Allan McKay interview by 3DTutorials.net

3DTutorials: How did you come to be in CG field?

Allan McKay: I came from the days where there was no good audio, video or graphics on a computer, so I think I just got addicted to anything and everything that ever had cool graphics or artwork in video games or anything on the computer. This is back in like 1991 - and overtime I got into doing computer art, pixel-by-pixel, frame-by-frame on a 286 PC I bought second hand by selling my artwork (I was about 11 at the time) for a few hundred dollars, and kind of progressed from there. By 14 years old I had quit school and was working in video games full time working over the internet (I feel old but for me I literally got to use the internet when I turned 14 for the first time, and instantly found it to be a great way to reach out and find work and find others who were doing 3D as well, since back then most people didn’t really know what 3D was - Toy Story for instance came out in 1995 and that at least meant you could point at Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 and Toy Story as reference and say “I kinda do stuff like that!”


3DTutorials: Which of the projects you've handled was the most challenging and riveting experience?

Allan McKay: I guess there are so many and for so many different reasons. There’s movies like 2012 that were challenging for all the wrong reasons, and toward the end just physically challenging.

But I think Superman Returns is one that sticks out as something that I was originally on set during the shooting process and then later in pre-production and production, later I stepped away from it to start my own studio and I got called back 3 weeks before the release of the film to redo the entire opening sequence of the film (the movie went for far too long so they decided to cut the first 30 minutes where Superman returns to the remnants of Krypton - instead replacing it with a giant all CG 2 minute opening sequence of Krypton being destroyed by the sun).

That was something I was literally called one night by the heads of one of the vfx studios and pretty much asked when I hang up the phone to head straight to the airport and board a plane to Los Angeles because they had less than 3 weeks to do a pretty insane amount of work, and it was gruelling, but also one of the funnest experiences I had. Everyone on the project knew their stuff, and so it was a vast amount of work but always moving in the right direction, and the wrap party in Vegas with the Warner Bros crew was a heck of a lot of fun too!

I also worked on God of War for the Superbowl a few years back and that was a project that anything that could go wrong did, but the project itself was one that I and my team was so passionate about that through sheer determination we pulled through it - and to this day I still love the piece, it was really well directed by Karin Fong and the other guys at Imaginary Forces in New York and both working on set and creating all of the ash visual effects was really challenging but really rewarding to see it all come together.


3DTutorials: We know you have a masterful command of FumeFX and ThinkingParticles and we are curious to know if you use them or prefer other softwares while implementing game projects or may be there are other plugins that link them together?

Allan McKay: I pretty much use everything, I’ve been using Maya since version 1.0 and 3DS long before it was ‘max’, Soft|Image before XSI, Prisms before Houdini, Dynamation/Wavefront etc before Maya - so these days I still go to what is the most suitable tool for the job.

When it comes to games, games is still so very different to film. I think the most frustrating thing (probably) for those who work on games and move around a lot, is that every studio, even every office location of a studio (or even every TEAM inside of those offices) have completely different ways of working and doing things. The tools are different, the approach is, the limitations as well.

I recently worked with the Call of Duty team on Black Ops 3, which was a blast to see how they work, and I pretty much got free reign when I went in there to do whatever I wanted to do, so I rebuilt a huge amount of assets for the game, and focused on that. I love what they did, they have a really talented team over there - and for me I would be able to use the same tools like FumeFX to generate explosion high-res assets and pass them over to be implemented into the game and revise things from there, take requests from other team members of what they think would look ‘cool’ or look at reference footage and reenact that in the game. I think the process of implementation is very different but the way we generate a lot of those assets can be similar.

I was over in Helsinki recently giving a talk to the team at Remedy and they were showing me their new game Quantum Break which comes out shortly, and discussing how they might approach certain scenarios and they would use Thinking Particles, FumeFX and other tools very differently for their games as well. I think for a lot of people the challenge of games per se is how to make movie quality imagery within the bounds you’re given, and that itself can be the fun challenge to take up.


