Should I Freelance?

Well this is a big question that I’m asked by a lot of students that are about to graduate and are wondering what to do with them selves next. Some times it is because they are not getting any bites on their resume and some times it is because they feel they are not ready for one of several reasons to work at a company. 

I should note that I have always been a freelancer and in fact have only had one “job” my entire 25+ year career. Right out of school I started working with clients of my own. How ever that was a different time 25 years ago. There were few people doing 3D and even fewer doing it well. I was also 30 years old and working on my third career and understood how to deal with clients after 14 years in the restaurant business and three in the financial sector where I spent a fair bit of time knocking on doors trying to get strangers to loosen their grip on their hard earned wages. Yep, I was that guy.

If you want to dive into freelancing there are several things that you need to know first to ensure that you have a good experience and don’t end up feeling as though you have been taken advantage of.

“There are lots of markers that I look for when I’m talking to a new client for the first time.”

Good Clients and Bad

First off is learning how to tell good clients from bad clients. All too often I have artists come to me and ask if they should do a freelance gig that has been offered to them out of the blue. Often they are still students but some times they have been out in the business for a number of years working at a company and have never had to deal with a client of their own. 

Clients come in all shapes and sizes as well as good ones and bad. But how do you tell the difference between them, how do you know that the client that you just said yes to will pay you what you have agreed on in a timely fashion as well as provide a good working relationship where you have a clear understanding of what they want?

There are lots of markers that I look for when I’m talking to a new client for the first time. When it comes to bad clients I think that I have just about heard it all over the last 25 years, interesting thing is my father who was a mechanical draftsman and ran his own business heard all the same ones. So what are some of the red flags that should send you running for the hills.

I think the Joker said it best, “If you are good at something, never do it for free”

Do it for the exposure

This is a common one that is heard all the time and I see way to many students and even pros getting sucked in by it. This comment is usually followed by “if you do a good job there are more projects coming and we can pay you for those”. I think the Joker said it best, “If you are good at something, never do it for free”. Artists tend to think that they are never good enough so people like this pray on that. If the prospective client has contacted you to do work for them then they think you are good enough, how ever they also know artists tend to be lousy business people and don’t understand that they always should be paid for their work. Can you imagine going to your mechanic that just graduated and asking them to work on your car for free because it will be good exposure? Or asking the doctor that is doing their residence to set your busted leg for free (I live in Canada so it is free anyways but you get the picture). Being a 3D artist is not an easy job, it is very hard and takes an enormous amount of talent and dedication to do. Treat your self that way. 

“Run, run as fast as you can. There is never more where that came from.”

Can you do it for half that, there is more coming down the pipe?

I mentioned this one above but this is another take on it. So you come up with a price and the client says “we don’t have a big budget, if you do it for less there is more coming that we can pay you better on”. Run, run as fast as you can. There is never more where that came from. If you take a job for less then what it is worth what you have just done is lower the price of all work that comes after it. If you will not do the work for the lower price they will just find someone else to do it for that. This will never pay off for you. I have seen companies take whole TV series and feature films based on this idea and they are all out of business, just look at the number of companies that go under after working on some of the biggest block buster films. They under bid to get the job in, over worked to get it done and still failed to make a profit and couldn’t pay those that did the work. 

Can you do a test first?

My wife just got this one the other day when a company called her wanting to hire her for a position at their company but wanted her do to a very specific test first. Her web site is loaded with examples of her work that the client hadn’t even looked at. What this tells you is all they wanted was for her to come up with new ideas that they were not going to pay for so they could then execute them selves in house. One again my father had this happen to him probably 40 years ago and the client never hired him and used his ideas in their design.

It is common when you are new to the business for a company to give you an art test to see how fast and accurate that you can do it, but the work should never be directly related to what the company is working on them selves. 

“He waved his hands randomly in the air telling me it needed to be more like this, then walked away”

I’m sure anything you do will be great!

