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An Artist On Fire: An Interview with Allan McKay

An Artist On Fire: An Interview with Allan McKay

They say experience is usually the best teacher, and our interview with CG/VFX expert Allan McKay certainly gives credence to this well-known maxim. With over 20 years in the industry, McKay has already seen or made it all. From his skills at exploding planets to sending crashed airliners into balls […]

They say experience is usually the best teacher, and our interview with CG/VFX expert Allan McKay certainly gives credence to this well-known maxim. With over 20 years in the industry, McKay has already seen or made it all. From his skills at exploding planets to sending crashed airliners into balls of flame, his extraordinary talents in the field of dynamics and fluids, among others, have provided McKay the much deserved reputation as the go-to guy for all things destructive.

Despite his vast industry experience, however, McKay still has a long future ahead of him. He began working in Australia during the 1990’s, a time when special effects in general was still a fledgling art form and where artists didn’t specialize in things like pyrotechnics or fluid dynamics.  Eventually, his growing reputation would have Hollywood calling upon him to produce world-class effects for its films. This would be the culmination of McKay’s personal goal, to work for the “dream factory” producing excitements and illusions in the form of realistic VFX.

McKay’s story is, in a way, also the industry’s story over the past 20 years. A lot has changed since the 90’s. Technology and innovations has increased the overall realism of effects, film budgets require more and more at a faster and faster pace, and jobs are much more specialized than they used to be. Industry professionals like McKay were both witnesses to and facilitators of those changes. More importantly, as an instructor, for companies like Digital-Tutors, Allan McKay is responsible for helping to educate a new generation of special effects experts, providing both the technical skills he’s gained and the practical wisdom he’s earned the hard way.
We thought it would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of Allan’s experience growing up in the industry, what changes he’s witnessed, and what it takes to make it in this business.

QTell us a little bit about yourself and some of the projects you’ve worked on.

I’ve worked for about 20 years now and I always do this when I do interviews. I pull my IMDB because I completely forget what the heck I’ve actually working on. I work primarily on feature films, so a lot of high visual effects films. Recently stuff like Star Trek II, Flight, the new Denzel Washington movie, The Equalizer, which is coming out pretty soon and other films like 2012 and Superman Returns. I’ve been doing that for quite a while. I came from working in the 90’s where you start out more as a generalist. But over time I started to move more and more into effects. So doing simulations and doing a lot of the really complicated solutions for creating fire dynamics, water, etc.

That kind of came from just wanting to figure out how to do that stuff when back in the 90’s it wasn’t very straightforward or even possible to do a lot of those effects. So that started to put me on a journey of wanting to figure out how to do clouds when all you had back then were image planes that you put a texture of a cloud on. You’d try and figure out all of these solutions one at a time. I kind of matured from there and bit by bit fell more and more into this niche.

QYou’re obviously a very busy guy. Give us a short description of an average day in the life of Allan McKay.

[Laughing] There is no average day. I guess typically, it does vary depending on deadlines and everything else, but starting out I try to get up around 5 in the morning just because I tend to do a lot of different stuff. Because of that, it’s kind of difficult to have projects going on as well as other things I’m doing like Digital-Tutors training. So, I try and section my day into three or four hours in the morning that I spend trying to focus on getting a majority of my personal day out of the way before I start switching to production mode where I start working on various projects. Right now I’m doing Halo for Blur Studios.

Then usually once I’m done with that I give my self about two hours, depending, for other projects. I try and detach myself from the computer at the very end of the day, have a beer, relax or do some personal training. I’m doing a lot of development for other projects, and I’m actually working on a possible TV show right now, which is in the middle of getting finalized. So that’s looking pretty good. I work at Autodesk and with a lot of other companies doing a lot of conferences like Autodesk University, SIGGRAPH, places like that. It kind of varies, but usually, I try and break my day up into sections and try and give full attention to whatever I’m doing in front of me, but knowing that at certain times I can switch gears and start focusing what is coming up.

QYeah, that sounds like a pretty busy day. I guess this strategy has been evolving over the past 20 years in regard to how you balance your personal and professional life?

