Episode 359 — VFX Supervisor Bilali Mack – Alkemy X
Episode 359 — VFX Supervisor Bilali Mack – Alkemy X
Bilali Mack is a VFX Supervisor Based in NYC. Born in Accra, Ghana and based in Brooklyn, Bilali has spent the better part of the last decade honing his craft at visual effects at studios such as Brickyard VFX, Smoke and Mirrors, MPC and Alkemy X.
Bilali has supervised and executed on visual effects for commercials, tv and film for a number of high profile clients such as Adidas, Google, BMW, Starz, HBO, and Focus Features; as well as working with notable directors such as Dave Myers, The Russo Brothers, Lance Acord, and Thomas Bezucha.
In his spare time, he produces the Legends of VFX podcast, directs short films and is very passionate about street photography and food.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews VFX Supervisor Bilali Mack about his journey from a VFX Artist to a VFX Supervisor, qualities of the most effective leaders, the importance of diverse storytelling, NFT’s and Bilali’s Podcast Legends of VFX.
Bilali Mack’s Website: https://www.bilalimack.com/about
Bilali Mack’s IMDb: https://pro.imdb.com/name/nm4533321/?ref_=instant_nm_1&q=bilali%20mack
Bilali Mack Joins Alkemy X: https://www.shots.net/news/view/alkemy-x-adds-vfx-supervisors-bilali-mack-and-erin-nash
Legends of VFX Podcast: https://www.legendsofvfx.com
[03:27] Bilali Mack Introduces Himself
[04:13] Starting Out as a VFX Artist
[11:34] Becoming a Supervisor
[23:31] The Importance of Mentors
[29:28] Qualities of the Most Effective Leader
[40:34] The Importance of Diverse Storytelling
[45:08] The Potential of NFT’s as a Distribution Platform
[58:33] Bilali’s Podcast Legends of VFX
EPISODE 359 — BILALI MACK – ALKEMY X
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 359! I’m speaking with VFX Supervisor Bilali Mack about his journey from a VFX Artist to a VFX Supervisor, qualities of the most effective leaders, the importance of diverse storytelling, NFT’s and Bilali’s Podcast Legends of VFX. I’m really excited to get into this Episode.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:16] 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!
[1:00:59] 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!
INTERVIEW WITH BILALI MACK
[03:27] Allan: Bilali, thank you so much for coming on the Podcast. Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Bilali: My name is Bilali Mack. I’m the VFX Supervisor at Alkemy X. I’ve been there for the last 2 years. Before that, I was at MPC. I was a VFX Lead and a Flame Artist there. Before that, I was at Smoke & Mirrors. I went to Emerson College in Boston where I studied computer animation and motion media. Before that, I was in Connecticut where I went to middle school. Before that, I was in Ghana. I was born in West Africa.
[04:13] Allan: My best friend is from Liberia. He’s in LA now, being a VFX Artist for Amazon. You were also at Brickyard in Boston, correct?
Bilali: Oh yeah, I interned at Brickyard. Those guys are awesome! I was chatting about moving back to Boston, but I ended up staying in New York. I love those guys. That’s where I learned about Flame for the first time. They were a Flame shop for a long time. I started out in computer animation at Emerson and then did my first internship at Brickyard. It was a great time! I worked with Anders Beer, an Animation Supervisor. He brought me under his wing. We were doing some tests for a film they were doing. A lot of boutique places don’t have CG heavy lifting so he came on to do some supervising. He did a lot of stuff for Shrek initially. Then I moved to New York to a shop called Smoke & Mirrors. I started in a machine room there, helping out with deliveries. I went the traditional route of setting up software and doing deliveries. I was brought in because they needed another machine guy. I came into the job interview wearing a button down shirt and a tie. The Creative Director looked at me like I was crazy.
I ended up getting the job and moving to New York. I went all the way up to being a Flame Artist. Back in 2013, Flame Artists ran the show on the commercial side. It still happens a lot now. I learned a lot. There were two Flame Artists there. The reason I was able to get on the machine. Our CG team was pretty good. I decided that learning Flame was the fastest way in. I learned about on-set supervision because Flame Artists did a lot of that. I went that way. After that, I went to become a VFX Supervisor. At MPC, I led smaller jobs, went on to leading bigger jobs. I had done enough in commercials by then and decided to get into some film and tv work. After 3 years at MPC, I started applying for VFX Sup positions. There was a position open at Alkemy X. I’ve been working there ever since.
