This week we spoke with Joseph Sherman, a Gemini award-winning animator, about the challenges and rewards of freelance work. Joseph has worked as an animator and creative director for a number of studios, including Nelvana, Hanna Barbera, Breakthrough Entertainment, Spin Productions, 9 Story Entertainment, and more. Currently based in Cambridge, Ontario, Joseph operates a freelance business called Reel Two Productions Inc. With over twenty-five years’ experience in the animation industry, Joseph is the perfect person to kick-off our new interview series which will appear monthly on our blog.
Tell us about yourself! What kind of work do you do? How long have you been freelancing?
I have been working in animation for more than twenty-five years. Hard to believe it’s been that long! Over the years, I have worked in a variety of settings—large and small animation studios. But even when I did work in-house, I maintained my independence. For better or worse, I have always preferred freelancing. I have been completely independent for the last fifteen years.
Was there something that inspired you to make the switch from in-house to freelance work?
I made the leap into freelancing just after 9/11. At the time I was working full-time for a production studio in Toronto. After 9/11, business took a dive for a number of production companies; the one I was working for almost went under—they had to let go of a bunch of people, myself included, to keep afloat. I was fortunate though because a couple of my clients from the studio followed me; this initial freelance work was an impetus for me to go completely independent.
While I have done some contract work for a year or two at a time since then, I do prefer the freedom of freelancing.
Has the animation industry changed much since you first started freelancing?
Definitely. The rise of the internet took place during those years! The digital turn has transformed the way animators connect and collaborate with clients—when I first started out, we would courier tapes back and forth, whereas now test files are digitally transmitted.
Even so, I became digital in my work quite early on. When I first started working at a studio, I was fortunate enough to have access to a Mac—on my own time, I would learn how to use Photoshop and animation software.
Another thing that has transformed over time is the money—it’s not as a good as it used to be. Studio budgets are lower these days because of changes within the industry; for instance, people have to come expect digital media to be free. Because the rates have gone down, I made more money five or ten years ago than I do now.
Do you find that there is more competition now?
Yes. There has always been competition but it has changed quite a bit over the years. When I first went to Sheridan College, the school had just started its animation department—the animation industry as a whole was relatively small. Now there’s just a lot more people in the game.
A poster designed by Joseph for a 2012 CBC documentary
Is finding new clients a concern for most freelance animators?
I think maintaining a client roster is definitely one of the biggest challenges of freelancing. It’s not always easy. Once you are involved in a project, you tend to focus on the work. It can be hard to set aside time for lining up the next client. That’s one of the benefits of working full-time for a studio, you have sales and production teams to manage the business aspect.
In recent years, freelance bid sites have become a popular tool for finding clients. Do you use them for your work?
I’m not actively staying away but I haven’t really explored them yet. Fortunately, I haven’t needed to use them.
When seeking new projects, do you have a screening process? Are there any red flags that might lead you to reconsider taking on a new client?
Generally, I collaborate with reliable, established people. But most freelancers will at one point or another encounter a client who says, “Come on, do this job, it won’t take you very long and it will improve your portfolio.” So yes, sometimes red flags do appear.
One thing I learned early on is that it is important to establish the terms of pay in advance. Most studios have freelancers sign a contract; so one of the things I try to do when starting a job is to thoroughly read it over. This is important because there are times when clients fail to specify how they plan to pay you. If I have questions about the terms, I will discuss them with the person who is managing the contract. Whether or not you get the terms you want, at least you know what they are.
Is managing the administrative aspects of freelance work challenging? Do you have a smooth system worked out for billing and collecting?
Finding clients has always been more of a challenge for me than the financial stuff. I don’t have tons of jobs coming in at once, so it’s relatively easy to manage the admin side of things (such as quoting and invoicing a client).
I do suggest that someone pursuing a freelance career should hire an accountant who is familiar with the tax implications of self-employment. I have been incorporated since the late 80s—I do all my business transactions through my company, Reel Two Productions Inc. It’s also helped that I have been with the same accountant from the beginning.
Is it more difficult to plan for retirement or purchase health insurance as a freelancer? Do you think freelancers lack certain types of supports?
I’m going to be working until the day I drop! Part of that is because I love the work I do. But I am far from the type of person who has a very good retirement plan—I do have retirement savings but not a pension. On the other hand, I’ve always managed to have health insurance. Very early on I joined the Toronto Chamber of Commerce, which was offering an insurance plan at the time. I’ve used that for many years, though my wife now has benefits.
Is there a coffee shop or library that you enjoying working at? Or do you mostly work from home? And do you have a strategy for staying focused or motivated?
Because I moved to Cambridge a couple of years ago, it’s not easy for me to commute. But I’ve found that working from home really works for me—I don’t find myself cut off. I’m communicating all day, either through instant messaging, saving stuff through dropbox, or FTP-ing files.
I know that there are freelancers who have very regimented schedules, but I don’t—I just sort of work when I need to, and when it’s time to do the bookkeeping stuff, I force myself to do it.
The downside is that I sometimes work after dinner or until midnight. I can get really into the work. This is one of the challenges of freelancing, when to work and when not to work. But at this stage, I do prefer working at home than in-house.
Do you find that animation has a strong freelancing community? Or is it difficult to connect with other freelancers who also work remotely?
There’s a pretty strong sense of camaraderie. There are also lots of events and industry parties in Toronto. A good one is TAAFI—the Toronto animation festival that happens in the summer time.
Is it important for freelancers to have a social media presence or to have a portfolio-type website?
Yes, it is. That’s my next big project—I want to update my website. It needs to be refreshed. That’s one advantage that younger, tech savvy people have. These skills can be handy for finding work.
Are you on Twitter?
I am but I’m not a very active user. I’m more involved with Pinterest—I love being able to collect all of this amazing stuff in one place.
Do you have any tips or advice for someone just starting their freelance career?
I would look into hotel management! No, just keep learning, keep doing the work, and set yourself up as much as you can in terms of the basic infrastructure. It’s also important to try to put forth a professional persona. My son is starting to freelance and I’ve been helping him put together a quote; my advice to him is to try to think about payment and scheduling terms when setting up a job. You tend to avoid talking about this stuff when you get new work but if you don’t do it, because it’s awkward or so on, you can end up painting yourself into a corner.
Another thing I can tell freelancers—one of my mottos—is to always assume that you have more learn. Even at this stage in my career, I’m still trying to learn as much as I can. When I have free time, I use it to pick up an online course. In the past, if you wanted to upgrade your skills, you had to enroll in a college, but there are now tons of material and resources online, such as Lynda.com or CartoonSmart.com. I was using Lynda the first year that it launched and it’s now so massive—so many people are using it! There are all sorts of free resources out there too—you just got to find a tutorial on Youtube and away you go! So try to upgrade your skills as much as you can, particularly during those down times.
If you are dying to talk about the work you do as a freelancer, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! You could be our next Featured Freelancer!