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Five questions to... Allan McKay

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Interview by Marcelli Michele (Michele71)


“…Allan McKay is an award winning Visual Effects Supervisor and Director, originating from the Gold Coast of Australia, now living in California in the United States for Hollywood studios including Warner Bro’s, Prime Focus Company – Frantic Films, Emmy award winning Digital Dimension and Oscar nominated Blur Studio, as well as George Lucas’ Emmy award winning company Industrial Light + Magic, amongst dozens of others all around the worl[…]Allan is also the owner of visual effects studio, Catastrophic FX. While also expanding his ultra-successful product line on Hollywood film training, primarily aimed at advanced audiences and senior studio staff to grasp many of the latest methods and techniques, utilized throughout dozens of studios including Blizzard Cinematics, Ubisoft, Blur Studio and Nintendo[…]Allan has personally been awarded and recognized as an Autodesk Master, receiving his Autodesk Masters award at SIGGRAPH conference in San Diego 2007, as well as working major film projects including Superman Returns, Day Breakers, Warhammer: Dawn of war, Super bowl XXXIX and hundreds of others, many of which have been nominated or won various awards including Oscar and Emmy awards…”

Hi Allan how are you?

Doing great thanks!

Then, tell us something about you…

I was born on the Gold Coast in Australia, I started 3D in the early 90's and there wasn't much in the way of resources back then like internet or schools.

So I pretty much had to learn on my own, I bought a book from New Riders publishing called Inside 3D Studio R3 - which was for 3D Studio DOS.

And began just working day and night on doing the best 3D I could. It wasn't until later there became a lot of great resources online for learning 3D etc. such as 3DCafe.com and IRC channels etc.

Did you do any other jobs before working on 3D Graphic?

I started 3D quite young (14 years old I began working in computer games - my first project was working on the game Half-Life). So rather than having other jobs before I started my visual effects career - I tended to move around inside the visual effects world later once I had established my career.

So I tend these days to do a mix of quite a lot of different roles in the visual effects world. So I work as a technical director in 3D, but also I supervise on set, I do a lot of training, I also work as a producer and director at other times.

So I've found a lot of freedom within this industry and a lot of great opportunities.

How and when did you find the world of 3D Graphic?

I've always been an artist, and I think playing a lot of computer games as a kid, I began wanting to work in games myself, and so I began to modify the artwork in games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, Quake etc. So that let me begin to apply my work in a more physical way.

The first 3D application I ever got my hands on was 3D Construction Kit, on the old 5.4" floppy disks, and it required a lot of programming to make anything animate or really work.

I later got into pov-ray and Vista Pro - and then eventually 3D Studio R3 for MS-DOS, and then Maya 1.0 and Max 1.0 came out shortly after that.

I spent most of my time in 3D Studio, I found trying to recreate fire, smoke, steam or clouds to be the most difficult things inside of 3D, as there wasn't really any way to do it back then.

There was a great IPAS routine (essentially a plugin) that allowed the creation of fire, but it would take hours to generate one single frame. And the technology isn't far off of what computer games do these days. So I think even from the very beginning I've been heavily invested in FX.


What were your first experiences and when was the moment of your final achievement?

I first started in 3D when I was 14, I quit school to focus on my career. Most of the work I did back then was computer games, I later moved into television commercials when I was 17, that is where I really got to chase my passions with fx etc.

My first television commercial was a talking dogs commercial, so I was required to create a 3D talking animals, by building 3D jaws and morphing etc. It was pretty interesting and turned out great, getting to watch my work on television was really fun!

My first EVER 3D experience however, might have been when I was 11 or 12, I was always obsessed with artwork and I found a magazine in Australia called Design Graphics Magazine, they did a review of 3D Studio Release 3 for DOS.

So I was really intrigued by this as the images were so polished and clean, like nothing I could paint.

I eventually got my hands on Vista Pro which was a teragen type application that would generate landscapes from fractals. So this was my first ever chance to render in 3D, and at the time it felt like cheating, as it wasn't like I was painting the images myself. Until that point I was uding deluxe paint animation a 2D paint program to paint pixel by pixel, frame by frame the visuals I wanted.

The real major breakthrough was when I started using 3D Studio for DOS, I was able to create my own 3D models, and animate them. The tools were quite primitive back then, but using lofting and other methods you were able to create geometry, light and texture it. It was pretty amazing and for me it felt like my calling.

I know even back then I was more obsessed with FX. Because you couldn't DO FX back then, there were no real tools to create fire or smoke etc. so i was quite obsessed with creating smoke, or clouds etc. So I would always take photos of clouds and other elements to put into my shots because they weren't possible to create.

So when I heard 3D Studio MAX had been released and there was a particle system in it, I was very eager to look into it. Naturally it was a bit of a letdown ass it was "spray" for max, which literally lets you generate a few dots nothing too complicated. But as time progressed better tools came out, parray and others were great additions that allowed me to step up and do what I wanted to do.

