Thu 16th Jan 2014, by Allan McKay (edited by Andrew Plumer) | Production
Allan McKay knew he wanted to do Visual Effects before most people knew what they were. With determination and focus he decided he was going to take a journey from an Australian country town to Los Angeles and beyond. CGSociety caught up with him to ask about the early days of his journey, the early days of VFX and what encouragement he would offer artists starting out.
Age 7, I wanted to be a Writer. Age 5, I wanted to be a Ninja. Age 3, a T-Rex. Age 11, it finally stuck. I wanted to work in Hollywood, in the USA – Creating ‘Effects’ for big blockbuster films. This was the ultimate creative outlet! Blowing things up, making Dinosaurs come to life, creating the impossible! To most, I had probably more of a chance of being a T-Rex, or a Ninja.
February 1996. Grade 9 high school, 2nd week in, fed up, I quit – cold turkey. I had barely gone to school up until that point, so this was nothing new. When I finally realized that I wasn’t ‘actually’ going back, I thought I better make something of myself. I grew up in a small town in Australia with a population of roughly 8,000 people. I had seen my fair share of people dropping out of high school as I grew up, and the type of jobs and career they had, or the careers they didn’t have. This scared the crap out of me. Even that young, I knew I needed to take action, and do something with my life.
Back then I was inspired by Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and dozens of other films starting to come out at that time. Mostly all from one studio – Industrial Light + Magic (ILM). This was where I felt destined to be!
With no education, no money (my Mom and I lived in a 300 square foot apartment) in Nowhereville, Australia – literally the other side of the planet. On a continent more recognized for wrestling crocodiles and vicious baby eating dingos than anything else. Also, this was before the internet arrived to make the world the small place that it is today. A 13 year old dropout, to dream of working with the best of the best in Hollywood, California? I might as well have decided to be an Astronaut.
Growing up I always loved art. I loved drawing, sculpting, pastels. Hell, when I was 4 years old I would draw up designs for He-Man and G.I. Joe toys for my Mom to send off to Mattel so I could make my millions . However, although my Mom and I never ‘had’ much money at all (I was the poor kid that never wanted to leave my friend's houses because they had so many toys to play with) I did have a lot of confidence, and a lot of ambition. I would sell my artwork to strangers and pester my mother's friends to buy my sketches which were mainly comic book style drawings of Dead-pool, Spiderman, Batman, and various other hooded, ripped bad-asses.
I had a knack for doing a lot with the little I had. I would sometimes set up multiple garage sales on the side of the road to sell pretty much anything I owned when I was desperate for cash to buy something I had my mind set on. At age eight, I would buy dirty magazines and rent them to the older kids at school at a per-night rate, for almost the same price I was buying them for, not my proudest moment. I learned very early on that if I wanted something, I had to go out there and get it for myself, no hand outs, no unrealistic expectations. Just determination and taking the initiative.
I was resourceful and focused. So selling my art offered me a chance to put enough money together to buy a second hand 286 PC for $300. With 1mb of RAM, 8-bit graphics card (a grand 256 colors), a mouse and an assortment of paint and animation programs (which would fit on 40mb of disk space) I could finally play video games.
With the 286 I found something that I knew instantly to be my future although I didn’t know how, or even what use I could put it to. I did know however, that I wanted to make art on the computer!
Soon I had Deluxe Paint Animation, Animator Pro and a lot of TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident, a technical term for utilities that would linger in your memory after you close them, allowing you the luxury of ghetto multi-tasking in MS-DOS) I could load up video games and screen capture them to have a source for scenery, or environments pretty much using the game as my camera. I’d then bring the captures into these 2D programs and begin the horrible task of painting out things like characters and interfaces frame-by-frame and pixel-by-pixel so I had a place to start painting in my own animations or making my own movies. This was the beginning for me.
We all have those key moments in our lives, those big ‘sliding doors’ moments where we can pinpoint something big that happened and changed everything. A family member passing, your first kiss or your first trip to Tijuana with a group of people you had only just met. In my case, when I was 11 my Mom came home from buying the groceries, and on a whim, had bought me a gift of an issue of Design Graphics Magazine. It was not something she often did. As I flicked through the magazine, each page turn brought me closer to discovering something that changed my life forever.
There were two things that stood out. One was the advertisements for Wavefront, a 3D program by Wavefront that was used to make one of the first computer animated TV series to ever come out, ‘ReBoot’. The other, was a review of 3D Studio R3 for DOS.
