A Few Tips on Freelancing

Posted by on Sep 20, 2014 in Animation, Experiences, Journal | No Comments

In my last journal entry, I shared the beginning of my New Mexico adventure, working at Pivot VFX. It’s hard to believe that was nearly a year and a half ago! That ended up being a great experience, in which I met a lot of awesome people and ultimately, opened some new doors for me career wise. At the time, I was not able to talk about what I was working on at Pivot, but now I can proudly say that I worked on a myriad of projects featuring the Smurfs. If you are curious to see what I worked on I have a short reel of shots located on my Animation page.

After bidding farewell to Albuquerque and my fellow Pivoteers, I headed back to California and began the dreaded job hunt again. Once, my new shots were released, I cobbled up a new reel and sent it out. Thankfully, I heard back from a commercial production house out here in LA, called Psyop, where I have been freelancing fairly steadily since last November. Psyop has been a great company to freelance with. I had always admired their commercials, because they are one of the few houses that specializes in commercials that feature character animation. Over the past 10 months, I have gotten to work on some really fun commercials, the majority of which have been for Supercell’s Clash of Clans. Besides Clash, I worked on commercials for Cricket Wireless, AMC Theaters and Coca Cola and even a Veet Hair Removal commercial! If you would like to see some of the work I did for Clash of Clans, here is a reel of the shots I worked on:

Prior to Psyop, I had no experience with freelancing, so I really had no idea what it meant, or what to expect. The world of freelance animating is quite interesting and has a lot of different aspects to it than working as a contract or staff artist. I would like to share some of my insights for those who are looking to start freelancing.

What is a freelancer? Firstly, working as a freelancer, does not mean working for free in any way. A freelancer is basically a temporary, skilled worker-for-hire. As a freelancer, you could be booked(hired on a job) for as little as a half-day to a couple months or longer. A freelancer is different than a contract or staff employee mostly in that you do not receive any benefits like health insurance.

What is the hold system? The hold system in the freelance world is basically a gentleman’s agreement between the freelancers and the schedulers/HR at a studio. When first communicating with a studio that is interested in having you freelance on their project, often times they will ask for a hold for a certain period of time. A hold does not mean that you have the job, they are simply asking to reserve that time with you until they work out all the scheduling details and are awarded the project. When you agree to a hold, you are saying that you will not agree to work anywhere else during that time. But what if another studio approaches you with an opportunity? In this situation, one of two things can happen. If the second studio (B) wants to also put you on hold, you can issue a second hold to them and let them know that you already have a first hold with Studio A. If Studio B wants to book you during that hold, you can present a challenge to Studio A. In the scenario of a challenge, Studio A has a day to decide whether to book you or release you from the hold. I have heard of situations from some of the other freelancers that I have worked with where that have had 3 or 4 holds going at the same time.

Why is the hold system necessary? At first, the hold system seemed very odd to me and I didn’t quite understand why it even existed in the first place. If a studio needs you for a job, why wouldn’t they just book/hire you right away? Well, from the production side of things, the schedules are not always set in stone, so having holds are quite necessary. In commercials, the schedules are very fast paced, projects have a much quicker turn around, and circumstances can change or production can get delayed extremely quickly. Commercial houses first pitch on a project, and it is often during the pitch process that HR and scheduling will begin asking for holds with freelancers. If the pitch goes well and the studio is awarded the project, production can start rolling. Once the production schedule is finalized, the freelancers who are on hold, will get booked to work. If the hold system did not exist, production would have to scramble to find people at the last minute. If they are not able to find enough people to deliver the project by the deadline, they will lose a lot of money, and possibly future business as well.

What should I charge? The second question you will hear from a studio after your availability, is how much you charge. Usually, they will ask you what your day rate is, but sometimes they might ask your hourly rate. I have found that this is largely tied to your experience level and the type of work that you are doing. Things can also differ from studio to studio, the location of the studio, and even from project to project within a studio. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer that will fit everybody’s experience or skill level. If you are unsure what you should charge, don’t be afraid to ask. Who knows, you might even be pleasantly surprised with the number you get back. You can also negotiate if that number is not quite what you were expecting. As you gain more experience and move from studio to studio, you can eventually raise your rate.

Location, Location, Location. As I described above, commercial production is very fast paced and the schedule for a project can change from day to day. Unfortunately, because of this, most studios will only book local freelancers. Many times, you will not find out if you are working the next week until Friday night or even the day prior, which is why local talent is likely to be picked first to fill openings. Some studios do offer remote work, but this depends wholly on their production pipeline, and whether it is possible to work unconnected to their internal network.

How can I get started as a freelancer? Having a good network of contacts can be your biggest asset when you are job hunting. If you know someone at a studio that you are applying, and they can recommend you, or even pass along your information directly to HR or a lead, this will give you a big advantage. Effectively, this puts your reel at the head of the line to be looked at for consideration. For freelance work, the quality of your reel is equally important. When a studio looks at your reel, they want to see that you can produce work at the same level and maybe even the same style as the project they are hiring for. If your work is not quite up to their standard, they will likely pass because they can not take chances, especially when the work needs to be completed on a tight schedule.

If you don’t have any inside contacts, your other option is to email the studio directly. If you find a studio you would like to freelance for, try to find their contact information on their website, preferably a job inquiry specific email address. Send an introductory email with your reel, resume, and contact info. Depending on the studio, you may or may not hear anything back. If you don’t hear anything right away, just be patient. If they like your work and have an opening, they will likely contact you.

Building a good reputation. Once you have landed your first freelance gig, building a good reputation is key to continuing to find freelance work. To do this, you need to show that you have a good work ethic, have a good attitude, are easy to work with, take direction well, and can complete great work, quickly. More often than not, if you get along well with the leads and are doing good work, they will want you back for future projects. Most studios have a very small network of freelancers that they prefer working with, so if you get on that list and they have a spot that needs to be filled, they will give you preference. Respecting and honoring the hold system is also very important in developing a good relationship with the studios that you work with. For example, if you had an existing hold, but decided to take a better offer somewhere else, that would most likely cause you to be blacklisted from working at that studio. If you build up a good rapport with other freelancers that you work with, they are also likely to recommend you at other places that they work with. Networking is very important to growing your job prospects and being able to sustain yourself as a freelancer.

From my experience so far, these are the major things you need to know to get started as a freelancer. These points might be different based on your location or the particular studio you are working for, but for the most part, they should be applicable everywhere. If you have any questions, feel free to comment or send me an email and I’ll do my best to answer. Thanks for reading!

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