Ask Yourself These Questions Before You Work for Free

Well the real question is, “Should you work for free (or very little money) at any time during your career?”

And the short answer is, “NO, OF COURSE NOT! ARE YOU INSANE?”

But I digress.

Would I storyboard for free?


Have I done storyboards for free in the past?


Have I done storyboards for a lowered rate?


And I never really enter art contests. Except in college when we had one for our graduation show logo (and I won 🙂 ).

This post follows the last two about how you value your talents and how I value mine. I had some really great comments too (go read ’em), so some of that information may be repeated here. At the end of the last post when I asked should you work for free, I wrote “It depends. On many things.”

What are those things?

  • How talented are you?
  • Have you had training?
  • How experienced are you?
  • Who is asking you to do the work?
  • What’s in it for you?

We can kind of combine the first three together.

Sorry to burst any bubbles, but talent does matter. If you kick ass, your value is higher in this business. Period.

When I say talent, I mean everything. Drawing skills, organizational skills, professionalism… everything. That’s worth something and it shouldn’t be sold short. So the higher your talent, the less you should be ‘giving it up for free’.

Next, if you’ve had proper training for this profession your value goes up.

It’s something solid to back you up and have on your resume. It shows you’re serious about this and you know what is to be expected of you for the job. Not to take away from the self-taught folks, but if you’ve had training, your value is up a notch. If nothing else, it’s a little extra ‘ammunition’. 😉

And of course, your experience really comes into play.

The more experience you have, the less you should be doing any free work. I don’t care how desperate you are. If you have a decent amount of experience, I would say get a side job to pay the bills and wait it out (and work on your own stuff).

Don’t under-value yourself or the profession by working for nothing. It hurts everybody. And what if a paying gig comes along and you’re still working for Mr. No-Name Director over there? Don’t do it. My opinion.

Again, it all comes down to value. Your talent has value. You can do something that someone else can’t and you should be paid for it.

So you’re worth something. Congratulations.

But when you’re first starting out and are desperate for experience… any experience… it’s tough. And I get that. There’s really no black and white with this and the final decision has to be yours.

The last two points are the tricky ones.

Who is asking you to do the work?

This one is huge.

When you see a job offering little (and I’m talking crazy-little) to no money, you first need to see where it’s coming from. Where did you see or hear about it? Real studios usually don’t offer peanuts and don’t put the price/salary in their ads. They post jobs on their own, official website or respected industry sites (or not at all and it’s just word of mouth).

They don’t post them on craigslist.

So if you see ads there (or places like that) proceed with caution!

There’s all sorts of these people with ‘big ideas’ that go onto the animation message boards and ask for artists to work for them. They have no money, no backing, no experience with the industry and basically no clue. They don’t know how it all works and they don’t realize the professionals see this stuff and think they are a joke.

But the newbies may not know this and respond to the ads/requests.

And get burned.

If they are saying this is going to be the ‘next big thing’, ‘a great experience for someone trying to break in’, ‘no experience needed…students welcome’, ‘you’ll get paid when we sell it’ and all that stuff, hear this; they’re full of it. They just want something for free.

Even if they sound quite sincere, it means they are just ignorant of how things work and how expensive animation actually is. Think about it. If they are asking for students and inexperienced people to work on their ‘exciting and original’ project, how much value are they really placing on it themselves?

They’re basically saying they don’t care if it looks like crap. Why do you want to work with someone that doesn’t care enough about their ‘next big thing’ if they don’t want it to look professional?

If you want my advice, steer clear of anyone who sounds like this. At the very least, it will turn into a huge time sink that will last longer than intended. At the very worst, it will be a horrible experience where you will feel used and abused.

Is that ‘great piece for your portfolio’ worth all that? If you want to build your portfolio, work on it for yourself.

If you’re not going to get paid anyway, work for you!

One of my readers, Debi, also pointed out that it’s better to go into a free job knowing that it’s a free job. Meaning, there are plenty of times where these guys say there will be payment and it never happens. You do the work thinking you’ll get money and then you get screwed over.

That’s the worst. And they are never seen again. Try to protect yourself and listen to your little voice that says, “I’m not sure about this.” Get things in writing and ask for some money up front from these kinds of guys. Or just say, “No thanks.” (that would be my choice).

So is it ever OK to work for free?

