Photo by Ben on Unsplash (screen replaced by Workbench)
While we offer our monthly files on Patreon, you can also find them on our Gumroad store if you don't want to deal with Patreon. There are some useful things in our monthly files, so I'm going to make more of an effort to explain what's in them each month as we move forward.
September's files contain C4D setups for randomized linear fields, coloring parametric objects using fields, arranging clones using a shader, and sticking particles to specific areas on an object. There are After Effects setups for making an old school dithered Gameboy style, and a pseudo-effect (and preset) for numbering that is regionalized and can handle currency, integers, decimals, and percentages. It goes to just under 10 trillion—positive and negative—so you shouldn't have any issues animating to whatever number you want. There are also setups in C4D and AE for making branching lines with shapes traveling along them and setups for fingerprint scanning.
In the past we've offered a ton of things as well. So check out our Gumroad store and follow us there for update notifications if you're interested.
Yellow Dog Party is now ten years old. In all of that time of doing business, I’ve learned a lot. I learned some of these things early in my career, and some of them I’ve only recently put into practice. They all would’ve helped me immensely and so I’m sharing them with you so that you can have a leg up.
A lot of similar articles are filled with platitudes like “don’t sell yourself short!” Instead, I’m going to focus on actionable advice that you can put into practice now. This is a long article—about 13 minutes to read—but there should be something in here that will help you on your journey.
Form a company as soon as possible
Generally, you lose a lot more money to taxes as an independent contractor than as a company of one person. Get an accountant and talk to them about what’s best for you. Even if you’re a freelancer, your clients should be paying your company, not you. There’s a lot of advantages and protections that come from being a company.
Figure out if you’re really a freelancer
To me, there’s a very specific person who’s a freelancer. They are contractors working in other studios temporarily. They don’t provide a product, rather they fulfill a role on a team—even if they’re leading it like a freelance director.
But if you want to work direct-to-client or provide a complete product to other businesses, you should present yourself as a company. At the outset in 2010, Yellow Dog Party was just a name I went by. I was a freelancer. Though I mostly worked at home on solo projects, sometimes I’d work in a studio as part of a team.
In 2013, I formed an LLC. I didn’t work out of studios anymore. I stopped doing that entirely as a matter of purpose. Yellow Dog Party is a business. And we always present ourselves that way. Over time, this set up a relationship where I am on equal footing with my clients. We are both doing business together. They’re not paying me, they are hiring my company to provide a product. I found that change even helped in most of the existing relationships I had.
When you have an office you maintain, and a crew of people you work with, your clients will likely understand how that goes into your pricing because that’s how they should be doing it too. And since they understand profit, they shouldn’t be surprised when your business wants to make a profit too. As a freelancer, these things should also apply, but—at least in my experience—I found it more difficult to get clients to see me that way.
So, for the rest of this article where I say business or business owner, understand that the advice applies to freelancers too.
Communication is key
This headline is a platitude. Here’s the actionable bit. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. If you need time to do something, be upfront about it. If you’re not working tomorrow, say it. Remember, you are a business and you’re in control of your schedule. But keep in mind your clients need to plan too. They need to know when their video will be done, or they need to know when they can tell their client to expect something.
Often, I tell people I’ll be done with something at EOD. In the past, I’d get done early and send it. Some quick clients would turn around an email with a ton of changes when I was intending to end my day or switch to another project, and then I’d end up working longer, often past the actual end of the day. And no one on the other side is sitting there waiting for those changes I’d send in after hours.
Now, I send things off like this even if it’s 3 pm:
Hey! Here’s the rough of the spot. Take a look and I can make changes tomorrow afternoon.
Thanks and have a great evening!
Boom. Easy. Now they can plan, and I have blocked out time in my schedule. They know I’m done for the day, and that I have something to do in the morning. They also know they have time to solicit feedback and aren’t going to rapid-fire the first crazy idea that comes into their heads.
It’s also helpful to protect your time. Time is your most precious commodity. Certain clients tend to think that they’re your entire focus, and that’s rarely the case. You’re a business. You have more than one customer. This gets that across.
Provide a timeline
One thing I’ve picked up from Andrew Embury is the importance of timelines—beyond simple scheduling. Instagantt is awesome. In the past, I’d tell clients how long something takes, and we agree to a rough timeline. And, inevitably, they break a deadline and then a project is a week delayed. Or maybe I’ve forgotten some aspect or missed something when I was pressed for a date. Now, I put together a Gantt chart that shows an overview of the steps of the process—including time for their reviews. It shows what goes into a project and holds everyone accountable to the schedule.
