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Going after the unattainable

Readtime: 20 minutes

Foreword


I’ve been hesitant to publish this, on many levels, and even writing it in a lot of ways has been difficult to look back at everything. My intent for this article is not to make a “my life” story, but more to point out certain pivotal moments that changed my life, and trickle in key bits of advice that can be applied to anyone’s career. Also. to demonstrate times of failure, self doubt, and pushing through it to success.

My intention’s not to make this article “braggy” or “look at me now”. More (I hope) it inspires some of you who are at that tipping point of wondering if they should keep doing what you love, or if you should just give up. Even recently I have met people who are ‘in’ the industry but haven’t quite “made it” and are questioning themselves. I’ve been asked so many of these type of questions recently, and also seen people close to me giving up on their dreams because of self doubt, or doubt of their friends or family. This just seemed like the right time to write this. I have nervously shown this to a select few people within this industry that I look up to who have all responded so unexpectedly with how it affected them and inspired it made them or how they could relate.. They finally gave me the bravery to actually post this!

Mastering anything, doesn’t come overnight – we all reach our tipping point where we can begin to doubt ourselves. The ones that push forward are the ones that make it. “nothing worth having is easily obtained”

Going after the unattainable

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. But when I finally made the realization that I wasn’t ‘actually’ going back, I realized 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 fare share of people dropping out of highschool while 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 I needed to do something with my life.

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.

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 this one studio – Industrial Light + Magic (ILM). But this was where I felt destined to be!

But with no education, no money (my mom and I lived in a 300 square ft 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. Before the internet had arrived to make the world such a 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.

new

Allan at 5 years old

Growing up I always loved art. I loved drawing, sculpting, pastels, hell I used to 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 when I was 4 years old. So although my mom and I never ‘had’ money, at all (I was the poor kid that never wanted to leave my friends 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 mothers friends to buy my sketches. Which were mainly all 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 had set up multiple garage sales on the side of the road to sell pretty much anything I owned when I was desperate or if I had my mind set on buying something. At age 8 for instance, 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). But I learned very early on the valuable lesson that if I want something, I need 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 an old second hand 286 PC for $300. With 1mb of RAM, 8-bit graphics card (a grand 256 colors), a mouse and assortment of paint and animation programs. All I could fit on 40mb of disk space. Now I could play video games, finally.

But I found something that instantly I knew was my future. I don’t know how, or even what I would actually put this use to. But my obsession with multimedia had stuck with me ever since playing my first video game, or seeing FMV (Full Motion Video) or other now laughable graphics that I was in awe of back then. 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 then have a source for scenery,  or environments pretty much using the game as my camera. I’d then bring it into these 2D programs and begin the hideous task of frame by frame, pixel by pixel painting out various things, such as characters, interfaces etc. So I then had a place to then start to paint in my own animations, make my own movies. This was the beginning for me.

2d

Deluxe Paint + Animator Pro in all their 8-bit glory!

We all have those key moments in our lives, those big ‘sliding doors’ moments that we can pinpoint where something big had happened that 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. Or in this case, when I was 11, and my mom came home from buying the groceries, and on a whim, had bought me a gift of an issue of Design Graphics Magazine, for me to read. It was so random that she had done that. But as I flicked through the magazine, each page turn brought me closer to discovering something that singlehandedly changed my life forever.

There were two things that stood out, one was some of the advertisements for Wavefront, a 3D program on the SGI pretty famous for the TV show ‘ReBoot’ which was one of the first computer animated TV series to ever come out. SGI’s… Something I knew nothing about. Other than to me back then being super computers, that usually are responsible for making all of this CGI ‘stuff’. The other, was a review of 3D Studio R3 for DOS.