I couldn’t make sense what exactly I was looking at. All I knew was that I couldn’t paint clean, lit, smooth surfaced images like the ones I saw this magazine. It was far beyond what I even dreamed could painted or drawn on a computer. I didn’t know how they did it, but it looked so.. CLEAN and.. REAL… But again, out of my reach. The review of 3DSR3 was covered in depth so in a way I felt I knew the software, if only I could get my hands on it it would be my key! I felt so pulled to this thing, whatever the hell it was, I wanted to be able to make imagery like this!
Two years went by and I was still obsessing with computer art. I had started to take my interests and find a way to apply them. Going on BBS’s (Bulletin Board Systems – kind of like the internet before the internet) or buying various PC video game magazines that had attached 3.5″ floppy disks that came filled with various utilities that would allow me to modify video games, such as Wolfenstein-3D. This was Huge for me as I could suddenly paint, again only frame by glorious frame but I could put characters in motion, and insert the .PCX images into the game and have it read them. I loved this as it allowed me to see these monsters I created come to life within the game. I also customized maps and developed my own world inside the game engine. At one stage I was obsessing over Doom but my 286 couldn’t handle it so I started to recreate my own art of Doom inside of Wolfenstein with my own characters and my own imagery. I would stay up to all hours of the night building my own worlds and thinking of new creative things to do. This was definitely my future, I could taste it!
Eventually I managed to rebuild my 286′s case with a 486DX-4 100mhz. 4mb of ram so finally I could play Doom and through an odd twist of events, I also managed to get 3D Studio R4 for DOS. 14 floppy disks and about 2 hours of installing later. I was ready to rock and roll with a not-too-legitimate copy of the program that my mother's friend's friend (an architect) came over and installed for me. He showed me how to build a cube, make it glass, add a light and render it in a couple of minutes and then, disappeared out of my life.
This is where my next obsession began. I hid away disappearing from my family and peers. I made friends with caffeine as I set out to master this software. The only time I had for sleep, was during the 'hours remaining' listed in my render dialog. At 6:00 in the morning if it said my render would take 5 hours, I would set my alarm go to sleep and be back at my computer at 11am. This was my moment, I knew what I wanted to do. I had a goal, I knew where I wanted to be. Sure, I might have been 14, but I was determined to succeed and to follow my passion at all costs and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.
Over my career I’ve mentored and helped many talented artists with their careers. I’ve helped artists just starting out in 3D, all the way through to giving workshops and classes at Ubisoft and ILM. I’ve spoken to groups of as many as 3,000 people in a single room in many countries all around the world. Tthis is a common subject that comes up… How did I start my career? Or, where did I go to school? More recently a pretty common questions are "how did you get that big break, that job that changed everything. What were there pitfalls and what about the people who doubted you or tried to persuade you to quit?"
First, how I started out. I still remember the day I sat down with a piece of paper, and did something that I think is solely responsible for where I am today. I began to realise my unattainable dream by breaking it down into digestible steps, that I could do, one at a time.
I sat down with a sheet of paper, at the top I wrote my absolute dream goal - Doing CGI in Hollywood. My goal, from the little I could find on this subject, wasn’t really very mainstream back then. I wanted to end up as a Technical Director which, as it was described to me, was half way between a creative role, and a programming role and required a lot of problem solving. I felt this combined most of my drives into one postion. Ultimately my long, long pipe dream goal – was to maybe become a visual effects supervisor. The top guys at Industrial Light + Magic, Digital Domain, PDI and the others who featured on the documentaries about CGI seemed to be VFX Directors so that sounded like the job to have.
At the bottom of the paper I marked with an X – which pretty much stood for ‘You are here’ then I logically wrote down the roadblocks I thought I would have in the middle of the paper. They went a bit like, I don’t have an education on paper, I don’t have experience, I don’t have a portfolio, I don’t know others in the industry. Then I began to break down each step. How do I get this education/paper? How do I get experience? How do I find people in this industry?
How do I achieve each of these steps? Some of them would need me to add a new step prior. Each of these seemed like completely different tasks, and I soon had over a dozen steps or mini goals to tackle. It was going to be a lot of work. I had a goal. I had a direction. I had something now to focus on.
The next step was a timeline. I thought Hollywood was still a pipe dream and I would need to prove myself 10x over before I could get there. So there were more steps to break down between my end goal and the point where I had achieved all of the core requirements I had set out to do. Next I needed to break down a career path next so when I had achieved all of my mid-way steps, I had a linear path to getting to win my dream job. I aimed to work in video games, and eventually work my way into TV and film.
