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Peaks All the Way Up

Joe Clay | Dec 1, 2018

Everyone takes a radically different path through our industry, just as in many other industries. And in mograph especially, there's no specific step to take, no milestone to hit. We don't have a bar to pass, a residency to complete, certifications to attain. We don't even need to go to school if we have enough ambition. It is important that people, especially new people to the game, understand that and hear true stories from people farther on their journey. So hopefully telling my story will help someone out there.

Puberty is Tough

In August, an article sparked a lively discussion in the community. Motionographer posted Mograph goes through Puberty from Joey Korenman, the founder of School of Motion. It details Joey's particular path through the industry. But its thesis is that technology has changed the industry and large studios that don't adapt will go extinct because technological improvements have allowed smaller, more nimble outfits to do the work that used to require tons of people. I'm quoted in the article talking about how mograph is more necessary than ever to companies since everyone has a screen in their pocket 24/7.
Full disclosure: School of Motion has sponsored a few of our tutorials, but that doesn't have any bearing on my opinions here.

Joey's solution is that the shrinking budgets due to all of these external factors can be balanced with shrinking overhead. It's hopeful. So what was the issue?

The Infamous Chart

The major qualm with the article was a chart that plotted out a line-item budget. The article has since been amended to remove the chart. Now it says this about Joey's time after leaving the production studio he started:

One of the first jobs I took on was an $18K job for an ad agency, and it took about 2 weeks to do and given the flexibility freelance can have, I found the profit margins to be much larger than what I experienced in the past at a typical studio.

You can find the chart live on the twitters if you choose. I'm not going to link it out of respect for their edits. I think the chart was intentionally simplified, but I can understand objections to it. The criticism was valid.

The chart listed costs that freelancers have as $0. I'm sure the actual budget accounted for those costs so I find it hard to believe it's not just an attempt to be illustrative rather than realistic. But I do agree that removing the chart from the article was a good idea. Illustrative or not, it gives the impression that budgets are high and overhead is non-existent. And putting that budget in a spreadsheet lent it a certain authenticity. New artists who are unfamiliar with the industry need to see a more realistic example of a budget.

This is an actual budget for a project we've done.

There are certainly budgets out there that high for two weeks of work—especially from an agency that only cares about the product, not the amount of effort it takes to complete. But that's not generally budgeted as one freelancer for $1,700 a day with $500 of help and $500 of stock—which is how the chart had it.

Of Mice and the Mighty Embury

This eventually led to a retort by Andrew Embury on Medium. In Of Mice, men and Motionographers..., Embury lays out his journey into the industry, which is explicitly more difficult. Andrew details his struggle getting started, working for free, eating out of trash bins, etc. It's raw and open. But it's a different article. It's about his particular path, which I also don't think is indicative of everyone. And it's also a rejection of the "being a freelancer is great" vibe of Joey's article. Joey is writing about the industry at large and how freelancing can combat what is happening with budgets.

Elsewhere, from what I've seen, Joey doesn't posit that freelancing is for everyone. He does talk about the struggles. But that's absent in this article. There's no counterpoint. Combined with a plug—even the very honest one in the article—people felt like it was a long sales pitch on a major industry publication.

I find that unfortunate because I think Joey's article is an accurate assessment of the state of the industry in terms of where we've been and where we're going. I also agree that going it on your own is an excellent option. But, as you may ascertain from my story, it might not be for you.

So How the Hell did I get Here?

I'm asking myself that most days too. You're not alone. First, let's dispel the myth that's building up that I'm some sort of hotshot After Effects guy. I don't think I am. I just know a lot of shit because I've done a lot of shit. Things like my quick tips videos are born out of doing the wrong thing so many times and finally discovering the most efficient way to do something.

There are no shortcuts. There are great courses and excellent tutorials, but it's up to you to apply what you've learned. And if you ever intend to grow, you need to work at it. Mograph is constantly changing. You might learn some fresh new technique and halfway around the world some guy is already doing it better, faster, and probably cheaper too.

Often the way forward is obscured from view. You climb the mountain thinking you might find a nice valley where you can survey your surroundings, but over each peak is just another peak. And like turtles, it's just peaks all the way up.

