Starting out as a freelancer in the 3D/VFX industry

More and more people are going freelance. Why? Well the simple reason is that there are more and more people who want to do the work, but the amount of full time jobs isn’t growing as fast. Also with the amount of different skill sets available, most studio’s don’t need a lot of these people full time. For example I mostly do character rigging these days. Most studios don’t need a character rigger full time. They need one just a couple of times a year perhaps, or maybe even just once ever. So freelancing in general a better distribution of labor.

There is a dark side to this trend though which everyone should be aware. A lot of studios hire freelancers because they know that most people are terrible at figuring out what they are worth and can be exploited, pressured and manipulated into doing waay more work for waay less money. Many studios will hire freelancers to avoid paying benefits or giving paid leave.

This is my advice to every budding freelancer. Don’t do it unless you have no choice. Freelancing is hard. Finding clients is hard, standing out from every other freelancer is hard. There are 2 real reasons anyone should be a freelancer. The first category is people who can’t get stable employment and simply have no choice, and the second category is people who simply HAVE to be able to manage their own time, their money, their projects etc. Take me for example, I’m a freelancer because i simply have no choice in the matter. There is no way i can go into an office every day. It’s simply not in my DNA. And i also love all the aspects around being a freelancer. As a kid i really enjoyed playing economic sim games, where you get to run your own business. Being a freelancer is pretty much just like that. Except you can’t always just pour more money into something, sometimes you just have to do the work. You have to build your brand, handle advertising and marketing, promote yourself, negotiate prices, manage expenses, plan for catastrophes and a whole bunch of other stuff.

So if you are thinking about being a freelancer, think about if you enjoy all this. Or does it stress you the fuck out. Because to lots of people it does. And if you just want to make animations or design characters, perhaps you are better off looking for employment where other people who are good at things like marketing and negotiations will take care of those things for you. Because remember there are only so many hours in a day. And you will be competing with people who really love what they do. If you want to go freelance, i always recommend teaming up with someone who complements your skills. So you can pull each other up. Or reach out to someone who is already freelancing and let them know what your special skills are.

This leads me to the next topic  Special Skills you need to have something that sets you apart. Being a generalist is important and as a freelancer it really helps if you are aware of the entire pipeline around you. BUT when you email someone or talk to someone, you need a hook, you need to be remembered for something. Some little piece of info, so when they are thinking “Damn i need someone to do this” They will instantly think of you. This kind of niche specialization also helps with google searches when people are looking for someone who does what you do. How many people are you competing with in your primary category? Know your competition and pivot so at least somewhere you come up at the top of the list.

The last part of this post i want to bring up something very important and that is: “Love what you do” . Because if you are doing something you are not passionate about you will lose. Why? Because you are competing with people who LOVE what they do. Especially in the creative industry. So always think long and hard about how you are presenting yourself and what kind of jobs you are attracting.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to follow me. I got a whole series lined up. Next i’m thinking of writing an article on how to set prices and charge for your work. What do you think?


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7 replies
  1. Joe
    Joe says:

    This is so true. The way I’ve described freelance to people before is like running a small business being a sole trader, but expected to produce the work of a company while being paid as an employee… or at least that’s how you’re perceived, especially if you’re not working directly with a client (ie you have middle men like agencies or studios brimming the work in, then trying to outsource it as cheap as possible to maximise profits). So loving what you do is a must, learning industry standard rates is a must, being honest about your skills in each area is a must (when comparing industry prices vs your own value). Also, knowing when to charge hourly rates, day rates, project rates is a big thing to move forward… charge to little and you’ll either scare a client off, be expected to produce work well over that prices worth, or worse of all, be pigeon holed as cheap and forever be referred to by that client as cheap, meaning more people wanting/expecting cheap work. Another major point is knowing contract law, stages of payment & different aspects of IP, copyright and licensing… and where possible, avoid work for hire type setups. Also… if you use your own software, hardware & equipment… you are not a freelancer so never be used as one.

  2. Seth
    Seth says:

    Thanks a lot, I’m also quitting my job to become a freelancer because that’s what I’ve always wanted and as a matter of fact, it’s scares me sometimes. I really love this article. Thanks

  3. yevheniy
    yevheniy says:

    Thanks for this! And how do you even start working as a freelancer? What sites do you recommend for this?

    • aleksey
      aleksey says:

      This is a good idea for another article. But the basics are: “make cool stuff and put it where people can see it”. It won’t always work, but without this it will be much harder. Like any business, you need to develop a skill that people need, and then find the people that need it, and convince them to give you money in exchange for your help. A good way to start is looking at job boards and see what people are looking for, then develop skills that you enjoy and that seem to be in demand, and then show as many people as possible what you can do.

      Actually applying for most job posts is a waste of time, they get 1000’s of applications. You want them to find you before they even go to post on a job website.


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