[11:36] Allan: You went from a Compositor to a VFX Sup. Did it come easy or did you have to push for it?
Bilali: I definitely had to push for it. Like anyone trying to supervise, it takes a different kind of skill set. I had to push for it, but I pushed for it because of the position of a Flame Artist – since I first started doing Flame sessions – I always had clients behind me, talking to creative. Naturally, Flame puts you into a position of collaborating with the client a lot. I feel like a lot of artists, especially Nuke artists, don’t get a lot of time with the client and don’t get to understand the rapport. I started getting a good sense of how to work with clients and how to guide the creative, how to understand what they’re saying and what they are not saying. So by the time I went to MPC, I already had 2 years of experience working with clients. They felt comfortable starting me as a Flame Lead. I was working with Artists and our in-house 2D and CG team. They started putting me on set. I still keep in touch with those clients. I was a natural fit.
One of the things I had as a skill is being a good communicator. I like solving problems. Leading and supervising was a natural progression. Also, photography is a big part of filmmaking and I was always into photography and cameras. I also had a lot of experience editing. I was a pretty well-rounded [Artist]. When I started working for Smoke & Mirrors, I understood enough about how 3D worked. I did character animation at school. I did a short animated film and I composited it in After Effects. If there is anything I became good at is compositing. I did every aspect of it. I rounded myself out. I even did some sound editing for my Podcast. I think it’s helped me a lot. Having a broad understanding of every piece that goes into a story – on an iPhone or a big screen – allows you to make better films.
There’s a lot of problems I end up solving on set with knowledge from stuff that I learned from photography or knowledge from stuff that I learned from Photoshop or editorial. Fixing editorial problems on set rather than having it going become a VFX problem. That’s a great way to save time, save money, and that’s also part of my job. It’s like trying to make sure that we finish the job. It’s efficient. It makes all parties happy. And I don’t burn out my artists at home, like when I have to bring back shots. So, yeah, it’s definitely a different skill set. And the more rounded you are as an artist and the more time you spend communicating with clients, the better you’d be and the better you will be at supervising and being a VFX Supervisor, for sure.
[17:40] Allan: For you, as a VFX Sup, but also as a compositor, how vital do you think it is to kind of learn the lay of the land [in terms of] understanding at least of every single piece? Versus just knowing your one thing when it comes to working with the rest of the team?
Bilali: Yeah, I think for me, working with the rest of the team, it’s definitely important to understand. It depends on what project you’re working on, but I don’t think you need to know everything. You definitely need to be strong at the thing that you’re being sold as. So if I’m being sold as a strong 2D centric VFX Supervisor, I’m very good at coming up with 2D solutions for visual effects problems. I know that’s probably the second thing as far as tiers of strength that I’m next up on because I had a good amount of time working with CG artists, but I also was a CG artist early on. I had to spend time in Maya and had to spend time creating CG assets, so I understand the pipeline and the flow of that. And as a VFX Supervisor, I feel like you got to know enough that if someone asks a question, you can determine whether or not this is a good idea or a bad idea.
A lot of the times the client asks a question about something, I know that we’re going to have to do it. I can’t call up my CG Supervisor. I’ve got to know whether this is a good idea or a bad idea. So you have to know at least that amount of information to be able to make decisions. Because at the end of the day, the VFX Supervisor is the head of the VFX Department for a film or show. So you are a decision maker in your own right. There’s so many decisions that get made on set in like a 2-3 hour period that you can’t be calling someone every single time. Now, if I send somebody out there for me that’s less experienced, I’m okay with them calling me. And I help them through, like, what has to happen. And I find I do that a lot.Depending on their experience level, I’m always like, “Here’s my number. If something happens, just call me. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.”
