A Course on Freelancing by Adam Tierney So you enjoy pixelling and you're interested in making a little cash at it? Well as long as you're patient, motivated and able to adapt, it might not be as difficult as you’d think. 2D pixel art is becoming less and less prominent in videogames, but there are still plenty of companies looking for freelance artists in the wireless, Gameboy, educational and TV Toy areas of game development. A freelance artist is an artist who is not permanently employed by any one company. This is not as much a lesser position than being a salaried artist, as much as a different situation with different advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, the artist is freed up to work where they want, on what they want and to charge what they want. Very typically a freelance artist will work from home and submit their artwork online. On the negative side however, working as a freelance artist gives little stability or assurance of a regular paycheck. Companies will also typically withhold no taxes for freelance employees, meaning that come April it is the artist's responsibility to have saved up enough tax money, which can be several thousand dollars. Chances are your first paid job will be as a freelance artist, but it is possible to hop right into a fulltime salaried position. If a salaried start is your goal, this is usually done through a formal application process, such as the submission of an art portfolio. Salaried positions are often listed on a developer's webpage under the Jobs or Employment section. A solid art portfolio will ideally contain pieces and examples of the artform in question (ie, pixelling) as well as samples of broad art ability such as life drawings, sketches, paintings (CG or canvas), illustration and design. A company seeking a salaried artist will typically be more interested in someone with a strong art background than someone who is simply a good pixeller. Pixelling can always be taught but a greater understanding of artistic fundamentals is rare. This is often the opposite of what developers are looking for in a temporary freelance artist, which is someone who can do what they need right then, regardless of their greater artistic gifts. Freelancing Basics For the sake of this article, I'll be focusing primarily on freelance work and getting your first paid art job. Freelance jobs typically last the life of a game or section of a game. That is, if you're paid to animate the hero character in a project, your job will be over once all of the hero’s animations are completed and accepted. Employment beyond that period should never be expected, regardless of the quality of your work. This is in part because developers often use freelancers only when their salaried artists are too busy with other projects, so that once things calm down again your services are no longer needed. Never take this any sort of implication of failure or lack of ability on your part, as this is merely how freelancing works. In order to make a living freelancing, an artist will usually need to have several art projects or developers lined up at a time in order to ensure enough hours are being worked to pay the bills. This will occasionally result in an uneven workload due to overlapping hours between the various companies (20 hours one week, 60 hours the next) but unless a longterm project can be acquired, this is a necessary practice. The ideal situation to be in as a freelancer is usually one of two things. Either a developer has enough need of the artist that as soon as a project is completed, they need him or her elsewhere. Or there is a network of developers that the artist is friendly with, so that as soon as one job is done, another one will be waiting elsewhere. Essentially, waiting kills the ability to make a living freelancing. So the quicker you can set up your projects and the less time you spend negotiating and in preliminary discussions, the better your odds are to keep a steady cash flow coming. It’s good practice to be constantly negotiating new contracts even during heavy work periods, as any given project may take a month or more to go from casual discussions with the developer to actually working on the game. Necessary Skills So exactly what are developers looking for in an artist these days? There's no specific answer, because games have need of a variety of art styles and skills. But the most common positions for freelance pixel artists right now usually involve animation or background tiling. Creating elaborate still pixel images is a wonderful trait and really a necessary ability in order to understand how to properly pixel push. But on a typical project, the director him or herself will usually be creating the actual sprites, off of which all animators will work. In this regard, an understanding of the fundamentals of animation (weight, timing, volume, squash and stretch) is essential, as is the ability to work in someone else's style; even though you're the one doing the work, you usually have to be able to match pre-existing art styles already established in the game to be worth hiring onto a project. With regard to backgrounds, an artist should have a particularly strong sense of color and lighting. Lighting and color is the difference between a phenomenal scene and a mushy collection of pixels, in many ways much more so than the actual background details. The ability to create varied landscapes with a minimum amount of tiles is also important, as a too many tiles will eat up file space, and a poorly-tiled game will take the player out of their gaming experience. On smaller projects, however (particularly wireless games) an artist might find him or herself creating all art, from title screen and sprites to animation and backgrounds. A healthy mix of originality and adaptability is required in order to perform on a job. The ideal freelance artist will bring creative ideas and strong art abilities