Friday, September 30, 2011

A Simple Bid

Recent program graduates are at a disadvantage when it comes to surviving in the independent contracting market. Most veteran artists are not only confident in their tool skill sets, their troubleshooting ability, their extensive network and their eye, but they have a dozen years of project work experience to rely on when it comes to project bidding.

In my previous post, I outline a general set of considerations that any artist should establish in a new relationship with a client. These apply both to animation and post-production project work.

However, in order to fully comprehend your own investment, in both time and material, you'll need to match the proposed contract with your own internal bid, that is, your understanding of what it will take you to get the job done.

If you don't have an internal bid configured, complete with your own internal production milestones, your project will quickly go off the rails and you will either fail your delivery or provide sub-standard material, both outcomes a considerably less than desirable when you are trying to build a reel in hopes of landing your first pro gig.


Those of you who studied in school are by now familiar with the amount of time it takes you to complete basic animation tasks: blocking, secondary, lip-sync, and finished animation are all areas that you have no doubt explored. If the quality of the underlying rig is good, if you have access to all the blend-shapes you require, and if the cameras don't change, you can probably bid out a minute of animation for a single character performance.

Let's look at the simplest animation solution: A character walking toward camera while delivering lines over a series of shots in twenty seconds, the typical animation length of a commercial spot. Each shot lasts an average of four seconds, giving you five shots.

You might bid out an hour of animation blocking per second, then another hour per second for the lip-sync. You'll most likely need three takes before you get to secondary animation at an hour per revision, and maybe two more takes before final/finishing animation, say another hour per take on average.

Here's how your internal bid might look:

Initial Blocking = 20 hours
Lip-Sync = 20 hours
Feedback revisions (avg. 3/shot) = 60 hours
Final revisions = 40 hours

Total = 140 hours

At eight hours per day, that's eighteen days, and inserting weekends, about one month. Now this is a rather generic guesstimate, and perhaps these numbers are better suited to a junior artist than an entry-level graduate.

Most bids are doubled in order to get a cushion in case the client goes haywire, shots are changed, rigs are broken and other unforeseen circumstances befall the project. You can see why it is so difficult to profit in this business as an indy contractor. There really is no overhead in bids like this. You will always lose money. With low pay and no pay project work, the question is really simple: "How much will I lose?"

Given the example above, staying with 140 hours (without a buffer), if you were paid at a basic starting animator rate, say $40.00/hour, you might expect to make about $5,600 before taxes. You'll most likely be paid on a 1099-MISC tax class status, which means that you'll need to report and forward your tax basis in the current quarter. Make sure you understand how 1099-MISC tax reporting works.

So that's about $6,000.00 per month, before taxes. If you were working at a large company, you might make more or less depending on your skills, your benefits package and the company you're working for. That's about 72K/year for an entry position. That's close to what I've seen salaries offered for.

So if you were to take this crazy job with the twenty seconds of animation and the lip-sync and the rest, and were to do it for free, you'd be putting in about 6K of your own sweat equity. Something to keep in mind if you somehow lock yourself into delivery without an exit clause.

While I've provided a fairly simple example, your projects will be more complex. Make sure you understand what you're expected to deliver, and go through a process like this one, outlining each iteration step, assigning time for every review point. Keep in mind that tight deliveries mean less iterations and a higher expectation of a single or dual take final!

Let me know if you think my numbers are either too high or too low. I'd like to hear from those of you who have stories to tell, both heartening and horrifying.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Weighing An Offer

Many of you are wrestling with the realities of a down market: trying to find small independent jobs to keep you afloat while you look for your first big contract. While the entertainment industry can weather recession better than the manufacturing or retail sales sectors, it is still sensitive to fluctuations in the financial markets.

With a massive surplus of animation and post-production grads flooding out of programs around the nation, the competition for entry level positions is fierce. While larger companies like ILM and Disney/Pixar are scaling back, smaller companies are losing business to overseas markets like Canada, England and China. Veterans are leaving full-time positions and are taking up independent contracting as they move from post to post, putting further pressure on entry-level hiring.

Until the animation and post-production studios begin large-scale hiring again, and small shops find a way to compete with offshore studios, you may be forced to look at low-pay or no-pay projects to keep your portfolio growing and your skills sharp. How do you determine whether or not a low-pay/no-pay project will be beneficial to your future job search?

Do the Research

To ensure that the project that you are about to undertake will be conducted in a professional manner you'll need to find out as much as you can about the company or entity that wishes to employ your services.

Have they produced a project before? Do they have an industry reputation, good or bad? Have any of your friends or mentors heard of them? Get a few opinions before you commit.

Some Considerations

You should have a solid understanding of the following aspects of your new production. Use the following list to prepare for your interview with a potential independent low-pay/no-pay project opportunity:

1. Pre-Production Orientation

Get a sense of the project quality and project assets structure before you undertake the project. Depending on your role, you want to make sure that all the parts are in place for your contribution once you accept the contract. Look at the work reel. Have them send you a sample of a finished shot or a teaser cut.

2. Pipeline Overlay

What software will you be using? What additional steps will you be asked to take in order to collaborate with the rest of the team. This is especially important if you will be working remotely. Make sure that you understand the pipeline and how assets will flow between you and the other teams.

3. Review Methodology

How will the company conduct reviews? How often will you receive feedback? If you're an animator, you know how important consistent performance feedback is to your process. You need to make sure that you have access to the artistic directors involved in making the decisions.

4. Workflow

How will you implement client feedback? If you're an animator, and the performance note that you received related to a rigging issue, how will you communicate this to your supervisor? How will the rigging mod be implemented? What is the chain of command that will support your production needs?