Yeah, exactly. I was actually just thinking that a couple of minutes ago. I was thinking about a weird line I said to someone when I was 18. I was wishing there was more time in the day because it was so hectic back then. I was just [laughing] thinking how much more hectic it is now. I kind of meet two or three different types of people. There’s the ones that are happy with where they’re at and happy going down the path they’re going. And then there’s other ones who are really ambitious and who want to do really big things and be really active. Then there’s the ones who want that, but they’re either scared or they just don’t know where to begin. Usually, they’re the ones who are like “Yeah, I could do that, but I don’t want to”.

It breaks down even further into the ones who really come at it from a strategic point of view. Then there’s the ones that will take on any opportunity they can get, but then suddenly they’re overwhelmed. You can take on 500 things like doing TV shows or doing personal training or conferences, production, and then you’re own productions. That’s cool, but if you don’t do it right, then suddenly bragging about having 10 things you end up having none because you neglected every single one. They all disappear. Rather than having three or four really good things, you’ve got 10 things that don’t exist any more.

I think it’s really about planning ahead and being careful with your time, but also being knowledgeable about what you can take on and what’s probably going to be some of the biggest time suckers. So in other words, you have projects that may reap a little bit of reward, but you already kind of have a gut feeling that they’re going to take up all of your time. Whereas, some of the other projects may be more aligned with what you’re doing, so it’s very easy for you to do those and work with those who enjoy it. Because you have a good communication with the other partners you’re dealing with, you kind of tend to walk through that very seamlessly. You get that done quicker and move on to the next, rather than it being chaos and you’re whole plan going out of whack [laughs].

Before After
QA lot has changed since you started out in the VFX industry. With so many changes and distractions these days, what are some of the ways you keep yourself focused on your projects?

Yeah, I’ve got several kinds of strategies. Multitasking is definitely one of those big things that everyone likes to think is a really productive word. But I think it’s the most counter-intuitive word you have in terms of [visual effects work]. If you have like four or five Maya’s or Max’s or whatever open, and you’ve got all of these other things going on – it might feel good that you’re busy – but I think it’s more you’re creating busy work for yourself. I think that sectioning time and being aware of time is probably the most valuable thing you can do.

That’s where I get a bit quirky or whacky because I do carry around a timer with me, and I’ve got all of these other really weird things. But it’s kind of my way of being more conscious about what I’m doing. There are those days that you’re working and then you look at the time and you’re like “Whoa, where did the time go?” Or I just ask myself, “Am I actually doing productive work at this moment in time?” A lot of times, especially in 3D, you might be clicking away and doing stuff, but you’re not really. You kind of loose track of your goal. You’re just doing it for the sake of doing it and not looking at the big picture.

I think if you say, “Ok, well, I’m going to give myself three hours to do this task,” and then set a timer at least then you’re being conscious of time. Anytime you look away you actually can see the time ticking down. It’s like, “Ok, I gotta get back to it.” I think that’s really valuable. It also helps you realize that you’re assigning three hours to do this. Most people, especially when they first start out, aren’t the best at judging how much time to assign, and so they may say “Okay that’s three hours,” but they don’t realize it takes up almost the entire day.

That’s a really valuable lesson just to figure out. You say, “Ok, well did I misjudge my time or was I just not pushing myself as fast as I need to go?” Over time you start to realize and appreciate the fact that, in 3D especially,  everything goes wrong. Anything that can, will go wrong. It’s one of those very time consuming processes. Because of that you might say something takes three hours and it’s really taken a day. Over time you start to realize, “You know what that’s actually a day of work, so I’ve got to clear out my station and get this done.”

When I was 17 or 18, producers would ask me, “How long will this take?” and I’d say like “an hour or two,” and then I’d miss an hour. Over time, I realized that I needed to start saying, “This is half a day” or “This is a day.” I think you’re afraid of the reaction they’re going to give you if you say, “Yes, half a day.” Realistically, it’s kind of the whole quality vs. quantity speech of do you want good work or do you want it do be rushed and mistakes to be made?

