This blog is part 2 of my blog(s) on getting started. Be sure to read that one first because you should know before reading this whether you want to be a freelancer or an employee. Here, we’re going to look at 10 things to help you get started and be successful.
Note that there is a difference between getting started and being successful. I’m going to try to present helps in both areas. Usually people just want EXTERNAL help (“where do I look for a job?” or “how do I know what to charge?”). But I’ve found that these types of pointers help people get jobs, but not keep them. To be successful, you’ve gotta work on INTERNAL stuff – behaviors, attitudes, etc. But if you’re like most struggling artists, you’ll have the tendency to ignore the INTERNAL stuff. But I’m telling you from experience, that it’s this stuff that makes people money. So I’m going to give you my top 5 EXTERNAL career helpers and my top 5 INTERNAL career helpers, and you can pick and choose what you think will work for you.
1. WORK WORK WORK – Look, everyone wants to be an artist. No one gets to play more at their jobs than artists. What other work environment lets you wear whatever you want and sets up pool tables and bean bag chairs in the workplace? It’s the most fun thing to do for a living in the history of ever. But you must still work at it, ESPECIALLY when you’re just starting out. You should constantly be working on projects or with clients no matter what you’re planning on doing or how much you’re getting paid. You should always be sharpening your skills. When I started out I wasn’t much good at anything. I knew that I would be competing for jobs with people that had gone to school for this and actually had some innate talents in this area. I didn’t care. I knew I would work harder. When they went out for lunch, I would watch tutorials and read Photoshop books. After work when they went out drinking, I studied and practiced more. Still to this day, I keep a stack of books in the bathroom so that I can learn more when, well… you know.
And if you think about it, if you hired a contractor to fix your roof, would you rather use the contractor that has fixed the White House roof and went to years of schooling at the best schools but can’t seem to finish the roof, or the one that is just OK, but works harder than you thought possible? You would go with the contractor that would actually fix the roof, every time. Education and skill matter very little if they’re not applied with a solid work ethic.
This is why I recommend doing free or cheap work (such as you might find on local bulletin boards or on Craigslist), because you should always be practicing. And working for clients of all types is a great skill builder. Screenwriting/acting partners Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (stars/creators/writers of Reno 911, Night at the Smithsonian, etc., etc.) said that work is their secret. They don’t have to be the best, but they know they can work harder than anyone, so they’ve always had constant work in a town that’s hard to find constant work in. And I’ve found that working these cheap or free jobs for experience often leads to great paying gigs. And if you make a bunch of mistakes, hey – they got what they paid for and you got a free education. No harm done.
After-hours volunteer homework and learning is also the best way to determine if you’re in the right career or not. If you have to force yourself to practice and get better at this, then maybe you’d be happier in another profession. If you can’t wait to get to work on a project, you know you’ve found your career home.
2. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT! – What industry do you want to get into? Be specific! Saying “digital arts” or “graphic design” or “filmmaking” isn’t nearly specific enough! At the very least, start out in an arena (such as print, web, film, etc.) that you are most interested in. And hey, I am more of a generalist than anyone on the planet, and I totally disagree with the common advice that you should always get good at one thing and just do that. Screw that. I love a bunch of stuff, so I’m going to do that bunch of stuff for a living and no one is going to stop me. I want to do a million different things, BUT the key is that I can list specifically what those million things are! I also practice the crap out of all those million things. Start somewhere. ANYWHERE. Your first guess doesn’t have to be right. No one’s usually is. You just have to try to trust your gut. I guess this is getting into “INTERNAL” territory, but there’s also a very practical reason for being specific about what you want. Different careers (and different jobs in those careers) require different things. If you want a job at Sony doing almost anything, you’re probably going to need a college degree. But maybe a college degree in anything will work. If you’re planning on working from home as a freelancer (this is what I’ve chosen), then graduating from college is practically worthless. Figuring all of this info out beforehand will help you get happier faster. And the happier you are, the more likely it is that your income will magnify.