Even now I still look back on my sheet of paper, as a magic bullet, an instructional guide on how to reach my ultimate goal of working in Hollywood. I’m also convinced that most people who set out to do what they want to do, never get there, because they simply had a goal they felt was too overwhelming, and no clear guidelines to follow. They either didn’t push themselves hard enough or weren’t willing to take the leap of faith to go after what really was important in their life.
Do you .. want to drag yourself out of bed every morning to go to a job you hate and try and find hobbies in your spare time to get just a little bit of satisfaction from your life? Or do you want to find the thing you love most and push yourself to become better and better at it, while making a living from your enjoyment? Most people just think that’s not possible and take the easy route. Rather than spending that little bit of time in the beginning to sit down and figure out, ‘OK, how the heck am I going to do this?’ and then commit themselves to working hard, no matter what the cost, to getting there. Who here likes a challenge?
For me, nothing was going to stop me. I had a goal now and I honestly felt like I was ready to die for this goal. I had a purpose and I was only willing to move forward. I was hungry, I was excited, I had a drive to succeed like I hadn’t ever experienced before. This subject was very unheard of where I was, nobody seemed to know what 3D animation, or CGI was back then. Even the term "visual effects" was still kind of forming to be seen as different to "special effects", which was more on the practical side of filmmaking.
One of my goals was to try to find others interested in this subject, again without any internet. Around that time I moved to the fairly small Australian city of Brisbane with my Mom. I enrolled briefly at a college purely to gain access to some of the unattainable resources I needed. It was a bit of work to get in because I was so young. I spent a lot time making phone calls and mailing in all of my work trying to prove I was serious. The main reason I enrolled was to use their labs, they had fast computers, and they also had 3D Studio Max 1. The secondary reason was to network, to meet others in the industry. I found this to be great as it was motivating to finally have others around who were doing great things.
I made a lot of friends through the labs, mainly young adults in their 20′s and 30′s who all were eager to get into this new 3D fad or other areas of multimedia so this seemed like a logical step for me. I practically live at the lab, morning through until late at night. I had made lots of friends, but there were just as many ‘other’ personalities who seemed to look at the world and at everyone else with a lot of negativity. They almost breathed negativity and discouragement the same way they would breathe air.
If your work showed promise and others accepted you, you were a target for ridicule by these people. It was almost as if to overcome their insecurities they needed to pull down the morale go their peers. In addition, I had instructors, lab assistants and other influential people with authority who were there to encourage me, filling me with self doubt. "You’ll never make it". "You’re too young". "Nobody will hire you". "You should just give up". "There’s no real work out there for this sort of thing."
At the same time I had friends back home, still in school, and for them life was about chasing girls, underaged drinking and hanging out at the mall. I was in a whole different world to these people and I wasn’t willing to let anybody bring me down and tell me I couldn’t do something. It made me furious. I felt like nobody saw the world how I saw it. I wanted to be the best I could be and I didn’t want to be told I’m destined to fail. So often I heard. "You’ll never make it in video games – that’s all done in America". "You’re dreaming". "You should pick a different career".
I think this is something everyone can relate to. Whether it’s your parents, your friends, your colleagues, it’s people that usually just don’t understand your passion, can’t relate and decide what you are doing is stupid, pointless or a waste of time. Then there are the people who project their self doubt onto others. If they feel like they can’t achieve their goals and if they can’t be excited about something they push that onto you, sometimes they’re not even aware they’re doing it.
Then there’s also my favorite, something I never understood, Jealousy. To this day, I can never understand how someone can witness someone else doing great things and want to tear them down. I purposely welcome people greater than me into my life. I hungrily surround myself with people better than I am. The more talented and more successful they are the better, it inspires me. It makes me want to do better. I feed off of that. I will never understand why someone must tell someone else they aren’t any good to make themselves feel better.
In Australia this is called “tall poppy syndrome” which, to quote wikipedia, is "a pejorative term primarily used in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other Anglosphere nations to describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers".
There really were only two studios doing minor 3D work in my area, no video games or other mediums. I thought, maybe everybody was was right, perhaps there wasn’t really a career out there for doing this sort of stuff. Then it happened, in 1996 A company called Auran partnered with Activision and announced an AAA video game to be developed in Brisbane. This was my big break!