QYou began working in VFX at a very young age. Are there any ways that beginning so young has been beneficial to your success or perhaps has made your evolution as an artist more difficult?

That’s a good question. When I started out, there wasn’t the internet. There wasn’t a big 3D industry. If I told anyone what I was doing, they’d have no idea. For me, especially coming from Australia, I was in a very small world where working in LA and Hollywood was basically an impossible dream. At the time, I think it was more about having a big goal and focusing on that. I don’t think there was ever any disadvantage.

I did meet people along the way who used that excuse and told me, “Be prepared because no one takes you seriously when you’re young.” And I always was prepared for that, but I ended up teaching at a university when I was 18. I was expecting people at 40 years old to look at me like, “Who the hell is this kid?” because I know I would probably be the same way. It was actually good, because every person I met was like, “Well, this person clearly knows what he’s doing, so this is awesome, I’m gonna sit down and listen.” I think in general that’s been a really beneficial thing.

Starting out young is more about how you approach it and how you approach yourself. You’re entering into a business. Being a kid and acting like a kid in a work world is going to clash pretty heavily. Just like anything, you need to approach it with maturity and seriousness. I’ve learned a lot of valuable life lessons, especially growing up in this industry. There’s been a lot of changes. I think that these days, and I’m not name dropping, but I will say websites like Digital-Tutors, that kind of stuff didn’t exist back then.

I think now it’s far easier than it’s ever been to be able to just pick this stuff up. That’s a big gripe that I have about going to college [versus] studying on line. Typically, when you’re studying on line, most of the teachers you have are paid people in the industry who basically are working day to day in production. Then they finish up and go home, and they record a video tutorial or a course. It says, “Hey, this is something I figured out today and I’m gonna put it out there.” That was always my drive growing up and that’s why I did a lot of training, even in my teens. Whenever I’d figure this stuff out, I wanted to share it.

I think now with the industry so big and the internet that they’ve made it easier. There’s such an abundance of information that you seriously can just sit down and be like, “Okay, what do I want to learn?” Usually, you can pick a couple of courses and have a mentor that can fill in the gaps and help guide you. Then all of that other information will stick. It can really can help fast track your career a lot more.

QWhat are the most important character traits someone in the CG/VFX field should have and why?

I wrote an article recently that’s about my beginnings and how I started just because it’s more aimed at people giving up or even being faced with failure. The article’s about how we all kind of have those moments. In this industry, which is very over-saturated, there’s a lot of people breaking in, and there’s a lot of shifting happening right now. Because of that, you need to kind of find your best way to fit in and how to adapt. That’s why I mentioned in the article about how we all kind of try, try, fail, try, try, fail, and eventually get in. Basically, the ones that are faced with that and don’t give up are the ones that do succeed.

Until that point of really pushing through and getting that first big success, it’s really about having a lot of problems. You’re gonna have a lot of doubt about whether you’ll make it. However, I think that once you actually get into the industry then it’s smooth sailing. There’s always going to be work. It’s more about finally getting your foot in the door and making that connection with everyone in the industry.

I think one of the most valuable things I ever did at the beginning of my career was set myself a goal, a time line. Mine was a really impossible one. It was basically that I wanted to work in Hollywood and I wanted to be a technical director in visual effects. That, at least back then, was my goal. I kind of figured if I did that before I died then I’d be happy with what I’d achieved. Thinking back, the industry wasn’t very big. It was tiny, and being in Australia was so remote and disconnected. By setting an initial goal, I began breaking down all the steps backward. I would say, “Ok, I’m here, but I want to get there. What do I need to do?”

You should be brutally honest with yourself about where you really are at. Instead of saying, “Yeah, I’m good,”look at yourself, get opinions from others, and learn to have a thick skin because you’re gonna need one in this industry. Learn to have a thick skin so that you can take on other people’s views of your skills. You can take criticism, but it’s more about taking the right kind. I think that when you’re starting out, you need to look at it like, “Ok, I think I’m good at these things,” and someone else tells me I’m not good. So I say, “I’m not good at this. I need to get better at this. Okay, I’ll take that into consideration.” Then when you hear it another couple of times, it’s like, “Well, if I’m hearing this a lot of times, maybe I should look into it more.”I think that is a really critical thing: to have a massive understanding about where your positive and negatives are. That way it will help shape you on down the line.

