Episode 315 — Becoming a TD
A Technical Director handles the technical side, builds scripts, automates tasks or supports their team. Sometimes, they’re the ones handling tricky shots. Sometimes their job is about problem solving. Other times, a TD comes up with a solution when production hits a wall. At the same time, a TD is also an artist.
There’s a huge demand for TD’s because they’re the ones building solutions for projects. A programmer will build a tool thinking about how it should work. But a TD will be a tool knowing how an artist will want it to work. There is a massive difference there! Which is why TD’s are irreplaceable. They do their own job and help others with theirs.
TD’s allow for everyone to do their jobs much better. Which is why they get paid better and why they’re higher in demand. Most of what VFX artists do is problem solving, on budget and on schedule. Part of the reason TD’s are higher in demand is because there’ll always be productions that need a TD to solve a problem.
In this Podcast, Allan breaks down the job of a Technical Director, the skillsets it requires, its pros and cons, as well as the path to becoming a TD and therefore — becoming an artist in demand.
[08:05] What Does a TD Do?
[13:32] The Importance of a Good TD
[21:51] Pros and Cons of the Job
[28:51] Specifics of the Job
[32:43] How to Become a TD
EPISODE 315 — BECOMING A TECHNICAL DIRECTOR
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 315! This is a solo Episode. It’s going to be about the job of a Technical Director, the skillsets it requires, its pros and cons and why a good TD is considered irreplaceable. I’m going to talk about a lot of important topics here.
Please take a few moments to share this Episode with others.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:07] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[39:29] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
BECOMING A TECHNICAL DIRECTOR
[02:45] When I first went into 3D, I was messing around trying to figure out what to do. Back in the 90s, there wasn’t an official FX position, it was just “a 3D Generalist”. It meant that we had to texture, light, model — do all the things — instead of having one single specialty. We had to handle every bit of it. I remember reading an article by Michel Comet (who worked for Pixar) in which he talked about different roles in 3D. One of the roles he brought up was a Technical Director. He described that role as someone who’s an artist but who also knows the technical side, like coding. That person was the best of both worlds. To hear about that role — someone who is technical but also an artist — that instantly resonated with me!
[04:13] I set my goal to achieve that by 40, I would have to become a TD in Hollywood. By 19, I was a Senior TD in Australia. I got to the goal a lot quicker than expected. Having that initial guidance changed things for me. It was about understanding the roles in VFX. Once I knew what to do, I had to understand:
- What does the role entail?
- What are the requirements?
- How do I become that?
[05:02] Because of that, I started to map out my whole path of how to become a TD in Hollywood and understand what I was lacking. But I had the drive! Self-identifying meant that I had a goal. It’s really important to understand what we want; but the best way to do that — is to understand what roles are out there. Even with TD’s there are different types:
- At a medium size studio, you might be a TD;
- At a large studio, you’re going to be a niche of a TD (a character or a lighting TD, etc).
- Even within that, you can splinter off further (hair TD, cloth TD, shading TD, comp TD, etc).
[06:45] I typically advise to become a TD and not splinter off too much in the beginning. The more you can serve different departments, the more you become irreplaceable. It’s good to understand where you can contribute the most.
WHAT DOES A TD DO?
[08:05] Let’s talk about what a TD does. They handle the technical side and build scripts, automate tasks or support their team. Sometimes, they’re the ones handling tricky shots. I remember on Superman Returns, we had been developing Krakatoa. We had done it for wispy stuff with it; but with this film, we’d gone into heavier metrics. I was blowing up the sun at the beginning of the film. It was looking pretty cool, but the Director and VFX Sup were pushing for more particles. We ended up having 700 million particles. There was a TD that came along who would handle the reiterations to create these splinter particles.
[09:48] Sometimes a TD goes in there and makes a specific area great. Sometimes it’s about problem solving. Other times, you hit a wall in production and a TD comes up with a solution. When it comes to scripting, tool building and automating, that’s a big part of what a TD does. If you were to look at Maya, Houding, Max, every button has a command. It’s a custom made script. So what if you had buttons made specifically for your production? A good example was in my FXTD Mentorship, when we created a script for ashing. Instead of going in manually, we developed a tool once. Everything else was automatically created. Then artists can go in and create the effects without having to understand every aspect of the effect. That’s how one can hire a lot of junior artists, instead of artists who are more mid-level and are worth more money.
[13:37] Sometimes it can be something like building a tool that submits the shot to the render farm. Then it submits it to comp and puts it in the folder for review. A task like that would take 20 minutes. But having to do that every single time adds up to hours. The job may vary from day to day, but that’s what makes it so exciting.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD TD
[13:32] Let’s talk about why a TD is so important. There’s a huge demand for TD’s because they’re the ones building solutions for projects. If you look at Photoshop, for example, it’s task saving that’s repeated over and over again. You don’t need to be a massive technical wiz, but having some technical understanding will definitely help you. The more you can get the software to bend to your will, the more in demand you will be. TD’s get paid the most and they often have more opportunity. This means they become highly irreplaceable.
