Thursday, 1 October 2015

Your First Freelance Job - What Questions Should You Ask The Client?

Here at Escape Studios we want all our animators to be fully prepared not just for employment but also to be able to create their own companies in digital media: in other words, to be successful entrepreneurs. 

Big companies like Frame Store, MPC, Blue Zoo and Double Negative all began as tiny start-ups - why can't our students do the same?

So, as part of a series of posts on new media entrepreneurship, we ask - what questions should you ask the client when you start work on your very first animation freelance job?

All projects start off full of optimism and excitement, but the risk of things going wrong grows as the job progresses.  It's important to ask the right questions up front, to ensure that the job goes well and your happy client comes back for more. After all, the best business is repeat business.  Below is a list of useful questions to ask the client to make sure you get off on the right track.

How much does the
client have to spend?
Image: Wikimedia Commons
What is the client's budget?
All clients have some kind of idea in their head of what they can afford to spend. A couple of hundred? A few thousand? A million? The answer to this question is the single most important factor in determining what you can deliver.  After all, with animation you get nothing for free.  Everything must be made from scratch.

How long should the project be?
Many clients, especially those who have never done animation before, can struggle to understand just how long animation takes to create.  Finding out what the client's expectations are of the length of their project is vital.  One minute? Two minutes? Half an hour?  Find this out as early as possible.

Does the client have a script?
Many clients may have only a vague idea what the story is that they want to tell.  If this is the case, part of your job will be to write a script based on their needs. What is the story? Is there a narrator? Who are the characters and what will they say?  This can be a fun part of the job, but also frustrating if the client really has no idea what they want. But, you must have a script (also known as a screenplay) before you begin work, or else you are groping in the dark.

What style of animation does the client want?
Build a playlist of samples to show the client. 
Does the client have any animation or images in a style that they like? If they don't know, show them some clips from YouTube or Vimeo of animation done in a style that you like, and you think you can reasonably achieve given the budget you have.

Everyone likes Toy Story, but few clients can afford Pixar quality animation.  Part of your challenge is to find a style that the client likes and that they can realistically afford.

What is the deadline?
Next week? Next month? By Christmas? And is the deadline in any way flexible? Unrealistic deadlines are often a deal-breaker.

What is the target audience?
Who is it for? Kids? Businessmen? Adults? Teenage boys? This will affect the style of your storytelling and the tone of the film.

Who is directing? Photo: Wikipedia
Who will approve the work?

Ideally, you want to get notes from one person only.  It's a common problem to find that the client that you thought was making decisions has a number of bosses that they answer to, and you end up getting notes from multiple people you have never heard of.

These notes are often contradictory and can tie you up in knots. Try to make sure that one person is in charge, and that person gives you one set of notes.

What is the final output?
What does the client want at the end? A digital file? Film? A DVD? HD? 2K? 4K? What aspect ratio? Agree up front exactly what you will deliver. Sometimes clients want editable files so they can tinker with the edit, which can cause all kinds of problems with incompatible software and non-transferable files.

Payment schedule and contract
It's a good idea to agree terms in advance. Money up front? On completion? Half and half? Big clients will have a standard contract, smaller ones may look to you to draft a basic agreement. Typical deal terms might be half the money up front, half on completion.

Below is a video made for especially for illustrators, presumably by a freelancer who has been burned one too many times.

The basic lesson of course is to agree as much up front as possible, to avoid confusion, misunderstanding and disappointment later on.  Problems thrive in dark corners where both parties make assumptions about what will happen in the future.

But remember, every time you do a successful freelance job, get paid, and please your happy client, you gain in confidence as an artist and an entrepreneur, and you may be well on your way to building a successful business.

Who knows? You could be the next Frame Store, DNeg or MPC.


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