I found out there was a big event for the game's launch coming up. They were to be showcasing the game, Dark Reign, and also playing an amazing pre-rendered cinematic for it on the big screen (one of the earliest works of the newly-formed LA studio, Blur). I attended the launch, because I knew the developers were going to be there and I knew I needed to talk to them. I had been working on a reel and my whole motivation at that point was to get a job there, but everyone around me was filling me with doubt and telling me “nobody is going to hire a kid”.
The CEO, Greg Lane was there. After the big unveiling, I approached him from the side and just asked him one question outright, directly eye-to-eye. I needed to know, for my own sanity “Do you have an age limit on artists you hire? If they’re good, and under 18, Will you hire them?” Lane’s response was “If you’re good, you’re good – we’ll hire you”
I darted out of that convention center so fast, I literally ran home fuelled with new determination, straight to my computer to begin working harder than ever on my first demo reel. A video compilation of all of my work. It was time to try and venture out into the world. I was hungry for this and nothing else mattered. I was going to get a job there! I had to! I cut my reel and output it at the college lab onto a VHS tape. I mailed it in, and waited, and waited, then I called and they had received it. I waited more and finally after making a few connections there through friends of friends on IRC (Yes! Internet had finally arrived!) I managed to get a response from the head of 3D. They liked my work but it "wasn’t quite there yet".
This is where I could have given up. I saw it as obviously I needed to get BETTER, I needed to work harder and I needed to work longer hours. I also worried that people now had proof I wasn’t good enough. I could hear the "I told you so"’s echoing through my head. I spent six months making more stuff, I cut a new reel and sent it in. This was my absolute Best work, I was proud and I knew this was it. I felt I practically had the job the minute the CD was mailed to them. Some time passed and again, rejection. I felt like a failure but now I was broken, I felt like giving up. I seemed now like everyone was right, and I had just wasted my life. I was still to turn 15, but emotionally I was exhausted, I had given it everything I had despite everybody telling me I couldn’t do it – I wanted to prove each and every one of them wrong, and now I just felt silly. Who was I to think I’d actually make it and achieve something I set out for?’.
I decided to give it one last shot but I knew if I was going to do this, I had to start from scratch, plan everything out and look at my work as if I was the one hiring me. I had to try and identify everything they could pick apart about my work, pinpoint my weaknesses and leave no room for doubt. I needed to showcase characters, hard surface modeling, texturing abilities, shading abilities, lighting, animation and effects.
I decided applying to Auran again would be a handicap and if this was going to be my last try I wanted a fresh chance to fail. I sent my work to the two other game companies and both came back to me with job offers. Suddenly, I had two offers! WTF?! In no time I was signed up working on Half-Life. It was 6 months of remote work modeling and texturing and animating in 3ds max. I felt like my career was finally happening – it felt like I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t a failure, I wasn’t a kid that nobody would hire. I had Half-Life on my resume!
I was still limited by being in Australia as there wasn’t much work overall. A year went by and I was bored, isolated,uninspired and starting to feel depression sink in. Then an artist I had met while working on Half-Life (who coincidentally also was from Australia), showed my latest reel to his boss in Sydney. Ironically the reel didn’t contain any game work and didn’t focus much on texturing or animation as I was I was focusing a lot more on modelling, effects and compositing. With my personal work I would model entire digital environments and blow them all to hell. I had ships smashing through piers, UFO’s crashing through buildings. Whatever new movie was coming out I was rebuilding the big money shots in 3D. I was told my understanding of integrating live action with CG was rare, and most people have zero understanding of this when they’re starting out. The reel proved I’d be able to jump right into production which was a huge advantage.
I relocated to Sydney to Ambience Design, which at the time was one of the top 3 post production studios in Australia, (oddly all of them were right next door to each other - the other two were Animal Logic & GMD). I still remember my first day, walking up the stairs into the main hall, the odd soapy/fruity smell in the staircase of the building and a long hallway filled with rooms. Each room housed 3D artists with Flame, Hal and Henry suites and all of these people were busy working on commercials or music videos. The feeling was overwhelming.
I started as a 3d artist with an emphasis on FX whenever that sort of work was required. I did talking dog commercials, modeled props and animated characters and logos. In my spare time I lived at work – using the render farm to develop new FX techniques. I was trying to push the limits on what could be done at that time with FX, especially out of 3DS Max. Max was very much the underdog of 3D Software back then.
