The Freelance Abyss (A Guide for Prospective Abyss Divers)
Fishing for new freelance post production leads, and finding ways to let those leads find YOU.
There are a lot of things people can do to make a living in this world.
For me, I think my fate was sealed very early on when my parents taught me how to use a computer as a baby with this hilarious software called “Baby ROM” (see picture below)
Somewhere on some backup hard drive I have a family video of me as a 2 year old actively using this Windows 95 era software with my dad congratulating me as I successfully completed some basic computing tasks.
That’s not to say I was a closeted computer nerd growing up. My parents gave me every opportunity in the world to pursue sports, music, and arts. Not to say I didn’t enjoy those things, but like many in my generation, I was fully immersed into the ever emerging digital realm, and most of my interests lived and died in that realm for a great deal of my years growing up.
My interests covered many things including: coding, video game design, computer building, 3D modeling, animation, and eventually “movie” making and editing.
Fast forward to high school. I take an elective Filmmaking class. Got hooked. Decided to go to a film school. Met some incredible colleagues (many of which I still work with to this day) and instructors, had some unforgettable experiences, and learned skills that have proven to be invaluable all of these years later in my career.
I mostly jest about Windows 95 and Baby-ROM sending me down a path that eventually led me to Media & Post Production. I think it’s something a little more intrinsic than that, but you cant let a good origin story go to waste!
Back to the topic at hand: The Freelance Abyss
After graduating film school, I too was confronted with this abyss. Finding new freelance jobs is sometimes akin to screaming into it.
When it comes to finding REMOTE freelance post production jobs, not only does this abyss get deeper, but you’ll find yourself needing to scream even louder to make up for the added depth.
Truth be told, there’s a lot of people out there screaming into that same abyss.
They’re emailing their resumes, cover letters, and contact info to every LinkedIn Job listing and every Facebook “I Need An Editor” group post that they see.
Maybe they have an “editing reel” or some sort of sizzle reel as part of their calling card. Maybe just a resume.
Maybe they’ve got a few years of experience, 20 years of experience, or 3 days of experience. They might even be prepared to take on free work, just for the sake of building up a portfolio.
Maybe they left a full time career position, and are wanting to make this whole remote freelance thing work for them. Maybe they’re fresh out of film school or maybe they read online about some of the best ways to make money with Wifi + a Laptop and they stumbled onto video editing.
Whatever the case may be, there are people in this field of ALL experience levels applying to the same opportunities. A lot of people. All looking for that same first bite.
How can you possibly differentiate yourself from everyone else in this Abyss?
Let’s say, wherever you might fall on this spectrum of experience, that you’re screaming into this freelance abyss right now as well. And to clarify, looking for a full time position qualifies for this abyss too.
How do you possibly stand out? How do you shine your light, no matter how bright in eternal darkness?
Maybe a little dramatic. We are just talking about emailing resumes and Vimeo links here after all. But hear me out.
In the Abyss, you have a few options, but two main paths you can take are:
Option 1: Keep Screaming
This option includes:
Feverishly reaching out to every prospective job opportunity you find, no matter the criteria
Not caring too much about the money, willing to take low balls and even work for free
Applying to things you are under qualified for, or even to things that shouldn’t be a job offer to begin with (ever seen an editing job that also states in fine print: “Must also have experience with videography, VFX, motion graphics, producing, directing, writing, making coffee runs, walking my dogs and doing my taxes for me”?)
Applying to things you personally know you will hate doing, or wont even want to say yes to if they respond back.
Option 2: Selective Screaming
This option occurs after enough time trying out Option 1. It includes:
Making lists of what YOU want out of a job or freelance gig. (desired pay rate, flexibility, schedule expectations, availability expectations, how much experience will you gain from the job, is it in a niche that you’re passionate about, will you create something that you’ll be proud to show off)
Using said list as a filter to weed out all of the stuff you shouldn’t even pay attention to. Much like using your favorite online dating app, it’s time to start swiping left.
Asking yourself questions like: “If the world didn’t require that I make money in order to make a living, would I still want to do this job?” And getting answers from your subconscious like: “Probably not, so I’m going to actually ask for the money I deserve this time, instead of undercutting myself like I usually do”
Crafting personalized cover letters and personalized greetings in your outreach to leads and job offers. Now that you aren’t using all of your time spamming every single possible job opportunity, you have time to craft something more meaningful and conversation-like. This will get you in more doors.
It might just be you hallucinating (probably is), but you could have sworn you saw a glimmer of light from the dark depths of the Abyss beneath you.
Gone Fishing (anecdotal story ahead)
Let me be clear, when you are just starting out and don’t have much experience to fall back on, going hardcore on Option 1 can net you some wild results.
Some hilarious stories, some hard lessons learned and occasionally some great experiences.
You’ll end up having things to add to a resume, experiences to recall for future jobs, and you’ll begin to build a list of people who will refer you, and even come back to you for repeat work!
I’m not knocking Option 1 at all. Option 1 is what began my entire post production career. I had very little experience, and after knocking on enough doors, someone opened who was willing to give me a chance.
