Freelancing in the Animation & VFX Industry with Bryan Woods

Has the idea of freelancing ever crossed your mind? Even a fleeting thought? Yes? Good, you'll want to pay attention then as this will be important if you do end up going down that path.

Thanks to a speaker event held by Pixelnauts, Bryan Woods gave a talk all about freelancing in the animation & vfx industry in what to expect, what it entails, what is required of you, and how to survive it.

Get ready, this is going to be a long one. It's all super important though so a gigantic thank you to Bryan!

First to know are the pros and cons of being a freelancer

Pros Cons
Own boss
Own hours
Own rate
Exposure to other artists to share ideas & experiences
Grow as an artist
Find creative outlet
Self employment taxes
No health care
No 401K
Nagging for payments
Contracts
Looking for the next job

If you're fine with all the above, then let's continue on.

Before you Graduate

You're in school for a reason so don't be a slacker and make the most out of your education. Get involved in large scale student projects to get experience not only working in a pipleline but also in working with other people. Try other classes, don't pigeonhole yourself into doing a single thing. Maybe you'll find something that you're just as good as or like even more so than what you initially decided to focus on. That's how Bryan got into mo-graph from being a compositor.

Your teachers are a great asset and have been in the industry before so make sure to pick their brains for their experiences and knowledge. Outside of school, try joining different forums where you can continue to learn and interact with others in the industry. Some notable ones are CGSociety, JahFx, and FXGuide.

Having an every day or every week project is important to get those creative juices flowing and to keep yourself interested in your work. Don't burn yourself out on doing the same things continuously. You can set yourself up to just try out a different tool or program to learn each day.

Make sure to have your reel and website ready. Websites have become a dime a dozen now and everybody has one. They're so easy to create with various services that there's no reason not to have a website. Check out SquareSpace, Wix, Wordpress, or Behance to get started. Also important is to make sure your LinkedIn is filled out. Use LinkedIn as a documentation of all the work you have done and achievements that you have received. 

Researching the industry is a must. Things to look into are salaries between different positions, what "entry level" really means for different companies, and where exactly you want to work at. What studios are there local? How about in different states? Abroad? All excellent questions that you need to have answers to. A fantastic resource is comes from Coroflot that shows fantastic statistics that include the 25th percentile, median, and 75th percentile of different jobs in different states.

As a freelance artist you will most likely be depending on pay check to pay check so make sure you figure out your finances ahead of time.

Where to Look for Work

There are 3 ways to be hired. 

  • Temp employee through staffing agency (W2)
  • Freelancer (1099MISC)
  • Contractor (personal business)

Temp employees through a staffing agency have their taxes taken out of their paycheck automatically. You don't have to report to IRS, just file it at the start of the new year when you do your taxes. Freelancers and contractors, on the otherhand, must do quarterly payment to the IRS on an estimate of how much they'll make in a year.

Where to actually look for work would involve forums, local listings (such as Craigslist), instructors, peers, by word of mouth, staffing agencies, LinkedIn, or by contacting agencies directly.

Reels

Everybody says the same so I hope you've been listening. If not, here it is again. Keep it short! 1-1.5min is a good time limit. Have your best work in your reel and make sure the best of the best are the first and last things shown. The breakdowns should be quick with minimal wiping. Think you're done? Nope. Get it reviewed! If you're part of a forum, upload it there to be critiqued as well.

Setting your Rate

The golden grail of being a freelancer. The best way to calculate your rate is to take all your major expenses (rent, utilities, food, phone, insurance, website, subscriptions/licenses, etc) and make that in a week. Every week you work, you cover yourself for a month. This way you'll always be able to cover your living expenses and have a little bit of leeway if there is downtime between jobs. 

Say your total is $2,130/month.
$2130/5 days = $426/week.
$426/8 hours = $54/hour
If you feel that your rate is too high, especially if you're freshly out of school and quite haven't made a name for yourself and established your reputation, you can try every two weeks covering yourself for a month. In that case it would be $27/hour.

When calculating taxes, assume a little over a third will be taken out. Multiply your earnings by 0.36 and then subtract from total, or multiple by 0.64. That is your adjusted income.

Know the difference between OverTime and DoubleTime and when they take effect.
The first 8 hours of work are you standard rate. The next 4 hours are considered OverTime, which is your rate + half. Anything beyond that is considered DoubleTime, which is double your rate. If you exceed 40 hours in a week, OT and DT take effect for the difference in the same way.

Contracts and Schedule

If you are being hired as a freelancer or contractor, you will need to design a contract and have it approved by the client. Have a schedule and an outline of what you will produce, how long each part will take, and when reviews will be. Make sure the client signs off on this so you're both accountable. You decide the frequency of reviews, not the other way around as it will be detrimental to your work if you're getting calls every so often from the client wanting status updates. 

That all sounds a little bit daunting but no worries, the Freelancers Union has an awesome website that helps you set up contracts to make sure everything is in order and correct.

Last thing about contracts, MAKE SURE YOU READ THEM. Take the time to go through and read all the details, don't just assume and sign away your rights. Be careful of clauses that prohibits you from working for a competitor company as that is first, illegal, and second, is detrimental to yourself in finding jobs.

First Gig / Etiquette

You got that interview and you're all nervous hoping you get the job. Well here are some tips in how to do just that.

  • Speak confidently. Talk up what you're best at and be excited to talk about what you like doing. You should be talking the most in the interview.
  • Don't mention being fresh out of school. It doesn't matter. You are at this interview for a reason, and that being they've seen your work and they like what they see.
  • If the topic of money comes up, be direct. "My rate is _____". That's it. No more and no less. It is primarily for documentation purposes and if the client can't do it, they'll let you know and negotiate. You will never be "laughed out of the building" for your starting rate; if you are that's not some place that you want to be anyway
  • Always be prepared and that entails having a tablet or laptop with you to show your work and a hard copy of your resume, just in case.
  • If you're interviewing for a full time position, ask about benefits, taxes, 401k, and how raises and promotions work within the business.

Aim for your first gig to be paid. Don't become known as "the intern", as in the person who is willing to work little to no pay. If you get stuck in that people are going to think that they can use you that way forever.

Getting Paid

The best part of having a job!

In an ideal situation the process will be as follows:
Submit estimate for work > approval > begin work > finish work > send invoice > wait the net 30/60 > money!

Hopefully with good clients and relationships this will be the norm. Unfortunately most times the process gets construed through deadline extensions, projects folding, or clients losing their budget. Having a good contract is important as it can mitigate most issues. A good contract makes sure to cover extensions, termination, and details when, where, and how payments are due. It is also good to address how interest is calculated when you are not paid on time.

Unless you own your own business (which opens up a whole new can of worms) do not have checks written out to your business name or portfolio name. The banks will not process them. They have to be written out to you!

Unfortunately when projects fold or when clients lose their budget, their reaction may be to decide not to pay you at all which is wrong. You've already done at least some of the work and you need to be paid for what you have done. Know when to walk away from situations, and when to take things to court. Make sure to research collection agencies in your area and attorneys so you have those contacts if things go south. Back to the Freelancer's Union, they have great articles to help you out in such situations. What to Do When A Client Doesn't Pay. Getting Paid.