Monday, June 8, 2009

All Things Being Equal

(image above: more of my spec designs created for The Electric Company. These designs were not picked, but helped the client to visualize my range of techniques or styles.)

I've heard that some studio owners revel in the game of scoring jobs. There is an excitement to the process, since a single job can be the difference between being in the red or the black. Certain job opportunities have brought out a strategy in me that has worked two out of three times. When I hear of a juicy project that needs animation and the style is not fully set, it activates my curiosity and sense of competition. Since I know the client is going to look at several bids, naturally the thought is how to set myself apart.

When a studio (or a single freelancer like me) is considered for a job, it can be for many reasons. We might have a personal connection to the client from a preexisting working relationship or friendship. They may know us strictly from the work we have done for ourselves or for another client. We may have been recommended to them by a third party. Or we may have gotten in the door through the efforts of a rep or an agent. But the means of entry is not usually enough to land the job. There are so many factors that define what opportunities are a good fit. But, if all things were equal between all the studios bidding, what could win the bid for one of them?

Shortly before I started my at-home freelance period in 2007, I had an interview to direct a Nick Jr pilot that was going to be animated in-house. The creators were not artists or directors so they especially needed to feel safe and secure in their choice of director. In this case, I knew the other two directors that they were considering. Each would have been a strong choice, and would have brought something different to the mix. Before our interviews, we were each given the pitch pack that won the creators their pilot.

Once I saw that the designs exactly matched the signature work style of one of the director's, I knew my goose was cooked. A client tends to feel most comfortable when you have already done exactly what they are looking for. Sure enough, the other director won the bid. It’s not possible to always have the exact style a client is looking for already on your reel. But, there is a way to create the materials that can win the job.

Less than a year later, Nat Geo Kids had a pilot project and were in need of a director, for which they were considering four people (from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco). Once I had an interview scheduled, I asked the producer if she could send me any art or music from the project so I could check it out before the meeting. She was happy to do so, and I think each director may have been given the same materials. Once the character art and soundtrack was in my hands, I spent a day animating a finished walk cycle to the music. The day before my meeting I e-mailed a Quicktime of the animation to the producer so it could work its magic. There were practically squeals of enthusiasm when I got to the interview. A good sign, no?

Of course, anyone would enjoy seeing their character move, but there was more value to the process than that. Because I had already tackled some animation of their character, I could already discuss that process: how long it took, what programs I used, how the art should be prepared, etc. I'm sure each of the other director's could have intelligently speculated on that too, but I was speaking from actual experience. Perhaps most important, because I had taken this initiative, I had proven my sincere desire to do the project.

I hinted a few posts ago that I was about to embark on a large new freelance job with an assistant. The job was won in a very similar way to what I described above. With so many factors out of your control on the job hunt, why not give yourself the best possible odds for success?


Elliot Cowan said...

It's common sense really, innit?

David B. Levy said...

I'm not sure I'd call it common sense, although it does seem obvious. But, why did my competitors not do the same thing and create a sample animation to win the bid? Was is lack of interest? Lack of time? Not wanting to blow resources on a job that might not happen? Whatever the answer, they didn't do it.

In the past, preparing such a test could have been a real chore, expensive too. Imagine lab fees, camera fees, etc... oy! But, today, with Flash or After Effects at our fingertips, tests are so cheap and easy to bang out.

Elliot Cowan said...

Originally I wrote that it was obvious, but it sounded like I was being unkind about your post so I revised it.

Personally, I like to do a quick animatic of the piece.
I feel that it puts me in a better position to be in control of the direction if they're excited from the outset - plus you've made them happy and comfortable so they are less inclined to change 3000 things (plus if they do want to change stuff you can say, "We did agree on the animatic, so it's going to cost more").

roconnor said...

Drawn out pitch processes bug me.

Look at the reel, we can either do the job or not. Read our treatment, we understand the project or we don't. Look in our eyes...

I would hope clients hire the same way I do. Is this a person I want to work with? Can they do the job?

A few character designs, sure -although that has lead to: how about some animation too? Can you make it yummier?

When people start asking for these things it's an indication that they don't understand the difficulty of the process or care about it. Then, you start to question whether you want to be working with them anyway.

In the olden days, you'd get paid to pitch jobs. Like architects.

Today, it's a buyers market and we have to put ourselves through these expenses as loss leaders.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Elliot,
Do you create animatics to get the job? I would assume that's something you create once you've got the job and starting to rough it out. I think you may be confusing two different topics here.

Hi Richard,
I take all your points and agree. My point is that what if the client wants to work with you or three other studios and thinks that all are equal, each capable of doing the job? What then, can you do to ensure you land the job? That's the strategy I'm offering here.

The bits of animation I do to land a job is not an official client situation where they ask you, JJ, Curious, ect.. to all bid on a job for free and then pick the winner.

The bidding process on the jobs I'm talking about are simply the client interviewing three or so studios or individuals, checking out their reels, asking them questions on how they'd do the job, how long it would take, how much they would charge. That's the kind of situation in which I create a bit of animation to swing the odds in my favor.

