Episode 88 – A Live Career Intensive with Allan McKay


Click here to listen on iTunes!

Get on the VIP insiders list!

Join the FXTD Mentorship at allanmckay.com/fireball

Check out www.VFXRates.com


Episode 88 — A Live Career Intensive with Allan McKay 

Hey, everyone!

Welcome to Episode 88. I’m doing a Live Career Intensive. Let’s dive in!



I. [-[1:44:28] This going to be an interesting one. I wanted to do a Career Intensive during the Fireball Training. I promised 10 videos, I released 12 or 13. On the final day of the Training, I scheduled several Live Webinars:

– We did a Live FX Class that had to do with sci-fi. That was lot of fun!

– Later that day, I did a Live Career Intensive which is something we do during my FXTD Mentorship: We do a live call and get everyone to submit questions beforehand (career questions, goals, etc.) One by one, participants can talk and participate. I found this really effective!

– I also did two Podcasts later that day with VFX Supervisor and a VR Artist. (Stay tuned: These Episodes are coming soon!)

– The final session was a Visual Effects Case Study. It was a lot of fun! We ended 55 minutes before registration closed for my Mentorship.

– There was a Live Q&A at the end of the day.

[-[1:41:59] In this one, I didn’t have a chance to do private questions. I wanted to give out as much information as I could, rapid fire. I’d love for this to be a conversation starter. What would be a question or two pertaining to your career? I want to start those conversations. As you go through this Episode, think about those questions.


II. [-[1:37:17] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. We go to job interviews and either shoot ourselves in the foot by charging less than we’re worth and getting the job — but indirectly leaving tens of thousands of dollars on the table. At the same time you don’t want to alienate your employer by asking for too much.

I’ve put together a website: www.VFXRates.com. This is a chance for you to put in your information — your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you should be worth. This is something I’m going to continue to build and flush out over time. I also want to hand you the tools to grow:

– to negotiate better,

– to learn to ask for the right amount of money in the right way.

The information is FREE! Check it out: www.VFXRates.com



[-[1:35:49] We do this in the FXTD Mentorship. Every couple of months, we get together and set goals. It’s been great to see artists grow by my helping them nail down their goals but also having that accountability factor. I’m really excited about this: This is the first ever Public Career Intensive! It’s great to see everyone!

[-[1:33:06] We jump over so many hurdles in our careers — learning Houdini because it’s the flavor of the month, or Nuke, or ZBrush — which is all surface level stuff. None of that is more important than focusing on the core stuff: Building your career! You could be the best artist in the world, but if no one knows who you are, how are going to get work? As much as I love doing effects, I’ve spend a lot of time investing in my career. Sometimes, you just need to tweak just one thing — and you will get work!

[-[1:31:05] I always say: You need to treat yourself as a studio. A lot of us have the flaw of staying busy, for the sake of being busy — as opposed to establishing your goals. You’re not just focusing on the art. You need to learn:

– How to manage yourself;

– How to present yourself;

– How to get the work in, and much more!

[-[1:29:46] No goal is unachievable! It’s more about having a solid plan in place, to do that. Have a plan — and stick with it! All of my friends are doing phenomenal things, because they’ve put in the hard work and positioned themselves to accept opportunities that come.

[-[1:27:50] Ask yourselves: 

1. – Where do you want to be? 

2. – Where do you want to be right now

3. – What is the number one thing that’s holding you back in your career?

As I put out the Fireball Training, I put a small question box (which was anonymous):  Nine times out of ten, the thing you think is holding you back — is not the thing at all!



[-[1:26:34] Looking through that Survey, one of the biggest things holding people back was TIME. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to work on yourself, the key thing is to start to evaluate where your time is going. I guarantee there are people who free up their time and track their time — and create more time in their day that way.

I don’t ever have to guess where my time goes. I use Evernote to plan my day. I have a template that I copy and paste every day.

– I ask: What are the things I need to do?

– Then, I block out everything by time slots. It gives a realistic bird’s-eye view of all the things I have to do [and reveal if I have too much on my plate].



[-[1:21:50] After you do this consistently for 30 days, you can go back and see what you actually got done and what you didn’t get done — and WHY it didn’t get done. You will see a lot of common mistakes. You might find the same tasks coming up every day. I do that with email:

– I organize it into folders [by subjects] and answer one folder at the time. That way my head is in the same place, as I answer those questions. I don’t have to stop and reevaluate.

– I try to answer my emails on the same day, every week.

