The most stressful part of freelancing is that you’re a hunter and gatherer. You’re constantly foraging through the forest to try and find an appetizing opportunity, trusting that there are opportunities to be found. But being forced to scout day in and day out is a stressful way to live.
What does it take to have clients competing for you? This is the moment when freelancing lets you truly design your own life. Once you’re in demand at a high enough level, you can work from anywhere you want, charge big numbers and turn down all but the coolest of projects. If becoming such a rockstar sounds appealing to you, you’ll probably enjoy this piece. I reached out to any and all the successful freelance artists that I could to find out how they got there, and how you can do the same. I hope you enjoy their wisdom as much as I did.
“When trying to define what fame or success is, there’s usually an answer that is personal to each of us. “What is being successful? Artistic recognition? Popularity? Financial success? One doesn’t necessarily translate into the other.”
-Eric Nicolas Smit
WISDOM FROM THE BEST
My interview selection criteria for this article was pretty simple. I reached out to the roster of SIGGRAPH speakers from the last 5 years, meaning they are considered experts in the field and have garnered recognition for their work. These were the roster of people that so graciously agreed to talk to me about their own brushes with success and the road they took to get there. They are amazing, so please check out their work below and admire how wonderful it is. If you’re reading this, thank you so much for sharing your time and your very considerate answers. The questions I asked them are in red. I condensed their answers into the most common themes at the bottom of each segment for those of you who are crunched on time.
What key events do you attribute to your success? Personally which projects have garnered you the most referrals?
“I build my work on the idea that – you’re surviving this project, and this project will get you the next project. Layer by layer you’re getting a little better, and sometimes you get lucky and it pops.
I was fortunate. I had worked on data-moshing techniques for another music video, but a director friend of mine saw it and pitched it to a video for Kanye West. It was fun because there no design boards, we were just experimenting and people really responded to it. The term ‘data-moshing’ and the rise of glitch art were both out there at that point so it as the perfect storm. There weren’t that many people dealing with the medium so we were doing a lot of it for a while just because not many people were.
The Kanye West video was the key moment when my work process was really elevated and in turn helped define how people see me. That moment probably took place over a 3 month window where things really started happening. There was no clean release for it, people just stumbled upon it and then traced it back to my studio, Ghost Town Media. That’s when people began saying, “This guy brings the weird stuff”.
Once the ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’ video was out there, Joe Hahn from Linkin Park then saw it, and very quickly it became clear that they wanted to play too. During the meeting they asked what else we were playing around with, I showed off a handful of techniques and notions I’d been wanting to mess with, he smiled and said “Yes, all of that please”. Once I locked in my relationship with Joe Hahn that just totally elevated the game. Immediately I had the ear of a band who had a built in audience/market and as I continued to work with them, we continued to develop our vernacular visually. I actually taught myself Cinema 4D while working with the them, taking on any project they would throw at me. I began to have more and more influence for where we were going with their look, and was serving as an ad hoc creative director for the band. I got to a point where I said “for this album we’re we’ll be exploring this” and “for this project I want to play with that.” It allowed for a tremendous number of happy accidents along the way.
Kanye West: Welcome to Heartbreak and Linkin Park: Waiting for the End are the two that seemingly defined my career. From those, we got alot of referrals. We became the lab for a lot of people. When artists couldn’t go to their usual people they took it to Ghost Town Media to see if we could come up with something fresh. Eventually, you develop a rep as someone who could solve weirder questions. I have less skill than people out there, but I have an agnostic approach to problems.”
“For the past year I’ve been working towards being my own boss, starting to build things and work/design in my own way. I think that in the past 2 months, I’ve started to really feel like this is where I want to be. In August my company was one year old. That was a big deal, to know that I paved my own way, I’ve been getting some really cool projects coming through. I felt balanced/ happy in the last 2 months even though I’ve been insanely busy.
One, you have to be lucky. One of the main things is if you work on things that are high profile, then that obviously gets you out there, that gets clients to come to you but you have to be quite lucky to work at those studios. The other route which you have a bit more control over, is basically just putting good work out there and putting the work out there that you want to attract. If people want to help you out they will share it through their networks. Most artists carefully curate the work they promote and the work that they don’t. There are those projects that are cool but are sort of take it or leave it. Those aren’t the ones you want out there.
In terms of garnering referrals, a lot of the film work I did at Territory helped with gaining respect and trust. If you work on things that are high profile, then that obviously gets you out there, that gets clients to come to you but luck and timing gives you the opportunity in the first place. But in terms of a specific project. The launch video I did for my CGSociety course definitely garnered the most referrals.