3DTutorials: Which of the softwares (Flow or ThinkingParticles) do you use more often for crafting visual effects?

Allan McKay: As I mentioned earlier, I’ll use the right tool for the right job. Water I look at Realflow and Houdini’s FLIP solver for solutions for creating great water FX, Max I feel has been groomed really well for destruction FX etc.

Personally I really like TP but I still use Particle Flow when I want to be more creative and get that instant feedback. So Pflow can be great to visually design things quickly or when I want to create really elegant effects - Thinking Particles is extremely powerful but you will find yourself needing to carefully plan things out - rather than busting out the finger paints and just having fun. It also speaks to what type of person you are.. I can program, script and think very technically, but if I were to describe myself I still think my strengths lie in being an artist and a supervisor - so I have strong problem solving skills, but my hat goes off to those guys and girls who can just ‘breathe math’ and effortlessly come up with solutions. That’s not me, and those people I think can jump into TP or sit in Maya’s expression editor coming up with crazy visual ideas on the fly without needing to see the feedback - and that’s a whole other level!


3DTutorials: Working as a freelancer over the projects like Transformers or recording and modeling movie tutorials - which one is more profitable and engrossing?

Allan McKay: I definitely think doing training can be a nice bit of pocket change on the side, but that’s not why we do it. 98% of what I make I give out for free, and it’s more the reward of sharing, the emails I get these days after the podcast, and the training and other things I’ve done has just been amazing. I get all warm and fuzzy when - and even today the amount of emails I’ve gotten about people saying they landed their dream job or they got their 4th(!) pay rise this year (that’s one I want to actually do a write up of, because even I’m a bit like ‘how the heck did you do that?!’). My motivation to write tutorials and training back in the mid 90’s was because back then noone shared, there was nothing on the web, or hardly anything. And people were so guarded by their ‘tricks’ they wouldn’t share them because it would mean they could be replaced.

So for me, that made me want to share everything, because I was obsessed with figuring out how to pull off creating realistic fire, or clouds, or destruction, you name it, long before the tools we have now that make things so easy. So the minute I felt like I had figured out something worth sharing, I would spend an entire weekend writing up all the information, taking screen caps and formatting everything and getting it out there, so others wouldn’t have to go through the same pains I went through. The cool thing was that people would go do those tutorials, and then maybe have something to add to it, and bit by bit everything would grow. I loved it! Although I will admit that I always shied away from ever wanting to have recognition as ‘that tutorial guy’ it’s only been in the last 2 years I’ve been a bit more happy with that, I was always more about my production work not what I did in my spare time. But whenever I did meet people who said “oh you make all those tutorials” I would cringe a little - I know that sounds a bit weird, and now it’s something I definitely embrace.

BUT.. production is definitely a far more profitable area, the further up the ladder you go the more fees you can command. But really I feel like visual effects is an area that you’re only limited by your imagination. If you want to make money you can make money, if you want total freedom, you can have that. If you just want to work on cool stuff, or play with the latest tech. Any of these things you can do.

Focus on making your own intellectual property, such as a short film, or go on Youtube and make cool videos, make your own books, ride the latest VR or other trends, launch a studio, be a hired gun and charge high rates, or use your job to travel - I spent 3 years literally without a home, I just bounce from studio to studio all over the world, picking the jobs I wanted based on what city or country I felt like visiting. You are literally limited by how much you want to cocoon yourself. If you’re hungry and wiling to get out of your comfort zone a little, this industry is one that will let you do anything you wanted. As I’m responding to this interview, it’s a Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, I’m at a cafe near the beach at 4pm and I took the day off, went to the gym, wrote some emails, and had a few skype meetings, next month I’m in several different cities and countries, while also scheduled to work on a film project while I’m traveling. I feel like mentioning all of this not to make it sound like I’m showing off, but to point out it’s 2016, we have zero limitations and unlimited tools at our disposal. If you want to work from home, or if you want to work from the beach, or permanently travel (PT) or build your own business, I know a dozen people in every one of these situations doing it, if you want to make a million dollar business based around 3D - you can do it, I can list off the top of my head 30 or more people who are doing that right now, just like I can say I know plenty of people in 3D freelancing at rates of $150 an hour or over a $1000 per day, or people living in Thailand or Vietnam making $50 an hour and living like kings and queens So I say all of this (and this is a very big answer!) because all you need to do is get off your butt and do it, I have 4 friends this year who are all 3DS Max guys, directing feature films for Warner Bros, Fox and other big Hollywood places and mostly came from them making short films in the past couple of years in their spare time. There’s literally no excuse why you can’t go do what you want to do.


