• A Realistic Look at Freelance Animation Work

  • The idea of being a freelance animator or designer can seem like a dream; you're your own boss, you set your own hours, create your own work environment, never have to leave your home, and best of all (I know this is the biggest perk for me), you can do your work in your pajamas, and no one's breathing down the back of your neck about corporate dress standards. But many people entering into freelance work aren't aware of the pitfalls that come with being your own boss, and only discover them when they plow headfirst into some rather massive and daunting roadblocks.
    While working for yourself can be extremely rewarding and quite convenient, you should always be aware of the added responsibility and obligation implied, and of any hardships that you might encounter and will need to plan for.

    The points that I'll cover here are things that I've learned from my own experiences as a freelance artist, animator, designer, and writer; I hope that they'll help you as well.
    The next few pages will cover some of the potential potholes that could send you skidding in your aspirations to work as a freelance animator.

    Potential Pitfalls
    Time Management.
    You'd be surprised at just how easy it is to find yourself running out of time when you're working from home. The problem is that it's too easy to get distracted; in the middle of working, you'll remember that you need to clean the living room, or you're almost out of clean socks. I know that I have days where it's almost impossible to resist the siren song of the PS2, or I'm tempted to sleep all day if I want to--because hey, the only one worrying about my time is me, right?

    Not if I want to get paid. When a client hires you to work for them, they'd like to see it in a timely fashion; while they'll generally understand if you have multiple clients and you're juggling work loads, they'll be less forgiving if a two-day project takes two months to deliver because you kept getting distracted by all the shiny, fun things lying around your home.

    Even with the comforts involved, you are still working; that implies a sense of responsibility and discipline. You have to be responsible enough to set yourself a work schedule, and disciplined enough to adhere to it; otherwise your "easy vacation" of self-employment will soon run out of funding.
    Building a Client Base.
    When you first start off freelancing, more than likely you won't even make enough to support yourself. You may have one client, or two, but clients won't just come flooding to your doorstep. You have to build a client base; get your name out, advertise yourself, and make inquiries. Don't forget to keep in touch with existing clients; polite, periodic e-mails will serve to remind them that you're there to meet their needs without being intrusive.

    As you progress, your client base will help to build itself; if you left a good impression on your first few clients, not only will they return to you on an as-needed basis, they'll also refer others, who will come to you with high expectations. But this can work both ways; if you leave too many clients dissatisfied, they can easily ruin your reputation and shrivel your client base to nearly nothing. It's true, there are some clients that are impossible to please and who will view even your most Herculean of accomplishments negatively; these are rare, however, and most clients will be happy with you if you complete the agreed requirements, give them the appropriate attention (give your smaller clients as much consideration as your larger ones), do the best job that you can, and are pleasant and professional to work with. (They don't need to know that you're sitting on your couch in your boxers, and your attitude doesn't need to reflect that. Your work attire says "naptime". The tone of your e-mails and phone calls should say "casual but professional home office".)

    Slow Periods.
    Oh, you're going to have them. You're going to have a lot of them. When business is good, it's booming, but when it dries up, you'll be as parched as a dust devil tumbling through an Arizona gulch. Freelance work is rarely steady; because your clients will contact you on an as-needed basis, it's hard to predict when you'll have work and when you won't. For that reason you should always budget your income; when you land that hefty $5000 contract, don't blow all of the excess on frills. Save a set amount of the non-essential excess from each lump sum or gross hourly payment to build up a substantial nest egg that can, if necessary, carry you through several months without additional income. You'll be grateful for it when things are slow.

    Be Willing to Negotiate Without Caving In.
    You know what you're worth, but that doesn't mean that a potential client does. Whether you're working on an hourly rate or for a set overall fee, often the final payment will be a result of negotiation. In the beginning you may end up taking jobs that pay less than you'd like. You may say you want $25 an hour, while they can only pay you $20; it's up to you if you're willing to negotiate down, though being inflexible when your client base is small can leave you with no client at all. Compromising can be good, and those clients that you compromised for may later be those whose steady work holds you up more consistently than the $50/hour clients that might fire two hours of work your way every three months.

    But don’t let potential clients take advantage of you. If you've been talked down to taking $50 for a project that you know is worth at least $500, and you're slaving hours over it when your time could be better spent on clients that are paying you fairly, you may want to reconsider your position. It's hard to tell a client that they're being unfair or unreasonable, and we're all afraid of alienating clients; our position is still one of customer service atop the other responsibilities, and we do aim to please in order to bring clients back. But you also have to know when to walk away. It's a thin line to tread, and one that's at your own discretion.

