Should Students Work for Free? NEVER! Except Maybe Sometimes...

Browsing through Karen J Lloyd's Storyboard Blog, on Ian's recommendation, I stumbled across a fascinating post by Karen on the topic of animators working for free (or peanuts). The article is titled Ask Yourself These Questions Before You Work for Free.

If you give the article even a cursory browse, you'll quickly realise that Karen believes that working for free is for suckers, even if you're a student looking for experience. She does qualify that by saying that there could be rare exceptions, but not many!

I (and my fellow SBIT Animation teachers) are approached on occasion by people who have grand ideas for animated projects, hoping to recruit students (or teachers!) to work on them. Over the years I've grown increasingly wary of these approaches. A lot of them have been (predictably) dead ends, although some have paid off.

I myself did a free job for Channel 31 a couple of years ago (a Flash-animated intro for a rather cheesy dating show) and had great fun. I had creative control and the deadline gave me a bit of motivation - which can be a very good thing for a procrastinator like myself. But I had the luxury of time and financial security (I did it over the school holidays, and used some of the material in classes the following year). Students generally lack both of those things!

Does anyone have a strong view on the subject of students working for free/peanuts? Any experiences you'd like to share? Post away!


Ian said...

I don't have a problem with free if everyone knows up front that its free and that's all it will ever be. What gets my goat, and what I have seen happen soooo many times is a producer who says there will be money but they haven't got it yet.

I guess producers have to be optimistic people by nature in order to do their job, but out of all the potential ideas for animations out there only a tiny little percentage ever get financed and producers seem very good at hiding this. They will talk about the finance as if it is a forgone conclusion, and a young naïve animators can start to think its only a matter of time until he or she gets paid. WRONG!

So if someone tells you there will be money later, or there might be money then ask a few more questions about where its coming from before taking the job. If they can't answer your questions to your satisfaction then ask yourself if you would be happy to do it for free, in not, don't do it. Because statistically speaking the chances of you ever getting paid a minuscule.

frank said...

Happened to me. But the benefits of working on a project that falls over and no-one gets paid are:

1. You have been animating, when you may have been procrastinating.
2. If you have done a good job and have been receiving positive feedback throughout the course of your animation, you can ask for a reference on a fancy letterhead that says you are a hard worker and did a good job.
3. You get to work with other animators. They might recognise your name in the future. Adds a few more links to the animation armour.

That's the power of positive thinking for ya. I'm not yet jaded and happy for the experience when there wasn't anything else around at the time.

I think it is important to see other rewards in the performance of the craft as well as money (yes, Ian that is easy for me to say with my other part-time work. But it also makes it important for me to say). I guess I'm saying, if you are passionate about animating, if there is not money around should you stop animating? No.

But... I'll learn from the experience as well and only get animators to work for free on my projects from now on, rather than me working for free for others.

If I am animating for free, I'll do it to build my reel by using a good resource like the 11 second club.

Ian said...

I guess all of this hinges on you having enough motivation to keep animating no matter what. If you can't do that then you are screwed anyway because even when you are getting paid its not enough, you have to be able to draw apon your own motivations.

So asuming you are motivated enough to keep animating (boy howdy I hope you are), then designing your own work can allow you to focus on content specifically designed to target employers on your showreel.

Surprise surprise, showreel is king. After commercial experience (which I believe involves getting paid) then your reel is what you should be focused on, if you happen to find a job that exactly matches what you were planning to do for your reel anyway then sure go for it. Otherwise it is time spent with your eye off the ball in my opinion.

frank said...

Will animate for food


That's assuming that getting a job is the aim of animating?

Or having an animation job is the way to keep animating? Or animating to get a job animating...

It's a good start. No better start than I can see.

There are paths less travelled.

That is, maintaining the rage and animating one's own chosen style of animation, say traditional 2D, or striking out experimentally, even though jobs, except self produced maybe, don't seem to exist in these here parts.

But then I read a trend in show reel critiques that say the employers want to see originality, something of the animator in the animation as well as competency.

Succeeding in that way, the self produced short narrative style, I've got a lot of time for.

Remember Ralph Bakshi? "... Entire studios are in one box. Four guys could get together and make their own movie in a year."

But Ian has pointed out to us as students those we see at the top sit on a mountain of animators who didn't quite get there.


Maybe I'm arguing for the sake of the debate here. Or I'm just trying to fire Ian up to see if there is more to it, but I haven't got the right bait here. It's late. I'll sleep on it and see what I've got.

frank said...

It's not a debate. That's why it's hard to ignite.

Reading the comments again today, we're not taking opposite positions, just building on each others discussion.

Animating for free, is not the preferred method. You may starve.

Continuing to animate is important when you don't have an animation job.

When animating for free, know you are animating for free and animate something to improve your reel.

When animating for payment, check that there is finance in the project that will pay you.

All seems pretty good stuff to me.

Let's disagree on something, this hippy love in, agreeing with each other stuff is uncomfortable.

Alonso said...

you wouldn't ask a carpenter, "hey you want to come help build my house, it'll be a good reference for you when you find work" we have a specialized skill that not everyone can do, that we have worked hard at perfecting, we deserve to be compensated for the skills we have acquired, even if we don't have a lot of experience yet, that doesn't mean our knowledge is not yet valuable. Also working for free undercuts our peers, why should a producer hire an experienced animator when they could just go find some fresh out of school kid to do the work in half the time for no money.

Actually I'm okay with working collaboratively on a project, where everyone is doing it for the love, I think that's fine, everyone knows what they're getting into. But situations where someone is trying to make a product that they will benefit from financially and basing it on free labor just screams scam artist, and the ones who say "as soon as we sell it you'll be paid" are delusional scam artists. Everyone has ideas, the idea man is the most unneccessary part of the process, not everyone can animate.

Ian said...

Here Here Alonso

Kristi said...

I agree with Karen. Agreeing to work for free, or for unspecified future payment, is just begging to be abused. If you are doing freelance work, learn about legally binding contracts, which must be signed beforehand by both parties! (yep, can cut both ways...)

I also agree with her that animation contests such as that Radiohead one are total rorts. They get lots of choices, for a fraction of the cost of employing someone producing a single clip. They are not encouraging creativity, they are just cheap bastards.

Yeah Frank, 11 second club is a better use of your time! Just as much money involved, but with useful feedback from people with a clue. And they may prove to be valuable industry contacts too.