3DTutorials: How long did you work over Transformers and what were the most memorable scenes and events?

Allan McKay: I don’t think Transformers was a very long project, I think it was 6-8 weeks it was short.

It was funny because I had two competing studios call me the same day and say they had these sequences they were bidding on, one of them said they were going to back out if I turned it down - and they were bidding over the same sequences. I decided to go with Atomic Fiction, who was a brand new studio in Emeryville, CA (a few blocks from Pixar). I didn’t know these guys at all, but to this day they’re my all time favorite studio to work with - and since then I’ve worked with them multiple times on Flight, Star Trek 2 and other projects.

It was a big challenge because we had 4 big shots we were doing, all were very different. The explosions and destruction shots were straight forward, it was just a matter of blowing stuff up - which I’m happy to say I do a lot of, and have a lot of fun doing it! Although it was cool - one particular shot is of this Decepticon firing at this Police Car and blowing it up so it literally rips in half, and the first take of it I had created this epicly large explosion which I was really happy with how it turned out, and we sent it off for review and got feedback that Michael Bay had said it was too big - so I don’t think it really clicked with anyone else, but I was like “... wait.. Michael BAY says MY explosions were too big?! YESSSS!!!” I still need a t-shirt made! :)


3DTutorials: While working over a big projects like Transformers did you aim at sourcing bigger human resources to accomplish the work or finding another solutions to handle it?

Allan McKay: I might have not quite understood the question - but if you mean outsourcing or anything like that, in this case no. I have a strong team of artists that work for me these days allover the world, from LA to Russia, Vietnam, Canada, Australia etc and I do outsource sometimes, or hire other studios.

Transformers however, we had a team of 8 people I believe, and a lot to go through, we were all seniors, which I find the experience is what really pays off because you all know what the others need and you’re able to anticipate problems and just communicate fast - so with some teams it’s like a ballet just the whole thing works so well, and I felt on Transformers, as well as Flight, Superman, a lot of those big projects where it’s all senior staff that are ex-ILM, Orphanage, DD and others you come together and cool stuff happens. That’s not to say other teams aren’t like this, but I find on tight turnaround high pressure projects like Transformers that sort of thing it just makes the whole process ‘work’ really really well.

Transformers for me there was a big challenge where in one shot there are 16 people running away and getting shot. Each time someone’s hit they turn to ash and disintegrate. The problem was each person I had built such a complex process around it, it was 8 or more simulations per character, and we were all really pleased with it, but our client wasn’t able to make any comments until they had seen it on all 16 characters in the shot - and the process would have taken weeks to do. So I had built a pretty powerful system for creating the effects I had built for the hero character, onto every single other character and simulating, rebuilding, rendering everything automatically. You would hit the button and watch 256+ max files start to generate and get submitted to the render farm. That was something at the time I wasn’t sure I could do, at that stage, and so when I did it, and it worked, it was a massive game changer for me. It drastically changed how I work, where now I build tools for everything I do, and after a while you’re basically customizing Max or Maya specifically to your needs, rather to ‘everyones’ needs.


3DTutorials: How do you think what is the percentage ratio of using 3D Max and other softwares like Maya and Houdini when doing visual effects?

