Sunday, January 08, 2012

Making Things : Hard Times Come Again No More

This is going to be a second-in-a-row post about the life of a professional creative. I try not to load up on these too much. There's always a danger of gazing so long into one's own navel that one spends more time talking ABOUT something than DOING something. But there you go. I just finished up some scribbly storyboards this weekend, so perhaps we'll have a new installment of My Boards Are Horrfyingly Ugly later this week. I'm also about to start on a series of posts that have nothing to do with business, and it could last for a long time. There are some big changes coming on the blog-front as well. Also I have some cool small-project things to talk about later this month. So stay tuned.

Anyway, let's talk about some hard stuff. You up for it?

I am in the midst of a dry, dry season. You wouldn't know it by looking from the outside. It's been the busiest, most productive year of my life. I've produced a reasonable amount of work that I'm am reasonably proud of. I've had some truly wonderful clients and have been honored to create some cool stuff with them. I've been featured here and there on the internet more than I once was. I've made a lot of new internet friends and for the first time have a reliable stream of blog readers and work followers. But other than the aforementioned clients, almost none of that pays very well. I'm having one of those periods where I am swimming in awesome, paying gigs that are stalled on the runway. And to be honest, things could really be better on the financial front.

There is a tendency, especially in an environment as mercenary and unstable as freelance animation, to overstate how well things are going. We're all doing fine, we're all busy, have you seen our new stuff? We don't talk about how many of us don't have health insurance, or have put off having children, or use our credit cards to pay the odd bill more than we'd like to admit. We don't talk about the times we've borrowed money from family, and how that makes us feel. We talk about the poor conditions for freelancers in today's market, but we often skip the real-life consequences. We laugh about how fashionable DIY is, but skip the fact that many of us came into doing so many things ourselves because we couldn't afford the alternative. That, and my homemade granola is way better than store-bought. My wife made vichyssoise last week that was to die for. Just saying. We ate it piping hot since it's winter here. It was like sipping a bear hug. I wish I could email you some, but technology just hasn't lived up to its promise in this regard.

There is no shame in hard times. We all have them. Some have them their entire lives. But, at least in my country, there is a very real shame in not doing very well. If one has the audacity to be actually poor, it is seen by large swaths of the country as a character failing. If only we would just take a shower, put on a suit and go find a job. Being an artist is only seen as a job if it is going well. Even someone like me who makes his living as a commercial artist, doing work for businesses and organizations who pay actual hard currency, is often seen as one who lucked into a fake job. When you are doing well, you're a professional. When you're not, you never had a real job in the first place.

And so I find myself hesitant to say things like "Things could be better on the financial front". I worry that I will sound self-pitying, that some ridiculous ass will say "First World Problems!", that I'll come across as somehow asking for a handout, that I'll be opening myself to looking (for lack of a better term) weak in the face of a very difficult business.

This is the fear that many (bad) clients prey upon. I've had a few offers recently to do work for very, very little money. And I haven't taken them. Why? Several reasons. I would be spending a good month on a project that wouldn't even cover the bills racked up during that period. It would have set a cost precedent with that client. I'd be contributing to the further-lowering of standards in my own industry and hurting my own efforts to get back on track. I was on the phone will someone a month ago who wanted to pay me $1000 for 4 weeks of work. I said no. That's now $1000 I don't have. And that was my decision. Sure, it made no sense to take the job. But when times are lean there is a lot of pressure to feel actual guilt over skipping any offer of payment, no matter how unscrupulous, especially when one has a wife and a cat who rely on you in part to make ends meet. They are both super supportive (at least my wife is - the cat has been silent on the matter), but there is something in my culture, my upbringing, my expectations for myself that feels guilty for making that choice, even when I feel it was the right one. And that's something I have to live with. I think back to last year when I turned down a very nice project because the client was involved in some human rights violations. I mean, they had Amnesty International on their back, protests about them in multiple countries and even a damning documentary or two. I'm not mentioning this to act like I'm some saint- everyone makes choices like this. Everyone has that line they don't cross when it comes to work they will or won't do. This was, unfortunately, over that line. However, had I done that project I would have been financially set for months and had a great piece for my portfolio. I'd be dining out right now and have a working relationship with a studio whose work I very much admire. I have to live with that choice. I have to be okay with that. It's completely my responsibility. Our talk about being professional creatives is often so light and frivolous, but these decisions have real world consequences - for agencies, for their clients, for people in our industry, for people affected by the work we do, for the people affected by what we are promoting, and, finally, for me - sitting here at my desk early on a cold Monday morning.

What responsibility do we have for choosing livelihoods that are fundamentally unstable? All of it. That's how much. I fell into this line of work in my mid-20s after years of working at grocery stores and call centers. I had no other good options, really. And I've grown to love this good option. It's my life. It fills me with immense satisfaction. And at 30, with 6 years of this behind me, I don't have many other options that aren't minimum wage. And I have to be ok with that choice. With my choice.