[15:58] One of my friends at Weta was a Maya TD. He would write scripts for the team. His tools would solve an artist’s problem, and everyone else at the studio could use that tool as well. It meant that beyond that project they could still use that tool and do things faster. That also meant that they didn’t have to wait for any software to come up with new solutions. They could just do things themselves. My friend wasn’t just creating tools. He was working on commercials that required unusual solutions. As a TD, the more you understand the software you have, the more solutions you’re able to come up with. When the company lands the project, you can have a plan of action. That makes you highly irreplaceable. And that’s what my friend became.
[18:53] This is what I want you to think about. Think about how to make your own buttons, your own controls. I worked on The Equalizer which was shooting in Boston. I was constantly jetting between LA and Boston. It meant that I needed to make sure that the pipelines — at both studios — mirrored each other exactly. When I needed to publish my shots, using the VPN, they would upload to their network and rename them to the right folders, under the right names. I didn’t need to do anything manually. Human error is the most common thing. A computer is going to do what you tell it to do. So that’s an example of the work a TD does. This is important because we’re learning to automate tasks and customize the software, to bend it to our will.
PROS AND CONS OF THE JOB
[21:51] Let’s talk about the pros and cons. A lot of the big pros of being a TD is having a diversity of tasks. You’re tackling different tasks on every job. Every day, you’ll have different challenges. You can also be a cloth TD, a pipeline TD, etc. At a small studio, you may have to do it all. In general, a TD gets paid more because they give legs to what a studio can do. They serve all the people around them, making sure there are solutions to things.
[23:59] I was always fascinated by pipelines. There were some studios that would automate everything. And other studios had no organization at all. The best studio, I’ve found, were the ones that would have both artists and TD’s. The TD’s would come up with technical solutions. When you hit a wall, you can build a bridge over that wall; and TD’s did just that. They would make custom solutions. It meant that TD’s allowed for everyone to do their jobs much better. Which is why they get paid better and why they’re higher in demand. Most of what VFX artists do is problem solving, on budget and on schedule. Part of the reason TD’s are higher in demand is because there’ll always be productions that need a TD to solve a problem.
[26:42] A programmer will build a tool thinking about how it should work. But a TD will be a tool knowing how an artist will want it to work. There is a massive difference there! Which is why TD’s are irreplaceable. They do their own job and help others with theirs.
[27:32] As for the cons, I don’t feel there are that many. You’re the one that gets dumped with problem and no one else may have the understanding of what your stress level is. If you’re the only TD at a smaller studio, you’re often fending for yourself. You have to be an artist and understand the technical part, so you have to learn a lot more than others.
SPECIFICS OF THE JOB
[28:51] Let’s talk about the specifics of becoming a TD. The first question is: What does it pay? A TD can get paid between $50K and $320K a year. The more you can position at the right studio with the right demands, the higher rate you can ask for. (By the way, if you want to know more about raising your prices as an artist, please check out my training at www.pricingclass.com. It’s completely free.)
[30:32] You have to be really great at problem solving. You will be the one thinking outside the box to come up with solutions. A big misunderstanding about VFX is that you have to be good at math. I personally quit high school so I never learned a lot of math. In general, you don’t need to know a lot of math. I’ve taught other artists how to program. You just have to have the right perspective.
[32:43] One of the key insights for a TD is the process of your team: how they work and how most challenges come up. You need to look for solutions that line up with the needs of your team (and not your needs).
HOW TO BECOME A TD
[32:43] Most TD’s need to learn how to code. It should be on your path to eventually learn it. Having some understanding of scripting is important. At ILM, most Supervisors have some kind of a programming background. The more you understand how to automate tools, the more in demand you will be.
[34:15] Having the technical side is awesome but you also have to understand production and how artists work. You have to be able to serve both sides. Having experience in production is also helpful. You can layer technical knowledge on top of that.
[35:03] When you start moving into a TD role officially, you can start dabbling with creating tools. Ask your team if there are any tedious tasks that you could help create a shortcut for. By creating those tools, you’re giving an opportunity for artists to be artists. Ask everyone about what button they’d like to have in place. The more you understand other artists’ needs — the more solutions you can offer. That’s when you become a solution provider and that’s when you can start moving more into the TD role.
[37:33] So that’s the general idea, to get the conversation going. Do you have any questions about being a TD? Shoot me an email: [email protected]. A TD role is pretty specific so you can create a niche for yourself (and you won’t be competing much with other people). Figure out what studios you’d want to work for. A TD role can change overtime, and you can also go back into production.
[39:14] I hope that sheds some light on what a TD is and how to become one. Let me know what questions you may have.
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Thanks again for listening! Please share this Episode with others.
Next week, I will be speaking with Taran Van Hemert, Editor at Linus Tech Tips. I love the idea of artists who use automation. For a lot of us who think we can’t do that stuff, this Episode will be really helpful.
Until then —
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