Stop working for free!

You’re not doing anyone any favours, especially yourself!

It’s becoming more and more frustrating lately seeing all the people posting online looking for people to work for free.  With the price of editing systems (we’re going to be talking more about things in a post production perspective here, as that’s the realm I work in) – hardware and software – coming WAY down, you can have independent one man/woman post “team”, and that’s where the sharks begin to circle.  The industry is always being flooded with new blood, looking to take over from the older generation.  A younger, and in many cases, more desperate generation that needs to pay their student loans AND pay all their bills, but, they also need to get their foot in the door, and in many cases, working for free might seem to be a good idea, but it not only hurts the industry, but also is disastrous for you.

…and in many cases, working for free might seem to be a good idea, but it not only hurts the industry, but also is disastrous for you.

So, I guess the biggest question is how, then, did I get my start in the industry.  Well, that’s an interesting story.  I started out my career with a bit of an advantage.  Way back in the day, television, or media programs in general were not very common.  Okay, let’s be honest, they weren’t common at all.  I happened to go to a school that had an actual television school located in it.  The television course there was a 2.5 year program.  We started mid-way through grade 11, and took it all the way until grade 13 (yes, we actually had a grade 13 back then.  It was called OAC.  Ontario Academic Credit  level.  Now Ontario high schools only go up to grade 12).  I learned just about everything there was to learn about live television production, and about post production as well.  We were A/B roll editing on old ¾” VTR’s.  Yes, the ones you could use a boat anchors.  We had just gotten a new, fancy editing system called a Video Toaster.  I won’t go into too much details, but anyone who remembers the ol’ VT will remember the spectacular wipes they had (when I say spectacular, I mean cringe worthy!).  Now, here’s where things got interesting, and how this story directly relates back to the topic at hand.  Our last half year, was a co-operative placement, where we were required to work at facilities related to the industry we were interested in getting involved in, and we did it for school credit.  No pay.  It was actually against the Board of Education’s policy on Co-Op placements for you to get paid.  Granted, if I was going to work at a post production facility (which I did), we weren’t editing.  I was in the tape room, learning signal flow, VTR’s (1” & 2” VTR’s, and D1 and D2 decks), and basically assisting the editors with whatever they might need.  If there was one thing that I got from this placement, it was a contact.  One contact, who told me what school he thought I should go to if I was really serious about television.  Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario.  He was a Co-Op student from Sheridan there at the post house, doing what I was doing, just at the college level.  So, I did it.  Three years later I graduated.  Okay.  Now what?

Well, I worked at a nightclub.  Yep, that’s right.  Working behind the bar.  What else was I supposed to do?  I had to make money.  Then the call came in.  A friend of mine from college (you know who you are Peter!) was working at the Discovery Channel Canada, and they needed assistant editors.  It was the overnight shift (11pm to 7am).  I didn’t’ care.  It was a job.  I still worked my other job.  The nightclub job.  It sucked, but I was fresh out of college, and who needs sleep anyways.  From there, other jobs started to creep in.  Assistant editing jobs.  Back in the days where Assistants were digitizing tapes, organizing bins, scanning logos (yes, you read that right, scanning company logos with Photoshop, and then making them keyable), and other organizational tasks.  I was probably working freelance for 6-10 different companies.  How did I get these jobs?  All word of mouth.  One company told another, and another and so on.  I didn’t do one free job.  Not one.  From the assisting, I finally landed a freelance editing job, that lead to others that lead to full time employment.  Eventually, I was laid off from a job that I had for ten years, and was back in the freelance game.  Again, I didn’t take one job that didn’t pay.  Along with all the editing I was doing, I ended up landing a teaching gig at the Toronto Film School, teaching Advanced Final Cut Studio (Ah, the good ol’ days), and the one thing that I hammered home for my students, was that they should never, ever take a job for free.  It doesn’t matter if the job pays $10 per hour, it needs to pay something.  You need to earn money for your skill, even when you’re starting out.  It’s something I still believe in strongly today.  So that does, of course, bring up the next logical question.  Why would anyone work for free, and on the flip side, who would have the nerve to ask people to work for free.

The unfortunate part of this article is that people will always work for free, and there are always people out there looking to take advantage of that.  Let’s look at both sides of the argument.

