Thursday, September 29, 2011

A long-winded Guide to Freelance

A disclaimer: I don't own any of the images, and the following is intended to be a guide, not the ten commandments to Freelance. Everyone's experiences are different. Also it took way too long for me to write this.

So it's approaching the six month mark out of the 2011 graduating year, and I think it's time to talk about freelance.

Hell it's approaching the one and a half year mark for the 2010, and I know most people are still struggling with the one concept (granted, not their fault):


A nice strong rip off is inevitable in freelance, but it shouldn't last long, either you recognize that your value is a lot more diminished than you originally intended it be, or you grow a second head - in the form of a  business man, who tells you what to do and says "HEY YOU, you're worth more than that!! Just charge! Just charge more!"

So let's back track to before you had the business tumour grow

You're on the conveyer belt of life, and you're like - hey fantastic, time to go through my film (hell), my industry day (can be hell), and I'll end up on the otherside with a studio job.

And while that dream came true for about 30 of you, thats a mild exaggeration, probably about 10, most of you came out the other end to meet a blindingly bottomless pit, not unlike Portal 2, - of sadness. And poverty. And OSAP. So more poverty.

But fret not, the bottomless pit had a bottom, and a good 60% of you climbed out to find a job - a job that wasn't your favourite, or a job that may end up jading you, but a job! Experience, love, studio environment, money, osap payments, you know the whole bit.

Unfortunately, for the rest of you, the studio job market only has so big a house and to invite any more people in would be a fire hazard, and then the police would be called for you partying too loudly.

So you have to learn the big wide scary world of freelance - and granted, while most of you accept this less than ideal ending to your college life, most of you wonder, why do I constantly feel like I'm being ripped off? Am I worth so  little? What did I spend my four or five or six years of SHerida--


Lest we forget that we all went into this business because we have good taste - Ira Glass - and maybe the work we're generating right out of school is not that good - Ira Glass. 


In fact, most of you probably recognize, that your work is probably shit (No offense, mine was too). But you don't know what parts of the shit to de-shit in order to get a job, or a more consistent money flow instead of one that parallells with a hooker in the middle of the Ocean whose only income is the Somali Pirates that occassionally drift on by.

But unfortunately, until you really start learning what you need to do to get to the level you want to be at (and remember that it takes up to 12 years to really make it ANNYYWHERRE in the industry) and learning to either a) make your art more exciting or b) finish the thing so it doesn't look like you spent 10 minutes on it.

I am guilty of the second point.

Unfortunately we're guided into a deep, corner of our way of thinking that good = fast. However, for the most part, you can't quickly generate art that looks like you spent several days on it; and unfortunately, most studios like the art that took several days.

But if you are the kind of person that loves to spend several days on their art, and is really enthusiastic about doing the right techniques and making it just right - you're at the risk of generating something less exciting. And that's just that, I mean, we're students, or we were, and we're still figuring out balance.

Balancing the quick and the good, and the shit and not shit. That said, if you are forced into freelance, you'll notice something very quickly - that you will be working for people who are not artists, 90% of the time.

With that in mind, you'll be faced with two scenarios:

A) The Client has no idea what goes into art, and wants you to generate something completely beyond the timeframe and your current skill level, and is threatening to pay you absolute pennies.

B) The Client has no idea what goes into art, and wants you to do something reasonably well, and they'll pay you for your work reasonably well, because they know that it's hard work.

Can you guess which one works better for you? Hint, it's the one where you don't end up hanging yourself from the rafters, right after you riddle your client with bullets.
But not actually, because it's probably money. Probably.

Unfortunately, for the first year, you can expect a few As, you know, the bad As. A few moments where you become all introspective and weird, and wonder how much more of this you have to take.

So let's get down to Business. About Business. Business Business


So you're new to the Freelance world, and you're sitting there thinking, Jesus Christ Leisha it took you long enough to get to this point.

What do you do, and how do you avoid as much as possible to get ripped off? I tell you what, you need to get ripped off a few times, because contacts are good. If you can take the work, do it.

Let's talk about some scenarios, let's be clear that the following isn't blasting any clients, or anyone in particular, it's the notes on combined experiences from people I know as well as myself:

So a Client contacts you.

"Hello [Subject's Name Here], I recently found your work on [Subject's Blog Here], and I am very interested in having you ---

Scenario #1:

"I am very interested in having you do some work for this project. If you can send me your resume, and maybe we can discuss some details over Skype."

This is a pretty good start. So send them your resume, and make sure you discuss contracts - which I'll talk about later.

Scenario #2: 

"I am very interested in having you do some work. I'm working on this Project, that's about 60 seconds of animation, but we don't quite have a big budget. We can only pay about 1200$ for this."

