How to survive as a freelance animator

If you work in the animation business, the chances are that at some point you will be self-employed, either running your own small business or working as a freelancer. Even if you do land a good job as an employee of a company, the chances are it will last at most a year or two, since most jobs in our industry tend to be project-driven; even well-established companies expand and contract according to the size of their order book. So what’s an animator to do to stay afloat and pay the rent, let alone support a mortgage? The answer is, you have to be smart, and you must understand the rules of freelancing.

Your first and most important task is to get really good at what you do. This is an obvious rule, but many animation students don’t realise just how competitive the industry is. At university, the pace of life can move slowly. But your life as a freelancer is a world of perpetual deadlines – any of which you will miss at your peril. You have to be on top of your craft, and be better than the rest. It takes a while to get really good, so you must use your time to study hard and practice. Make your work entertaining and fun to watch.

The most important thing that any student will have on graduation from their course is not their class of degree, but their demo reel. A graduate’s demo reel is their shop front, their display of talent.. A great demo reel brings in work. The number one rule of demo reels? – no mistakes. Most studios get piles of unsolicited demo reels. The good news is – they will probably look at your reel. The bad news is – they will probably look at your reel for ten seconds or less. So you have, in effect, ten seconds to impress. If there are any errors in your work, they will notice, and they will assume one of two things: either you saw the mistake, but could not fix it, or, worse, you didn’t see the mistake. Either way, you’re in the no pile.

If you want a successful freelance career, you must be a generalist and a problem-solver. The more parts of the animation process you can master, the more useful you are to an employer or a client. Animators often double up as storyboard artists and character designers. The more technically minded can do 3D modeling, maybe some rigging, possibly even some texturing and lighting. The smaller the studio, the more you will be expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. Plus, if you are going to take on short projects for clients yourself you will need to know a bit of everything in order to deliver a final product, or else have quick access to someone who can. Lots of freelancers work this way, in informal teams, pooling expertise so that all parts of the project can get completed on time.

Graduates also need to learn the nuts and bolts of freelancing. They must learn how to draw up an invoice, how to manage their taxes (freelance income is typically not taxed at source – you have to pay the taxman later), learn how to deal with clients and learn how to manage client expectations successfully. Hopefully your school or university will teach you this stuff, but plenty won’t. In practice, there is no substitute for a live project to teach you how it all works, which is why we try to encourage even second year students at Bucks to take on small commercial work for paying clients.

As any Freelancer will tell you,  learning to manage your finances is absolutely critical to survival. One of the challenges of starting out is the shocking reality that clients often don’t pay on time. A common rookie error is to start chasing up an invoice a few days after it was issued. Don’t. Clients don’t like it, and they will think you’re desperate. Many companies pay at the end of the month, or even the end of the following month. Get used to waiting. If someone doesn’t pay after 2 months – send a polite email. But know that almost everyone does pay in the end. Unlike employees, freelancers don’t get a steady paycheck – your income will fluctuate hugely. That means you need to save money and be financially defensive.

How do graduates land their first freelance project? Pro bono work is a good way to start, working for free or at very low rates, often for friends, family, or friends-of-friends. Try not to turn down a job; instead find a way to embrace new work even if you don’t have time and you’re not sure how to pull it off. Juggling projects and taking calculated risks is what freelancers do. Feeling overworked? Join the club. Don’t know how to use a piece of software? Me neither. Stay up late, work Sundays, do online tutorials at YouTube – do what it takes. The more and varied jobs you can turn around, the better you will get and the more capable you will become.

Along the way you will have to become your own IT department. You can run a small studio from your bedroom these days. We want our students to become self-sufficient professionals at the earliest possible opportunity. All animators should make sure they have a good laptop, and access to the right software. Become a problem solver; learn that most technical problems can be Googled – someone out there has faced the same problem you have just stumbled across, and found a solution.

So what do you do when you finally land your first freelance job? Let’s assume you’ve pitched the idea, you’ve agreed a price for the job, and the client is shiny-eyed with excitement about the amazing work you’re going to do for them. Now all you have to do is deliver what you promised. What can possibly go wrong?

First of all, you must agree a price, and a schedule, and stick to both. Clients want to know what is going to happen, and when, and they don’t like to be told the job is going over budget. Set out the main milestones in advance, such as Script, Storyboard & Design, Animatic, Animation and Final render. Explain to the client that meeting deadlines will depend on getting their timely approval at every stage, but that whatever happens you will do your level best to deliver on time. And make sure you can deliver what you promise.

Second, Get the script approved as early as possible. Your client may have a script already, or they may want you to write one. Often they will never have done this before and will need a lot of help to get the story right. What is the story they want to tell? Who is it for? They may have no idea, or only the vaguest idea. Part of your job is to help guide them through this early, so you can get to work.

If it’s a film, the next stage is a storyboard animatic, usually edited together with sound and music, and a style guide, so the client knows exactly what they’re going to get. Show them samples of other films and agree a style for their project. Once you start animation it will too late to change this, so make sure you are agreed in advance.
It goes without saying that you must deliver on time. Clients don’t care how busy you are with other things – they want their work done on time, when you promised it. They don’t care if other clients are keeping you busy, or your dog is ill, or your broadband went down, or your hard drive died. Make sure you back up your work, and if you run out of time, work through the night to get it done. Do what it takes to deliver on time and be reliable.

One of the hardest things about client projects is learning to take client notes with good grace. On every job, clients will give you notes which you don’t agree with. Try not to disagree openly with the client. The best response to a dumb idea is to say “that’s a great idea, why don’t we try this…” and try to steer them in a less silly direction. Sometimes though you just have to do what you are told and make the best of it. Make it look as good as you can.

Finally, be positive. Clients want to feel that you are as excited about the project as they are. Even if you’ve just done an all-nighter and you feel like screaming at their latest ridiculous changes that they should have told you about weeks ago, be upbeat and optimistic. Make them feel good about working with you – remember that they are taking a risk by using your services for the first time.

And try to have fun. Over time you will build up a portfolio of work that you will be proud of and that will help you find work at other studios. Every job is a learning process that helps keep you up to date on the latest techniques, and keeps you employable.



MarcGodfrey's picture

Absolutely fantastic advice, Alex. Thanks :)