3. MEET EVERYONE/NETWORK – You’ve heard it before – IT’S WHO YOU KNOW, and you hear it all the time for a reason: it’s totally true. Have you ever helped a little brother or sister get a job, or got a friend a discount or free food because of where you work? Same thing. They knew you, so they got hooked up. Governments, corporations, and circles of friends are all run by people who tend to act the same way, regardless of what situation they’re in. So if you are really friendly and everyone in the world loves you, then you will more than likely get jobs that you don’t deserve because people will want to work with you. Go to software user group meetings. Follow and comment and make friends on blogs in your field. Go to conferences, meet employees, make friends, etc. Get rad business cards made and have them on your person all the time. If you’re sitting home alone looking for work, you’re missing out on the best and most renewable source of income: CONNECTIONS. However, just a disclaimer here, if you’re a jerk or you’re flaky, that negates all of the networking you do, because you’re just getting the word out faster at how much you suck.
4. MAKE YOUR DEMO REEL/PORTFOLIO THE ABSOLUTE BEST – For some reason that I don’t understand, most people don’t seem to get the concept of a demo reel. The purpose of your reel is to show your skills, of course. But in many jobs, another test of your reel is if you can move people and cause a positive reaction. Whether it’s for film or TV or commercials, human beings spend money when things make them feel a certain way, and all art and effects (in the commercial world) are designed to make money. We’d all like to think that the old adage and MGM motto “Ars Gratia Artis” (art for art’s sake) is the reason why we do what we do. But if you’re looking for someone to hire you, it’s because they are making money, and want to use you to help make them even more money. That’s the way life works. Once you get that reality, then it will be easier to make your reel.
Is there something in your reel that you got from a tutorial? GET RID OF IT! No matter how amazing your ability to follow along with a Video Copilot tutorial is, no one watching your reel will be fooled by that. Everyone has seen every VC tutorial. And no one is going to believe that you make 99% crap and then miraculously have one amazing thing on your reel.
Do you have anything in your reel that isn’t the greatest thing you’ve ever seen? GET RID OF IT! I’ve been around long enough that I’ve looked for contractors that I can hire to help share the workload. So I’ve sat through many, many demo reels. And honestly, I’m looking for the crappiest thing in their reel. I don’t care if it’s a Microsoft commercial or what it was for. If it looks like crap, I know that they thought it was good enough to put in the reel of their best work. Fail, fail, fail. The primary concept of video editing (and many other art forms) is to just get rid of the garbage, or at least eliminate the superfluous. If you can’t do that in your demo reel, then I can’t trust you to speak to my clients and make me money. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure everyone would say that they’d rather have your demo reel a few seconds shorter than to see some turd that you put in your reel just to make it a bit longer.
Make different demo reels for different jobs if you need to (e.g. one for VFX jobs, one for motion graphics jobs, etc.). Watch it at least once a month to make sure you can’t improve it at all. Make your reel brief and to the point. Make every second magical. Make it a presentation of art on its own so that people will want to watch it again. The best way to show someone that you can sell their product is to create a demo reel that sells you to them.
5. BE RESOURCEFUL – Dude, seriously. I get SO MANY emails from people asking questions that they could easily figure out on their own. DON’T BE THAT PERSON! This is a creative field, and you’ve gotta be resourceful, and you’ve gotta be able to solve problems when they come at you. This includes figuring out where to get work. Think about your career – what companies do what you want to do? Who are the big companies in your industry? How do you find software user groups in your area? How do you find jobs working on film sets? How do you solve that After Effects error that you keep getting? You can find the answer to all of these questions the same way that I find the answers to all of my questions, and the same way that wise men for thousands of years have found the answers to life’s questions: GOOGLE IT. Every day, my heart is broken just a little when I get questions from all avenues (or see questions other people have on blogs or in YouTube comments, etc.) from people that are asking basic questions – often in anger or with hostility or desperation – that they should be finding the answer for themselves. Questions such as “What career should I go for?” or “Which graphics card should I get?” or “Mac or PC?” or “In After Effects, how do you…?” and so forth. Be more resourceful than that. If you ask someone you don’t know a question that you could have easily solved on your own by using Google, then you have failed in your duty as a creative professional. Expect karma to steal all the good jobs from you and give them to people that are willing to do their homework. Be resourceful. Figure it out on your own.
