Late Night Animator
Return of the Late Night Animator Blog
Hello to all of you Late Night Animators out there. I'll be posting this blog on Pixel Fondue from now on but I'll see if can mirror it over at Sabertooth Productions. I thought maybe I'd try and give a little more coherent summation of my Podcast with Brad Peebler. Having been in this business about 20 years I've found some things that work for me in terms of running a stable and somewhat predictable business (which is really what most of us who are in this for the long term want). It's a lot easier to articulate your thoughts in a written article verses a live interview so I thought I'd give this a second shot. Keep in mind that these are things that have worked for me. Obviously everybody's situation is a little different and what has worked for me at Sabertooth may or may not be effective for you and your business. Production and especially 3D animation is a small industry - and I really do think we're 'all in this together' to some degree, so I'm happy to share.
In no particular order:
• Try to spend a couple years at an established company. Whether it's an agency, a game company or VFX studio - I really believe it pays to spend time employed at an established company. Yes, you will learn some things about the industry - but more importantly you will have an opportunity to establish yourself as a hard and reliable worker. It's important to form relationships in this industry and it's crucial that you earn a reputation for being reliable, hard working, professional, producing quality work and getting it done on time. This is a career...you will be doing it for a long time. I still get work from people I worked with over 15 years ago, I still get work from people I'm out of contact with for 5 year gaps. The reason these former co-workers or former clients of the company I used to work for come to me is that a part of their job is on the line every time they choose an artist to work with. By establishing myself early on as a guy who will bust his ass to get your project done, do it well, have it completed on time and handle revisions and criticisms with a professional attitude they feel safe and confident with their project (and maybe their job) in my hands.
• Always Make Money. Seems simple, and it usually is. You just have to keep reminding yourself of it. Again, this is a career and you need to think long term. If you cut your rates too much to try and ensure you get work or accept projects that take you forever to complete then you will not survive long term. Honestly you won't survive a couple years even, which is 'short term' when we're talking about the time span of a career. I don't believe in doing 'spec work' (that's work for free...you should already have good work samples on your website - and if you don't then work on those when you don't have any other projects). I also don't believe in 'Do this now and we will have more projects for you later'. People who give you that line are just looking for the cheapest solution and they will go with somebody cheaper next time even if you do them a favor and work for free. It's a learning curve...you will get a feel for how much certain companies can budget towards a project. Just *always* keep in mind that the reality of the situation is you need to make money, so don't be afraid to stick up for yourself and bid projects the full amount you feel your time is worth. I'll often feel out a client by sending them an SOW (Statement of Work) that has an itemized list of services (3D modeling, 3D animation, compositing, editing, voice over, etc) and asking them if that's in the ballpark of their budget. Giving an itemized list lets the client see where the costs are and gives them a chance to come back and negotiate a little. Always be open to negotiation....but at the end of the day you still need to Always Make Money.
• Present yourself as a company, not an individual. Going through the effort to form an LLC or S-Corp has both real world legal and financial benefits as well as perceptual benefits with regards to your clients. Remember, if you're in this for the long haul then a few thousand dollars up front for some legal assistance can translate into some much larger benefits over time. In my experience clients feel more comfortable dealing with a company than an individual and they seem more willing to apply larger budgets to projects that are being completed by a company vs. a single person. It's not entirely logical - but that's been my experience. Even though I'm the only full-time employee at Sabertooth I always present myself as a company - not 'Greg the Animator'. It's harder to do then you may think. Even though I hire a lot of freelancers to assist with 3D, editing, shooting and VO - I'm almost always the main contact with the client. Because I'm the only person interacting with the people on the other end they naturally come to think of me as 'Greg the animator' instead of 'Sabertooth Productions' the company. So it's a constant effort to continuously present yourself as a company. Answer the phone with the company name, use a company email address, invoice with company invoices. Let your clients know that 'the editor will be syncing up the voiceover' so they are comfortable with the 'company' handling the project and not you 'the individual they're familiar with'. One of the most difficult things for small operators to do is transfer the value of their services from themselves as an individual to that of their company. When I go on vacation or am busy on another project I want my clients to feel comfortable with Sabertooth Productions. That can't happen if they only associate me with the quality of the work and get concerned when somebody else is working on their project.
•Always try to say yes. This one is difficult and came out a little awkwardly in the podcast. There's a couple of reasons I always try to say 'yes' to a client. First of all, if they need something done then they will find somebody to do it if you're not available. That means they may not come back. Once you have a decent number of steady clients there will always be some annoying fix or update that doesn't seem like it's worth your time. It is. Remember, if you don't do it they will take the project someplace else and that can translate into a fair amount of lost work in the future. It's not always easy or convenient to stop what you're doing and do a quick fix or update on a client's old project and it's one of the reasons presenting yourself as a company is important. You will often have to hand that fix or update off to somebody else - and your client needs to know that your company can handle last minute changes and multiple projects. Another reason to always try and say yes is that it will force you to find solutions. Let's say a new project comes your way that involves 3D Camera Tracking - something you've never done. There's 3 things you can do: 1) Say yes, learn how to do 3D Camera Tracking (a good thing to know) and get paid. 2) Say yes, find a good freelance 3D Camera Tracking (a good think to have) and get paid. 3) Say no because you're not confident of your abilities to do 1 or 2 and wind up with no 3D Camera Tracking Skills, no 3D Camera Tracking freelancer you can call upon for future projects and no money. Options 1 and 2 are the best options.
The one place where I urge caution is when you're being taken advantage of. I always prefer to work directly with companies and not freelance producers or other agencies. Freelance producers and agencies that sub-contract you stand to make more money the less they pay you. That's just how it is and they will get as much out of you for free as possible. You will also end up doing a lot of things twice. You will create an image and then the producer or agency will demand revisions before they ever even show it to the client (who may, in fact, like your original version). Then they show your updated revs to the client and come back with even more changes than before. It's a waste of time and money. If you work directly with a company's marketing dept. they will already have an approved budget for the project and they are going to be much more focused on getting the project done and looking nice then trying to save a buck on the production. You will also have direct communication with the client and will be able to avoid needless revisions that the client never even sees.
•Don't punish your clients. Again, sounds simple but takes some experience to get a feel for. Some companies that I've worked for (and some freelancers that I've unfortunately hired) feel that a client's mistake is a great opportunity to make more money. Your clients are human. They will send you the wrong image over email, work off of outdated scripts, give you the wrong feedback, have typos in their bullet points and generally mess up on a regular basis. Avoid the temptation to cash in on this. Yes - if your client royally messes up and adds days to your time then you absolutely need to bill them for it. What I've found though - is that I get a lot more mileage in being flexible and forgiving with my clients when they mess up. They will return the favor. Same goes for freelancers. I don't like being taken advantage of - and if I freelancer tries to cash in on the short term by over-charging for last minute changes then I probably won't hire them the next time around. Goodwill is a precious thing. You can generate goodwill when your stressed out, sleep deprived client screws up and you say 'Hey, no problem - I got this'. They will remember.
All of this has come from my own personal experience and has worked for me. I hope that many of you find some value in what I've shared. Here's a couple of animations to wrap up from my favorite client - The Monterey Bay Aquarium. These particular animations were for the Deep Sea Auditorium show they do. I loved making these underwater vehicles. Until next time.......