    Tricky Legal Issues and Expenses
    Contracts.
    Yes, these things can get complicated and tangled. First, you should always get any work agreements in writing. You don't have to call it a contract, but there should be a written document clearly outlining an agreement between yourself and the hiring party (the client). You should make sure that it covers what they require and expect of you, your fees, and what exactly those fees cover, as well as any clauses that may incur additional fees and the instances in which they would apply. It's best if you, the client, and a third party possess copies of this document in case any dispute should arise over the contracted work; it's even better if you've both signed said copies in front of a witness.

    This can seem like a ridiculous amount of red tape to go through just so you can work for someone; odds are that it's not even necessary, but it's still a good idea.

    One, it shows your professionalism to your client; two, it's a safety measure that benefits both you and the client in the case that either of you fail to fulfill your contractual obligations and it becomes a legal issue; three, if there is confusion later as to what was or was not covered under the initial contracted fee, the document can stand as evidence of what was agreed upon.
    Copyrights and Work For Hire.
    When you create something for a client, the issue of ownership can be confusing. Since you made it, on your computer, using your skills, it's yours, right?

    Not...exactly. Contract work is pretty much what's considered "work for hire"; what that means is that when your client buys your services, they buy ownership of the work that you created as well. It is, for the most part, theirs; you cannot resell the exact same work to another client, especially if it contains logos or other previously copyrighted images belonging exclusively to the client.

    You do, however, retain the right to display the work as part of your portfolio, as it is your creation and as a result your intellectual property. All of this also applies to what's called "in-house" work, when you are an actual employee of a company rather than working as a contractor for a client; when you work for them, in their establishment, on equipment that they provide using software that they purchased licenses for, you retain only the intellectual copyright to the work, while the actual ownership of the content belongs to the company.

    Dealing With the Government.
    This is the part that scares a lot of us. It scares even me, frankly. What many starting freelancers forget is that although they're receiving payment in full upon completion of projects, there are no federal taxes being deducted. However, many clients will ask you to fill out a W-9 form, and will report the money paid to you to the IRS; even if they don't, it's your responsibility to keep track of all invoices and report that money yourself on your annual tax returns. Taxes are still owed on that income, and you will be required to pay them.

    While the other points have only been cautionary commentary, this is where it gets ugly: the U.S. government self-employment tax is almost 15%, on top of any Medicare and Social Security taxes imposed. That's a hefty chunk of your income, and you need to be aware of that as you're saving over the year. There is the option to make quarterly advance payments in anticipation of the taxes owed on your annual income, and that can bring down your owed amount significantly, making that calculated number at tax time just a bit less jarring; if you've incurred expenses such as purchase of software licenses, equipment, and the maintenance of an internet connection for business purposes, you can also deduct those. But unless you have a significant amount of taxed income on the side, you might want to kiss those tax refund bonuses goodbye.

    Insurance and Benefits.

    On top of the heavy taxes imposed, there is also the burden of paying for your own private insurance, rather than having it covered by minimal deductions to fund an employer's company insurance policy. Depending on your health needs, this can get extremely expensive. Suddenly having to pay for all of your doctor visits, eyeglasses, contact lenses, medications, and medical emergencies out-of-pocket can hit where it hurts, and hit hard. It's best to look into local individual insurance providers, and find a plan that suits your needs with a monthly premium that fits your budget.
    As for benefits? There are no benefits, not really. You reap your benefits in the convenience of working from a home office, rather than in company-controlled options like paid holidays or 401K options. Paid holidays? Take your laptop to Bora Bora and get some work time in on the beach.

    So What's the Answer?
    The answer? In my opinion, yes, freelance work is worth the pitfalls. If you keep in mind the warnings that I've detailed here, the obstacles can be easy to surmount or wholly avoid, and you can find freelance work will award you a freedom that many 9-to-5 workers don't enjoy. No more going into the office sick; if you're feeling up to it, you can even work when ill, so that you don't get behind. No more missing kids' soccer practices and recitals; no more rush hour traffic; no more spending $300 per outfit just to keep up with the latest office fashions.
    Freelance work isn't for everyone, I'll be honest; the lack of stability can be frightening, and can outweigh the resulting freedom. But if you've got the skills for it, the discipline, and the available resources, you might want to look into it.

    And if you're planning already, don't forget to keep this article in mind. You'll be grateful for it later.

    Adrien-Luc Sanders
    About.com Animation Guide