This is less than ideal, but if you have the time and you're willing to do it - it could be successful. And you could make a name for yourself. In this scenario you can also discuss licensing, and maybe if you have to design the characters to, you retain the rights to the designs and if they require use of them again, you make money off of it. Creator-Owned Work is one of the best ways to make money, and keep making money in this industry, so try to generate as much as possible. Work-For-Hire should be your least favourite words, but to be honest, it's still work and if they pay you reasonably well (as you may expect in Scenario #1) Work For Hire isn't so bad, just try to ignore how wildly successful it becomes if it does.

Scenario #2 can also become Scenario #3:

"I am very interested in having you do some work. I have this great idea, and I was wondering if you could do the art for it, but I can't pay you."

I would not do these, unless you are truly bored and really need some deadlines. But even then, you're at risk of not having deadlines anyway because generally speaking these clients can be unstructured. You can expect to run into them not really knowing how much work goes into things or how much time you'll need, or just drop off the grid all together.

ONE BIG TIP: (that's what she said, hehehehe)

One thing I have learned in my experience as a freelancer, if you have the option to choose your price (which is ideal), charge way too high. Always charge more than you think you should be paid, and work down. Often times, you'll discover that the client goes for the "Way too high", which is always pleasant. Remember, never undermine your value, and to a lot of these clients, you are diamond.


Remember, just because you're not necessarily face to face with these clients - be professional. A lot of people don't need reminding, but some do. If you do some face to face with some of them, dress well, show them that you're serious about this.

If you are sitting down to talk to them, have your macbook turned on already, open to, with the invoice of what you expect to be paid open.

But be prepared, your clients may not be well dressed, but don't underestimate them. A lot of them have serious buying power, so don't expect them to be pushovers, or not know what they're doing.


The biggest thing I know a lot of people struggle with, when faced with this big ugly world is contracts. The word is absolutely dreadful. However here's a few tips you can use to avoid trouble, or see trouble, and face it head on.

  1. Ask if they can have their lawyer draw one up, don't be scared. If they want quality work, they'll do this.
  2. Work-For-Hire: Eugh. I know. But you have to do it sometimes, and granted, if they're willing to pay you well it shouldn't be too bad. Just remember what this means. After you do this, you don't own any of it. You're selling it to them, never to be seen or used by you again. 
  3. Just because you're freelancing, don't be ashamed of demanding overtime - if you are working 14 hour days, you should not be getting paid the same rate you would be if you were working 8 hour days. Make sure this is in your contract. 
  4. Licensing: if your Client cannot afford to pay you the big bucks that most freelance deserves, you should ask about licensing. Most of the time, this won't fly. However, if you're designing characters and they can't pay you the money you rightfully deserve, you should ask to retain the rights to the characters so that whenever they use them, you make money off of it. 
  5. Revenue/Cut of Profit: Sometimes clients will offer you this, and while it sounds like a great idea, sometimes it's not. But if they offer, take it! It's pretty self-explanatory, if you agree to this, you do the work for less money, in hopes you will receive 10% or whatever % They agree on. Sometimes it'll be less than 10, and sometimes it'll be more. You'll often run into this if you do work for a friend, where they won't pay you, but if it succeeds, you'll get money out of it too. It's not a bad deal, it's just speculative.
  6. Spec work: Ah yes. The work that ties in with the previous point. This is work that you'll do, often times for free (or very little money) in hopes that it'll succeed. You should avoid this, but do it if you really want to. Sometimes it'll work out. 

Let me talk about something else that I know is a big thing for a lot of freelance artists. Someone posted this on facebook today, and I've seen  it before - and I'll post it here.

Freelance does not make a whole lot of money, in fact, a lot of the time, it  makes no money - Not enough money to survive off of. And if you're living away from home, you may start seriously considering working at a Tim Horton's. If you are living in Toronto, I would at least try to get a job in a place related to your field, for instance, the TIFF Lightbox Library or an art store or something else remotely similar. Instead of a Tim Horton's, you'll actually hang yourself from the rafters then.

But you really can't make your decisions, as to what job you should take, or what job you should apply for, based on money. Money decisions, in this industry, are always a bad idea. Speaking from personal experience, I applied to a studio and my only reasoning to do so was to move out. I put all my heart and soul into it, and dreamt of the life beyond my houses' confines - and I didn't get it.

Money intensifies reactions, and when they're bad, they make you miserable. So just don't. Find a job that you really want for the sake of doing what you love, and just go for it.

If you happen to be offered other jobs, doing other things other than what you love, do them anyway - especially in the first year or so. I've animated several times since grad, but I have very little intention of animating forever. I enjoy animation, and quite frankly, I'm not bad at it, but it's not what I want, and you can tell.

The biggest thing that people have to realize is as a freelancer, you are not any less than those who have studio jobs. You will be making less money, for the most part, and your work schedule is probably going to be crazy ie.

Nothing for about 2 months, then about a month and a half of solid work, non-stop, 14 hour days. Proper example:

I was kind of sitting around, applying to jobs, but really nothing was coming up. I started work on my graphic novel, but even then, not that seriously.

