Freelancing as 3D Artist
There might be many reasons we decide to bind our lives with 3D CG industry. For some it's the passion for video games, movies, architecture, to others it's an extension to traditional art - sculpting, painting, drawing. Those who decided to progress from being a 3D enthusiast / hobbyist and become a professional (and by that I simply mean earning money by doing 3D) sooner or later had to answer the question - should I work as a freelancer or would it be better to apply for a job in one of the CG agencies out there? Perhaps I should even consider staring my own creative agency?
In this article I'd like to share some of my thoughts and experiences and perhaps help a little bit those who are now entering the 3D CG market and wonder what's the best answer for them. If you work as a photographer, designer or consider yourself to be a creative in general, this article will probably apply to your situation as well.
I started freelancing before I've even got interested in 3D graphics. During my architectural studies, as most of my school colleagues, I was helping some local offices in preparing CAD drawings, sketches and investor presentations. Over time it naturally developed to creating some basic 3D visualizations, which I considered as a nice source of additional income. It motivated me to learn more about the 3D in general and to eventually look for a stationary job in that field. Lucky me, with the knowledge of Blender only, I was hired by one of the best 3D CG agencies worldwide up until today.
Working at this company was the first stationary job I ever got and to be honest - it was quite hard. Not because the 3D quality level represented by people working there was top notch, as everyone gets enough time to adapt and improve their skills. It was really challenging for me to sit for almost 8 hours straight and do nothing else than 3D... I will never forget my first week which felt like a month, I really wasn't aware that doing a "real" job can be this exhausting. This is one of the reasons I think everyone should get a "real", stationary, 8 hour job experience at least once in their lifetime, but I'll get back to that later. After a year I decided to leave the agency and try something else.
I've founded my first company - NoTriangle in 2011 and I manage it until today. I made so many mistakes, especially during the first years of running the business, there won't be enough space to cover them all in this article. In the end, after over 6 years I've ended up working in a quite interesting setup of freelancing + remote managing a small team of 3D artists I've been collaborating for couple of years now. We're all scattered around the world and with some people I never even met in person. Not that I think it's a good thing but I guess it's pretty common in our industry.
What I've learned over the past few years is that no matter which patch you take, each one of them has its cons and pros. To put it differently, they have certain limitations and offer you different benefits. What I've also noticed is that your work preferences are strongly related to your present life situation, age, or place of living. You may really feel up for facing the challenges of running a small business, but it may become harder to achieve certain goals in your late 30's with, for example, different family situation than in your early 20's. Again, starting career as a freelancer may turn out to be way more challenging if you have poor social skills, don't know how to negotiate or how to execute payments for the work you've done.
Speaking of myself, what I found working best in my present situation is a mixture of freelancing and collaborating remotely for a few bigger clients, together with other groups of people. Will it stay the same in upcoming years? I really don't know as, to be honest, my work preferences were always dependent to other life factors (relocating, working, traveling etc). What I can say for sure, there are definitely some things in freelancing that I strongly prefer over a stationary job. Most of all, it's a freedom to decide if I sleep during the night or day. It may sound funny but to me personally this actual sense of freedom in deciding what, when, and if I do anything, is beyond anything else.
But what could be the best solution for you today? Let's outline the cons and pros of each option.
I would say getting a stationary job or internship at a decent 3D agency is the best way to start your professional path in 3D industry. The main reason for that is the opportunity of learning the actual 3D production techniques and the speed of skill progression. As a hobbyist it's really hard to sit for 8 hours a day, working on 3D only, whereas you'll be literally forced to do so in the agency. It may be hard and painful but it benefits not only in rapid 3D skill progression - you learn the work discipline, collaborating with people, meeting the deadlines etc. The biggest advantage of stationary job is, in my opinion, the personal network you're building with people from your workplace. Over time, most of your colleagues will probably move forward, change company, move to a different city or country. If they remember you as a reliable person and a "field tested" 3D guy, sooner than later it will result in interesting project or new job opportunities.
A big shortcoming of a stationary job is that you rarely find a decent 3D agency in your city, except you live in highly urbanized area. It may be also hard to actually get a job in the agency as they're very often looking for experienced people that would quickly adapt to the pipeline. However, many companies look for interns or students willing to learn what's necessary and continue the work at the agency later. Internships are usually poorly paid but just for the sake of skill progression and networking, I would still recommend them.
As a freelancer you're fully responsible for managing the project, meeting the deadlines, negotiating prices, executing payments, finding new clients, making sure the old ones don't feel neglected and in the end, doing the actual 3D work. On top of that you need a strong money management skills (some backup cash as well) as there will be time periods with no projects at all, especially if you're just starting. You will also most likely find yourself working more, having less free time and in the end, earning less or equal to what you've had stationary.
Why then even consider going freelance? There are plenty of reasons, starting with - there is no decent 3D agency in your area and you're left on your own to work remotely via Internet. However, the main reason people decide to freelance is the sense of freedom and control over your life. Some, like me for example, like to work really hard and focused for 3-4 days and completely relax for the rest of the week. Freelance is also frequent choice among creative minds - we all know you're not able to be productive nor creative 8 hours a day 5 days a week and there are times, where you're able to finish 8 hour job in just 2 hours. It's much easier to include these situations in your daily routine when freelancing, in difference to much stiffer time schedule you have to follow when working stationary.
Last but not least - despite the fact that freelancing may be really hard in the beginning, it's much more profitable in a long run. Over time, most freelancers develop their own network of solid customers, ending up in having a stable source of income, much more free time and control over your life.
In a nutshell - people deciding to open a creative based company should either be an individuals having a customer base offering them projects which cannot be single handled, or they're freelancers who worked for a certain amount of time, have stabilized situation in terms of cash flow and need additional help, either for executing bigger projects, or to free themselves from some of the responsibilities.
Running a company usually requires many skills not necessarily related to what you'be been doing as 3D professional. From now on you must also manage time of other people, know how to lead them to the project's finish line, resolve the conflicts, look for the new clients etc. From now on the money is usually bigger, but so is the risk and responsibilities, as working for bigger companies very often means additional stress and crunch times. In the end, it's all on your shouders. I also think running a successful company is strongly dependent to your location. Despite the fact that most projects are run online these days, many people still prefer working with local companies, being able to get in touch with managers in person if necessary. Setting up your business in highly urbanized, generally rich and industrialized area may make a night and day difference.
If you're still not sure what might be the best solution, perhaps the list below will make it clearer. Don't get me wrong, I'm not willing to discourage anyone from trying to become a freelancer. I simply think it's good to know what are the main challenges you will face as there are way too many people nowadays, encouraging everyone to drop the stationary job as soon as possible and "follow the dream" of being an entrepreneur (or want-repreneur) without doing the most basic con vs pro consideration.
Thanks everyone for reading, I really hope some of you found this article interesting and helpful in deciding what might be the best solution for you. Feel free to leave your comments, perhaps you'd like to share some of your experiences? If you have any questions, you can also drop them down below.