But I couldn’t make sense what exactly I was looking at. All I knew, was that I couldn’t paint these ever so clean, lit, smooth surface images like in this magazine. It was far beyond what I could paint or draw on a computer. I didn’t know how they did it, but it felt so.. CLEAN! and.. REAL! But again, out of my reach. The review of 3DSR3 however, did stick in my mind.. They talked so in depth about it. In a way I knew this software, if I could get my hands on it, was the 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. I could suddenly paint – again, frame by glorious frame characters in motion, and insert the .PCX images into the game and have it read them and see these monsters I created come to life within the game. Customize maps, develop my own world inside of this game engine. MY 286 couldn’t handle Doom, yet I was obsessing over that game now, and started to recreate my own art of Doom inside of Wolfenstein. My own characters, 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!

wolf3d

Shortly after I quit school, I had now managed to replace all of the parts inside of my 286′s case with a 486DX-4 100mhz. 4mb of ram. Finally, I could play Doom. Through an odd twist of events, I also managed to get 3D Studio R4 for DOS. 14 floppy disks later and about 2 hours of installing. I was ready to rock and roll. With a not too legitimate copy of the program that my mothers, friends, friend who was in architecture, briefly 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 obsession began. I hid away and disappeared from my family and peers. I made friends with caffeine and I set out to master this software. The only time I had for sleep, was whatever amount of hours remaining was listed in my render dialog. At 6 in the morning if it said my render would take 5 hours, I would set my alarm and I’d be back at it 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 at all costs, to follow my passion and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.

screenshot.3dsdos copy

3D Studio Release 4 (1995) for MS-DOS

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 in front of crowds as large as 3,000 people in a single room, many countries all around the world. At this stage, I’ve done a lot. And this is a common subject that comes up, how did I start my career. Or where did I go to school. How did I get into this. More recently it’s become a pretty common question how did you get that big break, that job that changed everything, and were there pitfalls along the way, people who doubted you or tried to persuade you to quit.

CROWD1

My Keynote at Mindtrek Conference – Finland  (2013)       Autodesk University, Las Vegas (2012)

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. It made me be able to get such an unattainable dream, and break it down into digestible steps, that I could do, one step 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 that wasn’t really very mainstream back then. I wanted most likely to end up as a Technical Director – which described to me was half way between a creative role, and a programming role. Requiring a lot of problem solving. This I felt summarized a few of my drives into one. Ultimately, thinking – long long pipe dream goal – was to maybe become a visual effects supervisor. That seemed to be the job the top guys who you see at Industrial Light + Magic, Digital Domain, PDI and the others on on the documentaries about CGI seemed to have. So that sounded like the be all and end all for visual effects.

At the bottom of the paper I marked with an X – which pretty much stood for ‘You are here’. I logically wrote down the roadblocks I thought I would have. 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. I wrote them in the middle of the paper. And then I began to break down each step – ok so 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 fulfill a different step prior to that step. Each of these seemed like completely different tasks, and I soon had over a dozen steps or mini goals I had to do to tackle each of these things. It was going to be a lot of work. But 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 go 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. So I needed to break down a career path next. Once I had achieved all of those mid-way markers, I had stepping stones from there to getting to that goal, at least those would be more linear. I aimed to work in video games, and eventually work my way into TV and film over time. I still look back on this sheet of paper, as a magic bullet, an instructional guide on how to reach ultimate goal of working in Hollywood. And I’m still convinced, that most people who set out to do what they want to do, never get there, because they simply had a goal they thought 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 off of your enjoyment? Most, 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 their asses off no matter what the cost to getting there. Who here likes a challenge?

movies

Some of the pivotal moments in CGI that inspired me and still inspire me

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 as a differentiator for special effects, which was the practical side. One of my goals was to still try to find others interested in this subject, again without any internet (yet) around that time I moved to fairly small city, Brisbane with my mom. I enrolled at a college briefly 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, a lot of phone calls and mailing in all of my work trying to prove I was serious about all of this. The main reason I enrolled was to use their labs, they had fast computers, and they also had 3D Studio Max 1. The other reason was to network, to meet others in my industry. I found this to be great, it was motivating to have others around who are 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 would 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 I would come across who seemed to look at the world and at everyone else with a lot of negativity and 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. Almost as if to overcome their insecurities they needed to pull their peers morale down. In addition, I had instructors, lab assistants and other more authority and influential people who are there to encourage you, 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 doing the same thing back home, they were all in school, and for them life was about chasing girls and underaged drinking, hanging out at the mall. I was in a whole other world than all of these people. I wasn’t willing to let people bring me down and tell me I can’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 ever be, and I wanted to be great. I didn’t want to be told I’m destined to fail, 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, and they don’t understand it, then of course they can’t relate, therefore it’s stupid, pointless or a waste of time. There’s people who project their own doubts in themselves onto others. If they feel like they can’t achieve their goals, if they can’t be excited about something. They push that onto you, whether they’re even aware they’re doing it or not.
There’s also my favorite, something I never understood. Jealousy. To this day, I can never understand how someone can witness someone 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. More talented, more successful. It inspires me. It makes me want to do better. I feed off of that. I will never, ever, understand why someone must tell someone else they aren’t any good to make themselves feel better.

