The Do’s and Don’ts of Freelance

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a dear friend about the latest freelancers she had over the studio and how frustrating a couple of those experiences have been, for several different reasons. She dropped some real gold in that chat and I couldn’t stop thinking: more people need to know this, so we, as an industry, can learn, be better and prevent the same mistakes and behaviors from happening again.

That got me excited about collecting insights on do’s and don’ts of freelancing, so I’ve reached out to a couple of producers and studio owners I admire to pick their brains on the topic. As a freelancer, I couldn’t feel more grateful to be able to read their perspectives, and I believe we can all benefit from learning how to communicate clearer, better, and potentially build healthier work relationships.

TRUST

Which would you say are the elements that help to build your trust on an employee/freelancer?

I think trust is one of the most important factors there is. Obviously, there’s talent and ability, but if you can’t trust somebody then none of that holds any weight. I think personally, for me and for the company, we build up relationships very much based on trust and that’s with our full-time employees as well as our freelancers.

I guess to dig into that a bit more I would say it’s as simple as feeling like you can send somebody something to do and trust that they will complete it, and execute it in the right way. I think that leads to a lot of the other questions as well; in relation to speed, for example, if somebody says upfront that actually a task is going to take them a bit longer, or when it gets to the end of a sprint they say ‘it took me this extra time’ or ‘I need to flag this’, it’s another way of strengthening that trust. – Tom Judd, Co-Founder & Creative Director, Animade

Be punctual, be organized, listen and write lists!

Day one: Arrive on time, first impressions last. If you’re given a deadline, plan towards it. Don’t hit render at the time it’s meant to be sent. Don’t save out your first version by this time either. Have it reviewed and signed off by the time it’s due.

Be organized: No one wants to deal with a sloppy file. Get to know the company’s naming conventions and then use them. Don’t be lazy when working, organize your files as you go. Someone else should be able to jump in and make sense of your project without asking questions.

Listen: Ask questions to get clarity on what is being asked. If you don’t think you can get the work done in the given time, voice that concern up front. Also, include others in your decision making. If you’ve tried something and then moved in another direction, then save it and start a new version. It’s helpful to see what didn’t work as well as what does.

Ticking boxes: You know the feeling when you order something with a big group in a restaurant and the waiter doesn’t write it down? Sure, they might have a great memory, but why risk it? If you’re given feedback, write it down, so you can check it off as you make the changes. – Gareth O’Brien, Creative Director, Buck Sydney

Be honest about the work on your site. If you have a killer 3D shot on your reel but it turns out you really just helped out for half a day and comped a small piece, it’s going to bite you in the ass. Studios assume the work you are presenting was truly created by you and will plan to use you accordingly. So be honest with yourself and the studio about your abilities, or you’ll quickly run out of studios willing to hire you.

Be honest with your time evaluations. This is particularly crucial for remote freelancers as the producers aren’t there to oversee when you are falling behind. Freelancers are often eager to impress and as a result, may promise a shot quicker than they are actually able to achieve. This hurts everyone in the end though and can easily set back the larger team. It’s always better to under promise and over delivers, rather than the other way around.

Don’t overextend yourself. To be honest, I’m never a fan of artists double dipping on projects and working for two clients simultaneously. Neither project is getting your full attention in this situation. It happens though, I get it. If you are going to do this, be upfront with the studio and make sure they are cool with it. The producer finding out mid-project will put a sour taste in their mouth and they’ll likely take a pause in hiring you next time. Remember that your career is a marathon and not a sprint. Sacrificing your relationships for short-term gains will hurt you in the end.

