Archive for February, 2009

February 27, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: On Clients and the life of a freelance artist

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It’s been about 6 months since I was forced headfirst into the world of freelance art, and a recent run-in with a bad client made me think that this would be a good time to reflect on the past half year.  Before being forced to work freelance I was working on a comfy project on the Nintendo DS that promised that I would be living comfortably for the next few years once it got picked up by a publisher.  Unfortunately for me and the people I was working with, the financial crisis was looming large and publishers were very hesitant about signing unproven companies and IPs (intellectual properties).  Eventually my employer ran out of money, but I persisted in working for him because I really believed that the project was marketable and could lead to bigger things.  It didn’t.  3 months later I came to the realization that there was no way this was going to work out, and I had to prepare myself to look for other opportunities.  I didn’t want to go back to my old job as an GUI artist for an instant messaging mobile app, and interviews with some local game studios didn’t pan out, so I had only one option left: go freelance.

The Good

Your time is your own, obviously.  You can take a nap anytime you want, drink anytime you want, read anytime you want, play videogames anytime you want without anyone looking over your shoulder, as long as you manage to finish your projects on time.  Also, since I’m working in the Philippines, budgets that would be scoffed at in the 1st world are enough to get by on over here.  The advantage is that I can undercut other artists who may want/need a larger budget for the project.  In principle it’s like I’m a one-man outsourcing business.

Of course you shouldn’t aim to undercut all the time, as the idea is to get maximum money for your work/time.  The more you undercut the more used to those prices your clients will be, and since we’re assuming you want to have repeat clients, it wouldn’t be good to get them too used to ridiculously low rates.  It does however give 3rd world artists a little more leeway, allowing you to price low to gain experience or during a tight period, or to negotiate as high as you want when business is good.  In fact, if I wasn’t currently paying 36,000 pesos a month for a condo down payment, I wouldn’t be as stressed as I am right now.  As it is I’m barely making ends meet, but hopefully this situation will improve soon.

Good clients are the usually open about their budgets and willing to pay up front or on a per piece basis depending on how large the project is.  Good clients should be treated like gold.  Make them happy and they’ll spread the word about your services to other people who will be more inclined to hire you since they’ve talked to someone with first hand experience with you.  There’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to being a freelance anything, insofar as there are no viable penalties if you choose to simply drop out of a project all of a sudden.  Developers are worried about this of course, and so building a good reputation is paramount. Another great thing about freelancing is the opportunity to work with a world-spanning client list.  So far I have 1 US client, 2 British clients, and a pair of Ukrainian programmers.

The Bad

With freedom comes insecurity.  There’s a lot of shit being spread around by “Rich Dad”  advocates that there’s no such thing as job security anymore.  While in practical terms this is certainly true (as the recession has proven), psychologically the impact not having a steady monthly paycheck has on a person cannot be understated.  This all depends on your psychological profile of course, and I’ve found that I’m somewhere in the middle of being a risk taker and looking for security.  I like the freedom of being a freelance artist but at the same time the lack of a monthly or bi-weekly paycheck does take its toll on me every 15th and 30th of the month.

I should also mention here that anyone looking to go freelance should either have some experience behind them or a kick ass portfolio.  I had a little experience behind me as a game artist, but years of being comfortable in a corporate atmosphere atrophied whatever artistic talent I had, to the point that I was producing artwork that was really quite embarrassing.  Being freelance puts you in a constant situation of panic, where you feel like you need to be continually improving your skills or get left behind.  This lack of security can be a boon, as I’m only realizing my true artistic potential now, and see myself improving with every piece of artwork and every satisfied client.  In short, as an artist I’m better now than I’ve ever been.  This constant state of panic does take its toll however, and  I’m forgetting that I need to relax (I’m sure my friends will find this hilarious, but it’s true) every now and then.  I find that little things stress me out, like waking up to check my mail and seeing that no new clients have emailed.

Which leads me to bad clients.  I classify bad clients as clients that respond favorably to your initial email but then fail to follow up or inform you of what’s happened.  Even a simple “we found a better suited artist” would suffice to inform me that my services are no longer needed and I’m free to look for new clients.  This is probably the most common client I’ve had recently, with a lot of them expressing initial interest then disappearing for no valid reason.  Am I asking too much? Was there a better artist offering lower rates?  This kind of information would be most helpful, plskthx.  The end result is that I’m firing off as many emails as possible and sorting out the scheduling mess afterward.

The Ugly

It’s hard to get a loan when you’re not employed.  Hell, it’s hard to get your bank to change your place of employment since you can’t even furnish them with a certificate of employment to prove that you are working for so and so company.  This may not sound like an issue right now but it will be in the future, especially if you’re looking to get a housing loan.  There are other means of course, like getting a pag-ibig loan or SSS loan, but I was too lazy to keep up my payments and so that”s not working for me too.  That’s one other thing that the prospective freelancer should take note of I guess, is to make sure you make those payments.  I’m still working out how to fix this part, one of the solutions I’ve thought of is starting my own company as a sole proprietorship and thus being able to list myself as “self employed”.  There are negatives to this too, most of which I haven’t uncovered yet, so there’s still a long way to go for me on this end.