I got asked to do the CGsociety workshop and I decided to make a intro video to launch it. And if I’m teaching people stuff, I want to be confident. So I made this video, and it did quite well. It got shared on social media. That ended up getting me some music videos, and because I did that I pitched another set of music videos… what I’m getting at is you have to take opportunities and capitalize on them because you never know where they might lead. The little steps all add up but there’s a lot of luck and timing with that process. Certain opportunities might actually lead into other things without you even realizing it. There’s always going to be a period of your career where you’re going after work, but if you make sure you make great work and its always coming from the heart, its more beneficial for yourself if you’re putting your passion into it. Say yes, take opportunities and capitalize on them. Keep the momentum going. ”
Eric Nicolas Smit
“What is being successful? Are we discussing about artistic recognition? Popularity? Financial success? One doesn’t
necessarily translate into the other. I tend towards artistic recognition and it’s not always lucrative. But this is true for any creative activity, be it music, architecture, acting, etc…
I think that becoming a Cinema 4D expert, mastering it at a very high level and making tutorials and conferences about it, was my gateway to the industry. I think it was in the early 2000s, when I started focusing exclusively on 3D. I worked non stop on developing my skills. I could spend days trying to make realistic 3D clouds or simulating human skin. I really wanted to be excellent at what I was doing. My goal, as a 3D artist, was to become an illusionist, to build from scratch whatever I could imagine. Studios contacted me first for my Cinema 4D skills, then only later for my creative talent. From 2004 on, I felt a positive response. People started to contact me from all over the world. It didn’t take me long to work on big international projects.
But back then it was much easier to get noticed. 3D animation was still in its infancy, only an elite was mastering it. Talented technicians in a specific field – say dynamic simulation or 3D environment creation – were rare. If you could render a decent animation, without technical issues, you were already in the top league. A talented artist could easily get published in a magazine, enter the top 10 in online galleries, win awards and, most importantly, find jobs.
Today everything changed. 3D motion graphic softwares are cheaper and easier to use, to the point that anyone can create animations and publish them online, in high quality. The consequence of this democratization is that the web is now saturated with content. There are millions of CG artists on the market, posting millions of videos online every months. It’s a constant, noisy, unfiltered flow, hundreds of masterpiece get lost in it…It’s getting very difficult to get noticed these days. And if you manage to get a bit of exposure, it fades out extremely quickly.
I should also mention that name dropping is, unfortunately, still effective. In many circles, “who you worked for” is more important than what you actually do. I worked on a J.J. Abrams movie more than a decade ago: Mission Impossible 3. To this day, it still impresses people. They don’t even bother asking me what I did on this movie. (I actually worked 2 months in the Art Department, doing pre-visualization sequences)
“I started to notice a bit of a following when I started experimenting more, and understanding who I was as an artist and animator. I began to grow, and develop a style that felt like my own. I didn’t necessarily notice if I was getting good or not, but I did notice that I was developing a style and niche for myself. For some reason people liked it which was cool with me. I am actually not sure what has been the sole reason or what project has helped me succeed, but most likely it probably is more of my need to market myself.”
“As far as seeking a point in my career that I suddenly feel I like was getting “noticed”, I still don’t think that has happen. Or at least, I’m not actively aware of it. However, within my work environment, there was a point about 1 1/2 years into working at the same studio that I felt like I made the true full transition from “student” to “professional”. This was mostly an internal benchmark I felt like I had hit. Having the confidence and assurance in myself to make firm decisions and choices. I think having that mindset is really all it takes to have people outside in the motion industry start to notice you as well.
One key quality I learned into my professional career that I feel like I still attribute the most success to, is learning to back down from your pre-conceived notions of how you’d like things to work and to be fluidly adaptable to your work surroundings. Listening and always trying new approaches is a key trait I’ve learned over the years as an artist. Especially being a technical artist, I’m never trying to resist change or new ways of doing things.”
“After college, I was working at a production company doing various jobs, on-set, post-production, commercial, film, a little bit of everything. Those years I consider to the years where I earned my stripes. The work is not glamorous or polished, it’s raw and its where I experimented, failed and grew. It wasn’t until I had five or so years under my belt that I started to feel more confident with my design eye, technical skills and could put together work I was proud of. Around that time I started seeing that my work started to feel consistent, started to feel like I had started to develop my visual style, that’s the point when I started to get noticed.