Elliot Cowan said...

I visit with the client and tell them I'll do them an animatic so they can see the kind of thing what I want to do

These are usually rough but have enough moving bits to look exciting.

So yes, I do an animatic to get the client on board in the initial stages of the job - whether it's pitching or not.

I'm with Richard 100%.
The process of pitching for work is destructive and an utter waste of time and money for both the client and us.

David B. Levy said...

I'm with both of you in theory... and (for the record) I have never been part of a cattle call where multiple studios are asked to submit work on an account for free and then only one of them gets it.

When I do work to bring with me to an interview, its of my choosing. It's because I had the time or the particular interest in the job and because I wanted an edge over others interviewing.

Elliot, your animatic method is very similar to me banging out a bit of animation. The difference is I bring that sample to the first meeting and you provide it just after. We are doing the same thing. The animation I bring to a meeting takes me less than one day to do, and I suspect your animatics go pretty quickly as well. I think your method is just as good as mine.

Elliot Cowan said...

I was agreeing with your method, Dave : )
No argument here!

David B. Levy said...

haha... true true.

And, I share the frustrations of the worst aspects of our biz.. but, we take the good with the bad.

j.j. sedelmaier said...

Hi Richard ! I hear ya ! The olden days. . . gone forever.

Dave, you'll find there are more surprises coming your way when it comes to doing work up front. There's a very good chance that YOU may know the subject matter better than the clients. You volunteer to do some rough animation, models, etc., but be prepared for them to react negatively. Because they may not have done animation before, they may not know how to feel about the work you're submitting upfront. YOU may know how it fits into the entire scheme but they may not. I'll give you an example. Years ago we did a Volkswagen commercial using Speed Racer. It's become a classic - so well executed that even total "time to get a life" Speed Racer FREAKS thought we'd merely appropriated existing footage as opposed to recreating everything from scratch. We were bid against another studio but I wanted this spot SO much that I went against my better judgment and we did some models. They were right-on. I sent them off and we didn't hear anything for a few days. I finally called and asked if they'd received them. The agency producer said they HAD indeed gotten them but as he put it, "We're not lovin'em". Huh ? I was fortunately able to convince them with subsequent conversations that no one was going to do a better job than us. Fast forward a couple weeks after we were well into production. I got up the gumption to ask to see what the other studio had submitted. It was embarrassing. It looked like the car but it was in a completely different graphic language than the rest of the cartoon - something that the agency hadn't had time to get sensitive to, but something I took for granted. By the end of the project, they said that we were more tuned into this subject matter than they were. They hadn't gone through the process ! The other terrible thing about the upfront work under PRE-award conditions is that sometimes the same folks that do a lovely drawing, or even an animated sequence, aren't capable of translating their rough work into a final piece worthy of the job's potential. That's why a person's or studio's reel is what clients should really use as their final basis for a decision. The PROCESS of doing the entire project is what counts - the final product. Sometimes people are contracted by studios to provide pre-award materials so the studio can get the job but when it comes to actually producing the work, it's a whole different band of folks doing the project. The client feels jerked but doesn't really know why.
So what am I saying ? I'm saying the same thing Richard (hi again !) said but in a much more long winded fashion. . .

David B. Levy said...

Hi JJ,
Point taken. And, I know no two situations are ever 100 % alike and that there are pitfalls in any plan. But, I have had good results by bringing a special animation sample to an interview because:
a) I had the materials of the job ahead of the interview
b) I had the means to produce a bit of animation that nailed the exact look of a finished product
c) I had asked the client numerous investigative questions before I created said sample.

Does this mean this will always work? Of course not. But, it's a good idea for some situations.

I have never had to enter a bid where I'm EXPECTED to do free work. I hope I don't encounter that, but if I keep heading in the direction I'm in now, I will likely be dealing with that reality (just like any studio.)... and then, perhaps I'll be singing a different tune.

But, I appreciate that in your Speed Racer story you went above and beyond what you would normally do to win a job. That's just what I'm talking about. A job I really want and that I go "all out" to get.

Uncle Phil said...

I think this all boils down to "going the extra mile".

For me, an interview or a test or whatever it may be, is a way I gauge if I even want the job. If I genuinely enjoy putting the extra effort in, then that's a pretty good sign that it's something that I'd be excited to work on and I think that translates in an interview and in a test. There obviously isn't always time or resources to do this type of thing... and it certainly can come back to bite you in the ass, but if one can put the best foot forward, why not.

I always try to be a little over prepared. I'll do twice the required work if I really want the gig. Or I'll research the hell out of a project or the producers before going for an interview. I always want to feel in control and in the know (even if the reality is that it's all out of my hands).

There are a ton of other people in the industry that may be more qualified or more talented, but I never want to sell myself short by not doing everything I can to better my odds.

Doug said...

I only do a little test work if I'm really into the project, I guess they're more likely to go for you then. But some people expect it when they should just be judging your previous work. That's when your independent short comes in handy! And on that note, can I put a link here to my new short? There you go. David your blog has kept me inspired while working on this, thought it might interest you.