To summarize, you need to have a good broad foundation and all of the other disciplines or fields that have to do with getting the job done. And then there’s the onset supervision aspect where you start having to understand how films are made. So you have to start understanding departments on set. You got to understand what a production designer is; what a costume designer does. I work really closely on set with our special effects supervisor, and we’re a tag team because he’s doing the practical effect stuff, and I’m doing the onset effect stuff. And a lot of the time, we mix between two. You do a good job blending that stuff. It should look seamless. But you have to also understand what is easier for you to do in VFX versus what is cheaper and more efficient. And so there’s that balance as well.
[22:05] Allan: On set, everything is live. On top of that, it’s navigating the politics of being on set.
Bilali: You got, like, executive producers walking around. A lot of times you have to be smart about what you’re saying, what you’re doing, and how you navigate that communication on set. Because you never know! The showrunner might show up. Everybody does a little bit of trash talking on set. You’re like, “Why are we here? It’s so hot! What’s taking so long?” You’ve got to be careful! You don’t know who you’re talking to.
[20:31] Allan: What’s your experience with either mentoring other artists and with having mentors yourself? What’s the value of having those?
Bilali: Oh, it’s tremendous! So I’ve had some really great mentors over the years, even starting from school, I had some great mentors that kind of pushed me. I worked in a post-production lab, and there were 3 women there that really pushed me into doing a thesis animation project and getting my BFA. And that was probably like the first example I had. And then from there, I had Anders [Beer]. I just looked up to him because this guy worked on Shrek, Hellboy. And I just was so blown away by the level of work he’d done. And he kind of took me under his wing. And then honestly, every big decision, every last one of the couple of big decisions I had made, even though he wasn’t directly working with me, I’d always call him up and ask him like, hey, do you think this is a good idea for me to take this job? Do you think it’s a good idea for me to quit? I always bounce back and forth with him.
And then at each facility, I always usually had a mentor that I learned from and worked with. Tommy Tortoriello was the guy that taught Flame; how to work with clients; lots of tips and tricks on how to be efficient and get things done quickly. He sounds like an Italian monster. And then after that, I ended up going to MPC, and Marcus Wood was the head of 2D there, and I learned a ton from him. He’s just a really clever, really sharp, really talented VFX artist; and he just loves doing it. And so I learned a ton about working there with him, and I stayed really close with him over the years. He was managing the Department, working with producers. That was the first time I really got experience about how to work with producers. At MPC, we had seven or eight producers, and you were jumping between producers and working with clients. And I learned how he navigated that and made that work, and he stayed really close with me for a long time.
Now I’ve become a VFX Supervisor in my own right. And so I don’t really have a mentor. I learned from colleagues. Basically, I’m having to mentor a lot of artists now. And because I’m one of the VFX Sups at the company, a lot of artists watch what I do. They pay attention to how I speak and ask me questions about why I’m doing things, how I’m doing things. And so there’s mentorship on that level. But I think mentors are invaluable. And if you can set yourself up with a good mentor earlier on in your career and continue to pick up more mentors with strengths and abilities in different areas, you can only get better. But along the way I’ve learned so much from so many different people in so many different departments and sometimes listen. I think it’s good to model yourself after people that you aspire to be and also are doing great work.
[29:28] Allan: Yeah, I love that! It’s you building out a brain trust of all the people that you can turn to for hard decisions or anything else in between. You mentioned kind of being inspired by how certain people are running their teams, but also working with producers. What did you learn from how to work with producers and also with running teams?
Bilali: I’ve worked at two UK companies back to back, MPC and Smoke and Mirrors. And definitely, I think my initial experience has been positive. One of the great things about the UK producers was that they tried their best to shield you away from the client / political stuff and all of the client / non-creative stuff. And if you have a really good producer, that’s basically what they do. They allow you to focus as much of your time and energy into the creative aspect of the job, and the creative aspect of the collaboration between you and the client.
And I even learned that from working with our head of 2D. He’d say stuff like, “Listen, this is not my job. This is your job as the producer to manage the project. I’m here to make this thing look good.” I didn’t know that he was right. Why am I focusing on gathering this stuff and sending emails to them? Like, I should be spending my time as a thing I’m best at. I shouldn’t be gathering information. The producers that were really good always made sure that they were gathering correct information. And if you have a good producer, it can even keep you away from doing a lot of the monotonous bidding stuff. I used to have producers that would bid basically the whole thing. The ones that were good were always great at [saying,] “Don’t worry about it! I’ll take care of this part of it with the client. You just stay on the box.” I think it’s obviously like a money thing. “You keep working. We need to get this thing delivered. I’ll take care of everything else.”