I recognized how rare of a chance it was, and I dropped everything to make sure I could take it.
Under regular circumstances, this opportunity would have gone to someone else. Or never even happened at all. But looking back, many factors aligned to allow it to happen.
Living about 2 hours north of LA at the time, I had sent an email in response to a job listing on Entertainmentcareers.net looking for a Dailies Operator for a very large movie production elsewhere in the country. It was 2017 and I only had a few instances of real film industry experience to add to my carefully crafted single page PDF resume at that point.
At the time, I thought nothing of it. I hadn’t heard back for months, and had almost entirely forgotten about that one email in the vast swarms I had sent.
Then one day, an email in my inbox:
I received your resume regarding the dailies operator position here at
*COMPANY REDACTED*. If you are still interested in this opportunity please respond and I will set up a call with you.
It was happening. The Abyss has finally screamed back!
Next thing I know. A phone call, a two hour drive and an in-person interview later, I am having to frantically schedule, reschedule, and bow out of numerous obligations as I am being flown across the country to start this new job less than 12 hours after the interview ended.
Friday 4PM interview ended. Decision made at end of interview. Flight booked for 3AM Saturday departure the following morning. It was wild.
(Thanks for taking care of my car while I was gone, you know who you are if you’re reading this)
When I got there, I had to learn brand new software, hardware, a brand new workflow, meet and integrate with a brand new team of people. After interning at a small boutique production company specializing in reality shows, this was a big leap.
It was hard work, some grueling hours (12+ hour shifts every day), but it was exactly what I wanted to be doing in that moment.
Being on a big movie set was exhilarating to say the least. There was a novelty factor to it that I think helped keep me going through all of the madness.
Even on the craziest day, I left with a smile on my face, counting my blessings.
Long story (kinda) short, the production was using a wide variety of cameras for different scenes (Arri Alexa 65s, an array of Red Cameras, and oddly enough, a swarm of GoPros)
Funny as it sounds, it was these Go Pros that landed me the gig to begin with.
Dailies Operators are tasked with ingesting, organizing, logging and archiving all of the footage shot during a production. The process is pretty streamlined and efficient in almost all cases, and this company I was working for had a fantastic workflow to handle the Terabytes upon Terabytes of footage coming at us every shoot day.
However, nobody could have prepared for the chaos that a few simple Go Pros could cause! The production was recording extremely long takes of footage with these Go Pro cameras to be later used as sort of an “alternate point of view” for certain elements of the movie’s story.
The way these Go Pro (nothing Pro about them) cameras internally handled recording super long videos (extremely large files) made the organizing process an absolute nightmare for a few technical reasons. So much of a nightmare that the main team of Dailies Operators were getting overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion working through this footage.
As I understand it, that’s when they sent a flare up to upper management back in LA, desperately asking for help.
Suddenly, there was a need to be filled. A pain point to be addressed. However, since the production was already underway, budgets and prices were pretty well locked in.
In that moment, hiring an experienced Dailies Operator who comes at their full priced rate was not ideal for
This is just me speculating, but I’d imagine it was at that point when a newbie resume like mine looked pretty appealing to them. Someone who had real world experience, but not enough to warrant breaking the budget over.
And so the offer was sent my way. Option 1 paid off.
That experience set me on a course for the rest of my career.
Don’t scream into the Abyss. Let it scream at you. In awe, ideally.
Okay cool story about Option 1, but what about Option 2? Are you saying that’s how you get all of your gigs and clients now? Selective Screaming?
Yes and no.
The key is knowing your worth and going from there.
Knowing your true value can be tough.
It’s especially tough when you’re in an industry where someone can get paid a rate of $400, or $1400 for the exact same thing.
Crazier yet, sometimes the person getting paid $400 had to do more work than the $1400 person.
The only thing that’s changed is the client’s perceived value of what they’re getting.
Take this example: BMW has a new car coming out and they need someone to edit an ad for it.
That’s extremely oversimplified, but you get the idea.
It’s just a 15 second ad.
BMW stands to make TENS OF MILLIONS of dollars if this ad reaches its target audience and succeeds.
The edit is pretty straightforward, and you only need to deliver one finished 15 second video. Just a bunch of nice looking shots of the car driving.
VFX, Color Grade and Sound are all being handled by other teams. You just need to focus on the edit itself.
How much are you going to ask for your rate?
Do you think: “Oh, its only a 15 second video, that wont take me too long, I’ll be nice and give them a killer deal. Maybe I’ll even charge hourly so they feel like they’re getting a good honest bargain and they’ll want to work with me again!”
When a client stands to make millions of dollars on something, they will WANT to spend lots of money to make sure that happens.
If your offer is “I’ll do it for cheap”, high paying clients are already tuning you out.
If they perceive your offer as “cheap”, then they will expect the results you give them to align with that perception.
Also, if you charge hourly for something like that, you are punishing yourself for being able to work efficiently. You are punishing yourself for all of your accumulated skill and speed.
Never charge hourly.
Create a day rate that has your experience, skill and unique voice built into it. Stick to it always. If you don’t value it, nobody else will.