This sort of comment comes after you ask for specific design input and they respond with a wishy washy answer that it is up to you. This is never the case but what it tells you about your client is they have not given their production much thought and don’t know how to proceed. They are going to unload that onto you. How ever as soon as you produce something then they will start asking for changes, and not just small ones but complete redo type changes. “Love the character, we decided that it shouldn’t be male, and we don’t like cartoony so make it realistic” You how ever have budgeted for creating one character not five which is more like what you will end up doing in this case. I had a director once tell me that what I was doing wasn’t what they wanted, he waved his hands randomly in the air telling me it needed to be more like this, then walked away. What this really meant is “I don’t have a clue what I want and really haven’t given it much thought so keep changing it until I’m happy”. In this case I really didn’t care as I will billing by the hour so they could make all the changes they liked. Clients that don’t know what they want are generally not good clients as they have not thought through their own project so how are you supposed to deliver quality content.

We don’t need you to sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement)

A Non Disclosure Agreement simply states that you will not show your work or theirs to any one out side of the production protecting the clients IP (Intellectual Property). This one does not always concern me and it isn’t that every company I have done work for has had me sign one but it does tell me that they don’t have a lot to loose if you don’t. If the client isn’t taking their work seriously how are they going to treat you as the person that is creating it for them. 

One of the first questions I ask the client before hearing any details is can the email me the NDA so I can get it signed and then talk about the project. I don’t care about the NDA but I want to know if they do.   

“Contracts are not worth the paper they are written on”

We don’t need you to sign a contract

OK, so contracts are not worth the paper they are written on as it only allows you to take some one to court and shows proof that you said you were going to do it. How ever, once again if a client isn’t having me sign a contract then they are not taking their work seriously and may not be too concerned when they haven’t paid you what is owed. It all goes hand in hand. Good clients have thought about what they want and how they are going to get it done. 

“If they are looking for Pixar quality why are they contacting a student”

We don’t have much money so we know it will not be high quality

This is another case where you should just hang up the phone. Every one wants it to be high quality for no money and they want it yesterday. No client is looking to have sub par work done for them so what they are trying to do it here convince you to agree to the work for far less then you should, then they will continue to push you with changes until it is at the quality level that they need. Also doing low quality work will not get you anything that you can show on your demo reel even if you did it in record time.

There is an old saying, Quality, Speed, Cost, Pick Two as you can’t have all three. 

We are looking for Pixar quality work. 

Ask your self this right out of the gate. If they are looking for Pixar quality why are they contacting a student or someone with 2 years of experience. What they should be looking for is a studio full of seasoned artists and developers to do the work, you know, much like Pixar.

How much should I charge? 

This is one of the toughest problems for some one new to freelancing. They don’t want to charge to much and scare the client away. So how do you come up with a fair price?

I had a student ask me a simple question once, they said “how much should I change to make a model”? My answer, $500, they said “wow that much” I said sure, but I want you to model the entire universe, does it seam like a lot now?

There is a lot that goes into creating a quote for a client, don’t just pull a number out of your head or consult the Ouija Board, it is a formula that you need to create to limit the guess work or accidentally conjuring up spirits. 

What is the cost of living?

The formula starts with a break down of what you need to live on and since that differs in every country and city you will have to sort that out your self. Here in Canada minimum wage is about $14 an hour. This means that you can without any education or special skills, other than be able to spell every name wrong, work at Starbucks and be paid $14 an hour. I think they might even offer benefits as well. So if you have taken the time be it on your own or through an over priced university to learn the skills and software needed to be in the 3D business you should be closer to charging what any top university student is going to be paid right out of school. Frankly it should be more as what we do is often harder then many other professions. And something to note here. At $14 an hour in Canada, if you were to work 40 hour weeks for 50 weeks of the year you are below the poverty line that has been set. 

Another problem arises, and that is most students don’t know what it takes to live on. It isn’t that hard to figure out. Here is a short list of necessary expenses to consider in no particular order and consider them all on a per month basis.