There have been a couple of milestone projects in my career, projects that have opened doors and changed the path I was on. Way back when I created a series of Idents for Foxtel On Demand, it was the first project that generated visibility for me, which eventually ended up landing a position at Capacity.”
Every project should be your best
Take any opportunity you can, you never know where it will lead
Give up your preconceived notions and trust the energy/ people around you
Become a technician/ expert
-Eric Nicolas Smit
Who you worked for is more important than what you do sometimes
-Eric Nicolas Smit
If you were going to do a personal project with the intent of getting as much visibility/ impact as possible how would you approach it?
“I guess a big part of it is trying to identify where I want to go. Look at someone like Thom Haig. He is incredibly successful with these personal projects and is someone who can craft these visual metaphors. He’s creating a line for himself where he is not being seen as the next great Houdini artist, he’s someone who you can bring an idea to and tell the story and in that defining himself beyond this immediate craftsmen skill sets. I feel like for me, I would want to make sure I’m playing with it both being easily consumable – So is it Twitter / Instagram/ etc. friendly? And most importantly is it something different? Are you adding anything new to the motion graphics cultural zeitgeist going on?
We’re in this Instagram daily world, and if I was going to do anything I would make sure it was as far away from some of the incredible artist out there (Beeple and Co) as humanely possible. Right now people are loving new and advanced render engines (Redshift/ Octane/ Arnold), but all of a sudden I’m finding myself using standard render engines and doing almost illustrated, cartoony, concept art looks. Scratching to make something different than what I’m already looking at. Identify yourself as someone who has a different take on things. There a lot of freelancers out there and many of them are very interchangeable with a lot of other people. I’d rather pigeonhole myself a little bit as someone who has a different flavor, who brings an ingredient to a property that will be beneficial, not just someone who will get the job done, but someone who will elevate the nature of the project.
What would I do? I guess “something else.”
Go exploring into the wilderness. If no one is paying you to do something it doesn’t have to be safe, you can fail privately and repeatedly. It’s your chance to totally blow it and have no one else watching.”
“I probably would try not to approach it with the intention of getting visibility, I would approach it with the intention of saying or expressing something. You want your intentions to be as pure as possible when you work on something that is eventually going to be a piece of art. If you want creative satisfaction then you should make sure your intentions are true. As long as you’re expressing something that is true to you and you execute it to the highest standards that you’re capable of, all of that shit [fame] will come. Just stay true to your values and that’s what people will buy into. I think people notice/ feel it when passion has gone into it. It’s strange it’s like passion exists in a way even though it can’t be seen it can be felt. ”
Eric Nicolas Smit
“It depends on the target. If it’s for a production studio, then I will put my energy on the technical side, I will try to show that I’m a skilled professional. I will show challenging animated sequences. If it’s for a wider audience, that probably knows nothing about motion graphics and 3D, I will pay more attention to the “global picture”, to what the animation conveys, its mood and style.
In any case, I think it is more important to show my work to the right people in the right context, than getting thousands of viewing from anonymous people.”
“That’s a hard question to answer. I never really go about anything to gain visibility, unless it is a client project (most of the time that’s their intent). If it is a personal project the main thing on my mind would be to learn something new.”
“If I create a personal project WITH the intent of getting as much visibility as possible, I would first of all make sure I had good reasons to share it with the world, since the internet is already so over-saturated with personal work and dailies. However, if I was promoting a good cause or something internal in a personal piece, I would feel more comfortable promoting it. I would first reach out to all my connections, both close and far. People love seeing what other people are up to! Not to mention the overseeing companies all my connections are working for, and sharing it with people within those rings as well. Press for the software I used to make it would probably be something I reached out about as well to promote it. ”
“Have the end goal in mind, there’s not much point doing a personal project with the intention of getting hired by Nike without having any shoes in the project. Simple ideas well executed with a targeted audience in mind is the approach I would suggest.”
Easily consumable for the modern audience
Create something different that isn’t like everything else, no matter what it is
Identify yourself as someone who as a different take on things
Learn something new when doing personal projects
Express something important to you as an artist
Do something for a cause you really care about so you can promote the shit out of it
For a wider audience do something that conveys an idea/ takeaway (not technical wizardry)
For studios: Do something that looks professional
Show your work to the right people
Read Part II to find out more about what it takes to freelance like a rockstar, what it takes to become a great mograph artist, and what projects made their list of all-time favorites…