[-[1:19:56] Start tracking your time! Start seeing where it’s going! It’s really critical to understand, just like with money. If you want more time, use your lunch break or wake up an hour earlier. In general, it’s the easiest thing to do. In the mornings, you can focus on your stuff more.

[-[1:18:35] Shut out all distractions:

– Turn your phone off.

– Batch together your social interactions with your colleagues.



[-[1:17:31] Question: Do you think it’s better to do studio work or work from home [when you’re starting out]? 

[-[1:17:10] Allan: That’s a really great question! I gave a talk in Paris about something really controversial: I listed what I would make every year of my career. I was really aggressive with my financial goals. Whatever your financial goals are, they are important to meet. If you want to make more money, move to a different city. I can work from home in Portland [where the cost of living is much lower] and still fly into LA.

Every year, moving forward, I would ask for bigger rates. A lot of studios can’t afford that. Coming from production, I understand that. The interesting thing was that I noticed that as an artist, at a certain point, I couldn’t ask more than a certain number. There are certain studios that can accommodate that because they have a lot of feature films going on. After 3-4 years, I decided to change that and work from home.

Benefits of working from home:

– I can pick my own hours.

– I can pick the projects I want to work on.

– I can negotiate my pay and if it’s not the right money, I don’t have to take it.

– I don’t have to be stuck doing the 9-to-5 thing, after I’ve finished a project.

Submitting bids changed everything. For me, I went from earning $60 an hour at a lot of places in LA — to $450K a year. I mention because that we are talking about working from home. Instead of trading dollars for time, I agree on what I get paid for a result. What you do with your time — is irrelevant. The maximum I’ve ever done was do 7 feature films in a year. If you want that stress, you can take on as many jobs as you want — as long as the quality of your work [doesn’t suffer].

A time saving hack: I write my own tools. All the tools we use in the Mentorship, I use them in production. A lot of time, I’ll work on a project and then I have to submit sims. Great — that’s a button! I do that, and it saves me time. Multiply that by 7 projects — that’s 7 hours saved. You can go from being an artist to having a system in place. 

[-[1:10:15] I can pick and choose the projects I work on. Richard Branson said, “Life is a helluva lot more fun if you say yes rather than no.” I think that’s true to a certain degree. 2005 was my year of saying no: I was doing too much! I felt like I hit a wall and I had to be careful about killing a few things. All of us should want to get to a point where we can say no. The minute I started saying no to things, I started freeing myself up for other projects. By saying no, when the right project comes along — or, if the right money comes along — I have the time to do it.

[-[1:07:58] Working from home is a really interesting subject because it gives you freedom. One of the things that people mentioned that they were too old, or the economic situation in their home county. Certain situations are true and valid. Whatever you think is holding you back — we have the internet these days! If you’re on the internet, you can have an online presence. You can mail your reel and send 5 applications a day. HootSweet will filter all the VFX jobs onto one huge dashboard on the screen.

Saying yes to everything is critical in the beginning. Saying no to the jobs you don’t want — is your eventual goal. Ideally, you want to get to the situation where you can afford that.

[-[1:04:27] In the beginning, ideally, you want to work for a studio. The first two weeks of my first studio, I relearned everything because I was around people who would teach and inspire me. But not all of us have those credential. To build those up — in the beginning! — you might need to work from home. Even back in 1997, I could go online and find jobs. Now, we have infinite resources. It all comes down to how you want to approach that. But the ultimate goal is to work from home.



[-[1:02:39] Question: When starting out, should I do animation in Maya or do the Mentorship [which is visual effects] in 3Ds Max?

[-[1:01:46] Allan: I used to love character animation and I had the same question when I was younger. Everyone around me was advising me to stick with visual effects, [because back then] effects were in high demand. That being said, figure out what you’re most passionate about. You want to specialize in one, but mentioning that you [are also proficient] in the other. There is nothing wrong with saying that! If things dry up animation, you can do the other.

– Figure out what you’re passionate about.

– Figure out where you want to work: Pixar or an effects studio.



[-[59:03] Question: I’ve spend 15 years for a big studio. I left to dedicate as much much as possible to being a new dad. I took a contract [that fell through], so now I don’t have any work to show for it. Now my reel is way out of date. I want to figure out how to get back into it, but I want to work from home.

[-[58:44] Allan: I think that’s cool. I think we’re in an industry where it’s really easy to alienate those we care about. I’ve seen so many families go to crap in this industry.

[-57:44] I know there are so many people who want to inspire fear about how unstable the industry is. I don’t think that’s true! As long you’re proactive about your career, you can make anything work! VFX is globalizing, it’s going all over the work. Vancouver is becoming a capital. There is work in China, there is work in New Zealand. Brazil, Argentina is starting to grown. I just interviewed Arman Yahin from Main Road Post (allanmckay.com/87) and he talked about all the work they do in Russia. The whole world is adapting!