to the job, with the ability to adapt their art into anything the project requires. Remember, there are no superstar artists on a commercial game project. In addition to these skills, good communication abilities and a strong work ethic are essential, as is the ability to be self-motivated and not require constant feedback at every step. Deadlines are not suggestions, and failure to meet a deadline on a well-financed game can put a rather black mark on your professional record. However, most developers that allow freelancers to work from the home will usually outline the project in broad due dates, giving the artist freedom to work during whatever hours and days are preferred by them. How to Get Work So how does an artist actually get that first job? There are numerous approaches available, but hopefully this section will give you a few ideas of where to begin. The easiest and perhaps rarest method is to simply get noticed where you're already posting your work. Popular forums such as Pixelation and now Pixel Academy tend to become known beyond just the art communities, and occasionally a representative from a developer will visit the forums looking for artists. This is why it's essential to always be polite, helpful and engaging. Keep an eye out for any posts from industry professionals seeking artists. It never hurts to apply for an art job, even if it may appear from the description to be unworthy of your time. However skipping such opportunities ensures you won't be getting any work. A second and more common method for finding work is to ask around. Chances are most of the pixel artists you admire have taken at least a few professional art jobs, and they may be able to recommend a developer who's regularly seeking artists. Although most developers hire the artists they need and work through them on a longterm basis, other development houses may choose to rely on a steady stream of unestablished freelance artists, and may be willing to give you a shot. A third method is essentially the internet equivalent of knocking on doors. If you like a particular developer, find their webpage and contact them to let them know you're a big fan and would like to work for them as an artist sometime. It may seem a bit forward, and you're more likely to be met with no email than one of acceptance, but I've gotten a few jobs myself this way and it never hurts to try. And fourth there are regular job postings. Websites such as Gamasutra.com have listings from developers seeking artists and coders for projects, so check these sites regularly. Just know that by the time you've come across a formal ad at a popular job listing site, a few hundred other people have probably already seen it. So don't rely on this method exclusively for finding work. Once you've made contact with a developer, there's usually a small courting process on the part of both parties. Many developers use instant messenger programs to chat and check on their artists, so if you have any such programs on your computer, be sure to give them your information. If not, email will usually suffice. A developer will likely wish to see some samples of your work before anything begins, so you may want to prepare a small portfolio showing off the best of your work. Keep it relatively small and as varied as the position you're interested in is, meaning that if you're interested in animation, pixelling and background tiling, include samples of all three. However many artists starting out may not have a bulk of samples lying around. If this is the case, the easiest way around this (which I tend to rely on) is to simply offer to do a submission piece. Allow the developer to give you a small art assignment (which you probably won't be paid for, so it shouldn't be more than one character, animation or background) and be judged on this, rather than your previous pieces. Most developers are willing to allow such a submission, and it may even give you an advantage in the submission process, since they've already seen how you work under assignment. How to Use Failure Once you make a connection with a developer and either submit your audition piece or preexisting samples, you'll usually be told pretty quickly whether or not they can use you on the project. If the answer is a yes, congratulations. If they want some revisions, by all means do them, with proficiency, zeal and a great deal of attention to what they've suggested you fix. It's not uncommon at all to make several submissions and revisions on the way to procuring an art job, and just as with your first submission piece, these revisions can be an excellent opportunity to show your developer just how well you work under assignment. However, every once in a while (and possibly more often than not, when starting out) you may be rejected for an art job. Don't take this personally, or as an indication of your art abilities. Many times your style just didn't match up with what was required for the project. But you can still use this rejection to further your art career. Thank the developer for the opportunity to try out for the assignment. Let them know that if they are looking for an artist again in the future, you would love to be considered. If you feel comfortable, you may even suggest another artist for the job you were just rejected for. This may make you feel uneasy, but if the job is already out of your hands anyway, helping the developer to find someone else who might work out shows them that you have a strong sense of artistic placement, that you are well-networked in the art community and that you're willing to help them out even in spite of rejection, instead of just sulking or burning bridges. In many ways, how you deal with losing an art job will have just as much impact on your career as how you deal with acceptance. Contracts Once you have taken an art position, make sure that you defer to the developer's preference when it comes to project