Don’t be a douche. It’s as simple as that. Be nice to everyone around you and they will support you and your career for years to come. TJ Kearney, Executive Producer, Instrument

The thing that is most frustrating with freelancers is when they don’t honor holds. When you have a first hold on an artist, you are usually relying on them while waiting for a job to get confirmed. When you go to book and find out they have taken another booking without submitting a challenge, it doesn’t sit so well. Solana Braun, Resourcing Coordinator, Buck

Trust is primarily built out of an attitude. If someone has the right attitude and approach then they will quickly gain trust. Sometimes this comes from experience but not exclusively. You can trust an individual if they approach the project with maturity and enthusiasm.Working in a team is critical in our business so trusting people is necessary to success. Good results build trust and respect. – Julia Parfitt, Executive Producer, Nexus Studios

Each project brings with it different challenges, so the more experiences you have been through with your team the deeper your understanding of where people’s strengths and frailties lie. Some people react badly under pressure, some lose momentum if a project is long-winded, some people are resistant to changing their work… All of these things are perfectly understandable, especially when you operate in the crazy world of advertising. But understanding how people react to things help us to plan projects. In short, trust comes through understanding the person properly, which come with shared experience and time. Matt Marsh, Producer, BlinkInk

ATTITUDE

Which are the people you want to surround yourself with?

Attitude is everything. In my eyes, it supersedes talent 100% of the time. Keep in mind that studios are typically small groups of people sharing a wide open space. Every member of that team plays a crucial role in the dynamic of the studio. Surrounding yourself with positive people makes coming to work fun. Surrounding yourself with negative people does not. In fact, it really only takes one bad apple to ruin things for everyone. I think of having a grump on the team like having a cancer in the studio. One person’s constant complaints and negativity can quickly wear down the happiest of teams. Letting this happen in your studio makes it impossible to maintain a productive environment and can be incredibly damaging. – TJ

I really appreciate when freelancers fully commit to a project. They’re not just checking off tasks from a list, they are thinking about a project from all angles and working to make the best possible work in collaboration with staff. They invest in the project as much as we at the studio are invested. – Dotti Sinnott, Executive Producer, Golden Wolf

Every personality is unique and when you hit that sweet spot of an artist and director having real synergy, that’s when the best work is produced. Some directors are very hands ­on and whereas others would like their artists to challenge them and bring their own ideas, so it’s not unusual to put a superstar animator on a project and it just doesn’t work out due to personality clashes. Chances are there is another director in the building who that freelancer will have more chemistry with. I generally try and fill the studio with people who are talented, positive, proactive, reliable and respectful. If you have them, you have a harmonious place for all to work in. – Natalie Busuttil, Studio Manager, Nexus Studios

On the same topic, how do different people take in feedback?

I want a friendly soul who leaves their ego at the door. Someone who takes their work seriously but not themselves. It’s important to understand that a critique of your work is not a critique of you. – Gareth

It takes a village to make a really good video. Our in-house team, no matter how talented, understands and appreciates that they are part of a family of smart people devoted to making a good piece of work together. We like to work with those people, who can understand that feedback lives within that context—sometimes a beautiful solution isn’t the right solution. This is easier when we can all remember that every project is first a client project, then a studio project, then a team project, and only then a me project. – Jay Grandin,  Partner + Creative Director, Giant Ant

It can definitely be hard to receive critical feedback if it’s something you’ve poured a lot of time & feeling into, but ultimately feedback is the most important part of a collaborative process. If an artist is unable to receive and process feedback reasonably, s/he is not respecting the experience of the team as a whole and we likely would not want to work with that person again. – Dotti

PUNCTUALITY

How important is it?

I would say that for us as a studio it’s pretty important because we’re all in the studio between 9am and 6pm, starting with a stand-up meeting for the entire team, first thing every day. When we have freelancers in, we’ll start with a kick-off meeting to brief them in on the day’s activities when they arrive at 9.30am so it’s important for them too. Also, it just shows a dedication to where you are and a respect for the working culture, if you turn up on time. Obviously, if your bus is late or your tube is late then that’s life and that’s London, so it’s not really a massive deal, but in general, it pays to be punctual. – Laura Darby, Head of Production, Animade

We work in a collaborative environment where we often all need to be present to be moving forward. On the whole, though, I’m relaxed about it, as long as it’s not affecting the other members of the team. – Gareth