There are people who are trying to put fear in us. It’s like programing. There is no real solution if you say we need to unionize. It will never happen unless the industry completely bankrupts. But it does put a few people in leadership positions. For me, that’s always frustrating when the solution is not an attainable one.

[-54:44] A lot of us say, “I don’t want to know about all that stuff [because] I’m an artist, I create.” It’s stubborn to think about that. I look at guys like Ash Thorp who is doing amazing in his work, financially and on social media (allanmckay.com/56). They get to pick the project they want to do, the places they get to travel. These are next level artists. What’s the difference between them and you? They’re talented, and so are you! They understood they needed to treat their career seriously. They’re not in a reactive mindset. 

[-[53:35] When you start to take the power back and say, “What do I need to do to get where I need to go?”, unionizing is not going to benefit us. Movie studios will always have the final say. We live in a day and age, where if you wanted to make your own film, you can [fundraise] on Kickstarter. You’ve got the freedom to create the life that you want. If you wanted to make a side income, you can go on Gumroad and make some tutorials, or Turbo Squid and make some assets. We’ve got all the tools to do it.

[-[52:22] For me, with the Podcast, I wanted to give you, guys, the tools necessary to go and be an Ash Thorp. If you’re able:

– to negotiate the rate that you want;

– to work remotely;

– to make and fund your own projects;

– to get together and make a short film;

– to work remotely from another country.

All of these tools are available to you, you just need to identify what they are.

[-[51:27] A lot of us are afraid of negotiating because we’re afraid to hear “no”. Any good negotiator knows that a negotiation doesn’t start until someone says, “No!” Even going through that, people negotiated equity in the company, or the computers after the feature was done. We have the creative ability to negotiate all the things that we want. 



I. [-[50:24] Building up your reel — is the number one thing. All it takes is one or two good shots. Make a solid reel that can’t be picked apart! Keep it simple.

II. There is nothing wrong with niching down. When new stuff (software, etc.) comes out, it’s a great chance to become a specialist for it. It’s a way to make yourself stand out. What’s the angle that’s going to make you unique? What makes you special? It doesn’t matter that you don’t have 20 years of experience.

 III. Max, Maya, Houdini: Learn all three! They’re all the same frigging package! They’ve copied each other so much. It also depends on where you are geographically.

IV. Your networking and contacts are even more important than your reel. It’s the people you know who will help you get to places you want. Go online to forums and start networking! Having that community is a way to get to know everyone.

V. Figure out the consistencies on job boards: If you do keyword searches, Max and Maya will be 10s of millions, while Houdini will be at 10s of thousands. Build a dashboard where all the job searches are coming up. Where are the things in high demand and what’s the side door I could use?



[-[43:02] Question: I’m an artist in India. I live in Mumbai. Which type of studio should I use? Where should I start?

[-[42:34] Allan: I honestly think it’s better to start at a small studio and then go big. It’s all about momentum and growth. In a big studio, you won’t get as much exposure. Animal Logic [wanted to hire me as] a VFX Lead on Happy Feet. By the fourth time they delayed my start date, I had moved to LA [so I didn’t take the job]. After the project won an Oscar, I reflected what I had done instead of that job: I moved to LA and got some experience.

If you go to a big studio, you aren’t going to have that much growth. You won’t get the challenges, the exposure. If you work for a small studio that does commercials, every week you’d have a new challenge. You’ll have to get faster and better. You’ll have a lot on your plate.

[-[39:22] I always say the first two years should be at a small studio as a Generalist. Even though it’s great to specialize, start as a Generalist and get exposed to everything. Later you specialize, by having that background will make you a stronger artist and a stronger VFX Supervisor.

[-[38:19] In terms of your reel, doing two years at a smaller studio will give you much more material for your reel. Even in one year, you would have 30-40 pieces on your reel. If you go to a big studio, you’ll have one shot. If you apply all the career stuff at the big studio — getting to know Supervisors and get more tasks — that will put you more on the map. One thing about ILM, they have sister companies in other places. You can utilize that.



[-[35:45] Questions: Thanks for sharing your numbers! You’re right, people feel weird about it, but more people should do it. 

[-[35:28] Allan: When it comes to money, people are weird about it. Because there is no other information is out there, I don’t mind sharing it, just to let other artists know that it’s doable. As soon as you start thinking of yourself as a business or an entity — rather than a single artist — that’s when things will change. When I moved to Australia from LA, I started Catastrophic. The more you build that trust, the more jobs you start getting. You start doing these jobs with huge budgets. All it takes is for one job to come along — to change things, to get you to your dream job.