(Unless we’re talking about overtime, or some sort of other time overage agreement, then lets talk about charging hourly)
Now, pretend an up-and-coming music artist hits you up.
They have no following yet. They have a bunch of footage that they hired someone to shoot on their iPhone. They want you to turn it into a music video.
“It’s a 4 minute song, and I want there to be dope visuals with flames and explosions and all the footage is super dark and grainy, can you fix it and make it look better? Also I only have $400 for this… how long do you think it will take?”
Option 1 and Option 2 present themselves yet again.
Does this offer align with what YOU want out of a job? Maybe it does. Maybe you’re eager to get some music video and creative VFX experience under your belt. If so, make a judgement call, and stick to it. See the project through and make it something absolutely killer for them.
Or, alternatively, respectfully decline the music video.
How do I go from editing $400 music videos to editing million dollar BMW ads?
You got me. I blinked first.
But really, it is as simple as that.
At least, starting the journey is literally that simple. You just start asking.
In practice, the process of getting there looks like a few different things:
Start out by finding a niche in the wild world of Post Production that you find most appealing.
For example, maybe you take no pleasure in offering VFX or Editing. You know one or both well, and you’ll do them for money, but you absolutely love Color Grading.
Now that you’ve identified something you naturally enjoy, you’ll find it easier to start accumulating more examples of work around this niche. You’ll take gigs that offer lower pay but will let you start creating an absolutely badass reel and work samples
Create a website, portfolio, social media or other online presence which shows off the best of your work, with an easy method of contacting you.
Ideally, alongside your reel, you’ll have direct links to some of the clients and work that you’re showing off. This gives the prospect a way of verifying and establishing your credibility beyond the elusive mystery that is the “Reel”.
Now, with some fantastic ammunition at your disposal, it’s time to do a very selective amount of screaming into the abyss.
Unlike before, our selective screaming is going to be a bit more refined than just spamming every “Entertainmentcareers.net” or Facebook “I need an editor” post now.
Your ideal prospects are people, groups and companies that can bring you repeat, high quality, high paying work, and/or bring you high quality referrals later down the road.
One example of this (I will do a deeper dive into this in a future post): Do a Google search for “production companies near me”, “boutique production company”, “media agency”, and other similar terms.
There are many, many, (many), small agencies, production companies and other groups that have carved out a niche by working with very big clients, and outsourcing a great deal of the work to a list of freelancers that they build over time.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to start getting on these lists.
You don’t have to go knock on BMWs door directly. More than likely, someone’s already done that.
What you can do however, is find out WHO that is, and knock on their door instead.
Eventually, someone’s going to have a big project coming up with a freelance role that they are looking to fill. And you’ll be in the exact niche that they need.
The trick in all of this is to develop a keen sense for who the big fish are, and start swimming for them.
Remember those Go Pros that got me that big job?
Someone, somewhere is always having a Go Pro moment in this industry. There’s always going to be a producer dashing around putting out fires desperately looking to get a big project done before a big deadline.
Sometimes, yes indeed they will post about this on Entertainmentcareers.net or even Facebook “I need an editor” groups. That can very well be your initial intro to discovering these leads.
After you establish yourself as the person that solved their big problem for their big client, they’re gonna keep coming back to you for more.
Because of your quality work and fast turn around time, everyone got to keep their big juicy accounts. Money talks, and if you play your cards right, it will whisper “Hire them again” into many people’s ears.
Craft a lovely, short, and easily digestible message. Much like all of Filmmaking, stick to the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell”.
Include links to your work, and let the conversation go where it may.
Eventually, your going to build up such an impressive portfolio, you can simply say “I can do it, link attached”, and you will be getting job offers. I don’t recommend being quite so blunt, however.
In this process of cold, carefully crafted outreach, whether it be via cold email, cold social media DM, Facebook, job board posts, etc, there is always going to be an element of the stars needing to align.
Some gigs are simply not going to be for you, no matter your qualifications or excitement about them. That’s okay, because it means someone else is going to get to enjoy them instead. Focus on the wins, and learn from the losses. You will only find success in doing so.
You will find the right lead at the right time. When you do, you’ve already been preparing for this astrological event ahead of time. You’ve got your chakras aligned, and your crystals (and hopefully laptop, too) charged.
After this happens enough times, you’re going to find your business growing exponentially as past clients snowball into new referrals, new work, and new connections. Your offer and outreach will become so targeted and valuable, that your screaming into the Abyss now sounds more akin to the singing of a Soprano or Tenor.
And wait! What’s this? You’re not in the Abyss anymore! You’re floating on an island above it all. Was this place here all along?
P.S. Next post we’ll get into some more specifics on finding these high quality leads, crafting your offer to them and how to turn them into long-term repeat clients.
I needed a way to stop manually drafting invoices/contracts for all of my new clients.
Enter Bonsai. Automatic invoicing, contracts, proposals and more. Highly recommend to all freelancers in the digital space.
Affiliate link: https://bonsai.pxf.io/gb2z9v
Freelancing is fun again.
The Weekly Workflow is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.