The hours in our industry can seem pretty idiosyncratic, especially when you are a UK studio working with US clients a lot. So working late can sometimes seem like the norm. That said, I believe that punctuality is actually really important, as one person being late will ultimately have a knock-on effect on the people that rely on that person for getting their work done. If 5 people are having to wait an hour for someone who is late, then that’s 5 hours wasted for everyone, which will add up and inevitably need to be made up for. – Ingi Erlingsson, Founder/Creative Director, Golden Wolf

This can be a real bone of contention. Many artists are night owls and prefer to stay late and come in later in the morning. However, when you’re working in the commercial world this isn’t always practical. Especially if feedback comes in overnight and we need to get the artists briefed and started first thing to get a WIP out during the day. It can be frustrating for everyone involved when artists are persistently late. – Natalie

If you’re going to be late you should definitely alert your producer. Sometimes there are deadlines the artist doesn’t know about that come in first thing, so always let them know what’s happening. – Solana

I’m a stickler for time. I was always taught that early was on time and on time was late. This industry works some strange hours though and I’ve come around to being more flexible in recent years – so long as the hours are being put in. I think it’s important to have an honest discussion with the studio hiring you on their personal stance on punctuality.  – TJ

We definitely notice when freelancers arrive late and leave early, take long lunch breaks or generally aren’t paying attention, and it factors into whether we’d work with them again. Working as part of a team means respecting everyone’s time. Delays can add up, affecting deadlines, causing production problems and even damaging team morale. – Dotti

I’m personally more relaxed on this point than others as if there is an amount of hours needed and the artist gets them done within reason then this is fine for me. However, when hours get unconventional and it doesn’t work for the team, then this can cause issues. Again, it’s down to respect. If there are important meetings, then punctuality is key and respecting the group’s dynamic is also important. It’s too easy in a team for one person’s action to have a knock on effect to a wider team. Everyone has different priorities in life so working in a creative industry I don’t think we need to follow such strict rules… but maybe that’s because I’m always late ;) – Julia

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We don’t have really hard in and out times, but most people work from around 9 to around 6. Being late for meetings is less desirable. Being late delivering work is way less desirable. But, as we like to say, you won’t miss a deadline if you move it before it passes. It comes down to being a good communicator about what you’ve committed to, and adjusting expectations with enough warning that those who depend on your work can also adjust theirs. – Jay

SPEED

What are your thoughts on how fast or slow people are? What’s desirable/excusable?

I think we’d all love for the work to be done fast and at a high standard, but it’s quite rare to find someone capable of that. The truth is every artist works differently. I would rather someone work slowly and have one round of revision than quickly with five rounds of review. On the other side of that, sometimes slower artists spend too much time dialing in details when the fundamentals of the shot are flawed.    

That being said, what we really look for is an artists who can adapt their workflow based off the needs of the project. Not every project affords the time to set things up meticulously, so having a flexible and adaptive workflow is the most important virtue. – Colin Trenter, Creative Director, Oddfellows

I guess we judge this against people’s day rates. Somebody with a higher day rate we would expect to work faster than a more junior person learning the ropes. However, we also realize sometimes a piece of animation is deceptively tricky to get right or needs more time than expected. This is where clear communication comes into play. If the animator is open and honest about the situation, as a producer you have a clear understanding of the challenges and we can work out ways to help solve the problem. Often just having a chat with an artist helps them realize a different way to approach things that might make things more speedy. However we also truly value quality… if people are forced into working at a speed where the quality drops then this is bad producing on our part. It’s really not about going as fast as possible all of time. – Matt

Everyone works a little differently. Part of why it’s so great to have long-term relationships with artists (both staff and freelance) is that you learn how each individual approaches their workload. Some people are super quick but work rough, others are slow but present beautifully finished work — the more important thing is being able to judge accurately how long something will take and communicate that in advance so the producer can plan accordingly. Especially with new freelance relationships when you’re still learning about their working process, it’s important to be able to trust an artist’s estimates. – Dotti

This is really dependent on the project. There are some projects out there with healthy budgets and timelines and that can allow the creatives to take their time exploring all the options. These projects are becoming like unicorns though. More often than not, a studio is looking for freelance partners that can execute quickly. They are paying you for your time and want to maximize their return on investment. The freelancers I know that are consistently booked and can demand a higher day rate are those that can execute quickly at a high level. Slower freelancers typically move down the list of artists to reach out when needs arise. – TJ