[34:04] Allan: I think it’s such a valuable thing, though! The best producers were saying, “What can I do to help?” Because it’s a collaborative effort.
Bilali: Or there’ve been times when you feel, “I’m trying to deliver this thing or get this thing to look good, and you’ll have a producer that’s like, ‘No, I want you to just do this so that we can get it done.’” Dude, at the end of the day, we’re part of the same team. I feel like sometimes a lot of people get into situations with artists and stuff where they become adversarial, even people in their own company. I played a lot of sports. I played basketball in high school, and I played in College. And my whole thing was always like, we’re all part of the same team. Why would we start shooting?
[35:43] Allan: I like that a lot, actually. Did you always picture yourself being in some kind of creative field growing up, or did you kind of fall into it later on?
Bilali: I think I kind of fell into it. I always enjoyed watching movies, especially when I was growing up. As a kid, I watched a lot of Disney animation films, like Lion King, Aladdin. I watched live action, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And then I moved into a lot of Pixar stuff, like Toy Story. So that’s how I got into the animation part. My mom also had a really strong creative background. She painted a lot back in the day, and so she wanted us to do it too. When I was in high school, she placed me in a half day program after school that focused on theater. And they had a filmmaking program. And so I was able to go down that path, and that kind kept me creative. And I thought about this a lot.
I used to beat myself up a lot and be like, “Man, doing creative stuff isn’t as important. I’m not a doctor or curing cancer.” But now, I’m really big into artist empowerment. And that’s been a theme. I started ending my podcast by saying, “Those pixels we bring into this world matter.” And I realized that I started saying it, especially during the pandemic, especially in that time where I felt like everyone was going through a lot of shit, I realized how powerful and how helpful storytelling and the arts can be. I think there’s a reason there’s so much money and time and energy spent in creating these things. Since the beginning of time, people have always used storytelling, right? They’ve always used stories to communicate ideas, and before even written language, the only way people were able to share stories or share information throughout history is through stories, through plays. That’s kind of how it’s worked, and that’s evolved into a more advanced [way]. But like filmmaking, painting, how do you transfer information or emotions over decades, photography and painting? And that feeling you can transfer through time. And those emotions [get] people through tough times and [allow them] to deal with grief, pain and to accept happiness. So I think it’s much more important to me now, especially during the pandemic. My grandfather passed away. My dad passed away recently. And I got into a place where I really needed something. And I feel like I turned to the heart.
[40:25] Allan: So sorry for your loss! Yeah, it’s brutal.
Bilali: Yeah, I appreciate it, man.
[40:34] Allan: I do agree with you. Story is everything. I’m kind of fascinated by that. If someone wants to buy your print, usually they pay an extravagant amount of money for the story that comes with it.
Bilali: On top of that, not only is the story of the image important, but the story of the creators. And for me, this circles back to the diversity of storytellers. And it’s something that I’ve tried to harp on a lot. It’s very important that there is a diversity of storytellers because not only is the content important, but people want to relate to the person. You can see yourself in the work or in the artist. Having more Asian Pacific Islander stories, having more African American stories, African stories, Middle Eastern stories, Australian stories, stories from Japan. We should have a plethora of all these stories. And one group’s story should not be more important than others. We’re all the same people. The diversity of the story is also the diversity of the storyteller is also just as important.
[42:43] Allan: You’re absolutely right. I’ll segue for a second. In terms of this more diversity of access to the work that we do. Just because I’ve always felt that with New York, London, LA or Vancouver, you needed to be in one of those locations to be able to do work. With the pandemic, we can work from home which means that we don’t need to be in this bubble. The entire world finally gets a bit of an equal playing field. And of course, there’re so many different, amazing stories for people to tell versus the same action hero: a straight white guy. So, yeah, I think it’s an exciting time!
