This is the first in a series of articles on freelancer issues. I hope that by focusing on the life of a freelancer and the everyday challenges that entails, it will foster discussion and feedback that may in turn help all of us. — Dayna Gonzalez
In 1998, I graduated from college and timidly took my first steps in the world as an aspiring animator. It was slow and while I accepted work as a Web Designer, I kept the hope alive that I’d follow my dreams of being an Animator. One day, at a Career Fair at NYU, I ran into my former classmate, Dave Palmer, who was there recruiting for a new show on Nick Jr. He gave me his card and sent me an animation test. At the time I did not know After Effects, but I sat there for hours and hours in the computer lab teaching myself After Effects, until I was able to complete the test and send it back. But it took awhile, and by the time I sent it in, there were no desks. I was heartbroken and thought perhaps my test just wasn’t good enough, but I kept in touch with Dave and persisted in learning the program. Four months later I started my job at Nick Digital Animation Studios, working as an Animator on Season 2 of Blue’s Clues. I remained there for the next 6 years, growing my skills as a burgeoning animator and fostering friendships that I’ve carried with me ever since. I count my experiences there among the best I’ve ever had in this industry. As wonderful an introduction to the animation industry as that job was, it was hardly a hint of what it is to be an Animator in a largely freelance business. When I speak of Animators, I include those of us who are Designers, Storyboard Artists, Writers, and a whole host of other positions that make up this industry.
It wasn’t until Blue’s Clues had its series finale, that I learned what it is to truly be a freelancer. That longevity was a rarity in this business and although we were still employed on a per-project basis, it was hard to tell because we benefited from seasons running into other on a continuous basis, allowing for very few hiatuses from production. That doesn’t happen very often these days, and with the rise of outsourcing, finding work can often be a challenge.
More often than not, artists are employed on a per-project basis. That project may last a week, a month, or a year, but when the project ends, we often have to move on and find another gig. It can be a struggle, but it can also be an extremely rewarding experience with the variety of exciting projects thrown your way, and the freedom freelance life can offer. So how do you make it in this world of freelance? Here are some of my observations gleamed from navigating the animation industry over the last 10 years.
First and foremost, you are an Animator because you are in love with animation. You have a passion for it, and that passion is what is going to keep you going, even when times are tough. Lots of free time? What do you do with it? You create. You have a computer, a pencil and paper? Sit down and work on that personal project you’ve been dying to get out there. In this day and age of amazing computer programs and wide-reaching distribution sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and Aniboom, we really have no excuse for not getting our own work out there.
Second, the animation business is cyclical. It will have strong busy years, and then be very slow. Some of us will decide to move on to other industries, while others will stick it out for no other reason than they just can’t imagine life without animation in their lives. Animation has proved itself a lasting medium enjoyed by many audiences young and old, time and time again. Times may be slow, but it will always come back around.
Third, I cannot stress enough the importance of networking. Get yourself out there. Attend animation events in your community. Join your local ASIFA chapter, or other animation organization. Make friends. Introduce yourself. Speak up. Ask questions. Many events find groups of artists going out afterwards and networking in bars or restaurants. Come along. The majority of jobs are not advertised in sites like Craigslist or Monster. Most are found because the Director knows so and so who knows so and so is looking for work. More often than not, that next job is going to come from someone you know. Foster your friendships and learn from them. We all have something to teach each other.
Although I could go on and on, I’ll leave you with one last tip. Save your money. Sounds simple, but it’s a hard principle to put into practice. What money you make from one job, even if it’s from a good yearlong gig, is going to make you through the times you don’t have a job. That doesn’t mean be a pauper, but just be smart about your money. Bring your lunch to work, and ditch the morning coffee for a once a week splurge. Use direct deposit. If you don’t see the money, perhaps you won’t spend it. Use coupons and look for bargains when buying anything from food to furniture to animation equipment and supplies. You will thank yourself in the long run.
I’ll expand more upon these observations throughout my blog posts, among other topics. I hope you’ll stay tuned and I invite you to share your own experiences or thoughts in the comments section. Til next time!