Commercial work with boundaries: the commissioned work model

Editor’s note: This is the first Motionographer post from NYC-based freelance designer/animator Joe Donaldson.

The focus of this post isn’t the design or animation of the piece above. It’s more about the process through which I made it and the idea of doing commercial work with boundaries.

A new, old model

A few years ago, a good friend and talented artist, Cody Tumblin, turned me on to the work of Sonnenzimmer and their unique commissioned/fine arts approach to commercial work.

I don’t know all the details of their process but, in short, after the initial agreement with a client, the creative is locked, giving the artists free reign with their decision making. I love Sonnenzimmer’s work and have always been amazed by the amount of identity and integrity that remains in their commercial work. This concept has stayed with me, and I have always been intrigued to try it in my personal work.

In 2013, I worked on a few projects that I loved but that the client either changed beyond recognition or killed altogether. I had even worked under the agreement of having full creative control on different projects in the past but had never put anything in writing, which led to varied results.

I decided that I wanted to give this another shot on my next direct-to-client project.

Two options

On Valentine’s Day, the piece I did for The New York Times went live on their homepage. Before I even had a chance to check it out, I awoke to a call from Julie Morris at Morris Grassfed Beef. She loved the piece and wanted to make something together. I knew this was their first time exploring animation and that their budget was limited. So when I presented the contract, I included two options:

  • Option A would take 6 weeks and include x number of revisions and check-ins
  • Option B would take 4 weeks and consist of no revisions but would cost less

Julie chose Option B.

I was very excited. Even though the financial gain would be less, the tradeoff was that this project could be my baby, and I could explore design and storytelling directions in confidence without fear of having to fight for them later down the road. I could tell their story the way I wanted to.

However, I was also intimidated because it was all up to me. On more collaborative jobs where the individual’s decision making is limited, it’s easy to pass the buck if the job goes south: the agency changed their mind, the logo is ugly, the client is unimaginative, etc. With this project it was all up to me and if the client wasn’t happy or it didn’t turn out good, I failed.

The process

With such unique boundaries, I knew that being upfront and honest about expectations was crucial. I worked with Julie to refine the story we would tell and write the script. I then presented:

  • a mood board
  • pencil sketches
  • three style frames

Once those were agreed upon, it was up to me to do the rest.

The concept of no revisions also worked its way into the sound aspect of the project. I worked with the very talented Wesley Slover at Sono Sanctus for the music and sound design as well as Jamie Hunsdale for the VO. I was limited with what I could afford in regards to sound, but luckily Wesley loved the idea of working with no revisions. He really put himself into the sound design and music, and I think he did a wonderful job matching the aesthetic of the piece.

This job was very unconventional in comparison to most bookings and consisted of a lot of firsts. This included the VO talent opting to receive his payment in steaks. You can imagine how funny those emails were: “I can’t pay you much, but I can pay you in meat…”

One man show (with cats)

I do a fair amount of remote and direct-to-client work, but this was my first time being fully on my own for a small business. We take for granted the amount of back and forth and support we get during in-house bookings, from reviews with the CD and the clients to just shooting the shit and looking at each other’s work. For a long time, the only eyes on this project were mine, my wife’s and our two cats’.

I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to get this right for Julie and the rest of the people at Morris. They trusted me, and I wanted to make sure it became something we could all be proud of.

None of this stems from the thought that the decisions and ideas of the animator/designer are infallible, rather from the hope of doing work that we can really own and be invested in that also tells the client’s story.

Flexibility is always important. These image are a good example.

The images above show the evolution of this scene. Julie informed me that silos, in the top-right image, are not common on cattle farms and that they imply feeding the animals grain which, being a grassfed farm, they never do. I gladly reworked the frame and consequently it turned into my favorite frame in the piece.


In the end, they loved it! It’s still a corny explainer video with all the tropes you would expect, noodle-armed characters and puns included.

But what made this project so rewarding to work on was the trust and respect that was given to the whole process.The end result tells the client’s story and was made in a way where all parties involved could be extremely invested and really own the work they did.


I acknowledge that this business model couldn’t possibly work for every client or situation. Many business-minded people may think it’s suicidal. It may seem idealistic, but I really think there is room in the industry for more of this type of work.

In this case, due to proper communication, honesty and boundaries, Morris Grassfed got a piece they otherwise wouldn’t have had the budget for and I was able to support my family while making something I was truly passionate about. Everyone won.

I strongly urge everyone out there, the next time you get an email from a small business with a low budget, instead of deleting it, give them some options and see what it can yield.

Oh, and if you are living in California between LA and San Francisco, please help support an amazing family run farm that creates an earth-friendly, sustainable product and values and respects animation!

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About the author

Joe Donaldson

Joe Donaldson is a director, designer, and animator who worked on Motionograpgher from 2014-2020. Previously, he was an art director at Buck. Over the past decade, he's lived and worked in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles and has directed work for clients such as Apple, Google, Instagram, The New York Times, Unicef, Etsy, and The New Yorker. In addition to his creative work, in 2018 he started Holdframe. He's now working as a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design and when not teaching he can be found spending time with his family or out running.



Love this. Thank you.


This is a great read. I feel like anyone who has ever dealt with endless client revisions which ultimately result in people who are less than creative hacking up projects beyond recognition would almost certainly opt for “option B”. That being said, this would never work with any of my clients who do bring proper budgets to the table. If you can find the right client for this sort of thing, I think the results would be fantastic.

Joe Donaldson

I agree.

There is a ton of grey area here.

This direction definitely isn’t for every client or every situation. The truth is, the majority of my work comes from in-house booking at studios and agencies and I love that work. This all came about as a way of contrasting the experiences of my in-house work with my independent work.

The main goal with all of this is to create healthy relationships and try to turn demands into requests while respecting each others boundaries.

Mark The Man

Joe your design work has really blossomed. I love the work and your solutions based approach.


Great write-up Joe! I think creative exploration is sometimes lost because of deadlines and cost restraints. This seems like a great way to bridge the gap between the two and give both the animator and client what they ultimately want: a winning piece both are happy with.

Paul Ducco

Great insight and approach Joe. Thanks for sharing.

Martin Craster

Awesome article Joe.

Going through some dark times at the moment with a client, where my designs are slipping away and clients are just killing the mojo of the project.

Thanks man.


Doing a project now, where my clients (based in the US, UK and Switzerland, three different timezones) are arguing about the voice over for 3 weeks now. They are starting to send each other TEDtalks about leadership and communication. The original schedule was that I would finish up animation today… Haven’t even started the damn thing yet.

Every new project seems to have more and more cooks in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel like I’m just a button presser.

So this article sounds like a dream come true for me.


we’ve been working on a project for a cable provider for nearly 4 months now and there are way too many cooks in the kitchen. What started out as a spot based on a very cool concept has now been dummied down into a veritable powerpoint presentation. It’s actually been fairly amazing watching this unfold.


Joe, this is awesome. It’s great to hear that negotiation can be a two-way street. For a lower price the client actually gets what they want by having their creative role limited, and the creative team feels satisfied making work their proud of.

It’s a great idea, and I’ll definitely incorporate the “Sonnenzimmer Method” in my next freelance contract.


Lilian Darmono

Good one. I would love it if everyone out there can step up to the client and say ‘if you’ve got no money, the trade off is no revisions’ instead of just rolling over and let clients do whatever they want to you. Respect is gained by saying ‘no’ sometimes (in a nice way), not just bending over backwards, always there at their beck and call.

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