Bilali: I got a lot of white friends, a lot of white guy friends, and I don’t mind hearing those stories. It just can’t be the only story. Also, where are the poor white guys’ stories? I would love to watch a poor white guy story. I want to see a poor white guy underdog story. There’s always a particular type of story that’s always been told. And I think that’s because a lot of times there’s an economic driver between storytelling. It’s a machine. People in Hollywood make films, and they expect them to make a lot of money, more money than last time. And so that can put blinders on what else you feel like is worth being told. Because you want to mitigate risk
[45:08] Allan: You’re putting out bankable.
Bilali: Exactly. We just want the money to come flowing in. I’ve been really into talking and learning about NFT’s right now. The thing I’m really interested in is it being a technology and as means to be able to distribute stories, and being able to fund diverse stories. The hope is that you could create a film, make it an NFT or something, and get funding and distribute it in a way that you wouldn’t have ever been able to do, maybe even 4-5 years ago. So that is something that I’m really interested in. And if you can use the branding and the marketing aspect of NFT’s, it becomes basically like Kickstarter on steroids.
[46:04] Allan: Love that!
Bilali: I’m interested in the technology and the use of it as a tool for storytellers to be able to create their own films or create their own photography, or digital art – and distribute that to an audience without having to go through any kind of gatekeepers. The thing that I’m interested in is storytelling as artist empowerment. Having NFT as the technology and the blockchain as the technology, people can start using it in a way that can be really powerful for storytellers. And we can really have storytellers take back control of narratives and take back control of stories. For Hollywood, there could be an entire digital filmmaking ecosystem that lives and is supported by the blockchain and NFT outside of Hollywood. It can be supported by and distributed by the public, which is such an incredible thing.
[48:07] Allan: With Nigeria, there is Nollywood. You’ve got this really thriving, giant community of filmmakers and they’re making films for an audience. Versus Hollywood, which is a master distribution. Instead, let’s make films for our people and that people can relate to. That kind of resonates the same way.
Bilali: And it’s beautiful, too! Not everybody needs to make stuff for 10 million people. You can make stuff for 100,000 people. But in Hollywood, they’re trying to make stuff for a billion people. Why do you want to work on something like that? Make something for 100,000 people, have them pay for it, shrink your budget. And now with filmmaking, technology and camera equipment, you can do it! There’s no excuse. But people are just so blinded by the stuff that seems to be the most popular and trying to chase that, instead of trying to follow their own path and create their own stories. I don’t need to be Spielberg. I’m Bilali, and I’ll make a Bilali film. And I could put it on the blockchain, sell it as an NFP, see if I can get funding. I could even bring the people that are helping fund it in, as executive producers. And we can profit share because now you have that technology, there’s so many opportunities. And I feel like that’s an amazing thing for us.
[50:39] Allan: With a lot of my feature film director friends, it’s something like being a part of that machine. And usually, it’s a very permission based industry. A good portion of my friends who have been offered feature films have decided, “I don’t want to do this because it’s not my film, and that is it.” It comes back to the story.
Bilali: And I think the most powerful thing about stories is that most stories that are really good have a sense of perspective; and a sense of perspective that’s guided by the storyteller. And so when you water it down to try to make it work for a million people, I don’t think all stories are supposed to work for everyone all at once. Obviously, blockbuster films try to create very generic, very broadly appealing stories and films. But that’s only one kind of story. I remember in all of the films, I feel like there have been runaway successes that people are like, “Who would have ever expected that?!” People want to see this, man.
[53:06] Allan: You’re absolutely right. It kind of comes back to daring to do something different. And unfortunately, we do tend to tame things down just because we want to make sure it appeals to everybody. My wife is getting into NFT’s at the moment. It’s kind of like that’s the big mindset around it, but it’s really about when the dust settles. This is like a whole unique way that people can be able to distribute things the way that they want to. What are some things that have caught your attention in terms of ways that people are able to either make films or art?
