VFX industry veteran Allan McKay shares his CG secrets and inspiration with us. Check out his awesome new showreel containing explosive 3D effects here too!
For this series, we’ve found some truly inspirational 3D artists who have been kind enough to share their CG tips and secrets with us.
This week, VFX guru Allan McKay, provides invaluable insights. We hope that you learn new techniques to help you to improve your CG skills, and most of all, that you enjoy Allan’s cool showreel…
Allan McKay is an award-winning industry veteran working in Hollywood as both a VFX Supervisor and Technical Director. He has worked for many leading studios, including Industrial Light + Magic, Ubisoft, Blur Studio and many more. Some of Allan’s recent projects include Flight, Transformers 3, Looper, Dracula 3D, The Last Airbender and Priest.
“I think I’m the only person in history to have Michael Bay ever comment that my explosions were ‘too big’!”
3D World: How did you break into the industry? Allan McKay: I started out in the mid-90s originally in computer games, one of my first jobs was working on Team Fortress 2 for Valve Software back in its early development days (the game ended up having a 10 year development span).
I started out initially using Deluxe Paint Animation and other 2D packages and then got into POVRay and 3D Studio R3 for DOS.
When Max and Maya came out I started delving into a lot of particle work which was still pretty raw, there weren’t really that many people doing FX work full time and I was definitely very interested in the hard-to-approach-stuff in 3D, such as digital fire, smoke, explosions, clouds, water, destruction etc. Which there wasn’t much of back then it was all practical elements for the most part.
So I went after those sort of jobs and through trial and error started researching day and night how to do a lot of this sort of stuff.
What was worse was anyone who DID do this sort of stuff, was very protective over their methods, and wouldn’t share with anyone. So I always enjoyed developing my own techniques and then heavily documentating how I did them, because obviously it was painstakingly hard to do a lot of this stuff so if I can help others where they’re struggling then that’s an added bonus.
I started out in Australia very young, close to 20 years ago and definitely things have changed drastically in many ways. I moved to the US when I was 21 (I waited until when I was legally old enough to drink of course!) and started out as a Lead at a studio in Hollywood doing game cinematics and moved into feature films, and started jumping to a lot of the larger studios sup’ing work etc.
3D World: What first inspired you to become a 3D artist? AM: I was always an artist, my mother always encouraged me to go after whatever I was pasionate about, so lots of sculpting, painting etc. But no real formal background etc. My mother coincidentally bought me an issue of Design Graphics Magazine in Australia, which covered a lot of really amazing Photoshop work as well as wavefront and other cool 3D imagary on the SGI.
Allan loves to blow things up, so on his showreel you'll find plenty of fire and smoke effects. Here's a still from Transformers 3 where Allan blew up a police car
It had a review of 3D Studio 3 for DOS in it, which looked amazing, I had no idea what any of that stuff was at the time, but it always stayed in the back of my mind that that stuff looked so amazing and polished, far better than anything I could ever paint (hey I was 11 and still wrapping my head around the concept of polygons etc. since 3D wasn’t really that mainstream until the late 90s). However it did give me that mental connection to what I wanted to do.
Without having any money I bought my first computer when I was 14 with my own money I earned from selling my art work anywhere I could. I started out doing pixel-by-pixel, frame-by-frame animation, and eventually got myself a 486-DX 100mhz PC with 4MB RAM – enough to barely run a 3D app and started working 24/7.
I literally buried myself in 3D, noone I knew even knew what 3D was, I had no internet, no books, manuals or way to even understand what keyframing was or any of the concepts we take for granted now. It was painstakingly painful to wrap my head around 3D especially with the packages that were out back then (no shaded viewports, no particles, packages like lightwave had separate apps for modeling modules etc. very different to now).
At the time I was interested in programming, however quitting school at a young age and again no books or people around to help, it was hard to find out where to start.
Watch Allan McKay’s showreel
3D World: At what point in your life did you make the decision that that’s what you were going to do? AM: It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done. I’ve done the reverse – at one point when I was 16 and after working for nearly three years already, I wanted to have a simpler job like my friends all did, they all worked at Pizza Hut or Subway as a part time job, studied and partied.
I’d been working in offices or remotely from home at that point, so I actually quit freelancing and got a job for six months at KFC in my home city, just for fun. Not the most pleasant work but I enjoyed hanging out with people my age and trying something different just for kicks.
But for the most part, rather than doing multiple career changes in my life, I did that internally, moving from initially video games to commercials and then film, and then from specifically FX/Dynamics to leading teams, producing, R&D, later VFX supervision on set, and then eventually running a studio. It’s only been the last few years I jumped back into 3D again and it’s been a great break from other stresses to find something I’m passionate about and enjoy the day-to-day challenges of working on FX shots for various high-profile films.
3D World: Where do you draw your inspiration from? AM: Personally, I get it from everywhere. I don’t really see myself as much of an artist, in terms of my day-to-day work. I’m rarely modeling or if I am animating anything it’s more realistic dynamics and destruction, the rest of the time it’s simulations and heavy amounts of problem solving.