Ugly clients are the types that can’t make up their minds, and will try to get as much work as possible out of you to justify their expenses.  They may not be bad people, but the fact is that at some point you have to decide if a project is worth the time and effort you put into it.  While I definitely believe that every experience teaches you something and is therefore never wasted, you shouldn’t let yourself be punked by an ugly client.  As an example, the image above may never be finished because the client, after 4 days of work and constant updates and thumbnail samples decided that the buildings looked too similar to each other, and that we’d need to do this again.  What made me decide to turn my back on the project?  He was paying me a measly $60 for this artwork, hardly enough for the time and stress that its creation took.

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February 25, 2009

Google Sketchup for Pre-Viz

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Google Sketchup is one of the most awesome things to come out of Google labs.  It’s essentially a 3d modeling application that lets you build buildings, vehicles, and whatever else you have in mind.  It’s supposed to be ridiculously easy to pick up and play and considering I have forgotten almost everything I learned from my brief flirtation with Maya I can attest to this. Massive Black supposedly gives Sketchup to its artists who are similarly 3D impaired and it allows them to quickly concept things like vehicles and space ships in far less time than it would take to learn a fully fledged 3D program.

I’m using Sketchup now to do some concept work for a client who wants to see some ruined cityscapes.  We went through numerous thumbnails where I was painting directly onto the canvas and frankly I was getting really tired already.  Then I remembered Sketchup and why I downloaded it in the first place, and within minutes I had a cityscpape thumbnails that my client approved.  Thanks, Google!

February 20, 2009

English as a second language

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So for the past month I’ve been helping out a duo of Ukrainian iPhone developers make their/our first iPhone game.  I did this game on a much lower budget than I would have wanted, but I figure it’s definitely a good portfolio piece and a bonus when applying for contracts that require iPhone experience.  That icon (the one with the P, I don’t really wanna mention the name of the game because I don’t know how they’d feel about that) actually may not be the final one btw, it’s just what they sent me yesterday.

This is the first time I’ve had language barriers when working with a client, and there were definitely times were I struggled to decipher their use of tense and swapping of words.  I had to learn to swap words like “picture” with “image” and get around the fact that they seem to have no concept of tense (ie “made” instead of “make”).  This isn’t a knock on them by any means, these are all common mistakes for anyone who didn’t grow up using English (and even with some people who did). In fact, I think their game is quite unique though definitely not something you’d play for more than five minutes.  I don’t know if it’ll make them a lot of money though, but certainly it’s enough to cover the cost of hiring me.  But to go back to speaking English, I’m used to discussing things with clients, clearing up matters, making suggestions on the aesthetic of a certain sprite or button, but it’s hard to do that when you’re not sure that you’re truly being understood.  Eventually after a few tries I decided to give up, and I came up with a simple mantra “if what they want isn’t ridiculous or horrible, just do it.”.  I also stopped making suggestions or waiting for them to make suggestions when I saw a problem, but addressed it instead and simply told them how my solution worked.  The less dialogue the better.

Hopefully the game does turn out well though, cause if they make some money off of this we have a good enough relationship that I’m almost positive they’ll come back to me for more work.

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February 18, 2009

The Dystopic Landscape

The nice thing about Dystopic Landscapes is that you can easily put one together and have something nice looking without having to think too hard.  You mostly need some basic composition and afterwards you can let your imagination run wild.  By their nature these types of landscapes present a world that has fallen to ruin, so you’re free to go crazy with your brushstrokes and treat mistakes like crumbled cement and rubble.  It’s the perfect kind of messy playground that doesn’t stress me out too much but still (hopefully) acts as good practice for more polished material.  This is definitely not done yet, so expect a finished version in the weeks to come.

February 10, 2009

Davy Baby

I’m kind of annoyed right now. So the latest mini competition for gameartisans is baby monsters, ie Paint your favorite movie monster as a baby.  I don’t really have a favorite, but I thought that Davy Jones from the Pirates movies would be interesting to draw, so I settled on that. I’m actually quite pleased at how the work has turned out, and I think this is some of my most polished work so far, but I made a huge mistake while updating on gameartisans.  They encourage you to post your work while it’s being done, to get critiques and whatnot and also to build up the community aspect of the site.  I usually downsample to 500×500 so my images aren’t hogging bandwidth (I do the same for this blog) on the forum, but this time I forgot to undo and go back to a 1000×1000 resolution!  That may not sound like much of a difference, but in general when you put up portfolio material art directors like to see more high resolution stuff, because the lower your resolution is the more artistic cheats you can get away with (which is why I thrived in mobile games for a while, where tiny pixel art hides glaring anatomical errors).  I’m going to try to salvage this by upsampling to around 800×800 and polishing it a little bit (1000×1000 is a bit much, the blurriness and artifacts are intolerable), but right now I’m too annoyed to go back and work on this piece.