Bilali: I had a friend of mine, Julian, and he was one of the first people that really started getting me thinking about it as a tool. He was going to release his film as an NFT. And then he’d use those profits to create the film. But then also he was distributing a certain percentage of royalties to each one of the funders that would give over $10,000. And they were basically becoming executive producers in the film. There is no mechanism on Kickstarter to resell the film. What was great about the NFT platform is that every time the film gets resold or every time someone purchases the film, the people that have invested in it get royalties. It’s very transparent. And I was just blown away! This could create an entirely different ecosystem. I’m actually all for this. I’m very supportive of it. I haven’t bought any NFT’s. Now, if someone made a film, let’s do it! That’s kind of like what I’m about right now.
And I’m super happy that Beeple was able to sell his artwork for tens of millions of dollars. I think he deserves it. If anybody deserves it, this mother fucker deserves it. He’s been fucking making art for years, every day! I’ve been following Beeple for years. He contributed to the digital art space for so long, so consistently, so committed to it. I’m super happy for that! And I’m also really pumped that that helped bring a lot of attention into the space. But with attention, there’s always going to be negative consequences. It’s this bubble effect, there’s a gold rush. I’m trying to work and do things and be a part of communities that can be sustainable. And if we can find a way to utilize NFT’s and utilize the blockchain to tell stories in a sustainable way, that would be amazing!
[57:23] Allan: You’re absolutely right! Unfortunately, the negative stuff is usually what people associate with. You’ve got your own Podcast as well. I’d love to chat about that for a second.
Bilali: So the podcast is called Legends of VFX (https://www.legendsofvfx.com). Around the pandemic, I felt a little bit of frustration [from not having] anything to do. I had a lot of time on my hands. My shows had been on pause. I wanted to have conversations with storytellers creators that are in the sphere of VFX and post-production. So I talked to a lot of filmmakers. I’ve talked to other people in the visual effects community. I’ve talked to people that are in the NFT communities. I’m trying to create a platform where you can have open and honest conversations about storytelling and transparent conversations about how people make money, and how people get funded, and how to have a sustainable, working, living, creative life. It’s been going on basically like almost 2 years. I just want to tell those stories and talk to people that are doing cool shit and trying to help whoever wants to listen to cool shit; and give them a little bit of an experience and understanding of how I do stuff.
[1:00:49] Allan: What are some of the key takeaways you’ve gotten from doing the podcast as well as from the guests you’ve had on?
Bilali: One of the most important things I’ve learned now after doing over 15 podcasts, is to be open to hearing other people’s perspectives and hearing other people’s stories. I remember when I was first doing it, a lot of times I was trying to come up with questions that would guide the speech, and it’s good to have an overall theme. But now I’ve loosened the themes. I’m trying to make it more of a conversational thing. Keeping them shorter. I’ve tried to keep them to like 30-45 minutes. It’s been a great way to speak with people. I’m just genuinely interested in what they’re doing, learning about their personal growth and their personal trajectories.
[1:03:06] Allan: That’s great, man! This has been really awesome. Where can people go to find out more about you and also about your podcast?
Bilali: So the podcast is called Legends of VFX (https://www.legendsofvfx.com). It’s on all platforms that you could imagine. And https://www.bilalimack.com. I’ve got a link to the podcast and any other projects that I’m working on. But yeah, dude, it’s been a pleasure!
Okay, what did you think? I want to thank Bilali for coming on the Podcast. Do check out his Podcast as well!
I’ll be back next week, interviewing Fred Ruff. He’s the Owner of Refuge VFX.
Until then —
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This guide was designed for Artists – whether you’re a Designer, Illustrator, Matte Painter, Animator, FX, whatever! We all need to get hired for productions, and we all need to get what we’re worth.
But, most of are afraid of missing the mark, and scaring away our employers. Or, just not sure how to even start the conversation. Worse, we’re not sure what we’re actually worth, or we just plain don’t want to be in a tense back and forth negotiation.
Realistically – a good negotiator never needs to haggle, they never have a moment of tension, they never are in an uncomfortable situation. It’s actually very seamless, easy and kind of fun. But, it does require understanding many of the fundamentals that this guide covers in-depth. Negotiating your worth the wrong way can cost you tens of thousands of dollars per year, and it’s the most critical thing we all shouldn’t ignore.
Get the guide now, and never leave money on the table again!