Providing accurate time estimates is a really important skill for freelancers, who are expected to have an understanding of the time it takes to execute their craft. If time estimates are way off, which can be very frustrating for a production, it may appear that the contractor’s work is slow, when in actuality the task may have required more time in the first place! So I would recommend that freelancers be honest about how fast they work and deliver time estimates that reflect that! Leah Nelson, Partner + Creative Director, Giant Ant

If you think what you’re being asked to do is unrealistic or outside of your comfort zone, then speak up. You don’t have to work at the speed of the person next to you. – Gareth

BREAKS

We all eventually take small breaks while working, from ping pong, to checking your Facebook, to just a regular coffee break. How do you see those?

I trust that when people are in the studio, they’ll do their best to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s difficult to police things like use of social media, as we’re often using it as a recruitment/communication tool or a way of finding out what’s going on in the industry. But it’s very obvious when freelancers are spending too long getting distracted. They think we can’t see it, but we can! And this is usually the point where I’ll send a blanket email out to everyone to remind them to stay focused. However, it’s healthy to have a walk around the block if you’ve been staring at your screen for too long ­or to have a quick game of ping pong to gather your thoughts and refresh your brain. – Natalie

As long as the work is getting done at a high level and on time, I don’t limit artists distractions. Some artists need to step away from their work, physically or mentally, to be productive and that’s ok. Don’t let it be excessive and don’t work on another client’s projects while you’re being paid to work on this client’s. Otherwise, do what you will. – TJ

It’s a tricky one because obviously when you’re at work you’re supposed to be working, but everybody has to take a break now and then because their brains don’t work at full capacity every hour of the day. I think I’d say that taking coffee breaks is very different from being on Facebook though; if you just sit there playing around on social media then you’re not really giving your brain a rest anyway! But it’s important to take coffee breaks, it’s important to just get away from your screen for a little while and see the world around you and refocus. – Laura

I think a coffee break is ok. Goofing off is not great though. If you have nothing to do, you should let your producer know. There will probably be something they can give you! – Solana

There’s no on/off button for creativity, so giving your brain a break every now and then is completely expected. That being said if it impacts the amount of work the person gets through or if they’re missing deadlines because they’re chatting on social media or Slack all day, then it can be a huge problem. As with punctuality, it can be a big reason why people end up having to stay late to catch up. – Ingi

People need to do whatever suits them in order to work happily and comfortably. Some people need breaks, some people don’t. Even our core team varies a lot in regards to working hours and break habits, depending on where we live and what time of the day we feel more productive. You have to respect people’s rituals, as long as the job gets done at the end of the day. – Anonymous

DISTANCE

Are you comfortable with remote work or does it all need to be on site?

While I truly believe there is no substitute to working on site, technology has advanced to a point where sharing files from afar is quite easy. So yes, I’m certainly comfortable working remotely – with the right person.

A successful remote work relationship really boils down to talent, communication and work ethic. Talent in the sense that check-ins happen less frequently (especially if you are working with freelancers in different time zones), so you need someone senior enough who can objectively look at their work and execute at a high level. Communication in raising red flags as soon as problems arise and sharing discoveries with the rest of the team. Work ethic in the sense that you want someone who is going to be self-motivated enough to give you a full days work. – Colin

It really depends on the role and your relationship with the artist. It’s always better to have people work on site – it builds a rapport with the director and allows for more fluid and clear communication. Remote work also means a lot more labor for project leads and producers if they are having to coordinate feedback and files, so it’s not ideal. That said, if we know someone well and trust them, we are often cool with them working remotely. – Natalie

In a way, I prefer remote work. Ideally, everyone is in the same room and having fun, but the trap most studios fall into is only hiring the talent within a bird’s eye view. By opening yourself up to hiring remote freelancers, the studio can bring the best available talent to every project. With Slack, Google, Skype, etc… location shouldn’t really matter.  – TJ