So I wouldn’t call myself an artist these days – I love the business side and I love the service side of production. However, I occasionally direct and do other things still which are more my creative output.
My inspiration usually comes from other peoples work, things I see day to day etc. I usually paint most of the work I do before I start, this allows me to communicate what I want to clients as well as give me a clearer idea of what I plan to do before I start, as it’s very easy to bury yourself in the technical side and lose control of what you were visually trying to achieve.
YouTube definitely is a starting point for drawing things from reality, plus I use Evernote’s tool to quickly store cool images or on my iPhone as well when I see things on the web or other places. I’m in Detroit this week and seeing all the run down buildings out here is really interesting, and there’s already so many photos I’ve taken just of burned down houses or deserted buildings etc. My brain gets very ADHD when it comes to ideas for cool shots or other things so I’m constantly pulling out my phone to write notes on ideas for upcoming projects etc. But even seeing other people’s work is inspiring, even sometimes if it’s not necessarily ‘good’ the idea might be really solid, or bits of it might inspire you to do something completely different.
3D World: What is the most enjoyable project you have worked on so far in your career? AM: There’s so many great ones, I enjoyed working on Transformers 3 for many reasons, it was a tight turnaround project working with a lot of ex Orphanage (studio in San Francisco) staff, really amazing team of people.
It was one of those jobs that had such a high demand and a very small amount of time to turn it around. I worked with an experienced team and we worked a lot of hours but there was never a single point where we ever went in the wrong direction, we were always moving forward.
I was FX Lead and had a lot I was chewing through, everyone there were really inspiring and motivating just everyone’s attitude and great work they were doing. I think I’m the only person in history to have Michael Bay ever comment that my explosions were ‘too big’ when I blew up a police car in one of the more epic shots I worked on.
3D World: What 3D tools and techniques do you use on a day-to-day basis? AM: Right now I’m doing a lot more 3D so I’ll state the obvious stuff I use – a majority of FX work I do in Max. A majority of the tools I use are the plugins for Max:
I use Supermesher in 3ds Max for all the mesh caching, this can be a real life saver with complicated shots being able to cache everything and pull all particles into a master file for rendering etc. without any memory overhead for pre-rolling particles and calculations etc.
Thinking Particles I don’t really use too much, I think the software is amazing, I use it when it’s needed. I think the RBD solver is one of the best out there, very solid for dynamics etc.
For water currently I use Realflow and have been using it since around 1998. Although I’m really interested in trying Naiad and Houdini at this point, Naiad’s large-scale, water-based stuff looks amazing and Houdini’s SPH-based particles are interesting for more regular-sized sims.
Realflow I love, but it requires a lot more fighting to get stable results and in more ambitious projects that can be make or break.
I comp in Nuke, Deadline’s more my preference for network rendering, Shotgun I have a love-hate relationship with for managing projects amongst mid-sized teams.
I like Reel production calendar for scheduling projects, it’s pretty low profile tool and is only Windows based, but pretty cool very much like a lite version of microsoft project. So it’s great for me personally just to block out my year with projects etc.
I also like Mind Meister just for brainstorming and building notes.
I figure everyone’s going to point out the usual tools like Photoshop etc. So I figured I’d mention a few of the less mainstream tools I use on a day-to-day basis that I find really enjoyable.
I use Google Docs heavily to just write up spreadsheets for all my shots. I tend to heavily manage myself, with lists of all my shots, status, paths to everything. This way it’s easy for me to juggle more work but also communicate with other team members when I need to share things to give updates. I think this is definitely crucial for all artists – I’d personally love to see this more.
Evernote just for randomly snapshotting things and making notes. That’s more a personal thing, but it helps daily with everything I do.
Allan uses a mix of Max plugins in order to achieve fantastic VFX
3D World: What’s your favourite 3D package? AM: I always get asked this and my jaded self I usually say I hate them all equally. I think every package is pretty much able to do anything you need these days. There is no ‘superior’ package. However, it’s more a preference to how you like to work, and also what studios are a majority in your city. Don’t go and learn Houdini if you’re based in New York and don’t go and learn Maya if you find most of the jobs advertised are Max rather than Maya etc.
Personally I use 3ds Max, I know Maya equally as well, but Maya hasn’t evolved much for FX in the past nine years, nParticles isn’t evolutionary and a lot of its mindset for FX is pretty old these days. Personally I haven’t even looked at any of Max’s new features since Max 8, I use it solely for the plugins, Fume FX, Krakatoa etc. I think Max is great.
3D World: What’s your favourite film containing VFX/CG? AM: That’s such a hard question, in a way I always go back to Jurassic Park, because it was one of the first ever CG films and it still holds up today flawlessly. It and Terminator 2 really set the CG boom and many, many, many movies over the following decade were filled with bad CGI that pretty much gave the reputation for CG looking fake. Whereas Jurassic Park just still today holds up really well. You can’t look at a single shot and be like “oh that’s so fake” and it’s 1993!
Jurassic Park is one of Allan's favourite films. "Jurassic Park just still today holds up really well," says Allan. "You can't look at a single shot and be like "oh that's so fake" and it's 1993!"