[-[32:38] You’ve got to be in it to win it! Fear of failure or fear of success holds people back. Fear of success is a real thing. We all have things that hold us back. Sometimes, it good to embrace your insecurities. The big one is fear of failure and we use that as an excuse. Maybe you’ll fail. It’s easier not to do it all. You don’t want to try in case you don’t get the result that you want.

[-[29:49] If you don’t send that reel out, it’s 100% true that you won’t get rejected. But it’s also 100% true that you won’t get an offer either. Our life is all about taking that risk. I always think about “what if’s”. When I ask all of my successful friends if they can pinpoint that moment when things changed, they all smile and mention that one risk they took (and almost didn’t)! If you fail, learn from it and move forward. In the beginning, I, too failed and failed. The ones that stick with it are the ones who succeed.



[-[25:47] Question: Do you use Andrew Kramer’s products?

[-[25:46] Allan: No, I don’t. I have a lot of respect for Andrew and his stuff. It’s not in my tool set. It’s clear that it’s just about hard work. I was just in Paris hanging out with other artists. It’s a lot of hard work in the beginning, and then reaping the benefits later on. It’s so obvious that the hard work got them to where they are.



[-[24:39] Question: In order to decide how much you are worth, do you need to be a name?

[-[24:08] Allan: Absolutely not!

I. Your reel is the most important thing. At the end of the day, when I want to hire somebody, I don’t care what they are — but what they do! I don’t care how cool everything looks, if other stuff is wrong. I care more about someone’s reel.

II. The other important things is: Don’t be a dick! Your reputation is more important. You want a positive environment. You want someone who at 2:00 a.m. [when you’re working overtime] is great to be around.

III. [-[20:07] Marketing is a big part of being a business! Take a project that’s going to be fulfilling to you and keep all the work you do. One of the tools I’ve built for the Mentorship is saving all the playbars. At the end of the job, take all the playbars and render paths — and go a work-in-progress reel. It takes 30 minutes. Put it on YouTube, Vimeo. It shows your process and gets you recognition. Why not give it legs beyond the job?



[-[18:08] Question: I followed Allan’s advice and started to treat myself as a brand, instead of just an individual. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from my friends and the industry.

[-[17:36] Allan: How awesome! I’ve been collecting all the job soliciting emails and demonstrate what works and what doesn’t. Do a self-audit:

– Focus! Go to LinkedIn and find “Also Searched For” tab. On the right, you’ll find all the people who are similar. Usually, it’s laser focused. I mention this to see if you’re positioning yourself with the right people.

– Work on your soundbites: Canned responses about who you are and what you do. Make sure to also mention your specialty because that defines who are you.



[-[11:34] Question: What are examples of good reels?

[-[11:29] Allan: I will do a Reel Review sometime soon. I’ll use my reel as an example. The only reason I cut it was because I was bored. That’s the place you want to be: You get work by reputation.

These are basic things to include:

– Name;

– Title;

– What you do;

– Email, phone number;

– The city / country where you’re based.

Think from the perspective of people who are viewing this: your future employers. If it’s starting without a title card, they won’t know what they’re looking at. If your phone number isn’t listed, you will miss out on the job.

The critical stuff:

– Don’t have too many breakdowns.

– Keep it simple. Keep it short.

– Make sure everything looks great, even your name! Keep the production level up!

– Don’t keep something on your reel because of your own nostalgia. If it’s not professional, take it off!

– Keep your specialities separate. Send in two reels: One with production work, the other with tools you’ve developed, for example.


[-[27:37] Touching base on the Mentorship: I honestly think that what we have is so special. We’ve built a community of artists who encourage each other. I couldn’t be more proud. Now, looking at their work, I would hire them. There is a lot of Training involved; but it’s more about sticking together. I’m going to do a hangout later today.

[-[05:03] I was hoping to interact with more of you, I wasn’t able to plan this Career Intensive. Usually, you would have a Survey preceding the Webinar. I want to do more of these!

Go back and listen to these Podcast more than once, with a pen and paper. Shoot me an email. Let me know what you think.

The next Episode will be with Scott Stokdyk, the VFX Sup for Valerian. My buddy Mark Simonetti (www.allanmcay.com/45) also worked on this, directly with Luc Besson. I may bring Mark back to my Podcast as well.

I’ll leave it there for now. Rock on!

Let's Connect

View my profile on