Sure, I can animate something for you by next Friday. But if you’re going to want to see boards, style frames, and take two days to review, that can’t happen. Putting that into a chart shows why. I don’t need to waste time explaining that stuff anymore.
Don’t sell yourself short
See, I make a few good pieces of actionable advice and it’s platitudes from here on out. Just kidding.
When you’re starting out, you’re going to sell yourself short. You don’t know how the market is unless you talk to other business owners. It’s hard to price yourself and you’ll always have lowball budgets coming through the doors.
But I know what you’re thinking because I’ve been there. What if I need that lowball budget to survive? Thankfully, this was something I learned early on. A client’s budget may be set, but the project itself isn’t. They might want a two-minute animation for $3,000. They want characters too. How do you deal with that?
Well, I can tell you this. You don’t sit there designing, rigging, and animating characters for a two-minute animation for $3,000. Instead, level with them and offer an alternative.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that much character animation for $3,000. Two minutes is a long time. I can do a nice, tight :30 piece for $3,000. I think we can put something together that is really focused and can grab an audience’s attention and make them want more, instead of boring them. I can help you take a look at the script and condense it. Does that work for you?
Alternatively, you can try to see why they want characters. Maybe you can provide an alternative using something like Mixamo. Or maybe you’re looking for a reel piece so you’re willing to take the hit in exchange for more creative control.
I’m going to be honest with you. Characters are expensive, and 2:00 is a long time. It would normally be $15,000 minimum. But I think your product is compelling. So we’d be willing to take this on if we can get some creative control. We can help you take care of the script, and we can take a look at references together and collaborate on what this will look like. But once we get started building and animating, we are going to have to stick with what’s built because we don’t have the budget to revise. That said, we really want to make a good piece for you because when we make something that’s great for you, we’re making something that we can be proud to show too. And obviously, if there are any glaring errors we’ll fix those. Let me know if this works for you and we can plan the next steps.
If the budget is lopsided, even it out in other ways.
Often you’ll get changes from clients that seem to make no sense. “We want this to be purple,” they might ask. And that makes no sense because their entire color palette that they demanded that you stick to doesn’t contain anything even close to purple.
So ask why. I know you’re thinking, “of course I ask why!” For the longest time, I thought that. But there’s a slight tweak, see if you can spot it.
Hey, I know you said this should be purple, but we’ve stuck to the color palette and that would be a little odd here. Is there a reason it needs to be purple? What are you trying to accomplish by changing it?
I didn’t just ask why they wanted to use purple. I asked why is it helpful to change it to purple. What does that accomplish? I wish I had known this tactic a lot longer ago.
When you ask the question like this, instead of just challenging their idea, they’ll usually explain the actual reason they want to make the change. It’s usually something like, “well this concept is important to our process and we want to make sure it stands out.” In the end, it rarely needs to be purple. That’s just the color that some person who’s never even seen the palette blurted out in a meeting.
Now you can offer an alternative that fits the piece, makes it better, and easier to understand.
There is always a cost when you say yes
When you’re more established, people will still come to you with projects that don’t make sense for the budget or just simply don’t make sense at all. You might think you need to take it because no one’s called in a week and you’re afraid that maybe the phone will stop ringing.
Don’t take a project solely because you need it. There is always a cost to saying yes—the opportunity cost—and once you’ve committed, that’s it. At least in my case, every time I’ve said yes when I shouldn’t have, something better came along. And while I usually still had the bandwidth, I would’ve often been much happier being able to focus more on the more fun, higher-paying project than working overtime to slog through a project that I’m not interested in. In the end, everything suffers.
Build and maintain relationships
I'm lacking in this one. But I am trying to run Workbench, Element Supply, and Yellow Dog Party, while also having two young children, so I’ll give myself a slight break here.
Build your relationships. I have a few clients who aren’t even clients anymore. They’re just friends. And it’s pretty awesome when that happens because then you’re working with friends and having fun. Lines of communication are more open and easier. You won’t run into bullshit like phantom deadlines. They can warn you about problem areas ahead of time. They know how you work and you know how they work.
For this sort of relationship to grow, you have to genuinely care and have a real interest in the people you’re working with. I am NOT saying to fake this for your advantage. It will happen organically if you’re a decent human being. But there are advantages to this that you probably won’t think about at the beginning. When you become friends with people at a company and they leave, they won’t forget you. So growing your network means you have a bunch of good clients out there who will kick work back your way. It’s awesome.
