Saturday, May 17, 2008

Freelancer's Guide #10: AM Newsletter--"Survive as a Contractor"

In the college years of animation, a lot of time is spent learning the art, honing your skills, etc. But not much time is actually spent preparing you for the career part of it all. If you're lucky you get a professor or someone to teach you how to make a good demo reel, resume, portfolio. But what I failed to really think (or worry about) in college, was not the first job, but the second, third, fourth...

Here is possibly the single best article in an Animation Mentor newsletter yet. Shawn Kelly's Tips and Tricks are great, but this month's feature by Jake Friedman on surviving as a freelancer sums up a lot of what I've learned and thought over the past 2 years. The thing about this article is that it talks about things that everybody working in the animation industry should know, but is more obvious and immediate to freelancers. Jake (a fellow New Yorker) talks a lot about the nature of working job to job, how you prepare for it, and how it prepares you for this crazy business. He says:

The fact of the matter is there’s very little security in the animation industry, and the independent contractor knows this better than anyone (other fields are beginning to follow suit as well, but that’s another story). The contractor never takes the next paycheck for granted and, Zen-like, understands the impermanence of everything.

I never set out to be a freelancer, it just happened out of necessity. More and more jobs, even at the large studios, are contract/per project jobs. And ever since I came to New York I knew one thing: I didn't know where I'd be in 3 months (to throw out a random length of time). Where would I be working, where would I be living, would I move out west? etc. At first that really freaked me out, but eventually I got to a point where I just accepted the element of the unknown that goes with freelancing. 2 years later, I'm doing fine.

When you stop to think about it though, that unknown element is a part of every animator's life, even if they are in a comfy staff position somewhere. And in general it seems that people outside of that lifestyle don't really understand it. But aren't they in a simliar situation? That 3 year contract they signed is temporary, isn't it? What happens after 3 years? What if the industry goes into a slump? What if the company lays people off?

As a freelancer you ask yourself where your next job will be before your current job even ends...heck, maybe even on your first day of your current job! The key is to not get freaked out by that. Some people adapt to that situation more easily than others, and obviously you will be more freaked out if you don't have the finances to help you through the down times. So what do you do?

You prepare!

You update your demo reel frequently. You talk to your friends, you make new connections on Linked In, you keep your ears open, you promote yourself. An updated website is a must. It's not as hard as it sounds, you're really just doing things you should be (and maybe are) doing anyway. I actually feel very fortunate to have started out freelancing, because it has forced me to think of myself in a much different light--I am a business. Of course the IRS tells me that every April 15th, and that's the biggest wake-up call. But thinking of myself as a business has helped me to learn more about self-promotion. But the more I read from sites like Freelance Switch, the more great advice I find that is really just basic business advice. How do you successfully promote yourself? What skills do you have that places need? How do you keep good business relationships with your clients? How do you get job offers to come to you, without you having to search the job boards? How do you network? After all, being a business isn't all that bad even at tax season. Just keep your receipts for all your animation/computer equipment, movies, and business expenses, and you can write that stuff off. All of that, and I still don't have to wear a suit to work! Sweet!

Stability is one of those human desires that everyone strives for in some way or another, in both healthy and unhealthy ways. By being driven into the NY freelance world mostly out of necessity, I've sacrificed one type of stability. But I've gained another, and something I think might be more long term. I've learned how different studios function, what I like or don't like about them, I've had to ask myself the tough questions of what I can do better, what I need to improve upon in order to hopefully increase my job offers, length of employment, etc. But even more important than all that, is that somehow I've gotten (more) comfortable with that unknown element. Some of it is knowing how to prepare, saving money, and just being fortunate that the industry is really healthy and there are a lot of jobs out there. But as I've said before, for me, so much of it just comes down to a simple faith. For a perpetual doubter like myself, it's no easy task, and I really don't mean to make light of the real and founded fear of the unknown. But I said it before, freelancing is like farming, you can prepare the best soil and best seed, but you still can't control the weather. That's why so much of it is up to just getting comfortable with the unknown, and doing the best you can in the here and now. After all, isn't that life?

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