  • Rent
  • Transportation
  • Food
  • Phone
  • Internet
  • Clothes

The list goes on and this is just the basics of surviving. This isn’t taking a vacation or buying a car and will not allow you to go out for dinner even once a week. You can then add all of those on top as well to see what you need to spend each month to live at the level you would like. 

So total up your cost of living for a year and see what you need to make. Consider two weeks off a year so you would be working 50 weeks of the year at 40 hours a week, divide Cost Of Living / 50 / 40 and that is what you need to make per hour just to scrape by but don’t forget you haven’t even paid taxes yet! 

Since you don’t want to live at or even near the poverty line then you will have to at least double that hourly wage just to get started. And then there is the fact that you are looking at freelancing which means you are not working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks of the year, you might only work on average 20 or 30 weeks of the year if you are doing really well. Now take that into account and adjust your wage. 

“You need to be honest with your self as to how long it will take”

How do I calculate the cost of a job?

First you need to do your home work on what that job is. What are they asking you to do, just a model, or the entire 60 second commercial with 12 characters rendered to look realistic? You need to ask to see the script, boards, designs, reference material and just about anything else you can think of. And you need to make sure you are very clear on what you are being asked to do. If you are not 100% clear then you need to ask. When I talk to a client for the first time I ask a lot of questions and re-ask them if I’m not satisfied with the answer. This is one of the red flags for a bad client. If they don’t have a clear understanding of what they need from you then they have not thought through their project. 

So you now have all the details of the project. Next you need to be honest with your self as to how long it will take you to do what has been requested. What happens here is freelancers will come up with a number and then second guess them selves as they think it is to large. The best way is to break the project down into smaller pieces. Lets say you need to model and texture a character. I know the steps for creating the character will be,  sculpt in Z Brush, retopo in Max, unwrap, texture in Substance, build shaders in Unreal, and test lighting variations. How ever between each of those steps the client will be looking at it and making changes as you go so it isn’t doing this process once it is doing the whole process 2, 3 or more times hoping that each pass gets quicker with smaller changes. You need to be honest with your self, how long will it take you to do each of those steps once, then at least double it to cover the changes, and time spent talking with the client about those changes. Multiply by the per hour rate that you calculated and you have the cost of the job.

Once again so many freelancers will do this process and then think, $10,000, that is way to high, I’ll cut that in half so I don’t loose the job. But now you are in a position if you do the job you can’t take another to make up the rest of the money so which necessary basics of life are you willing to cut out that month? Food?

“One had a huge red X across it and this is the one that I handed him”

How do you get paid?

This can always be a problem if you don’t know how to protect your self. I have only lost money on one project in over 25 years as the client just vanished into the wood work owing lots of people money. Today I would never have done business with this guy as he ticked just about ever red flag there is. 

For the most part freelancers change a third to a half up front. If a third then the next third is on completion and the final third is net 30 days. Meaning the client has 30 days after it is complete to pay up. I usually do a 50/50 split on smaller projects and have even just waited for the whole amount at the end if I know and trust the client because I have done work for them in the past but only if it is a couple thousand. 

This again can be a red flag for you. I have had clients not pay the first or second third on time, right out of the gate this is an issue as those very same clients will push you on the dead line asking if you are done yet. My response to them is “yup, how about that invoice that I sent two weeks ago, has it been paid yet”? What you have entered into isn’t a friend ship and you don’t owe any one anything. This is a business relationship with a mutual agreement, you do work, they pay you. So you have every right to ask where the money is as they do to ask where the product is. I once told a client that I would not deliver the final product until all three thirds were in my bank account as they were late on the first, later on the second and it just didn’t feel right. They paid up in full and I sent the final product. I never got hired by them again but when I look I can’t find them in business any more and I wouldn’t want to work with them anyways. 

Another time, back in the days of delivering on Beta Tape (Ya I know, I’m old) the client once again was trying his best not to pay me the first two thirds. He claimed that he had the check in hand for the final third and was coming to pick up the final on tape to show to the client, which I had waiting for him. When he arrived he gave me some story about not having any checks left but he needs the tape as he was on the way to his clients to show it. I said sure and handed him a tape. he made the mistake of not viewing the tape before the client did as I had two tapes, one had a huge red X across it and this is the one that I handed him. The following phone call consisted of a lot of yelling on his part and me just telling him once, arrive with cash this time in the full amount if you want the final. He did and was never heard from again. 