When you finish new and exciting work, share it with your contacts—even just the more casual contacts you have. And I don't mean on social media only, I mean in an actual email. Write a personal email to each person and update them on what's going on. This plays into the previous point, and it's also just a nice thing to do instead of spamming everyone you know with some canned email about your reel.
Often people have vague projects in their heads and they’ve forgotten you perfectly fit the bill. You know how you always forget about the restaurant around the corner that has excellent tacos because 90% of the time you drive the other way? Well, clients aren't always looking the right way either.
It's also an opportunity to move your work in a new direction or show a client another tool in your arsenal. You have no idea how many times I’ve shown a client who only ever requests 2D animation a 3D piece and they go, “wait you do 3D!? Oh! I have this project and I needed someone to do some 3D animation for it but I thought you guys only did 2D.”
This also helps if you are—like us—still rocking a reel from 2014 on your website (new reel coming soon-sh!). And look how personable you can be when you write directly to someone you know and have established a relationship with.
How have you been, brother? It's been a while. How was the move? Did business pick up for you? Everyone healthy? We thought 2020 was going to screw us, but we had about a week off before things picked up more than last year.
It's been nuts, but we just got to branch out a little bit on a cool project. Check this out, but keep it on the DL for now! We'll eventually get it up on our site when we get a moment, but figured you might like to see it.
Hopefully soon we can find something to work together on. Miss you dude. Have a good weekend!
This works because I would genuinely want this person to see the work we've been producing. It's not solely to solicit work but to share with a peer. If you don't know the person as well and you just want to get in front of them, try this:
It's been a bit. How are you? After we did that last 2D project, we got a completely different 3D gig, and I want to share it with you in case you have a need for something different. Check it out! Don't share it around just yet though, we haven't had a chance to put it up on our site just yet.
Thanks man. Have a good afternoon!
You can still update people who you know less about and be honest with what you're doing. You're selling yourself, but you're also making that person feel special. You're peeling back the curtain for them because you think it's worth building a relationship. Plus it also shows them that you want to work together again.
Sharing like this is way better than hoping people are constantly checking your website for updates.
While it’s always great to be cordial in your communications—start emails with a proper greeting and ask people how they’re doing—make sure that you are clear in stating your goals and what you’re after. In the previous point, the first email is to a peer that I'm wanting to share my work with because I'm proud of it. If I sent that email to the second guy, it wouldn't work. It's too friendly for an acquaintance. But I can totally send him the second email, where I am clear in why I'm sending the work. I want them to know our capabilities.
For the rest of your communications, don’t be an asshole but don’t take shit from people. Be nice on the personal stuff, and be all business on the business stuff. Make sure to stand your ground. No one respects a pushover. That said, obviously don’t be difficult to deal with on purpose. It’s a fine line. Learn where it is.
No project is quick
Often, people will come to you with a quick project. “It’ll only take you a few days!” No project is quick.
You meet to discuss the project, you look dev, you set up a preview for the client, maybe you board it out, you wait for feedback, you make changes, you wait for approval. All of that can take at least a week. Note that I didn’t even talk about the three days you spent animating. Keep all of that in mind when you plan your projects. This is yet another reason to provide a timeline.
No deadline is real
Unless you have to get something out to be trafficked for a buy, or you’re making something for a conference or other event, your deadline is a suggestion. Clients always want things as soon as possible. Be upfront about what is realistic. Again, timelines help here.
Be careful about busting ass to hit a deadline that you haven’t inquired about. Some clients will ask you to hit some crazy deadline because they want things early so they can noodle it, or so they can look better to their clients. I can tell you this, you will be murderous if you work late nights to deliver to a deadline and you find out that no one looked at your work until the next week.
Instead, try this:
How firm is this deadline? This is going to require me and my team to work late nights to hit it. It’s certainly doable, but I want to make sure we’re going to get feedback immediately so we can get it done. In the past, I’ve had people insist on a deadline, so my team compromised on family time only to find out that our client didn’t even look at the work for another week. I want to make sure there’s absolutely no leeway here before I make that ask of them.
This approach also has the added benefit to show that you care about the people you work with. No matter what you do, this situation will probably still happen to you at some point. Fire those clients. If they don’t respect your time, they will never respect you.