1. DON’T BE A BUTTHOLE – Especially if you’re a freelancer, working on your personality will be a BIG part of your future success. I can’t stress this enough. This is why colleges fall short sometimes. You can learn skills all day long, but if you’re a crappy person (if you’re a flake, if you complain all the time, etc.), you’ll never succeed. And it might sound weird, but if you are someone that likes to speak their mind and “tell it like it is” regardless of the feelings of those around you, or if you have a hard time being a person of your word and keep commitments, or if you’re really negative all the time and aren’t fun to be around, try getting a self-help book or a religion or something so you’re easier to work with. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve had from people that KNEW I wasn’t that good, but that I kept all deadlines and was a nice guy, so they keep hiring me. Think about the jobs that you’ve had – the fast food restaurants, the office jobs, whatever. How much did the buttholes at that job totally ruin your life? Would you hire them and work with them over someone that wasn’t as good but that was fun to work with? Nope.
I was on a film set recently, when the director asked the crew if anyone could just snap some production stills (behind the scenes pictures). One of the grips (that was getting paid $150/day to be a grip) had a nice camera in his car and volunteered. He took some great photographs. Then at the end of the shoot, he demanded not only the $150/day for being a grip, but he also held the images hostage that he took, demanding that the production pay him for each of his photos. He never announced that he would be charging extra for his photos, and he certainly didn’t do $150/day worth of grip work in addition to his camera duties. On top of that, he also complained about the production and was constantly negative. He got his money, but picked up a bad reputation along the way. He stole the golden egg, and then he shot the goose that creates golden eggs in the face. You’ll really make more money if you learn to be a better person. And if you don’t want to be a good person and don’t care about rubbing people the wrong way, get a job instead of freelancing. And if you’re REALLY a bad person (think Chris Brown), get a government or union job where they’ll have a much harder time firing you for your attitude.
2. DON’T FOLLOW THE MONEY (NO, SERIOUSLY) – Before I first got started, I thought I might be a psychologist. But then I found that I was ditching all of my psych classes to stay home and play with Photoshop. That presented a life-altering choice: do I stay on a career path that I obviously don’t love that much, or do I ditch that life of almost guaranteed good income and play with Photoshop, even though I suck at it? It took me a long time to make that decision, until I asked myself one question (which I hope might help some of you): can you picture yourself in 5 years going to seminars for your job on your own time paid for with your own dime? At that time I couldn’t imagine anything worse than leaving my wife and going on a Saturday to a Sigmund Freud lecture that I would have to pay for. But I knew I would do that for Photoshop. Thus, I picked the digital arts path. What I didn’t realize then is that because I did what I loved, I did it all the time like a hobby, so I got much better much faster. Ever since then, I have always worked nights, weekends, and holidays on my own, even if it’s just practicing or learning stuff. And here’s the magic – when I picked Photoshop over psychology, I thought I was giving up a life of success and affluence for the income of a struggling artist. And, don’t get me wrong – I DID struggle financially for many years after that. But now, I’m making more than I ever planned on making as a psychologist, and I’m more happy than I ever thought I would be. That’s one of the ironies of life: following the money does not often lead to the money! And even if you did something only for money, you would either lose it, or you would hate your life when you got there! Do what you love. Trust me on this. Negative people will try to crap on you all day long for thinking something like this, because most people give up on this too quickly. Ignore them and go for it. And if you fail, you’ll be doing what you love, so you’ll still be happy.