For most people—myself included—there are constant struggles. Sometimes clients don't pay and sometimes they just take forever. Thankfully, I've been lucky to have always been paid, but I've had a client owe me five figures for over a year. Lately, we're finding more and more of our clients are switching from net 30 to net 45/60, especially when their clients are doing the same. Net 60 is the worst, especially when you have multiple projects on an invoice that might already be months old. But when that invoice is large, what are you going to do? That's right. Figure out a new way to deal with cash flow issues and hope your clients don't take long to get you PO numbers. Mograph can be a constant feast or famine scenario.

There's still a lot of feast or famine going on, evidenced by this chart. Still, this February sucked. And I need to bill November's work still.

Then you have to deal with taxes, working with an accountant, payroll, all of the clerical work of invoicing, accounting, answering inquiries, etc. There's a lot of time tied up in that. It takes me at least half an hour to reply to a new inquiry. Estimates take me a few hours sometimes. You also need to learn how to budget properly because there's not much out there on the topic. And that's partially because we aren't sure about it either. The Futur is about the only place I know of talking about real business. I only know how to budget because I've done it a lot. And it's still hard.

I've undersold myself. I've taken jobs that I shouldn't have because I've needed to to survive. I've worked hourly rates. I've worked day rates. And then I learned that I wasn't really making any profit by doing that and that I work too fast for it to be fair to me. Now I budget by the project because then we can agree on a price, and everyone is happy with it.

It's been a long road just to become the relative nobody that I am! You're only reading this because I decided long ago to share my knowledge with the community. And in doing that, I've made a very small name for myself.

So with all of that, why do I run Yellow Dog Party? In short, I had to.

Climbing the Mountain

I started out my career with an excellent internship at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. I was lucky enough to have a paid internship. And even then the game was stacked against me because my college required an internship but didn't allow anyone to be paid for some ridiculous, sadistic reason. So shhh. Keep it a secret.

During my internship, I got to make work that would actually be seen. I worked on a 30 minute TV program every month. I made commercials that went to air. I filmed events that we'd cut down to sell as DVDs—and I made the DVDs for reproduction too. I filmed segments for the shows. I filmed performers that came through including Carlos Mencia, and John O'Hurley—who you might remember as Elaine's boss J. Peterman from Seinfeld if you're as old as I am.

When I graduated from USF in 2007, I was hired to work for a local company that was once called Digital Domain until they got sued by the real Digital Domain. At first everything was new and interesting. But I soon learned about how mismanaged the company was.

Here's an excellent example. I was hired, fresh out of school, to work on a secret government project for SOCOM as—initially—the sole animator for three five-minute 2.5D narrative stories. We had a director from the company and a freelance storyboard artist made assets for us. My machine was a cheap Windows box they had IT buy off the shelf from CompUSA—when they knew I was a Mac guy. It took us weeks just to get them buy us RAM while we jealously eyed the brand new Mac Pro in the edit suite next door. My director was livid. He said it was ridiculous for them to cheap out this badly on a half a million dollar project.

Overall, I worked with some great people. One even received an Emmy while I worked there. I learned so much from those veterans. And I learned what not to do from owners of the company. Sev worked there before I knew him, and he learned the same lessons.

In 2008, the economy took a dive and as one of the last hired, I was out. Later, the whole company would close and many of the people who worked there would go on to form their own successful companies. I had built a ton of relationships while I was there with those people—who I still work with on occasion—and one of those relationships led me to my second job.

I interviewed at a place called CamGroup that made commercials for car dealerships. It wasn't what I wanted to do, but I went since I needed a job. The owner was one of the nicest, most honest people I've ever met. His name was Bryan Carter. When I got home after the interview, I wrote him an email. I thanked him for his time, but I expressed that that really wasn't the kind of work I was looking for. I also said something about how I really liked our conversation, and I felt bad turning the job down. He wrote back asking if I'd give it a shot for three days. He said he'd pay me, and if either of us didn't think it'd work out we could part ways amicably. I went and I actually enjoyed it.