Australia, especially – has a term “tall poppy syndrome” which to quote wikipedia:
Tall poppy syndrome (TPS) 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.

tall-poppy-syndrome

At the time however, there really was only two studios doing minor 3D work in my area, no video games or other mediums. Maybe everybody was was right, there wasn’t really a career out there for doing this sort of stuff. And then it happened. in 1996 A company called Auran, partnered with Activision and announced a AAA video game being developed right here in Brisbane. This was my big break!

I found out there was a big event for the games launch coming up. They were showcasing the game Dark Reign, and also played the amazing pre-rendered cinematic for it on the big screen (one of the earliest works of the newly formed Blur Studio in LA). I attended the launch, because I knew the developers were going to be there. 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, filling me with doubt and telling me “nobody is going to hire a kid”

The CEO, Greg Lane was there and after his big unveiling, I approached him from the side and just asked him one single question outright, directly eye to eye. I needed to know, for my own sanity “Do you have an age limit on hiring your artists? If they’re good, and under 18, Will you hire them?” Lane’s response: “If you’re good, you’re good – we’ll hire you”

I darted out of that convention center so fast, I literally ran, walked and ran with so much new determination straight home to my computer to begin working harder than ever on my first demo reel. A video compilation of all of my work. I thought it was time to try and venture out into the world. I was hungry for this. Nothing else mattered. I was going to get a job there! I have to! I cut my reel and output it at the college lab onto a VHS tape. I mailed it in, and waited. And.. waited. I called, they had received it. I waited more. 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. But I saw it as obviously I need to get BETTER. I need to work harder. I need to work longer hours. People now had proof I wasn’t good enough. I could hear the I told you so’s echoing through my head. I spent 6 months, and I cut a new reel and sent it in. This was my absolute BEST work I had ever made. I was proud, and I knew this was it. I felt I practically had the job the minute the CD was mailed out to them. Again, rejection. I felt like a failure. At this stage, I was broken, I felt like giving up. I felt like everyone was right, and I had just wasted my life. I was still barely about to turn 15, but emotionally I was exhausted, I had given it everything I had and 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 like ‘of course they were right, who am I to think I’d actually make it and do something, and have actually achieved something I set out for?’.

I decided to give it one last shot. But if I was going to do this, I needed to start from scratch. I needed to take everything I knew, plan everything out – I needed to look at my work as if I was the one hiring me. Everything they could pick apart about my work. What were my weaknesses? There wasn’t room for any doubt, I needed to showcase characters, hard surface modeling, texturing abilities, shading abilities, lighting, animation, EFFECTS, I had learned so much from being so curious over the years I had gotten really good at this area, and I had also gotten a very strong grasp on integrating live action footage, or photos with CG. Not something too relative to games, but for movies – my end goal, this is something I needed to be good at.

I felt like applying again at Auran would be a handicap, this is going to be my last try I want a fresh chance to fail. I sent my work to two game companies. Both came back to me with job offers. Suddenly I was having multiple offers! WTF?! Within 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 fucking resume!

HLtf2

The thing I didn’t expect was afterwards I was still faced with being in Australia, where there wasn’t much work, a year went by with not the most glamorous jobs, I felt uninspired and again starting to feel depression sink in. However an artist that I had met while working on Half-Life who coincidentally also was from Australia, showed my then even newer (version 4) reel I had just cut, to his boss in Sydney. This reel didn’t contain any game work, it didn’t focus as much on texturing or animation – by this point I was focused on modeling, effects and compositing. 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 is something that was rare, as most people when they’re starting out have zero understanding of this and it 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, Animal Logic, GMD). I still remember my first day, walking up the stairs into the main hall and the odd soapy/fruity smell in the staircase of that building the long hallway filled with rooms, each room with 3D artists or Flame, Hal, Henry suites or the machine room, all these people all busy working on commercials, music videos, the feeling was overwhelming!