Suddenly, I was contacted by Titmouse Inc. to help catch up on scenes - so I did that for about a month, and after that, I settled down again. I heard from Director Luke Tedaldi about doing a music video, but hadn't heard from since. It took two weeks before it started up - then it was 3 weeks of 14 hour days.

Since, it's been 2 weeks of not a whole lot. I've been pursuing personal projects while I apply for new jobs.

That's something else -

If you are freelancing, or even if you're in a studio environment and you have some spare time, and you consider yourself an "artist" - instead of just an animator, or a designer, etc etc. You should start a personal project that fulfill that creative desire that otherwise will not be fulfilled. But don't mak the personal project your numero uno, to the  point of it interrupting your work. (This goes without saying, but I thought I should clarify anyway) Unfortunately, a lot of people have experienced that the work you do right now, is not the most brain-massagingly-stimulating, heart-beatingly-emotionally-fulfilling work. It can be, but it also most definitely can not.

Some people cope with this better than others, and I usually find its the grads who also consider themselves to be artists to some degree, and need that creative outlet that they're not getting. Generally the advice is to "Suck it up, and just do your work"  -which you should, but you should have something on the side you can turn to.

Do you people have hobbies? If you don't have time to make a novel, or even work on your portfolio, you should at least take the time to do something mundane in your spare time that has nothing to do with your work, and is fulfilling.

I find people who knit, or bake cookies when they're not working, tend to be a lot happier at work. I cook when I'm stressed out, and by cook I mean, I cook fancy shit. Like Black pepper crusted steaks with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus, sort of fancy. (Then I don't eat it, and pawn it off to someone else. IT's actually just the act of doing something that's not work)

Backtracking a couple of steps, that's something else that you should constantly be pursuing to improve - no matter what you're doing. No I know you have a part time job. No I know you have a studio job, and you come home and you're super tired because you have to eat and go back to work the next day. Something I should mention is that, your hobby really shouldn't be gaming. I'm sorry, if you can control yourself and play a game for a couple of hours and come back - then maybe. But a lot of you are going into gaming anyway, so your brain won't shut off, and you'll continue thinking about your work, and it won't ease you at all.

Especially those in a designing/art stream, you should draw every day. No, stop complaining, just draw every day. Sketchbook too big? Buy a little one. I have a moleskine (which is too expensive granted, so buy a knockoff) and just whip it out wherever you are, and doodle. Better yet, draw stuff you don't normally draw. Did you know it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to become a master at something?

Something else, actually. If you are subject to freelancing, you should always try to remain on top of every software. Unfortunately, the best freelance set up would be to have a top of the line computer, with a cintiq strapped on. I know a lot of people can't afford that, but you can consider going into debt for at least the cintiq.

I have a cintiq 21UX, and it's seriously the best thing ever. The amount of freelance I Was able to do because of it, and being able to crank out work quicker, especially for the crunch times - it was extremely useful.

Also, you really want a reliable computer in your arsenal. Not necessarily Optimus Prime, but you don't want it frying on you in the middle of a job. I actually lent out my macbook pro just for this reason. Some food for thought.

So in conclusion, let's wrap it up for people who didn't feel like reading the WHOLE thing:

1. If faced with freelance, ensure that you're at least getting paid well, and if not well, you can discuss licensing. If you're being asked to put the free, in freelance, don't do it.

2. Business tip! Charge more! That way if they accept it, no loss, if they don't, you can work it down to the reasonable price you originally had in your head. This way the price of freelance doesn't dip, and they don't go from someone else because "They're doing it cheaper" if we all do it, then it won't go  down.

3. As a freelancer, you are not less than a peer with a studio job.

4. As an artist, you have to be fulfilled. Start a personal project if you have the time, and if you don't, take up a hobby that's not your work - and preferably not gaming! Try baking, cooking, or knitting little boots for your pets.

5. Draw every day.


7. If you don't have a good computer, and a cintiq, and you really don't want to go into more debt, you may have to joe job it until you can afford one. Unfortunately, most jobs require some sort of swiftness to finish, and trust me, cintiqs make a difference. Tablet is still okay, if you can rock the tablet/scanner set up, do it. If you want some suggestions, build a mid-tier computer tower for 600$.

8. Remember to be professional.

Freelance isn't bad guys, it's just scary. You have to be your own business man/business woman, and you don't need the power blazer.


  1. Thanks for lending me your mac :) <3

  2. Thank you, good write up :)
    I look back in horror when thinking about how I always undervalued my own work :/ Ah, the inexperience !

  3. awesome man awesome. *applaud*

  4. Yay Leisha! Thank you soooooo much for taking the time to write this!!

  5. Thanks for writing this up Leisha!

  6. Thanks for dedicating your time to share your experiences. This was a great read!