Staying closely in the field of 3D graphics, which is your classic workflow?

My usual workflow varies, I tend to do a lot of things outside of 3D such as producing productions and on set supervision, so because of this my week to week varies.

But overall when working in 3D I usually will talk with the director or if I'm just a technical director, I will speak to my supervisor about what they need. Usually I will paint up concepts of what I plan to create just to make sure we are all in agreement.

Once the look is officially locked down, I will then begin to block out the effects and continue to revize and add to the process. I build most of my work as individual passes and build my own nuke flow's for the comp, which later I plan to pass to the compositor to finish off.

I usually tend to work fast, and communicate heavily with the compositor and supervisor so that we can really maximize the quality of what we want and the fastest period possible.

Everything I do tends to be different but I usually will break things up into as many elements as I can, and produce as many render passes and effects as I can, so that we have more freedom in the comp to mix and match passes and get the most flexibility possible.

The use of plugins (like FumeFX ) is an important part of your job. How they are essential to determine the final product?

"Fume FX" is an amazing tool and I rely on it heavily, I have used it on many big productions to literally save the day sometimes.

Custom tools are great, because as great as Autodesk and other companies are at building strong 3D tools, having other individual companies focusing solely on one individual tool allows them to really focus on making it strong and really production ready.

So having a lot of these tools that are so strong and really given the attention they need strengthens them immensely.

Considering your experience as an author of teaching materials (for example as your latest work “FumeFX Core Fundamentals”) which is your relationship with communication in general??

I try to balance working in production as well as sharing information. When I started out in the mid 90's doing 3D and FX there weren't really any people sharing their knowledge, everyone was very scared to show people their techniques in case it made them more employable.

So I had to learn everything myself, so I wanted to share what I learned with everyone so they didn't have to figure it all out on their own.

These days I do a lot of public talking at conferences and events around the world, and try to be as active as I can online. So I try to do what I can to share my knowledge with others.

The past few months I have been working on developing a new line of training material primarily focused around Fume FX. So I have recently released Fume FX Core Fundamentals (http://www.fumefxtraining.com) which has been a great success covering all high end film content for Fume FX.

This is what the level of quality I like to achieve with all of my training and find it really enjoyable to do this sort of thing.


This kind of job besides the success, what did it give you?

I've felt pretty lucky in my field to get to work on so many great productions, with great people.

I have used my career as a way to get a lot of freedom and get to travel the world, so it's been really great for me to do what I do. I've learned a lot and gotten to move into other areas such as directing and producing too, so it's given me a lot of freedom in that way.

Are you satisfied?

I have a lot of goals and plans in my life, so I'm happy with where I am at, but I have many more plans and ambitions.

What does mean for you, work with the largest production companies in the world?

I feel lucky to work with so many talented people on a daily basis, I think the industry we're all in is really amazing and there's so many great minds. Getting to work on such great film productions is a great blessing!


What advice can you give to guys who want to begin this work?

I think when starting out, being a sponge for knowledge is really important. And not giving up. breaking into the industry is a lot of work and requires persistence, it's a very competitive industry and budgets aren't too big, so studios usually want to be confident about hiring more experienced people so it's always a bit more difficult to gamble with junior artists initially.

So it sometimes requires months of looking for work but once you start to get employed you'll have no problem finding work.

Did you work in Europe? If you say yes, which are the difference between Europe and U.S. working?

The working conditions are a little different, but it really comes down to the studio. I think there are a lot of similarities between the US and Europe when it comes to film and television.

But I would say the differences are more on a per studio basis, some studios do things quite differently, and budgets and financial backing also tend to play a big role here too. I think there are a lot of great talent in Europe, as with everywhere in the world, and what I find more enjoyable is seeing individual cultures and local talent being able to apply their own backgrounds and individual experiences.

Until now, what was your most important job?

I have many, Superman Returns is one of my favorites, I got to work on the set for that film, as well as in R&D and also on a lot of the sequences toward the end of the movie.

Recently I finished a movie called Priest - which comes out in May, with a lot of the Orphanage VFX team. It was also a really fun and challenging roll, and probably my best work.

Working for Industrial Light + Magic was a huge honor, so many amazing and talented people working there, it was just great to be in the same room as many of them!


Have you ever worked or visited Italy?

I visited Rome last year on my birthday. I was working on a movie in Berlin and wanted to get away for the weekend. I really want to go back and visit sicily and some of the other great cities!

What are your next projects or works?

I have just finished a few projects, and of course Core Fundamentals.

I am jumping onto Transformers 3 to help finish up some emergency shots over the next month or so.

So after that I am talking with a few studios right now trying to decide what to take on next. So, I will let you know!

Thanks Allan for your kindness and the time you've given us for this interview. We hope to see soon other big jobs!!

Thank you!

Allan McKay Site

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Edited by franci2k5

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