5. Milestone Payments

You should find out how you will be paid and how often. Typically, independent contractor are paid on weekly milestones. Sometimes the job is small enough that you are paid on delivery. You need to hammer out the details of your payment structure before you begin. Keep in mind that professional entertainment companies understand the tricky nature of the client review process. If a balky client refuses to accept series of shots, they might refuse to pay your contractor, and if your company has not set up a change order system for overage billing, you might be the one holding the bag when the dust clears. The less professional the company, the more the client can hold them over the fire when it comes to delivery squabbles.

6. Quality of Work

For all low pay/no pay work, you should carefully consider the value of the project with regard to its potential contribution to your port reel. You never know when another job prospect might arise. If you contract on a project, you may be responsible (legally) for finishing it. Make sure that the low-pay project you pick up will benefit you in the long run.

7. Light Scope

In low-pay/no-pay projects like these, keep your overall involvement minimal. You want to remain flexible in case you are picked up on a paying gig elsewhere. Make sure that you build an exit clause into binding contracts. Small non-pay/low-pay project managers should understand your need for a quick exit. Non-professionals will not, and you will need to cover this issue with them before you enter into any binding agreement.


If you can answer all of the questions about your new opportunity with some certitude, and you are reasonably confident that your potential employer is acting in good faith, then use this opportunity to enhance your reel and broaden your network. Sometimes small projects like these lead to large projects. Sometimes a connection made in a small backwater project will lead to a job at a major. The industry is quite small, after all, so if you do commit to this project, give it your best.

Best of luck!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Outreach Materials

This is the first in a series of articles devoted to helping you craft your outreach materials, including resume, vita, cover letter, website and optionally, a business card. This week we'll start with the cover letter, as many of you are preparing for graduation this fall.

Your Cover Letter: Make It Interesting

Keep in mind that HR personnel sift through tons of material every hiring cycle. You'll want to make sure that each component of your outreach package serves its specific purpose without being redundant. There's nothing as tedious as reading the same material over and over again.

As I taught in my favorite BFA Portfolio Course, and later in the Professional Practices class, the entertainment industry cover is unique to our field. Applicants need to be succinct and interesting in order to lead the reader from first paragraph to last. Your hope is that by the time they read your fourth paragraph, they are pulling out your resume and navigating to your website. They want you to be a solid communicator, fun to work with, and most importantly, interesting. You're applying for a job, certainly, but the fact is, you're asking to be part of a community of artists. You must stand out in a way that appeals to this sense of family.


Keep in mind that the cover is simply a support component of your outreach package meant to augment your reel. Clearly, even if you are terrible at writing but have a brilliant reel, there is hope for you. Communication skills are valued, but ultimately it's your reel that will win you the position. I think that many of you are straddling the fence, especially as young interns, apprentices or junior artists trying to break in. A weak cover can't destroy your chances, but a strong cover can tip the scales in your favor.


As your cover is meant to support your resume and vita, avoid overlapping data on theses document. Your resume and vita should present the FACTS of your career, both professional and academic. Your cover should help explain your passion behind the career decisions you've made. We'll go into your resume and vita next week.

This is the basic cover formula that I've developed over the past twenty years, first with my own cover, and later, while I reviewed submissions for the various companies I worked for, I began to note those letters that resonated with me...

Salutation: To Ms. or Not To Ms.

The best way to approach a company position is through an inside connection. If you have a good friend already in a company, have them provide a name, and if possible, have them hand your materials directly to them. Some companies offer bounties for inside recruitment of quality artists.

If you don't have a connection, see if you can find out who the head recruiter is from LinkedIN. Address the chief recruiter if you can identify who they are from your research, otherwise it's best to use the generic Recruiting Department title. Use Ms. instead of Mrs where applicable.

Paragraph Uno (Declaration)

Your declaration paragraph should simply help the reader sort your job aim. Address your goals with the company and where you found your job listing. A simple sentence like: "I would like to apply for the position of character animator posted on Craig's List." A short qualification sentence may follow this one, speaking to why you feel it would be a good fit for your skill sets. Keep it short. You have three more paragraphs with which to wow them.

Paragraph Two (Company)

This paragraph should provide a deeper insight into your understanding of the company, their products, their history, their community and the way they do business. DO THE RESEARCH. Find articles about the company, their principles and the work, and make sure that you are able to provide some small bit of interesting information about the company as it relates to your, your work, and your own history.

Simple pleasantries and blatant fawning is so transparent. You don't want to lavish them with praise. That's what a fanboy/girl does. Your a professional now. You need to treat with your future employer as a professional designer might. Three to four sentences are more than enough.

If you craft paragraph two properly, you'll draw the reader into paragraph three, the most important paragraph of your cover.

Paragraph Three (You)

This paragraph should help the reader understand the path that you've taken (recently) in preparation for this position. Make sure that you focus on the support aspects of your training, not just the technical material. You'll have a technical listing on your resume. Show the reader that you've benefited from your advanced education in design, theory, and practicum. Make sure that you mention (drop names) of a few of the more important mentors in your academic path (put company references in parenthesis after the names). Using names of your important teachers as your inspiration helps leverage your cover with the careers of your mentors, and most likely the reader will have some knowledge (or can find information) about your teachers philosophy, background and qualifications. This is important. Keep this paragraph to no more than six or seven sentences.

Paragraph Four (Special Qualifications)

This is your final paragraph. If you have served in some interesting jobs prior to school, were in the military, worked at another company, had another career, this is where you can mention how this experience will help in with respect to your new position. Be brief. Tantalize them. Use this paragraph to explain odd gaps in your resume or other 90 degree career path swings.

Here's are two versions of the same cover letter. Which do you feel is more compelling?