When I began, we had to be a generalist. Everyone in the industry had to be. There were no disciplines. So we needed to learn every area in the pipeline. I think that was an important factor: learning every area before you kind of picked where you want to go. You could also learn what you’re not so good at and then you could start to avoid those types of projects.

QYou’re very involved in VFX instruction and education. In fact, you’ve actually taught classes on VFX. What’s the most important thing you get from teaching others to do what you do?

I will say that when I started out in the industry, there were a lot of people who had their couple of tricks and that was it. They all stuck around doing that one thing. It was frustrating to me because they’d never want to share their secrets. It kind of frustrated me that we were obviously going to work together, but yet there was this really this kind of blocked mindset.

I started out when I was 16. I was already in the industry for two years doing video games. But I did a lot of learning, figuring out particles, dynamics before that was really big in Max and still kind of early in Maya. And so I started writing a lot of lessons. But every time I’d figure something out, I’d want to teach others. For me, that was a personal thing because I just wanted to break away from this whole mindset of, in the 90’s at least, everyone was so super secretive about everything they did. They didn’t want to share. But I wanted everyone to be like, “Why don’t we all work together and if you figure out something cool – say hey, ‘I’ve got something cool over here let me show you guys'”.

That to me was more of a personal goal, that I wanted to help everyone find a way to share knowledge. I think the key advantage is basically the fact that [teaching] can help you. By teaching your process you’ll better understand it. It’s because you’ve got to regurgitate that information out to others. So, you really need to start to look at and understand why you do certain things. So I think teaching helps you formalize that.

QWhat’s a film project you wished you had been a part of in the past and why?

Uh, there’s plenty. My girlfriend looks at me angrily because I have more stories about movies I’ve turned down than I actually took on. But, there’s plenty of movies like The Matrix. I could have worked on that doing a lot of digital pyrotechnics and a lot of cool stuff. I turned it down because I took on a contract two days before that for George of the Jungle 2, which…uh..[laughs] yeah, I’m still kicking myself about that.

But there’s plenty of those, but in terms of actual movies that I’d really wished I’d worked on. I haven’t seen Godzilla, but I think that’s one of those films that would be fun because it’s a giant creature smashing cities – it’s every boy’s dream to kind of smash stuff. I was actually really curious at the time who was working on it because I was tempted to contact them and say, “Hey, can I jump on this?” But I’ve been pretty lucky, I’ve worked on some pretty high profile films that are pretty iconic. I’ve been pretty happy with the decisions I’ve made for the most part – with the exception of George of the Jungle 2 [laughs].

From the TV series Witches of East End (2013)
QYou’re known as an expert in the field of VFX destruction and you’ve created a lot of digital explosions, fire, weather, etc. in your career, in addition to other types of modeling and animation. Other than these types of fluid, dynamic particles, what are your other favorite things or people to animate, create or model?

That’s a good question. I think that this actually goes back to the character traits of what we talked about before, which I think everyone should have. That is that everyone should probably start out as a generalist just because you get a good understanding of how the whole machine functions. And then you can kind of pick your niche from there.

But I think having a good understanding of lighting is a very crucial thing no matter what you’re in. It will help you, no matter what you’re doing – make your work better. So, I think that’s a really crucial thing. I think learning some of the more traditional things such as, not necessarily character animation, but animation itself is very important. It’s more about learning timing and learning beats. When you start to really look at what you’re doing and why.

I think that’s the biggest thing I don’t see typically when I’m around people. There’s people who’ve been in the industry for a while and they know how to get a good shot. And then there’s the people who have learned all the buttons, but they don’t really understand what it needs to do other than it’s technically doing what it should be doing. So, for example, if you were to work on an explosion, you need to figure out the time and the weight and try and make it have a lot of kick. At the same time, you need to take yourself out of the operator’s seat and start to look at this through the eyes of your client, at what they would want, not what you would want.