We’re more than comfortable to work with remote freelancers. You kinda have to be when you work Down Under! We often work with the NY and LA offices and with freelancers in NZ, the UK, and the US. – Gareth

Many companies operate differently on this front – some work with a team all remotely and are used to working that way, but we prefer as much as possible to work with a team in our studio. Working remotely demands a huge amount of communication and management that proximity can solve and often it means that a job needs to be set up to accommodate that. Some skill sets though work better than others in this capacity. Remote concept artists or in some cases modeling are easier to manage than animation or compositing. However, we have worked with exceptional talent out of the studio and it depends on the demands of the job. – Julia

SHOWREELS

Does having a reel matter?

Yes, but I don’t know why. Going to an artist’s site and seeing that they don’t have a reel or it’s really outdated makes me hesitate. I’ve still hired countless artists without one, but for some reason, it requires a little convincing to hire that person. This is dumb and I really don’t know why, it’s just my personal reaction when looking at artists.  – TJ

If it’s the first time we’ll work with you, a reel allows us to get a quick understanding of your skills. Keep the reel under :90 and pack the start with your best work! Rather ashamedly it’s rare we have the luxury of watching the full duration of a reel. But if you prefer to present your work as whole films, be clear about what your role was. Where this is is unclear it makes it harder to judge if you are right for the project. – Matt

I still like an old fashioned reel. They’re a convenient way to see a person’s range and point of view, at a glance. They certainly aren’t necessary but more often than not a reel is what teases me into your individual projects or into reaching out to know more. That’s their purpose, right, to vis-tease? If cutting a 60-second montage isn’t for you, go rogue and share an animated gif that flip, flip, flips through your greatest hits. It would be strangely refreshing to get an Art Director’s reel that was audio only – just their voice pitchin’ and a’storytelling. Actually, this would be bad. But it would be a guaranteed “WTF” and a visit to their site. The format of a “reel” isn’t important, to grab attention quickly is. – Chris Kelly, Creative Director, Oddfellows

Directors and Producers will always want to see a reel. It’s very hard for me to sell an artist in without one. You’d have to be really well-known or very good friends. – Natalie

If you’re an animator applying for work then it’s helpful to have a reel. I’d much rather watch a reel than sift through a bunch of projects. I love a good reel intro – this shows me what you’re about and tells me you’re passionate. Honestly though, if the work’s good, it doesn’t really matter. – Gareth

A reel makes it easy for studios to review a broad cross-section of an artist’s work and decide if s/he has what’s needed for a specific project. We’re often viewing multiple reels in quick succession, so the easier it is to get a feel for who the artist is and what they can do, the better.

An out-of-date reel is just as bad, if not worse, than not having a reel at all. Poor render quality, old technical standards or simply more junior work all factor in on how a portfolio is received – your reel should reflect what you are capable of today. And don’t forget to include your contact information! – Dotti

HEROES

Do you have any awesome story you’d like to share? Someone that saved the day in a project or just had a really great attitude and lives forever in your heart?

I feel like the Compositors are the unsung heroes: they’re like the last people in the relay race. They get handed the baton while the team is in the last place and get told that they have to break the world record. On one occasion when all was looking doomed, we asked a comper to pick up some shots at which point he produced some drawings and notes he thought of a few days before on how he would approach them. He saved the day for sure, which we’ll always be grateful for! – Natalie

I do remember one specific time around Christmas, when we were working on a very big project and a lovely freelancer joined us after much searching for a suitable compositor. He was available at the last minute and just absolutely smashed all of our expectations, and was just brilliant. He really worked hard and was just absolutely fantastic, even when we had some tricky amends to make late in the day after a feedback call. It was about 6.30pm—very unusual for us—and he was still here fixing things without a word of complaint. Obviously, we like to try and avoid that happening and I would never expect anyone to stay late, but he could see that it was a situation that needed sorting and just stayed and got the job done. I’ll remember him fondly forever! – Laura

There are a couple of people that we work with a lot and that have always treated our projects like their own, adding a lot of extra care to them, even when the budgets have been painful ones. We don’t expect that from people, so it’s very touching to see that someone genuinely enjoys the work so much that they really want to help. It is also great when you work with someone who has an understanding of teamwork and is happy to jump on different roles, depending on the project’s needs. – Anonymous

BAD EXPERIENCES

Do you have any particular hard situation to share that we could learn from?