3. BECOME AN ARTIST – One of the biggest problems with people who have had a little software training and want a job is that they often don’t get what makes art really engaging and powerful. There is meaning and subtext behind everything artistic everywhere, even from stuff so seemingly pedestrian as hotel art or food packaging. Why are those colors used? What fonts are used? Why? Or, in the case of video editing, why did the editor cut, and what difference did it make on the emotional tone of the scene? People with a purely software background often don’t ask these questions, or even worse, don’t think they matter. But good art should always say something. And you can contribute to that message with every single design choice.
And even more than adding to your art, it will also help you understand your contribution to this world. I recently saw a blog post by Andrew Kramer on Video Copilot where he gave away a great, free model for use with his MIND BLOWING plugin Element 3D, which he sells for the ridiculously low price of $150. Someone angrily commented on that post that Andrew Kramer made motion graphics and visual effects too easy, and now high school kids that can work for cheap (or even free) are going to steal the jobs from older, more experienced professionals. They were angry at Andrew Kramer for giving the world one of the greatest compositing tools of all time! An artist would NEVER say that. If you’re nothing more than a button pusher, you’re going to fail. If you don’t love art for the beauty of it, if you don’t love stories, or music, or appreciate the magic of nature, or see the complexities of psychology, or aren’t fascinated by and continually study the human experience or the world around you, you will fail. Hands down. You’ll never get it. You’ll struggle all of your life. If all you can do is use a tool well, you’ll be obsolete as soon as that tool is.
Learn to love the art BEHIND what you’re doing! Observe the masters! When you watch the DVD special features of huge VFX shots, they mostly talk about the concept – the ART – behind what made the shot great! It’s not about the buttons! And I say that as someone who makes money as a software trainer. Of course you need to know the tools. So LOVE it and be thankful when a genius like Andrew Kramer applies his brilliance and unending generosity to create a new tool to give you even more possibilities to express your art! But remember – that tool can’t tell you what to say, artistically. And if you want to succeed in the creative world, you better say SOMETHING.
4. TREAT EVERY JOB AS A GIFT – It’s human nature to forget how good we have it. Just like you, I’ve seen guys with mortgage payments that have to feed their wife and kids that have been devastated when they’ve lost their jobs. It erodes at your entire self-image. When they do get that new job, they sob with gratitude. And it takes about… 5 minutes to start whining about the new commute or their coworkers or whatever. If the past him could see the future him, the past him would punch future him in his stupid ungrateful face. Don’t be like that. I’ve fallen victim to this, just like you have. But it’s not pretty. Don’t do it. Be grateful for every job and every gig and every dollar. Do a good job for YOU, not for your client. And be OK with following directions when the person paying you money gives them. Yes, some jobs go longer than expected, and some clients get stressed and annoying, but it’s still work, and you should be grateful for it. Don’t complain. And don’t stop giving anything but your best efforts because the fact of the matter is, there’s someone that works harder than you that’s willing to take that spot.
5. SHARE WITH OTHERS – When James Cameron developed some new technology for Avatar, he immediately invited his “competitors” Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg over to check it out and give him feedback on it. Many people in his situation would have kept that secret to himself. And I think you’ll find that it’s very common for people that are struggling at the bottom to fight really hard for their spot and to be really selfish about their knowledge and experience. Likewise, it’s very common for people at the top to be very generous and helpful when they can be, especially when it comes to sharing information. Be like that. One of my personal heroes, Robert Rodriguez, has no problems sharing all of his secrets when it comes to either making and financing movies, or for specific visual effects scenes. He doesn’t have to do that. But he does. One of the best general rules is to follow the example of the people at the top. If they’re generous, then you be generous.
Thanks so much for reading this blog! Hopefully you’ve found something that might be helpful. If you have other ideas, or have a different experience than what I’ve shared above, please share in the comments!
Creator of Movies & Computers. Filmmaker. Author of How to Cheat in After Effects, The After Effects Illusionist, and of several video training series on Lynda.com, Video2Brain, Total Training, and VTC.