I think that’s another thing. People get so buried in the trenches that they don’t really look at what they’re doing or review it in that way. So, I say always treat whatever you’re doing as a business, so if you’re an artist, you still own a business. You’re going in, you’re working on stuff. Even as freelancers, we are an entity that needs to go around to companies and represent ourselves; get our name out there. The more you treat this as if you’re a studio of your own, the more you’re gonna have to review [the work] yourself.

You’re going to need to make some critical calls for yourself about what you need to fix and what’s wrong. When a client or boss tells you stuff, you need to put on the hat of a studio and say, “Okay, well I’ll take those into consideration,” instead of making excuses. The more you start to be professional about things, the more you start to look at it that way. That’s kind of off topic from like technical stuff to learn, but I think it’s one of those valuable things that never gets taught. Eventually you learn it yourself.

QWhat do you like to do better: create or problem solve? Or are they simply two faces of the same coin?
They’re very different, but I’ve worked in different areas, I’ve worked on set, I’ve done a lot of supervising, and then I’ve also worked as an operator. I keep going back to being an operating just because I love getting in there and doing things myself. Then there’s a lot of enjoyment comes from supervising projects and seeing the whole thing come together. I think it really comes down to the individual [project] for me. I love problem solving and I think that’s why I ended up in effects because it’s not really about doing, it’s more about the problem solving aspects. Typically, once you’ve figured out how to do it, it doesn’t take long, and you can do it again much quicker. It’s more about, “How the hell am I going to blow up the moon?” or whatever the task is going to be that day.
QHow has your experience been working with Blur Studios on the up and coming Halo project?

Blur I’ve worked with a lot of times. I worked with them actually 10 years ago on another Halo project. And so, I came back for Halo again. They’re a super talented team of people and this project they’re doing is the biggest thing they’ve done to date. It’s still in production, so I can’t say much about it. They’re a really amazing team. They’re always pushing the boundaries of what they actually do. They’re probably one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with in terms of having 100 or a 120 solid artists who are all super talented and very capable of working both as a team, but also as individuals. It’s been an honor to come back and work with them again.

QLast question: Is there a shot that you’re most proud of and why?
I’d say one of the biggest challenges I’ve done was working on Flight, which is a Robert Zemeckis’ film with Denzel Washington. That movie was not meant to be a visual effects film. Robert Zemeckis made films like Cast Away and Forrest Gump and all of these other big films. He has done some CG films as well, but this was meant to be completely real. The whole movie situates around this big plane crash, and so I’d came out to do the plane crash, and that was a pretty epic task.

Zemeckis is pretty famous for doing like massive long shots. His plane crash was I think 2500 frames or something ridiculous. So, that was a huge challenge, and in the end we couldn’t even render it, it was so big. Yeah, I think in a way Flight, just because that was more about invisible effects and such an epic thing. Those are some of the film’s I’m really proud of. I’ve worked on movies like Blade or Priest. They’re fun, but those were projects that I can be like yeah, I worked on that and feel pretty proud about.

Also, Superman Returns, blowing up the sun at the beginning of the film just because I got called two and half weeks before the movie was meant to be released. And I basically got flown out from Sydney, Australia to LA; literally got the call saying, “Can you be here in the morning?” I got tasked with being one of the key people involved with blowing up the sun and blowing up Kryton. We did like, I think it was a minute and a half of all CG massive explosions and everything in like two and half weeks. So, I think that movie just because it was such a massive achievement for such a little amount of time.

QThat is a quick turn around time for blowing up the Sun. Well, Allan we really appreciate you taking time out to do this interview for us. Congratulations on all of your success and good luck on all your up-and-coming projects. We look forward to seeing more of your work.

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Brian Collins

Brian Collins

Constantly on the hunt for all things newsworthy, Brian is a part of the team actively working on our blog and community forums.
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