I started as a 3d artist, but with an emphasis on FX whenever that sort of work came in. 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, new techniques. I was trying to push the limits on what could be done at that time with FX, especially out of 3ds max, which was very much the underdog of 3D Software back then.

I documented it all into articles I published on-line, nobody else was doing this and I had to learn everything I knew from scratch, why not save everyone else the trouble, show the world how at least I created tornadoes, explosions, clouds, fire, whatever. My first two weeks at Ambience, I learned more than I had in my entire career leading up to that point. That was the point I felt I had arrived, I had achieved something. I was working with some of the most talented, amazing artists, many of which I got to meet again earlier this year when I visited Australia. Almost each and every person at that studio at that time, has individually influenced me in some way. Ambience at the time, was the most life changing experience for me, I was a sponge – being around so much creative talent I wasn’t going to let that opportunity go to waste.

Eventually, a friend of mine in editorial cut a new reel of my work – after having worked in TV commercials for two years, I suddenly had over 30 commercials I had worked on. I had so much stuff that was so polished and professional, there’s such a huge difference when working on productions with a team than by yourself. With a team you have everyone teaming together to make something great, your work instantly looks more polished – prior to that everyone’s student reel is always going to showcase more what areas you lack in rather than excel. I decided, as a gag to send my work to LA. I sent it only to two studios – Blizzard Cinematics, and Blur Studio. Both of these companies I was a huge fan of their work.

Blizzard sent back the standard HR thank you letter, 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 that moment, I wish I still had kept the email from nearly 15 years ago. Someone that I idolized and respected, as well as Blur Studio itself and the work they were doing, even back then. Contacting me at 18 saying he loved my work and wanted to offer me a job, move out to LA and work at Blur Studio. O-motherfucking-M-G! Shortly after it became obvious that although I seemed qualified for the job, I wouldn’t qualify yet with the government for a visa to work in the United States. But Tim kept in touch with me, and I continued to mail updated reels over the next couple of years and stay in touch.

blur

Since working at Ambience, I have never looked back. I left Ambience to work on my first ever Hollywood film – shortly after I was offered to work on the Matrix, and Lord of the Rings (sadly I had agreed literally days before that to take a staff job and work on two Disney films instead, which I knew would be flops but I wanted to honor my contract). I moved to Los Angeles days after I turned 21 (Come on guys, like I was going to move before I reached the legal drinking age in the US). I became a technical director at 19, I was a VFX Supervisor by 23, 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 got to speak at SIGGRAPH in front of hundreds of people close to 10 times now, One of the greatest moments for me was receiving the award as an Autodesk Master at SIGGRAPH in San Diego in front of hundreds of people (and recently, I was the only person in history to ever be nominated for the award again.. until Autodesk realized they already had awarded me the status and pulled the nomination), I’ve worked with amazing directors like Michael Bay and Robert Zemeckis, Bryan Singer, M. Night Shymalan (Hey! he’s alright!) even through a strange turn of events I was approached to interview for the position of Art Director on Doom 4 for id Software, which I felt too unworthy to consider (Last year I actually had dinner with the Art Director for Doom 4, and low and behold they definitely hired the right guy for this!).

I got to work with so many influential amazing artists (some of my closest friends that I’ll never say to their face but I completely idolize!) I have been blessed to work on many amazing movies, work under such great artists and supervisors, directors, be a part of so many amazing things 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 grateful and lucky and appreciative I am to have gotten to experience everything that I have. From people telling me the whole time growing up what I can’t do and that I won’t go anywhere, the one person I had that told me time and time again that I 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!

ilm_small

Allan at Industrial Light + Magic

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 far and few between but their encouragement is the ones that 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 do have a lot of influence on their lives, doubt them and encourage them to fail and push them to the brink of wanting to give up their dreams and their passions. Most of the time they don’t realize they’re even doing it. But take a minute to think about the effects 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 affect you could have on that person by showing a little encouragement. And 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.

-Allan McKay

November 4th, 2013 – Hollywood, California.

 

 

To contact Allan – Please email amckay@allanmckay.com

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Posted on November 12th, 2013
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Rock on guys!

-Allan McKay

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