This is where the ‘what’s in it for you?’ comes in.

When you work for a studio, the value you get is experience and a paycheck. No-brainer there. If you can find some real value for you in doing a job for free, then it may be worth it. It’s not all about the other guy, remember that.

So as the final test to decide to work for free, ask yourself, “What can I get out if this?”

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that I have worked for a lowered rate. It wasn’t crazy-low money, but it was about 60% of the going storyboard rate. It was for a studio in town that I wanted to work for, I was still in my first or second year of working and it was legitimate. It was for their own show and the budget was very low. So I did it and built a great relationship with them as a result.

Worth it? You bet.

I also think it’s cool for students to help students. If you have a buddy in the film department and he asked you to do some sketches for his film in exchange for a credit…why not, if you have the time? You’re both in the same boat and this is relationship building for the real world. There’s some value for you there. Don’t animate a whole film for someone, but some short storyboard work or some sketches can’t do any harm.

Friends will ask you for favors. Can they offer something in return? Maybe some computer advice or help writing your resume or baking you some cookies (mmm…cookies). What are their talents? Nothing wrong with trying to get something back for your efforts.

Or maybe an instructor or past student will ask for help on a personal project (like a film for a festival). If you know and trust them and think this could lead to real work or a great recommendation, do it. It might be a blast too.

Basically, if the source of this work comes from a place you can trust and you think it’s worth doing then go for it. Maybe you just get a really good vibe from someone who contacted you for a freebie job. You may want that experience and feel you can trust them. This is where it’s a personal choice and you have to decide if it’s worth your time. I’m just giving you some stuff to think about.

But never be afraid to say “no”. Don’t spend all your time doing favors for people!

And if you do decide to help someone, watch out for the huge time sinks. If you think it may just take a couple of days or a week, fine. Don’t devote months to working for nothing. Spend that time looking for real work.

The last point I’ll make is about contests.

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of contests. Yes, I’m promoting one on the site (just for a link exchange…no money) but I checked it out first. It didn’t seem too ‘scammy’ to me. But there are many out there that are.

(UPDATE: This contest turned a little ‘scammy’ after all. Check out why I don’t participate in contests.)

Before entering a contest, consider all of the same questions. Here, I’ll play with the Aniboom contest:

Do I have enough talent, training and experience to enter this contest?

Sure I do.

Who is asking me to enter the contest? Does it look fair and reasonable?

Yes, I checked out the website and read the rules and regulations (always read the rules and regulations!). I feel it is a legitimate contest and they are at least respecting the animator’s time by asking for storyboards first. The compensation is fairly reasonable. BUT is it reasonable for someone with my experience? Sorry, no. I’d rather spend my time on work I’m getting paid for.

Which brings us to, “What’s in it for me?”

Well, $10,000 may be a great reward for someone doing this as a hobby or just starting out. But as a professional, I know that cash doesn’t come close to what it would really cost to make a 3 minute animated video.

And am I a huge Radiohead fan? No. I like them, I just wouldn’t consider myself a ‘fan’. But if I was crazy for them, I may have thought twice about it.

So there ya go. Nothing much in it for me, so I would not enter this contest. And let’s be realistic here. Who’s really winning in the Radiohead contest?

Radiohead. 😉

But your answers may be different and that’s cool. Again, there are many scammy contests out there so be careful. Many of them are just exploiting artists. Do some homework and ask yourself some questions before diving in.

There you have it. One long winded post. There probably won’t be another till next week…this one counts as two! Now get out there and find a job…that pays you.

You’re worth it.

Subscribe to the Storyboard Blog by RSS or by email to see what I cough up during hell week.

OFF TOPIC UPDATE: Ollie Johnston died today (April 14, 2008). The last of Disney’s Nine Old Men…a sad day indeed. Thanks Ollie, for loving the craft so much. Read more at Cartoon Brew.

21 thoughts on “Ask Yourself These Questions Before You Work for Free

  1. Todd Jacobsen

    I wish this (and your other posts on the topic, for that matter) were required reading for students. There’s nothing more disheartening than hearing of some kid, fresh out of school, who takes one of these “craigslist” jobs and ends up with nothing but a bad taste in his mouth for this industry.