So why am I writing a post about this? Because I really appreciate when others are honest. Because it's rarely talked about by working professionals. With few exceptions, people just don't write about this. There is so much faking-it-till-you-make-it, so much swagger. And it makes people like me complicit in promoting this view of my job as one that is easy, carefree and sunny. The idea that once you hit a certain point, whatever that point may be, that everything will be ok from then on. But that's not the truth. It never has been. If you want to do this for a living, you have to fight, HARD. You have to do the best work you possibly can and hold on to good clients. You have to promote yourself and be a smart businessperson. You have to deal with feeling anxious a lot of the time, and the temptation to second-guess yourself constantly. You have to always be moving, like a caffeine-fueled shark. You have to support those around you. You have to make choices that will help not only yourself, but others. Because many times YOU are one of the others. I needed to write a post about this because it's the flipside to my other posts about creative ethics. Hard times are part of this life.

And so here I sit this morning. I'm annoyed at how sunny it is. I've been up all night working on a project I'm really excited about for a great client. After that project is done, I don't know what's going to happen. Do we ever really know? I have a choice to make about what I'm going to do today. But really, I've already made that choice. I made it 2 1/2 years ago when I was laid off from my studio job. Instead of getting a job at a the grocery store, I went home and started making things. And I made it again this morning.

So here is what my day is going to look like:

Firstly, I'm going to post this on my blog. Then I'm going to post the link on Twitter and my Facebook page, as I always do. Then I'm going to send out a Tweet that I'm looking for work. Then I'm going to go to sleep for a few hours. When I wake up, I'm going to spend a few hours finishing up an animatic for a client, write some notes and send it off. And then I'm going to start work on one of a dozen different ideas I've come up with this weekend to address this dry season in which I find myself. I'm going to make things, and make them well enough that I can make a living doing so. That's the job. That's the choice. It may work, it may not. But you either keep going or you don't. You fight or you quit. And either one is a choice you have to live with.

Good lord, that was a bit heavy handed. Enjoy this doodle of a cat playing guitar:
What song do you imagine he's meowing along to?

PS - It should go without saying that I'm looking for clients right now. My day rates are very average and I have been known to give bands and nonprofits some very attractive package deals. I'm open for commercials, PSAs,  music videos, odd commissions, illustrations, etc. I'll even email you some homemade vichyssoise when the technology becomes available.

UPDATE: A commenter named Blake took the time to hash out how $1,000 for a 4 week job would break down as far as an hourly rate. Obviously there are a lot of variables that differ on each job, but it's a pretty eye-opening read if you're not used to thinking about projects this way. Fun exercise: break down a $2,000 4-week project, or a $2,500 6-week project, etc. See how the rates hammer out. I didn't want to write an entire new post about the subject, but you really should go check it out in the comments section. Thanks, Blake! You could have written this entire post in a more informative manner in half the space.


Caroline said...

Wow, great post!

Corneelius said...

Thank You...very well written. Your work and attitude are both admirable.

Rae said...

Just found your blog today, and so much of what you're writing resonates so strongly with me. Thanks for putting it into such great posts!

blake said...

Remarkably well thought out post. This was a grim yet accurate statement on the current freelancing environment. Your work more than speaks for itself and you deserve every bit of success that you may gather and more.

One part that really resonated with me is your statement about turning down a month long project which would pay only $1,000. Let's break this down for non-freelancers out there.

1. You will never ever work a "typical" 40 hour work week on a freelance project that is supposed to last a month. We will say at a bare minimum add an additional 10 hours on top of that each week.

2. Don't even dream of actually having the weekend off. When you are on a project with a deadline like this you do not get days off because the client "needs" it by x date. Rant mode here: But in reality nobody on this earth actually will suffer or die if this date is not met. We need food, we need water, we need oxygen to live and that's it. You don't need animation to live so relax a bit and don't force the animator/designer to pull all nighters to reach your arbitrary date. Which the client isn't even paying overtime for in the first place.

3. Take that 50 hours of work and add in time you are emailing back and forth and posting up rough cuts. Now we are at around 55+ hours of work in a week.

4. 55 hours multiplied by 4 weeks in a month and the freelancer has now worked 220 hours on your project. Take that $1,000 and divide this by 220 hours and you have now made $4.54 per hour. But wait! There is more! You also have to remind the client to mail out the balance for the project day after day. Now pay taxes on top of this at the end of the year. You are now at around $3.75 per hour. Congrats you are straight up making less money then any legal job in the entire United States.

5. You have now made absolutely fuck all for your effort which has up until this point taken you years and years of knowledge and experience to gather. Not to mention those pour souls whom actually paid for art/design school and now owe $40,000+ of debt.

6. (For newish freelancers out there) Next time someone offers a lump sum payment for a project, it's a good idea to let the client know how many hours the project will take and what your hourly wage would result in.

This often results in a dead silence from the client and shifts the thinking from "I'm doing you a favor by paying you to do 'fun' things so I'm the big alpha dog shot caller here." into "Oh wow, I have been completely god-smacked by the reality of the kind of shit I have been pulling. I understand this guy/girl will not fall for it, and I must adjust my pay or expectations accordingly."

Scott, I'm a huge fan of your work and blog posts. I hope that you make even more money and enjoy an even better life this new year.

Scott Balles said...

Eloquently written as always.

bombsfall said...

Thanks all! The response to this has been really great. My heart, it is warmed! Thanks also to Blake for breaking down the $1,000/month issue so neatly. I try with these posts to create some small resource for other creatives, and Blake did a bang-up job with one comment.

Javo said...

I guees the cat its about to sing a Bob Dylan rhyme :)