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.
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.
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!