Meetings cost money
Never forget to charge for meetings when you’re making budgets. Meetings are a huge time sink, and a lot of them are unnecessary. Avoid them if at all possible, and if you do require a meeting, have someone keep everything on task. Write a list of topics to cover, provide that beforehand if you can, and get it done and get out. It’s also a good idea to send out an email summarizing the notes so that when you forget about what was said a week later you can refer back to something concrete. If you’re using Zoom, record the call and provide that to all parties as a back up to the notes.
And don’t forget that you’re probably less efficient before and after meetings, so plan accordingly with that time as well.
Those are the biggest things I’ve learned in the last ten years. I hope that they can help you as much as they’ve helped me.
You ever track a camera in After Effects and find that the scene scale is stupidly large or ridiculously small? Well, thanks to Daniel Hashimoto—you might know him as Action Movie Dad—we have a technique to normalize tracks so that you can drop in elements, pop on that 3D switch and not have your elements push out to infinity or beyond. And thanks to Aharon Rabinowitz for connecting us, we now have a script that does it automatically.
I'm really happy that I was able to help out on this because there's nothing I like more than building something that can save other artists time. And being able to do that with two amazing and down-to-earth people like Hashi and Aharon who just love this craft and freely share their knowledge was a superlative experience. But nothing compares to the video. Sev and I almost died laughing when we saw the preview!
Watch that above and then grab the free script over at Element Supply Co.
We've got a special announcement for you today! In light of the growing Coronavirus crisis, we've decided we needed to make some changes.
Watch the video then go grab the EP I'm Not a Rockabilly from Element Supply Co. for pay what you want! Yes, this is a real product. We promise. Is it good? You be the judge.
The most common question I receive is, "how did you learn After Effects?" It's usually asked by people who wonder how I got to be so good—their words not mine, trust me. They're usually at the beginning of their journey into motion and they're looking for a plan to follow or are just struggling with some aspect of progression—often expressions. The simple answer is time.
As we live our virtual lives, we only see the highlights other people show us. For example, you usually only see the end result of my tutorials, not the hours of research and development I put into them. You weren't sitting there with me over the years I've poured into my craft. You only see the net result of that time.
I thought the colors in this were off, but Adobe seems to have switched to the current color in the next version.
I started using Photoshop around 1998. I used it constantly. In high school, I bought nearly every copy of Photoshop User that came out for about a year or two. At $10 each for a student that was a good bit of money, especially at that time—but it was worth the knowledge. When other kids did homework, I did Photoshop. I put in the time. It took me years to make anything I'd consider even remotely presentable today.
In college, my BFA required me to take a ton of studio classes. I read the description for a class called Electronic Media. It mentioned film and animation. I've always loved those topics, but didn't know much about them as I was mainly a traditional artist, so I took the class.
Everyone knows AE 6.0's splash was the best.
Our professor demoed After Effects for just one lecture. But what he said stuck with me—After Effects is basically Photoshop with layers that can move. That sounded amazing, so I started messing around with AE 5.5. And I had no idea what I was doing. There wasn't much on the internet to learn from at the time. Everything I knew about AE then, I learned from Aharon Rabinowitz on Creative Cow. At first I used AE just to roto photos of myself and others to make stop motion projects.
As I learned, I found reasons to use After Effects for all sorts of Electronic Media projects and my next professor took notice. He hooked me up with an opportunity to get an internship where I could put those skills to use. So I put together a reel, and I submitted it. During that internship, I experimented and learned when I could. We had Brian Maffit's Total Training DVDs for AE and AI. I watched them both to supplement what I had already learned from Aharon.
From those early days all the way to now, I've spent almost every day doing something in After Effects. Some days I never even got out of my chair. Hell, once I even animated for about 36 hours straight. I fell asleep mid-click, woke up a minute or two later, and kept going like nothing had happened.
I'm estimating that, other than about 2 weeks of vacation a year, I've averaged about 60 hours a week working in After Effects—some weeks less, some weeks way more. So what does that work out to?
16.5 years * 50 weeks * 60 hours (avg) =
Or roughly 5.65 years
I don't say this to discourage you—rather the opposite actually. I am not what I am because of some ability. Do I have talents that you might not have? Sure, of course! But the same is true for you. I know that if you put in the time to experiment and practice, you can excel in motion graphics—just like with any other skill. It may take you longer than me, and it might not. Some of the student work these days I see is better than what I made after a year or two of working at a studio!
