Freelance Animation: Tips from the Pros!


With more and more people choosing to do freelance animation, we thought it would be fun and helpful to survey some friends in the industry who are doing freelance well and whose work we respect. This valuable advice is gold for animators thinking about going freelance because as you would soon find out, it’s not all roses and working in your pajamas. (But it is great once you get the hang of it!) So we reached out to a few of these folks and asked them the question:

What has been the most helpful thing you’ve learned since going freelance?

1. Plan out the details of your freelancing move. Research and network.

Name: Matt Walker
What he’s worked on: “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness,” “The Penguins of Madagascar”, and many more.

“Starting a freelancing career should be like starting a new shot. You don’t just jump in and start moving controls around; you plan it. Start making a list of studios you’d like to get in touch with. Reach out to friends who have been freelancing, ask how they did it. Research what it’s going to take to be successful. If freelancing is a move you want to make, make it with intention.

I researched a lot before jumping in. I looked into taxes, insurance, reached out to friends, talked to studios and did part-time [freelance] for a year before jumping in full-time. I established those relationships before I made the jump.

I’ve had friends who found themselves out of a job, and decided ‘Okay, I guess I’m freelance,’ and I think it was a much harder journey for them because they had to start from nothing in that kind of desperate spot but when I went freelance it was like, I’m not doing this because a studio job isn’t available at the moment, I’m doing it because this is the lifestyle I want. It was very intentional.”

More from Matt: LinkedIn, Vimeo

2. Prepare to adapt as you move from job to job at different studios.

Name: Kevin Nguyen
What he’s worked on: “Scooby Doo,” “Angry Birds”, “Storks”, and many more.

“Being adaptable has been my most useful skill set in freelance.

  1. There are multiple different types of projects that require different types of styles, so it’s good to expand your knowledge on all the different styles to animate.
  2. Every production has a different way of being run so it’s best to be able to shift your workflow accordingly. For example: Some directors/supervisors like to see stepped animation for ideas while others are okay with spline blocking.
  3. Especially in freelance, you’re always thrown curve-balls, whether it’s an idea change or something is needed earlier than expected. During those times, it can be tricky to find ways to speed up the process, but this is where extensive knowledge of the program and the use of scripts are necessary. For example: To have a deep understanding of how the graph editor works can help you salvage your work and manipulate it to the new direction needed.

Being able to adapt helps you be prepared for anything that may come in a fast production in freelance animation. Not all productions will be chaotic, but it’s best to be prepared.”

More from Kevin: LinkedIn, Vimeo

3. Spreadsheets are your friend.

Name: Andrew Conroy (that’s our creative director!)
What he’s worked on: Life of Pi, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Love, Death and Robots, and many more.

“Map out your finances and project schedule.

When you go freelance, all of a sudden that consistent paycheck goes away but your bills don’t. This causes a considerable amount of anxiety, especially if you don’t have a clear picture of how much time you have before you’re broke. A really simple way to get your head around this and see it clearly is a spreadsheet.

I know – I hated spreadsheets for a long time (’cause they are lame) until I realized that they can be an easy tool to help me sleep at night. I plan out a base cost of living in one section and what projects or money coming in I have in another. This helps me know when I need to get more work and when I can let things slide a bit.

With freelance, you’ll get offers to work on loads of different projects. In reality, you can’t take them all and you’re going to want to take a little time off throughout the year. Having your finances planned out will help you know when you can afford to pass on a project in order to maybe get a better one, or when you need to take that contract to make ends meet.

After you’ve done this for a couple years, you’ll see what clients have been the most important and valuable to you. This will help you treat them right and keep them long-term as well. You may also find that over time, you can cut a few of the less awesome clients. Refining your client pool will lead to more enjoyment of your freelancing for sure.”

BONUS : If you want to try using the simple spreadsheet this one is a good start.  Download Here!

More from Andrew: LinkedIn, Vimeo

4. Find what works for you to best manage your time.

Name: Mariano Lopez
What he’s worked on: Wonderpark, Rock Dog, Mortadelo and Philemon, and many more.

“I’d say one of the most challenging aspects of going freelance is learning how to manage my time in the scope of a day.

If I have to set a good balance between work and family time, what helps me is start in the morning watching the last review, reading the notes I’ve got from the supervisor, and think what shots I intend to work on, writing down my goals for that day like basic milestones so I can go back during the day to see how it’s progressing.

Usually I start with the most difficult task of the list, and when I feel I’m getting stuck with one animation that for some reason is not working I usually move to the next task and come back later, instead of fighting it for hours or getting frustrated.

Working with two or more Maya sessions open helps to cut a lot of idle time. Having dailies as often as possible helps a lot to stay consistent at work; deadlines always help to stay focus and avoid procrastination.”

More from Mariano: LinkedIn, Vimeo

5. Stay organized and present yourself like a business.

Name: Roman K
What he’s worked on: Hotel Transylvania 2, Angry Birds, Love Death and Robots, and many more.

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned from my years of freelance is that you are your own business. So it’s important to treat yourself like a business. The better you keep yourself organized and professional the better you’ll do as a freelancer.

Also being friendly and responding quickly helps a ton. Keeping track of all the studios you talk to and the HR staff and/or producers you are in contact with is incredibly important. I like to keep a spreadsheet with each studio on an individual tab in one file. Under each studio, I have all the contacts for the studio there so I can reference it along with my pay rate, if I have worked there and when, and I keep track of how much my rate has increased over time. I also archive all my studio-related emails. I create labels for each studio and I archive all important emails into that label, that way I can keep my inbox clean but I can always go back and find emails from those studios quickly for reference.

Knowing when I’m booked or available is a top priority. I personally use Google Calendar for that but any calendar app should work similarly. Being able to quickly tell if a project will fit your availability is crucial. I use my calendar like a Gantt chart to show projects in color-coded blocks. I use 3 colors to track potential jobs, bookings and canceled jobs. Whenever a studio reaches out I start off by taking down the dates they are potentially looking for on my Google Calendar as an event and I set that to yellow and labeling it something like “Studio A Hold”. That way I can quickly look and see if it overlaps with any other studio’s bookings or holds. If it works out and I’m booked on the job, I change the color code and label it to include the studio name. If the project gets canceled or its start/end dates are changed and I can’t accept the booking, I’ll change the color code to indicate canceled. No one wants cancellations but sometimes this is out of your control and it’s good to keep track for reference. Using my calendar to keep track of my availability this way has been very helpful.

When freelancing you are going to move from studio to studio. Having everything you need ready to go is super important. I like to have all my scripts, plug-ins and hotkeys handy on a USB drive and also saved on Google Drive and Dropbox. That way I can access them whenever I need them. I always bring my own headphones with an extra extension cable. Most studios have extra headphones for you to use but they are probably beat up and uncomfortable. Plus other people have probably used them and that’s not always clean, so bring your own. And always have a tripod for reference; a cheap portable tripod that can fit into your backpack or bag is best.”

BONUS : Learn how Roman uses Google Calendar with a helpful tutorial from the man himself: Download Here

More from Roman: LinkedIn, Vimeo

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