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     I recently went to see Keith Cormier (A Pixar lighting TD) speak at MCAD in Minneapolis and while I was there I, inevitably, ran into a few former classmates (current students) from AI.  As expected you get the barrage of standard questions: “What are you doing for work? Where are you living? Do you get to do anything cool?” Etc.. and as I was looking forward to Keith’s speech I un-caringly answered.  It wasn’t until afterward that I realized, I really would have appreciated any insight into what I am currently doing, while I was a student.  So here’s a little peek into freelancing in Minnesota.


(I should note that I most often freelance alone or as a team of two, not hired to work at studios because… well… there aren’t too many studios in MN that require a skill set like mine, they favor toward Maya and Mental Ray).




Pay – Ah yes, the money.  When you can produce solid results in a timely fashion you can charge pretty well for that.  This isn’t to be interpreted as “I do 3D work so I should make a lot.” Or “I paid way too much for my degree from a private college so I should be able to charge a lot.” (Ahem, Ai students).  You can pretty quickly get a feel for what people will be willing to pay you once you begin doing freelance full time.  If you need a jumping off point, ask a career advisor or someone in the industry. I know, I know it seems ludicrously taboo to talk about pay in this industry but it is important to make sure that you aren’t pricing yourself out of peoples’ budgets and you’re not getting ripped off.


Hours – This is one that helped me out tremendously.  When you freelance by yourself, you can darn near set whatever hours you want.  Obviously you need to be able to meet with the client for meetings and revisions so you can’t work 9PM to 9AM and sleep the rest of the day.  But after graduation my sleep schedule was completely backwards, with freelancing I allowed myself a few weeks to get back on the regular schedule of being awake from 7AM-midnight and I could work whenever I pleased, as long as I got my set number of hours in that I needed to for work.


Location– Being able to work whenever you want helps a lot and is accented by the fact that, for the most part, you can work wherever you want.  I often find myself modeling on my laptop at a coffee shop or somewhere that isn’t my office.  It’s nice to not be restricted to your office chair and desktop computer.


General Flexibility - Being able to shift things one way or another can come in really handy.  Getting sick in the middle of the week for a day or two could ruin a project if you were in a studio that wouldn’t let you work on weekends and couldn’t come in, at home I’d just make up the time on the weekends, a few hours in the morning and a few before bed.


Teamwork – Or should I say lack thereof.  This is by far the biggest con and, along with the small amount of collaboration, makes me almost hate freelance, don’t get me wrong its fun, but it’s not the same as working with a group of people that think like you do or even better, don’t think like you do.  Having worked in groups throughout college I heavily value the input of outsiders.  I don’t value it in the sense that I base my success on their praise, I value the other perspective and the opportunity to grow whatever ideas I am currently having.  During college the best input I received came from my 2D teacher, a guy who really had no idea what was required to get the result he was suggesting; and when you think about it, it’s most often going to be that way.  Very rarely will you get someone that says “You know what would make this awesome, If you turned up the light cache samples to 1400!!”  With freelance you get a lot of NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) which is to be expected anywhere in this industry, the only problem is that when you freelance, an NDA means you can not ask anyone besides the client what they think.  This is usually of little help since, more often then not, they are businessmen that don’t have any idea what COULD be done. If you like to work alone and you think you’re the best you will ever get and don’t want to advance, or challenge your current skills then by all means go for freelancing!


Collaboration – As I said in the teamwork section, the miniscule amount of collaboration is a huge turn off, at least for me, in freelancing.  It’s very hard to advance your skills and go out of your comfort zone without having the collaboration of a team of people.  Bouncing ideas off of each other is a HUGE part of 3D and that nearly disappears when you freelance individually. 


Level of Challenge – When you freelance by yourself it’s quite hard to get the client to justify quadrupling their budget and allowing you to do what you call “Insanely Awesome!”  It is very often “what can I get for my ridiculously low budget?”  And for the most part they’re going to get what they expected they were going to get, or significantly less if they have never dealt with 3D before.  When people come in wanting, what I would call, simple animations it doesn’t challenge you much.  You have done the same project in various other forms 100 times before.  No one comes in asking you to do things that push your limits, if they want that they’ll go to a studio (unless your limits are very low and you can’t do much).


Size – You are you.  You aren’t a team of people; you can’t take on 200 special effects shots of a block buster.  Realistically, you’re not going to get any projects of a substantial size when you work by yourself or for a very small studio (3-5 people or less).


Hire-ability – Because of your size you instantly get overlooked for the cool projects.  Commercials and things go to small studios, not individual freelancers, and for good reason.  A small studio can have a small render farm or will have the ability to buy a high end HD camera that you or I cannot, yea I have a render farm of 4 or 5 computers but it’s still no match for a small 20 computer farm.


Job explanation- Explaining to people what you do when you make 3D projects is a nightmare.  You love what you do and you want to explain it but usually you will find yourself saying “I do contract work and make stuff look pretty and move on a screen.”  You can’t claim to work on awesome commercials or movies or anything, unless you get lucky and land a commercial.




Which would you prefer, a studio or freelance?
     To be quite frank, I would much rather work in a studio with a significant pay decrease and all sorts of regulations than freelance right now, in Minnesota (not that I know of too many studios with heavy regulation).  There are a whole bunch of reasons for this.  A couple large reasons are that the market in MN is declining with the economy going into the tank.  I’ve heard that some of the studios around here aren’t seeing a significant change in workload, and that makes sense since their clients are bigger than mine.  Quality 3D studio max users are few and far between in Minnesota.  Anyone going to The Art Institutes knows Maya and mental ray are the software that is VERY HEAVILY pushed on you the entire way.  This is pretty common for all the schools in MN.  I took up Max knowing this was to be the case but for what I do with the software, it can’t be beat (at least I haven’t found a package that beats it yet!)
     Those reasons pale in comparison to the main reason I am not a fan of freelancing in MN.  YOU HAVE NO COLLABORATION OR TEAM.  This industry relies on collaboration and teamwork and without it you cannot learn, grow, or advance individually.  I’m not saying I need a team to get stuff done, I’m very capable of being told “we need this done and we need it done tomorrow by noon” and then going off and doing it myself.  There’s a large difference between collaboration/teamwork and being dependant on a team, I miss the collaboration part and being in a place where creativity is constantly growing and challenges are abundant.

As a disclaimer I have to say this is MY point of view.  My viewpoint is going to be different than other graduates of AI that currently freelance (and use maya) and that’s just the way life is.  Do what you want to do.  If you tend toward what I have described freelancing as being then go for it.  As for me, I have a burning desire to be a part of a team.


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