3D World: What’s your favourite animation? AM: I’m one of those people that oddly doesn’t watch that many animated features. I used to, Toy Story 1 was inspiring to me because I was getting pretty heavily into 3D when that first came out, so it was kind of inspiring being able to relate to it at the time.
Avatar’s interesting because it isn’t actually an animated feature, but you get so immersed in the film and in that world that when they do cut back to the live action sequences you kind of snap out of it and remember oh yeah there’s people in this movie too. Which makes it interesting when the two finally cross paths at the end.
I think if I had to pick a favorite feature, CG or not CG I would choose Monsters Inc. from Pixar, I just really like that film, it uses a really nice palette of colors, and overall just always sat well with me, plus there was plenty to do with that entire world character design wise etc. Some animated features like Cars and Finding Nemo (yes, I still liked it… just more the theme didn’t really grab my attention) both weren’t really movies that inspired me, I think Cars was the film that in a way put me off of animated features a bit, maybe I just prefer biped/quadruped characters over fish and cars.
3D World: What advice can you give for aspiring 3D artists looking to break into the industry? AM: Take your job seriously.
Learn to be just as good in business as you are in your work. In other words, have a plan and figure out all your tactics to get your foot in the door. I say take it seriously, because it’s such a highly competitive industry with so much talent, that you really need to figure out your way to break into it.
And you need to focus and really grip the right skill set to make yourself stand out. Pick the popular software that your city/country uses, and try to find postings for jobs and try to pick something that’s in high demand without much of an actual competitive market.
In other words, be good at modeling, but if you notice there’s lots of job postings out there for rendering and lighting people, and not many to fill it – then maybe it can’t hurt to learn a bit of L+R as well?
Lastly, hang in there. It takes time, I spent years when I first started out trying to get my big break, but once you’re in it’s relatively easy to consistently get work. It’s just the initial proof that you are capable of doing the work most studios don’t want to gamble on initially. And network – make as many friends as possible, and don’t screw up your professional reputation, you’ll never outrun it.
3D World: Please could you share a top tip with us on how you work? AM: There’s so many, some of these might sound simple and probably not too applicable at first, but they’re pretty key.
I tend to work at the same scale when doing all my FX. I usually will rescale my shots down to whatever scale I find useful and go from there. In other words, if I’m doing a lot of fire and explosions at a specific scale, the next few shots or projects I’ll probably make my scenes the same scale.
Most solvers, when it comes to fire and particles etc, aren’t necessarily too physically accurate (more specifically fire/water fluids than RBD solvers) so it isn’t too big a deal if your stuff isn’t at the same scale as everything else when you’re working on it. You can rescale your solvers back up or else your render passes still come out fine and match etc.
This sounds a bit silly, but most packages’ tools are built at certain scales and when they go too extreme big or small they break, but more importantly, if your forces, your turbulence, your sims, everything are always the same scale, then the values you work at will always be the same. So there’s less guessing and playing around, you can usually punch in the right values and get the exact look you like, or better yet recycle effects from previous projects etc.
I just find that working this way everything consistently works and I can get the desired look I’m after usually within the first 1-2 iterations because I know what every setting is going to do and how it’s going to look before I sim it. Rather than playing around and trying to guess the right settings for that scale etc.
There’s a time and place for everything so use your judgement to where this applies, but I do commonly get asked about scale, and see people running into issues or struggling to get good results at extreme scales etc. So this is why I bring this up.
At the same time, learn some scripting, it doesn’t hurt to know a bit of Python no matter what you’re doing and it will help you down the line as you evolve as an artist.
3D World: Do you have any comments on how the industry has changed since you first started? AM: I started out in 1994. It’s changed so much over the years, it’s ridiculous. I’d say there’s definitely more people.
When I started out, I couldn’t really explain to people what I did because VFX/CGI/Animation etc. weren’t really common terms, now your neighbor will be referring to mocap suits, green screens and Maya etc. without blinking an eye.
There’s definitely more people doing it, the industry is far bigger, many many productions going on world wide, the infrastructure has changed drastically, now with larger studios outsourcing to smaller studios who outsource again and split areas up to send to other regions for more efficient budgeting.
However, with more people doing it, and access to the internet, people are all coming out of schools fully equipped to rock and roll in this industry, so its much more competitive to get into the industry I think than it used to be. But as I said above, it’s just a matter of learning good business ethics and finding a way to establish yourself.
The industry in a way is definitely more shaky, with more productions, the expectations have risen, and so have the budgets, however, studios still underbid and the profit margins aren’t very wide.
Studios collapse constantly, perks and benefits aren’t as common in smaller studios etc. More work is going off-shore (from Hollywood at least, to Vancouver, London, Australia etc).
Definitely with larger amounts of work needed on any given film, it’s less common to have one studio handle the work, now it’s usually sourced out to multiple vendors, so it’s interesting whereas before it usually was one studio would handle all of the work. I just recently finished up on Denzel Washington’s new film, whereas one studio (Atomic Fiction) handled all of the work on the VFX which was fun, as we were a lot more tied into the process.