Steves ideas was asked to give advice to up and coming 3d freelancers for the March 2009 issue of Digital arts magazine.
The un-cut version:
Full name, age, location and brief professional biog
Stephen Wilson, 36, Worthing, West Sussex.
I am a freelance 3d artist with more than 18 years experience using 3d studio max, and a number of years using aftereffects, photoshop, illustrator, premiere and various other software packages that support my 3d.
I produce various models, animations and renders for different clients and companies. The type of work varies from animations and visuals of concept designs through to architectural visualisations and animations of newly produced vehicles and aircraft. I was originally trained in computer aided engineering which has definitely helped my ability in understanding the software and construction of the models I work on. Whilst working in a design studio I worked as a graphic designer producing posters, animations, websites and logos. I was made redundant from this company, went traveling and on my return to England, took the plunge into freelancing.
How long have you been freelancing?
This is my 5th year.
What were you doing immediately prior to turning freelance?
I took redundancy from a design studio in the southeast. This in turn gave me the opportunity to travel; something I had wanted to do for a long time. I ended up “visiting” New Zealand for about a year and six months, during which time I discovered some amazing places and people, and more importantly, confidence and belief in myself. Both things I had been lacking in for some time. I also spent time honing my existing skills in areas such as 3d modeling, texturing, lighting and post processing whilst working on small jobs for various people I met on my travels. Upon my return to England, I decided to turn my new found confidence into action and became a freelance 3d artist.
What were your reasons for going freelance? (More money? Better work-life
balance? Problems at work? Creatively frustrated? etc)
I love being my own boss. It gives me the ability to really test myself in so many different ways. My previous job as a graphic designer didn’t really allow me to use my 3d skills that I was learning in my own time. The more I gained knowledge and experience using the 3d application, the more I became frustrated with work and so becoming a freelance artist became a more serious consideration.
I am in charge of all my work. I have to rely on me to get the job done and that is where I get my job satisfaction and pride. I can now do the type of work I enjoy and also work with clients directly. This allows me to build strong working relationships and increases the opportunity for future work.
Financially, I am definitely better off than I was doing my previous job. Freelance work does entail a lot more devotion, in terms of hours, than a standard nine to five job, but the rewards are greater and the appreciation direct from the client makes it all worth while. When a job is carried out to a high standard and on time, the feeling of accomplishment makes me realise that turning freelance was one of the best things I ever did.
Do you operate under your own name, or a business name? Are there any advantages of one over the other?
I currently operate under a freelance alias: stevesideas. This represents a single freelance artist specialising in 3d modeling, animation and post processing. Working for larger clients directly tends to be carried out by larger organisations that offer work to freelancers. Obviously this is where stevesideas fits in.
I am aware that to make an impact on large companies I would have to represent myself as a larger organisation with more people working for me. This is where Designers at Work comes in to play.
This company has an array of people working in different fields of media that can come together to act as one single collective.
Do you need to plan financially before turning freelance?
I had some savings left over from traveling that I used as a financial fall back – just until the work came in more consistently (or so I hoped anyway). Ironically I managed to get some freelance work from my previous employer. This helped me out a great deal financially and allowed me to push forward with basic marketing and eventually winning my first 3d freelance job.
I would recommend anyone starting in freelance to assess the risks and if possible before making the leap, to have some savings as backup. This should give you the time required to market yourself and build up your client base.
As well as the savings I did have financial and moral support from my girlfriend Becky. Without her I don’t think the leap would have been as straightforward.
How did you approach equipping yourself with all the required hardware and software?
When I first started, I only had one computer. The software I used was cheap and very basic, but over time the jobs have got larger and the paid better. This has allowed me to expand my office equipment and upgrade to more capable software and multiple computers.
Did you set up at home, or in an office? Is there any advantage of one over the other?
I started off working in a bedroom. We were renting a pretty large flat at the time and so we could fit the bed, the wardrobes and my computer desk all in one room. We didn’t have a spare room so that’s the way it had to be for some time. As you can probably guess, this did cause problems. My hours were dictated by deadlines and clients and so when Becky used to go to sleep at 10.00 I would still be working. Obviously something had to be done, so once we had the money, we bought a house which had a loft conversion that I now use as my studio.
Working at home is quite a solitary situation. Apart from meeting clients occasionally, I am working. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working on my own, but it’s not for everyone and I do miss the interaction with people you get from an office situation. This said though, I find that making the effort to meet up with people when work allows, balances out that solitude.
How do you market yourself?
I often use Google to search for freelance websites. There are new ones popping up all over the Internet and it proves to be a very good method to get your company and work out there. I register on as many of the free freelance websites as possible, making sure I upload all relevant details that could possibly get me work. I also make sure I have links to my 3d freelance website.