Bryan hired me at about $10K more than my previous salary. I put a lot into making higher quality dealer spots and I learned a lot there too. I became way faster because I had to be. We produced commercials for dealerships all over the Southeast. I made a look a day on average, and we reused those looks for various dealerships. So every day I made a few :30s based on the same look, but with different copy, timing, footage, etc. It was a grind, but kind of fun in a way. And for the most part, I laid 90% of those spots to tape. I still get sick when I see a slate.

I learned about how to treat employees and clients from Bryan. He kept no secrets. In fact, he once told me that he didn't close his door for privacy, he just didn't want to disturb anyone. He was a loud talker with a Southern drawl—quick with all of those quirky metaphors you'd expect. Even with his door closed, I'd frequently hear him talking budgets with clients on speaker. Sometimes he'd do it with us in his office if someone called in the middle of something. He'd mute the call and crack jokes when he said something to mess with a client. He had a great rapport with everyone he talked to.

Unfortunately the economy tanked car dealers too. I think one of the last spots I made there might've been a Cash for Clunkers spot, so you know I went out on a bang. After that I started freelancing. My wife's coworker's husband owns a successful painting company and he needed a designer and eventually a web designer. I wanted to do motion, but it was a start.

At some point my old coworker from CamGroup left because he was worried about the industry tanking. He called up one day to see if I could replace him. So, I went back to Cam but I also kept up freelancing. Sadly, around Christmas that year, Bryan passed away. He had cancer, and it looked like he was getting better, but it took him. I'm nearly tearing up just writing about him. Bryan was a great man. I never really thought about it before writing this, but his influence on how I conduct business cannot be overstated.

His wife took over the company. She was studying to be a psychologist, but she hadn't learned that last -logist part. We butt heads about making countless revisions to work before we'd send a single frame. She thought she could psychoanalyze clients and divine what they'd want. That's probably why that still irks me to this day. To me, countless revisions before showing something for approval is grounds to fire a client. It's a time sink. As would be expected she ran the company into the ground, and the economy wasn't even a factor anymore.

After that I was done with the rollercoaster of working for others. If I wanted more stress in my life, at least I wanted to be at the helm. My wife had tenure as a teacher so with one steady income she told me to just go for it. So I made the choice to start working under Yellow Dog Party as a freelancer. I hoped one day to start a studio of my own. And I'd recommend that anyone else who has that aspiration work at a few places to see how things run. I've learned a ton from the failures of others, and I didn't have to make them with my own wallet.

So in 2010, I started off by telling existing clients that I had more time available. Some took advantage. Then my wife and I scoured sites like Production Hub to see what was out there. A random meeting with a production company my wife found got me working directly with Bright House Networks' marketing department—a great group of people I still work with even though Bright House was bought out.

Around 2011/12, my old creative director from my first job wanted to start his own studio. He asked me to help him to build it. We worked on a ton of projects, sometimes way into the early morning. Initially it was just him and I against the world, but eventually it grew into a full studio. And I had a space in there that got me out of the house so I could be more productive.

The next year, I wanted to grow. I incorporated Yellow Dog Party and I started looking for office space. It turned out that the friend that got me the CamGroup job was doing the same thing. And two of his former coworkers were doing the same—including Sev. So we got a space in an old 1920s apartment building that had long since become offices.

That's where everything changed for me. We functioned as a collective. Having others around meant that we almost always had work, which meant that we could get better budgets because we didn't have to worry about always landing a job. We started budgeting better because we had a safety net. And having that office and that group added to our authority. And that authority netted us gigs producing live action and animation for larger companies.

While the four of us always planned to make something bigger, ultimately it wasn't going to work out. When our lease ended in 2016, we all went our separate ways. Sev and I tried to find an office space that would work and not be stupid expensive, but there wasn't much in Tampa at the time that fit the bill. I had always wanted to convert my detached garage into a studio so, since Sev and I had basically built out the previous office together, I told him that if he helped to build the space he could use it, and we could both work relatively rent-free. So that's what we did.

So far my path has been winding up the mountain. I've fallen down quite a bit. Thankfully, I've always been able to pull myself up from the cliffs that Andrew Embury faced. But it has still been a battle. And I still don't know where my path leads, but I'm ok with it as long as I'm going forward. Running my own business has been a great and rewarding adventure. If you're thinking of striking your own path, remember to look around every once in a while, to make sure the path still looks like the one you want to be on.