secrecy. Most professional developers will ask that you sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). This is standard and you should not offer any resistance to signing. By signing an NDA you agree to not make public anything you create or discover while working on the project. Basically, the developer is asking you not to show off any of your work. Usually, an artist is allowed to show off some work samples once a game has been published, but it's best to always double-check with the developer; some games may, for one reason or another, involve art that may never be showcased. Or the developer may simply wish that the artists themselves are not the distributors of any media. Violation of an NDA holds the potential for the developer and publisher to sue you for whatever damages they feel your leaking has caused, but more than likely it will just result in your being scolded or fired (and somewhat of a career suicide, if the leak is bad and word gets around). A work contract, the other document you'll likely sign, just details what artwork you'll be creating, deadlines, ownership and pay rate. Don't be alarmed by the fact that most of the contracts you’ll read lean very heavily in favor of the developer. The best that an artist could hope to emerge from a job with is a few paychecks and another credit for the resume'. Residuals, rights and ownership of all art assets will most commonly remain with the developer and publisher. So this is also something to consider before starting - if a contract explains that the artist gives up all rights to what he or she creates during the course of a game, you may want to refrain from introducing characters, items or gameplay styles you've previously created, as you'll usually be handing all rights for them over to the developer. You should try to get everything having to do with your work agreement, including pay rate, workload and due dates into a contract before you begin. If the developer is unable or unwilling to create a contract, make sure you at least get something informal such as an email from the developer stating that information. It's not going to be as legally binding, but at least it's something to bring out in case there are any discrepancies later. Going into an art job with no contract whatsoever will essentially allow a developer to collect work without issuing any payment, and there's very little that can be done to collect that would be worth your time and effort. So make an effort to get something down before you start any project, even if it creates an awkward situation. Any developer worth working for will take a contract request as a sign of professionalism and not hostility or distrust on your part. What to Charge Compensation for freelance art is certainly the most headache-inducing aspect of the process. It's common for a developer to ask you to pitch them a price rather than telling you how much you'll be getting paid. The main reason for this is that they are running a business, and if you're willing to work for less than they expected, all the better for them. They may also be factoring in pay rates during the audition process, if you and another artist are otherwise pretty comparable. So how much should you charge? The easy answer is: Whatever you feel comfortable with. There really isn't a set industry rate, nor is there a rate that's always fair or unfair because it comes down to the specific developer, the job and the artist. There are, however a few rules of thumb you can keep in mind. First, game art won't make you rich, but even more than that, expect your first few jobs to pay relatively low. If you happen to land a high-paying job right off the bat, fantastic! But starting out in the industry, having your name in a few published titles will be worth much more to you than a few extra hundred dollars. Second, even at your first art job, you really shouldn't be making less than minimum wage. So if you're looking for a bare minimum to not go below, consider that it. You should ideally be making several times that amount, but as I said before, early on in your career, credits should be more important to you. And a developer may not be willing to spend much for an unestablished artist. When pitching a price, it's important not to sell yourself too high or two low. Pitch a price too conservative and you're locked into an amount less than you're worth. Pitch a price too high and the negotiations are likely to end there. You should keep in mind that there is no transfer of rate from one developer to the next. Just because you got paid a particular amount at one development house doesn't mean you'll be getting it elsewhere. But (and more importantly) just because you completed a previous job for one amount, doesn't mean you can't request more on the next job, especially if you've racked up a few credits in the meantime. It's not usually a good idea to demand more from the same development house every time there’s a new project, but there's nothing wrong with an occasional rate increase, especially when moving between developers. When figuring out a rate, you should always take into consideration how enjoyable the project is, how long it will take and who the developer is. If it's a particularly fun project, you might be willing to do the job for less than you normally would. Sometimes a developer will self-finance a project, meaning that rather than receiving their budget from the publisher (which is the usual means of financing), they'll supply it themselves in order to get a project done that normally wouldn't stand a chance. Projects like these are usually a great financial strain to the developer since they're using up the money they made on other, more commercial games. Because of this, working on a self-financed game might mean less cash, but may also mean a much more memorable and acclaimed final game. Conversely, if a project completely bores you, you might still