We had a couple of unpleasant situations with people, where they either didn’t deliver in time, did unsatisfactory work, or they were not happy to do a certain type of work. It is challenging when you have called someone in based on their reputation in the industry or through recommendation and they prove to be less committed than you thought they would be. Hierarchy is a tough subject too. We once worked with someone who refused to jump on clean-up for a day, when the animation production had come to a halt. We found that a bit disappointing, especially as we are a small studio and every single day of production counts a lot for us. One funny incident was a freelancer not showing up for work one day and not notifying us. – Anonymous

We have encountered difficult situations where a freelancer has had a large ego and has not had the humility to accept that they might not be right for a role. We understand that if there is a commitment we don’t want to let them down but often we are in a difficult position too, where we need to replace them and need to mitigate costs. This has to be a reasonable negotiation. Freelancers are not released easily – it’s often at the end result of a difficult decision. So we need to have mature and open conversations to reach a productive conclusion. – Julia

The hardest thing to deal with is when people tell us something is going to be quicker than it really is. Often people tell us what they think we want to hear, but this is by far the most frustrating thing we deal with. Honesty is always the best policy! If we are told something will take 10 minutes when really it’s an hour it makes us look stupid to the people we are dealing and undermines people confidence in the project. As long as we understand the situation we can work out the best way to deal with it, but being misled stops us being able to do this. – Matt

Bad experiences for us are when artists drop out of a booking at the last minute, or even worse… leave whilst they’re working on a production. It takes a lot of effort to find good people and they’re rarely available at a moments notice, so when this happens it really puts the project in jeopardy. Also, any occasion where a freelancer decides for whatever reason to take another booking without checking in on their pencil booking with us is very frustrating. – Natalie

EXTRA THOUGHTS

One thing that people forget is that all of us in this industry are just trying to figure it out, pay our bills, and make the best work possible along the way. Whether you’re a freelancer, a directing duo, or a studio owner, many of the problems are similar… they’re just scaled differently. Sometimes I see a lot of us vs. them on social media, and it’s nice to remember that, as a freelancer, you’re just one or two hires away from being a studio… and as a studio, you might just be a couple of slow quarters away from being a freelancer. A bit of empathy goes a long way on both sides to avoid burnt bridges. – Jay

Do stay in touch and keep us posted on your whereabouts. If you are fresh in the mind you are more likely to be considered.

Do know who to talk to at an individual company rather than emailing everyone.

Do be flexible – some jobs will be easier than others and you need a proactive attitude.

Don’t be obstructive.

Don’t be a stranger! – Julia

As employers, I believe it’s our responsibility to let freelancers and collaborators know when a project (and working relationship) wasn’t successful and more importantly why it wasn’t successful. We want our peers to succeed and giving feedback on the things that were frustrating for us will only help them to not make the same mistakes…with a different studio ;). I have a rule that if someone makes a major blunder, on set for example, I try to be really clear and identify why it sucked. However, I do hire those freelancers again because the likelihood of making that same blunder again is pretty low! Having said all that, we’re not perfect and it’s very rarely one-sided when things fall apart in a working relationship. We appreciate feedback from our collaborators too and take it very seriously. – Leah

A massive thank you to all interviewees who took a good chunk of their precious time and contributed with such considerate answers.

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About the author

Bee Grandinetti

/ www.beegrandinetti.com
Bee is a designer and animator who has recently joined the team of Motionographer contributors as an UK correspondent. Born and raised in Brazil, she's is currently based in London and giving the freelance life a quick break to spend a year working at Google's Creative Lab, in the Google 5 program. She's one of the co-founders of Punanimation (an online community for the ladies, trans and non-binary people in the industry) and has also been helping Hyper Island reshape their Motion program, as an educational consultant.

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