I also register with agencies throughout the UK.
How do you stay motivated and disciplined?
The work itself keeps me motivated most of the time. The want to finish the job and attain the highest possible quality for the client is a great motivation. Obviously when my motivation wanes I will take a break from the computer and do something completely different, like walking on the beach or meeting up with a friend. Usually by the time I come back I’m ready to get cracking again.
I also try and make my office space as pleasant a place to be as possible. I will put music on and sometimes films. I watch a lot of films, but just having something on allows me to concentrate on the particular project.
How do you manage your workload?
I have constant contact with my clients and always make sure I know at the beginning of the project when the deadline for my part of the project is required. Based on this info I can gauge which job or part of a job has a higher priority. I do find sometimes that the work involved on a particular project will change and so do the deadlines, and that’s when those late nights start happening, but now I have been working for 5 years like this I am pretty good at gauging the amount of time needed for any type of job.
I will also often write out small lists of particular tasks I am currently undertaking for each job. This also helps me manage myself.
If you work in isolation, from where do you draw creative inspiration?
I subscribe to a number of magazines and often look online at other peoples work. Not just 3d, but 2d artwork also. I love design in any respect and just taking a break from my core 3d work can give me ideas.
I try to go out for walks, meet up with friends and do photography as much as possible.
Do you ever hire other people on an ad hoc basis, or get involved in collaborative projects? What are the positives of this?
I haven’t had to very much, but sometimes when a project requires either more experience in a particular area of 3d or that the workload is just too much for me to handle alone, I will contact a fellow freelancer to help me out. This generally works both ways as I get calls from time to time from other artists that require my help also.
How do you manage the financial aspects of work (pricing, billing, cash flow, paying mortgage and bills, etc).
I use openoffice to organise all my invoices, payments and costs. I have a spreadsheet that includes the clients name, a description of the work, the agreed cost to do the work and the payment remaining from the client (as some jobs can be paid in stages). This also allows me to see which jobs have been invoiced. I keep all my statements, receipts and any other paperwork in order, to make sure anything I’ve had to pay for (relative to the business) is ready to give to my accountant.
At the moment I use an accountant to calculate my self assessment. I do this pretty early as this then gives me time to work out my costs and what needs to be budgeted for the tax man. I will always put aside a percentage of each job for tax purposes. You really don’t want to be paying your tax bill with future work.
Are there any resources/organisations that you can recommend for freelancers in your field?
I would recommend giving Business Link a call. I had a meeting with one of their representatives and they gave me some very useful information with regards as to how I could improve my business, financially and marketing wise. Also, I would definitely join as many of the freelance websites out there as possible and start getting your name known. Most of them are free, but even the ones you have to pay for are fairly inexpensive and can get you some really good leads.
There are also many other websites out there aimed at the hobbiest and professional alike. They are also a great source for motivation and inspiration. I personally visit cgtalk and the choasgroup forums as these sites have many like-minded and talented artists with an abundance of experience.
What have been the best aspects of being freelance?
The money does play an important role, as it always will, but the fact I have built the business from the ground up makes me very proud. I often get very positive feedback from clients when producing imagery for them, and that can really give you a lot of confidence and satisfaction. I do not live for appreciation, but I get it more than I ever did when I was working for someone else.
One job that comes to mind is the imagery and animations I created to show the new Qantas A380. Once production had been completed (in collaboration with agency the Liquid Way), the animations and still imagery were shown in the Imax cinema in Waterloo. It was such a great feeling to have my work up there for everyone to see. I got a lot of praise from the client and the people I was working with on the project. Definitely one of my proudest moments.
And the worst?
Sometimes the work can start to get a bit thin at times and you can find yourself in a bit of a panic. To avoid these types of situation I always try to make sure I have set money aside so that should these days/weeks occur, I have something financially to fall back on.
The hours can be fairly long at times, sometimes working right throughout the night, but it doesn’t happen too often. The job can be very stressful, especially when everything depends on you meeting tight deadlines.
What are your top tips for anyone who is considering turning freelance?
Knowing when to turn freelance is a tricky one. I had to make a leap of faith, but luckily had some savings and backing from my girlfriend. Your situation may be different, but you can do a risk assessment beforehand to work out how long your finances would last for if you didn’t have any work for 6 months. It may be a good idea to get your website up and running and create as many links to it from as many freelance websites as possible prior to making this decision.
I know it may seem cheesy, but I do have a set of rules, which I really think you need to have when being your own boss as you have no-one else telling you what to do. They are: do the best work you can with every project, always meet the client deadline, and lastly, use your free time wisely. The last one is important with regards to your health. You can easily be swept up in trying to get your business to run smoothly and putting in so many hours you neglect your family or social life.