“I consider every one I meet as a possible connection, not just those that can hire me directly”

Connections make the world go round

You have probably heard people say that it is all about connections. This is far more true than most would like to admit. You can be the very best at your job but if no one knows you and what you can do you will not find clients or even a job.

To this date I have never applied for a job through any official channels, I have always found them through connections. When I ended up worked for Disney I happened to show up to a long defunct multi media trade show that used to happen in Toronto. For the most part there was nothing there for me other than a friend, Shawn Hendriks, that worked for Autodesk and was manning a booth there. As I walked in he was talking to a some one that I didn’t know. As it turns out Shawn was talking with the head of the 3D department at Disney Toronto that was working on the film Return to Neverland. He was in the need of a 3DS Max specialist and Shawn was tell him about my self. My interview practically happened right there in about 2 min. Disney trusted Shawn, Shawn trusted me, I got hired simple as that. 

What point am I trying to make? Connections don’t have to be direct and are often through a third party. I consider every one I meet as a possible connection, not just those that can hire me directly. From working at Disney the head of the CG department suggested my name to the owner of Red Rover to start their 3D deparment, which ended up being the only “job” I have ever had in 3D. I was then contacted by someone that had been a lead in the 3D department at Disney that needed a technical director for a TV series that turned into two seasons and continued into a feature film and several other projects. 

I may have been good at what I did but it was the people that I knew that found me the work. 

Retain your clients, be a good contractor

decided I should add this section because getting a good client isn’t something that you want to loose. Every year I have the same clients coming back to me asking for more work to be done. This isn’t because I’m cheap, I’m not, this is also not because I do great work, others do as well. It is because I’m a good contractor. So what does that mean?

“Companies are wary of sending work out of house as most of them have been burned at one time or another”

Companies are wary of sending work out of house as most of them have been burned at one time or another by the contractor that they have hired, they don’t communicate, don’t deliver and don’t take the work seriously. This is a huge problem for a company that is on a tight deadline. Good companies understand that good work isn’t cheap but they want you to take it as seriously as they do. 

Communications is one of the biggest factors, I communicate with my clients as much as possible. If we are in different parts of the world and using Skype I make sure that I login as soon as I get to my desk and report in with where I’m at and what I’m working on just as I would if I had just walked into their shop and said good morning while getting a coffee. If there is an issue and for some reason I don’t think I can make a deadline I don’t wait until the deadline has passed I let them know ahead of time and keep them up to date with what is happening with their project. 

I also deliver the best product I can every time, I take the clients project as seriously as they do. I will even make suggestions to them that will reduce the amount that I make on a project. This pays off in the long run as they are far more likely to contact me again on the next project that my skills fit. This summer alone I have been contacted by five past clients that have wanted more work done, unfortunately there isn’t enough time in the day and I have had to turn some of them down, something that I don’t usually like doing, I’m just getting to old to burn the candle at both ends. 

Advantages of Freelancing 

I will have to be completely honest here, there really isn’t any advantages even for my self. I guess you could say you are your own boss and if you are not working in house for some shop you can work in your nickers all day. Freelancing is hard work and without a steady stream of clients you will be working at Starbucks trying to find creative ways to spell Bob and make ends meet. 

In Closing

Freelancing isn’t easy and isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of time just to find possible clients and is difficult to earn a consistent living. Freelancers often fall into the trap of getting a big job in and thinking they are doing well and spend all the extra as fast as they make it. what they have not taken into account is they have not been looking for the next job.

For over 2 decades, I have been recognized internationally by the 3D animation industry as technical director and rigging specialist for clients worldwide, my work spans feature films, TV series, AAA game titles, broadcast television, aerospace, medical and tools and pipeline development.