kind of organically popped up, but it was just me reaching out to friends. The more that you have that network of people and you’ve built a healthy reputation – the more that becomes a no-brainer. It’s not about your reel. It’s always about relationships over everything else.
[46:04] So that’s what I’m going to be doing for the foreseeable future. And I’m excited about it! It’s kind of what I want to get 100% behind at this point and really sink my teeth into, and to really do something special. It means that I’m doing all that in a much smaller ecosystem where it’s all aligned with one vision of creating something amazing. And then knowing my schedule: I get up at [4:45] in the morning every day. Obviously, I don’t start work until [9:00] in the morning. That means that I have the morning to do creative writing, work on episodes, and interview guests for the Podcast. And I’m still active in many of the communities that I’m part of. But it’s just been fun to say it’s reassuring right now in my life to actually know that I can actually have a day-to-day structure. And when someone asks me, “What have you been up to?” – I can say, “Well, at the moment, I’m doing this!”
[48:43] I said this to Wren and all the guys over at Corridor Digital (www.allanmckay.com/238): The one thing I envy about those guys is that they have a team they’re all part of. They all work together. I was talking with Sam from Chalk Warfare, and he said the same thing. I love the fact that these people have partners. They get to feed off of each other’s energy, and that’s something that I get to do with my team with the Podcast. But in production, this is something I’ve missed for a long time. I’ve been envious of those guys getting to go to shoot a film together. Everyone’s playing a role in it. And that is something that really appeals to me now.
LOOKING FOR YOUR OMENS
[42:42] So I’m really grateful and excited to actually be able to partner up with a lot of people, and to be able to not feel like I’m going it alone. I’ve got an amazing team of people and amazing talent that I work with in my day-to-day operations, like doing the Podcast and YouTube. But it’s a different kind of facet of everything, and production is definitely an area that I love. So I’m excited to see what happens next. This is also for you to look at what you might want to do. What’s the next step for you? The more that you start to put intent behind what you want to do, the more that you’ll start to notice the opportunities when they do pop up.
[51:04] I talked with Glenn Stearns from Undercover Billionaire (www.allanmckay.com/299). I wanted to ask him about how he picked opportunities. He obviously must see opportunity in everything. So what are his thoughts on when people don’t see the opportunities that he sees? He said he doesn’t understand it, and it annoys him. He sees all these opportunities everywhere while other people are just oblivious to it. And it’s about training your brain to know what you want and then to see the opportunities, to connect the dots, to get to those future opportunities. A lot of the time, I’m surrounded by opportunity. We all are. But I’m pretty good at knowing what I want and then to recognize it when it’s looking me in the face. One of my favorite books is The Alchemist. And in that book, it says to look for the omens. And that’s something that always stuck with me: To look for the omens.
[56:10] In other words, look for the opportunities that are everywhere. It’s just that you may not see them. And when you start to pick up on it, you start to see that there are opportunities everywhere. It might simply be someone you meet and they mention that they’re doing a certain thing, and you might be oblivious to it. But if you were just to mention what you do and what you’re interested in – or ask more questions about what they’re doing – that could be your next gig. That could be your next way to break into the industry. You never know what opportunities are around the corner, but you’ve got to be aware that they exist. And the best way to do that – is to start figuring out what you want and then becoming a better listener. Be more observant in identifying those opportunities, those omens that are hiding just around the corner.
[53:05] Thanks for listening! Hopefully, you got something from this Episode. I’d be curious to see what your thoughts are. This one is a little bit more off the cuff this week. So again, thanks for listening!
Thanks for listening! What did you think?
I’ll be back next week, talking with the former Head of Amazon Game Studios Louis Castle, talking about his advice for executives.
Until then –
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