STUDENTS

EXPERIENCE

I hate the term Junior Editor.  For me, you’re either an Assistant or you’re an Editor.

When you’re fresh out of school, you have nothing.  No reel, no references, nothing.  I’ll be honest.  When I was working freelance I had no reel.  All the work that came to me was from the standpoint of “So and So said you were good.  Can you come and work for me?”  But it took me a long time to get my name out there (years), so that I could have this “luxury”.  I can understand the argument that you need to work for free, so that you can put things on your reel, but that brings up a bigger argument.  I’m sorry, but if you’ve just graduated from film school, you have no business being an editor/director/whatever.  You are still a nobody in the grand scheme of the industry.  It seems that there is an entitlement (and I’m not saying with everyone, so please don’t start sending me e-mails) from recent graduates that they SHOULD BE editors/directors/DOP’s, with not one ounce of experience.  I’ll be honest, though.  I hate the term Junior Editor.  For me, you’re either an Assistant or you’re an Editor.  Do you know what Junior Editor is?  It’s an excuse for someone to pay you less.    

CREDIT/FOR YOUR REEL

This one almost goes hand in hand with experience.  To be honest, though, any time an editor has come to me looking for a job, I don’t normally say “show me your IMDB page”.  Again, it comes back to “What have you worked on?  Oh, I know So and So who works on that show or at that network.  I’ll call him/her to see if they will vouch for you”.  And as for putting things on your reel, they can be an utter disaster.  I’ve seen editors put together a montage of all the things they’ve worked on, which shows me they can edit a montage, but nothing else.  For me, send me a link to your YouTube page (or Vimeo) that gives me clear examples of things you’ve worked on.  To be honest, unless this is a network show or feature film, all I care about is that you can edit, or do motion graphics, depending on what the job is, but take this into consideration.  I know exactly what you’ll be able to do (or not do), based on when you’ve graduated from school and/or where you’ve worked in the past.  If you’ve recently graduated, or don’t have much on your reel, I know I’ll have to put more work into training you, which if your potential employer knows this going in, is not a big deal.  If you’ve got experience, I would hope that you would be pretty self sufficient.

This also brings up a big problem that editors new to the game can run into, and that is getting in over their head with free/little money projects and internships.  Projects that can take up way more time than was initially thought.  Projects where you are dealing with unrealistic deadlines, unrealistic directors and/or producers. These projects can lead to word getting out that you are not a good editor and people shouldn’t hire you, justifiable or not.  That’s not a stigma you want, especially when you’re just getting started.  I also want to mention that there are a lot of new laws, when it comes to Internships, and payment for those internships, so make sure you know your rights before you agree to anything.

EMPLOYERS

So, why are employers looking for free labor?  Well, just that……….it’s free.  Just about every project that has a video or motion graphics component to it has a budget to it.  These days budgets are getting smaller and smaller, and the producers are trying to cut corners wherever possible because they know that most post production aspects to the job have only one person working on it.   The editor is the motion graphic designer/color grader/audio engineer, etc.  When the budget for a corporate video is $20000, producers don’t want to blow half the budget on post.  They would rather pay a starving artist $300 to edit the video and do all the motion graphics (etc) for the entire piece, as they can then use and abuse the editor as much as they want, and whatever money is left over from the budget will go to them.  (Now, again, please remember I’m talking in extremes here, and I know that not every producer is like this.).  To be honest, that’s really it.  For every cent that someone doesn’t pay you, it’s money in their pocket.  I’ve seen posts in Facebook groups looking for people to work for free on productions that have shot on RED cameras with full lighting teams, sound people, etc, and now they’re looking for post for free, as they’ve blown their entire budget on the shooting.  To be honest, I don’t care whether you’ve done that or not, that still doesn’t put money in my pocket.

So how do you, the newcomer, prepare yourself to make the contacts you need to start working and get paid for it..  

USER GROUPS

This is always a good and simple place to start.  User groups are a great place to meet other editors who are working, looking for work, etc, and this is where you’re going to start to get your name out there and meet people.  Trust me, I’ve had people say to me, “Do you know someone who’s available to do this, that or the other thing?  And in many cases I’ll think about people who I know, or have met recently who might be a good match for the position.  Don’t know where to find a user group?  Ask online.  You’ll be surprised how many people out there are more than happy to help you, if you simply ask.  Follow companies like Boris FX, Genarts, Imagineer Systems, Avid, Adobe, Storage DNA and other post production related companies to find out when they’re doing their roadshows.  In many cases, they are at User Groups.