So when you're a year in and you're looking at mentors on the internet, don't be discouraged. When you see some old guy like me—at least old in this industry—remember that we've spent more time sitting in the software than you have likely even known the program exists. It doesn't come overnight. Keep at it, and make it happen.
As our client work has grown, we've had less time to make tutorials. But that doesn't mean we're sitting idly by. It just means the stuff we figure out and build takes longer to share.
We have plenty of project files, setups, rigs, etc. each month. For a long time, those files went to our upper tier patrons and some became tutorials. But keeping all of this straight while we're busy is tough. So over the last few months, we've decided to simplify and diversify.
We started by transitioning our Patreon supporters to receive these files for $5 each month. We always felt that the value we gave to our $10-30 tiers was good, but instead of just providing good value, we'd rather make this content more accessible and a total no-brainer.
Additionally, pricing it at $5/mo makes it compatible with other platforms like YouTube memberships, KoFi, etc. That's partly why we switched to our support link at the end of our videos. We know people have issues with certain platforms, so we're making our work available on more of them so you can choose what feels right. As we use Gumroad as our processor, we might also make these files available as a subscription there.
What's in the files?
In the past, these files have contained useful rigs, parts of upcoming products—many of them were for Glitchlord and Corona—and more basic files like textures. Sometimes they're R&D for upcoming tutorials. Basically, most things that we build, can share, and think someone out there will find useful, end up in our monthly elements. Again, our goal is to deliver way more value than $5. For less than the price of a coffee at Starbucks you'll get projects and built elements to save you time working. And if you stay on, you'll have an arsenal of tools to work from.
If you've been caught up in the nets lately, you might've seen this new thing called Element Supply Co. It's a new marketplace we're building with some industry people you might've heard of like Mikey Borup, Paul Conigliaro, and Andrew Embury. We're dedicated to bringing you battle-tested tools to help you kill it out there.
In that light, we've brought out some new products that we've been working with for almost the whole year, and we hope that you'll love them as much as we do. Glitchlord and Corona are up at the top of our products page. Grab them while they're on introductory pricing for the rest of this week. After that, their prices are permanent. As you might've read elsewhere on this site, we don't do sales anymore so that you know you're always getting the lowest price possible.
You don't have to worry that you're paying too much or hold out for a sale. Get our tools when you need them and use the hell out of them.
Right before a huge shoot + edit project this year, we started working with Wipster to see if it was something we'd like to promote. We used it quite extensively for that project alone. And I mean quite extensively. There were a few shorter edits, and then there were a bunch of 40+ minute videos. We went through a few versions with a globally distributed team before delivering the finals, which they grabbed right out of Wipster when we finished. It went so smoothly because of Wipster.
But the best part is that instead of getting timecode back and having to go into our timeline to find each note, our client could add their notes as usual and we could bring them up through a well-built panel inside of Premiere. Notes come in as markers so you can see exactly where you need to fix things. And it's not just limited to Premiere either. There's a panel for AE as well.
The panels have checklists that count down so you don't miss a note. You can even upload right from the panels without having to login on the site—and that means you don't have to go looking for your files either. It's slick.
I noticed we also tended to get more specific feedback because people can label things right on screen. They're not wasting 3 sentences describing what's on screen to you before even telling you what they want changed. This is especially handy for motion design since things can move pretty quickly on screen. I don't know how we survived so long without it.
You can also use Wipster for non-client work. Wipster would be great for internal use, or if you have external people that need to preview a video before it goes live—like a promotion, or even legal/compliance reviews.
If we had done that project without Wipster, we'd still be looking at timecode. If Wipster sounds helpful, guess what? You can sign up for a free 5GB plan using our link!
What is Scale Comps?
Scale comps is a script based on the Scale Composition.jsx script that ships with After Effects. The original script is great but it only works on the current comp, so I rebuilt it so that it can be used on multiple comps.
The original script uses nulls to scale items in the comps. It removes those nulls, but it only removes them from the comp, not the solids folder. My version removes the nulls completely and if you didn't have any solids in your project, it removes the solids folder it makes too.
This version is also wrapped in an anonymous function so it won't conflict with any other scripts in After Effects.
Where do I get it?
You can get it right here. It's available for whatever price you want to pay. As I'm modifying an existing script, any profits only support the additional functionality I've built in. Also, this script is not locked in any fashion, so feel free to check it out and see how it's built. I hope it helps you out. It's already saved me a ton of time on a project.
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.