consider doing it if the money is particularly good. If a project is short, you might consider taking it regardless of pay rate because it's another resume' credit for a small amount of time out of your schedule. You also might consider taking a lower pay rate if it gets you working with a developer you really admire, and would like to continue working with in the future. Pay on a project is usually defined in one of two ways: hourly or per workload. A per workload rate is a set amount that the artist is paid upon completion of that collection of art. Since the rate doesn't increase or decrease based on the number of hours it takes the artist, speed is rewarded while taking too long makes the contract less and less worth the time. If a developer asks you to suggest a per project fee, the easiest way to come up with one is to decide on an hourly rate you're comfortable with, estimate how many hours it will likely take to complete all the art, and multiply the two together. A set hourly rate is a much safer route to go, although there is not the opportunity to make a bundle of cash by finishing early. In fact, an hourly rate can be somewhat of a double-edged sword because finishing the job too fast limits the amount of money you get, but taking too long eats up the developer's money and may reflect badly on you. If a developer asks you to propose an hourly rate and you don't have one already established, you may want to talk to other artists who have worked with that developer, or on a similar project. It's also not bad form to politely tell the developer that you're clueless on price and ask them to make an offer first. If it's too low, you can always counter with a slightly higher hourly wage. But it may actually be much higher than you would've pitched yourself. It should go without saying, but never lie about the hours you put into a project. Even if you're working hourly and finish up early, take advantage of that extra time and see if the developer has another project you can move on to. It's easiest to keep your integrity because the every time you lie on your hours for some extra cash, less will be holding you back the next time and if discovered, such practice can ruin your career. How to Collect Payment So you've set up your contract, you've delivered the artwork and now it's time to collect. Ideally the developer will have already informed you what happens with payment, which will usually you invoicing them and the developer involve mailing you a check. Certain overseas companies may prefer conduct payment through a wire transfer directly into your bank account. The advantage with this is that you get your money with no waiting or deposit. However this may also involve giving limited access to your bank account to the developer, so agree to this with caution. In a typical situation, you should be receiving the money shortly after you complete your artwork. On particularly longer jobs, you may receive several, regular paychecks over the course of a project. These are usually associated with milestones: chunks of work within a larger project. As you complete each milestone, the developer will send out another payment. If it seems like payment dates are spread particularly far apart, you may ask if the developer could cut them up into more frequent checks. However, this should all be agreed upon before you actually start the project. It's bad form to be demanding money sooner or more frequently than the developer has already agreed to pay you. If a developer asks you to wait until they receive profits before paying you, this is usually an unreasonable request and opens up the artist to the possibility of getting never getting paid (as the developer can always just claim they haven’t made any money yet). A specific delivery date (or delivery upon the completion of something specific) should be agreed upon before any real work begins to avoid these kind of problems later. Resume's and Work Samples Once work is complete and payment has been made, all that remains is to end things on a good note and look for the next job. Make sure you let the developer know how much you enjoyed working for them and, without being aggressive, see if they have any projects coming up that you could help out on as well. If you haven't already, now would be a great time to make yourself a webpage and a resume'. A good resume' should include your contact information, a brief bit about your career goals, which computer programs you are proficient in and a list of all games you've worked on, as well as information on exactly what you did on each game. As you start out, feel free to pad out your resume' with smaller or hobby projects; you can always remove these as you work on more impressive titles. That said, you should keep your resume' relatively short. Unless you have a compelling reason, it shouldn't be longer than a page. Select the projects with the most prestige, name recognition and that you held the most responsibility on. It’s also a good idea to have your resume’ available both in webpage and Word document format. A webpage works best to give developers an easy access point to your resume', your art and to see what you're up to. As you earn more and more credits, your resume' and webpage may actually earn you more work than your actual art. This isn't a case of elitism, but rather developers trusting experience - you've already proven that you can not only create game-worthy art, but that you can do it with enough professionalism to build up a nice collection of credits. Reliability is one of the greatest assets an artist can have. Hopefully this course will have answered many of the questions you have about freelancing and creating 2D videogame artwork for pay. If you have any questions on the topic, you should feel free to ask one of your peers or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!
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