I documented my experimental works and published them on-line. Nobody else was doing this and as I had to learn everything I knew from scratch, I thought why not save everyone else the trouble? I show the world how I created tornadoes, explosions, clouds, fire, whatever. In my first two weeks at Ambience, I learned more than I had in my entire career. At that point I felt I had arrived, I had achieved something. I was working with some of the most talented, amazing artists around and each of them individually influenced me in some way. Ambience was a life changing experience for me, being around so much creative talent I became a sponge. I wasn’t going to let that opportunity go to waste.
I had been at Ambience for two years when a friend of mine in editorial cut a new reel of my work. I had worked on over 30 commercials and had so much work that was polished and professional. There’s a huge difference between working on productions with a team and working by yourself. With a team you have everyone pulling together to make something great and your work instantly looks more polished. It seems that everyone’s student reel always highlights the areas you lack rather than those in which you excel. I decided, as a gag, to send my work to LA. I sent it to just two studios – Blizzard Cinematics, and Blur Studio. I was a huge fan of the work of both these companies.
Blizzard sent back the standard HR thank you letter saying "your work is on file". Tim Miller, one of the founders of Blur and very much the face of Blur, emailed me directly. Words can’t describe how I felt at the moment i read the email. I wish I had kept it. It was nearly 15 years ago now. I idolized Miller, Blur Studio and the work they were doing and they were contacting me at 18 years of age saying they loved my work and wanted to offer me a job and invite me to move to LA and work at Blur Studio. Unfortunately it soon became obvious that although I was qualified for the job, I wouldn’t be able to get a visa to work in the United States. However Tim kept in touch with me, and I continued to send updated reels to him over the next couple of years.
I never looked back from working at Ambience. I left there to work on my first Hollywood film and shortly after I was offered work on The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings which I couldn't take up as I had agreed only days before that to take a staff job at Disney to work on two films, which I knew would be flops but I wanted to honor my contract. I moved to Los Angeles when I turned 21 (Come on guys, like I was going to move before I reached the legal drinking age in the US). I was a technical director at 19 and a VFX Supervisor by 23 and I have worked all over the world. I got to work at Blur which was a dream come true. I got to work at Industrial Light + Magic under amazing talent such as John Knoll and Dennis Muren.
I have spoken at SIGGRAPH to hundreds of people on almost 10 ocassions. One of the greatest moments for me was receiving the Autodesk Master Award at SIGGRAPH in San Diego in front of hundreds of people. I’ve worked with amazing directors like Michael Bay and Robert Zemeckis, Bryan Singer, M. Night Shymalan (Hey! he’s alright!) Finally, through a strange turn of events I was approached to be interviewed for the position of Art Director on Doom 4 for id Software. I didn't feel qualified to take it up but it was a huge honour to be asked. (Last year I had dinner with the Art Director who did take the job, and decided they definitely hired the right guy for it).
I have had the opportunity to work with so many influential, amazing artists. Some of them have become my closest friends and I still completely idolize them (although I’ll never say that to their face!) I have been blessed to work on many amazing movies, work under great supervisors and directors and travel the world doing what I love. I don’t say any of this to impress you. I say all of this to leave an impression on you. It’s hard to put into words how appreciative I am to have to experienced everything that I have. When I was growing up I had a lot of people saying "You can’t do that" and "You won’t go anywhere." The one person I had who told me time-and-time-again that ,"You can do it", and told me "yes" when others said "no" is my Mom. Even if she didn’t quite understand she would still say "yes, do it! That’s great"!
Any of this is achievable and reachable, I’m no different than anybody else. It’s just a matter of surrounding yourself with the right people who align their goals with yours and to force yourself to push forward when it’s easier to step back.
The people that encourage us are few but their encouragement is what we should listen to. They’re the ones that I owe everything to and want to thank for making my dreams come true. I have met so many people who have had parents or people who have a lot of influence on their lives who doubt them, often pushing them to the brink of wanting to give up their dreams and their passions. Most of the time these don’t realize they’re even doing it.
Take a minute to think about the effect your words are going to have on the people around you. What you have to gain from limiting others and how much of a positive effect you could have on that person by giving little encouragement. For everyone out there with dreams, no matter how unrealistic as you might think they may be, never give up and never let people tell you you can’t do something. All great things take time, struggle, and hard work, but it just makes the reward, when you finally get there, so so much sweeter.
If you want to learn from Allan McKay, you can. He's running an 8 week Advanced FumeFX CGWorkshop with CGWorkshops beginning on March 3rd. If you want to ask him any questions live he is running a Meet The Artist Webinar with CGSociety at 6pm PST (LA Time) next Monday 20th Jan.