FACEBOOK

Yes, believe it or not, Facebook is a great place to make job contacts.  The Blue Collar Post Collective (especially if you work in the States) is a great place to e-meet people, and if you live in New York or LA, they have in person meet-ups all the time.  Post Chat is another one.  There are a ton of “Looking for Jobs” Facebook pages, it just takes a few seconds to find them.  

STAY IN TOUCH WITH YOUR CLASSMATES

I am still in contact with classmates from college, and students from my teaching days that are still my main points of contacts for jobs out in the “real world”.  These contacts (friends, more so) are invaluable when it comes to finding work out there, because if a potential client calls them to have them come and do work, and they are busy, chances are pretty good that they’ll recommend you for the potential gig!

HAVE A REEL READY

And if you take one thing from this article, please take this.  Credit on a show doesn’t pay your rent.  It doesn’t pay your bills, and it doesn’t put gas in your car.

Remember, if you’re an editor or a motion graphics designer, and you’ve been to film school, you have projects that you’ve worked on.  Make sure you have them online and ready to fire off to potential employers.  Whether they are student projects, projects you’ve taken up on your own, or “real” jobs that you’ve added to your demo, they’re all real and legit and you need to make sure you have your reel ready to fire off at a moment’s notice.

And if you take one thing from this article, please take this.  Credit on a show doesn’t pay your rent.  It doesn’t pay your bills, and it doesn’t put gas in your car.  It might get you the next job, but you’ll be living in a cardboard box until that next job comes along.  What working for free does is take you away from making money, and looking for the real work that I tell you is out there!  Work as a waiter (hey, it works in Hollywood for actors), work in retail, do whatever you need to do to make money to survive, and then take whatever job comes along in your industry that pays you, and gives you the experience and contacts to get the next job.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a nights only job.  Remember, when you’re starting out, all the full time day jobs are taken.  You’ll be filling in the gaps.  So be ready to do that, and the work will eventually come.  I also strongly encourage you to head over to Facebook and join the Blue Collar Post Collective.  This is a fantastic and growing community that is more than willing to answer any questions you might have, and give any guidance you need!  Good Luck!

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Kevin P. McAuliffe

Kevin P McAuliffe is a three time North American ProMax award winning editor and a Media Composer editor for over 15 years. He is a featured trainer at MacProVideo and is also one of the Senior Editor’s at MIJO in Toronto, Canada, with current clients including Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and E1 Entertainment to name a few. He can also be found helping out on the Avid Community forums in the Media Composer & Symphony Get Started Fast forum.

  • Sean Mclennan

    As a photographer, I watched the same thing happen in that industry as the tools became more accessible. DSLRs removed the prohibitive cost of learning that film presented. Fact is today you can film in 4K on a stabilized $1000 camera or fly a $1200 (almost autopilot) drone…and edit on a < $1000 computer…with free software and learn the techniques for free on youtube. This floods the industry with a ton of new shooters. There is nothing you can say or do to stop it. It's only going to get worst.

    • Seymoure

      I have a very good friend who is a pro wedding photographer who told me because of free or near free training combined with embedded computer technology in cameras, an already talented person can overcome a large learning curve in a very short time and compete in a way as to drive prices down.

  • Seymoure

    Just a 1st hand story about working for free or very cheap, nearly for free. I agreed to shoot an interview for a small business for a friend, for $300. It was a marketing piece and it worked great. I used my DLSR, got very pretty footage and great sound, he was very happy. His business took off (I’m not taking for granted it was because of my video). Fast forward …. when he got money for a real budget, he did not call me, (the $300 guy) he hired a professional and paid several thousand dollars. He saw me as the $300 guy but not where he would go for true high end work. That video he spent tons of money on, netted him pretty much nothing. Were still friends, but I never got another penny from him for video work, because I’m the $300 guy.

    • Chris Santucci

      Exactly. When you start out with someone as the low budget guy, it’s very hard to dispel that perception.

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