Allan McKay: It’s such a funny question, because I used to get asked this a lot in person when I’d give talks “which is the best?!” and back in the 90’s a lot of guys (oddly mostly Lightwavers) would really love to squash the Max artists down.

I honestly use everything, and at least in the Autodesk family - 3DS Max outsells Maya and all the other vfx/games tools they have by a drastic proportion (I actually interviewed the lead production manager for 3ds max recently on my podcast in episode 23 of my podcast which he talks about this). 

Houdini has made massive growths in the past 2-3 years. It’s always been a powerful tool but let’s say back in Houdini 8 or 9, you could do a lot with it, but it didn’t have solutions for fluids, for water, for fracturing, if you wanted to fragment something, you would need to pre-fracture and then bind those pieces together again. There’s been so many new solvers and solutions it’s really stepped up. But still, animation is more favored in Maya, and I still feel Max is much faster to get things turned around - everyone will argue this, so I’m not trying to make myself an authority on this. I will say that Pixar, ILM, Scanline, etc. All use max, Star Wars, and even Avatar at ILM was heavy on 3DS Max, and most of the Houdini stuff was still parsed into Max for rendering with Arnold. I only mention this because Max is always the culprit for a lot of people loving to pick on it, when these days, most of the destruction films you watch are heavily using Max in them, 2012, San Andreas, Independence Day 2, Pompeii, you name it.

All in all, I think every package has copied itself to death so much they are all capable, they all just have a different interface, but the same features. I think the best way to choose a package, is to choose where you want to live and the type of work you want to do, and what you’re comfortable with.

If I were in LA or Vancouver, 3DS Max or Houdini, if I were in Italy, or Spain, I would definitely go Maya. London I feel is more Maya and houdini. Australia varies. New York I would say Maya or C4D. Not to say that there isn’t plenty of work in any of these packages, but typically you need to learn the tools of the city and studio you want to go to, that’s the best way to make a decision on the softwar you want to use.


3DTutorials: What helfpul advice can you give both to beginner artists and wanna-learners who are willing to go into particulars of visual effects?

Allan McKay: Don’t give up. I’ve only recently started to look back at my own upbringing after seeing so many other people going through it right now. It’s a pretty competitive industry, and unlike most other industries out there.

I do wish more people would spend as much time as they do studying the z-brush and v-ray and even FumeFX tutorials, on putting that amount of effort into bettering their career as well. It doesn’t matter how much technical knowledge you learn, if you don’t figure out how to network, or communicate or present yourself, or get hired by studios, none of that is going to be relevant. I’ve said this plenty of times, but you could be the greatest artist in the world, and if no one knows who you are then how are you going to get work?

I’ve put a lot of attention into this on my Podcast as well as my private email list, where I’ve been sending out weekly lots of advice, as well as even email or negotiation scripts, things I actually use day to day to get work - and I love it getting to see people just tweaking their way of getting jobs, or whatever their goals are and suddenly having flawless and consistent work come in. I only say this because it’s such a critical part of our day to day journey, but for whatever reason most of us feel that it’s not necessary, or having goals is really ‘woo woo’ and out there. And then I see the ones who DO have goals and how much butt they’re kicking because they’re driven and they know what they want to focus on.

So that’s the long answer, but if you were to treat yourself as if you were a vfx studio, and start doing the responsibilities of ‘outreach’ ‘client relations’ ‘PR’ or even the management part of ‘ok lets evaluate our business, what are we doing right or what areas do we need to improve on’ instead of ‘I’m an artist, I don’t need to know any of this stuff, I make art’ where that’s not going to benefit anybody, especially yourself , it’s a pretty important piece to focus on.


P.S. Thank you for taking your time to give a newsworthy and comprehensive interview for 3dtutorials.net.

Allan McKay: Thank you!

If you need to reach me, or for additional talks and episodes of the Podcast, probably the easiest way I can think is go to www.allanmckay.com which has my email there and links to a lot of recent career talks I gave etc. 


But thank you this has been a blast!


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