    To illustrate the “personal choice” example you mentioned: I’m currently helping an old friend and colleague animate an opening prologue for an independent live-action film. He took this job in an effort to establish himself as an independent entity; when he told me what the budget was and asked if I would help him, I told him I’d take less than half of what my usual rate would be, and gave him the amount of hours I’d be able to commit to the project. (My time is very precious to me.)

    Both of us are established veterans of the industry, both of us appreciate what one is doing for the other, and we both know that our transaction benefits AND strengthens our relationship. But if this were an honest-to-God, big budget kind of deal we’d both ask for more money and not feel worse for it. We’ve both been there, done that.

    Like you’ve said, it really does boil down to how well you know the other guy, how much money he has, and how much respect he has for you and your talent. If he doesn’t have much cash and a lot of respect, then you can take that respect to the bank and be a lot richer in the end. If he’s got a lot of cash and no respect, ask for a mint. (You’ll probably get it.)

  2. KJL Post author

    Perfect example Todd…perfect!

    That’s exactly what I’m talking about and respect is a huge part of it. I’ve got nothing more to add to that…you said it all.

    Thanks so much for contributing here. 🙂

  3. Jonathan Wang

    Great post and very informative for recent graduates like me. It is very hard to get into the storyboarding industry and there are times artists might get desperate in need of work and experience. I am ashamed to admit this but I have done free work before. It was an illustration for an independent film in the pre-production phase. Was it worth it? I would say yes, but don’t prefer it. What did I get out of it? Hopefully, and yes..hopefully, to be hired as a paid storyboard artist once the film gets financed and into production phase. But if all that doesn’t work out, I got a great illustration piece that’s portfolio worthy. So that’s the only positive thing I can say about this experience. In your opion, is what I did wrong? Am I degrading myself as an artist?
    Also. What’s your comment on jobs that’s still in the pre-production phase where finance is not secured but will be paid once budget is established. Is this “less scammy” and maybe some artist could considered? And yes, I am talking about myself based on the experience described above 😛

  4. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Jonathan and welcome!

    Don’t ever feel ashamed or that you did something wrong by taking on a free job. Please!

    I wrote this as a warning and something to think about for the future…not to make you feel bad about the choices you made in the past, OK?

    Next week there will be a post from Adrien (live action guy) where he talks about all the free jobs he’s done. So everyone has done it at some time or other.

    I don’t think what you did was scammy at all. It was one illustration and you feel it was great for your portfolio. You got some experience out of it and made some relationships. I hope they were quality relationships, that’s all.

    There’s a lot of free work going on in live action films too. Very common. Heck, I’ve acted for free in many student films and don’t feel one speck ‘bad’ about it.

    I just won’t storyboard for free because I’m very experienced now and it’s a very time consuming job for animation.

    For your situation where finances are not ‘secured’ and all that, just brace yourself that it just may never happen. Very common in these situations. That’s how you have to go into these jobs. Tell yourself you probably won’t get paid…then if it does happen, count yourself lucky and enjoy your reward.

    You seem to have found some worth in doing this job, so please don’t feel you degraded yourself. Just learn from it and make an educated decision the next time. You may still choose to do the free work and that’s OK.

    Go with your gut and good luck. 🙂

  5. Quinn Simoes

    Hi Karen,

    I just read though this post about working for free and I couldn’t agree with you more. I have done the occasional job for free or for very little money, but mainly because the subject matter interested me allot. Its funny, I recently started looking at craigslist and quite often I am surprised by the high level of secrecy companies hide behind when looking for employees, it very suspicious and a little sleazy. Your doing a great thing here with this blog, and it is helping allot of people, including myself.


  6. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey Quinn! Thanks for joining the conversation…I appreciate it.

    Glad you brought up craigslist again. Because even tho I said real studios don’t post up there, I could be wrong. I think more companies may be posting there because they know people are looking there.

    BUT it works the other way around too. Who is looking and responding to those ads? Maybe more inexperienced people. Is that the best place to look? And if a legit company/studio does post there, I think their ad should direct people to their official web site where a real job posting should be. Then they would appear less ‘sleazy’ IMO.

    Thanks for reading guy. 🙂

  7. Dan Szilagyi

    Hey karen

    thanks for getting back to my comment before, and yeah i argee its a hard business to get freelance stuff done and make sure you get paid ( on time or at all!) but yeah it just happened to me really…
    I had been working with a cilent ( since jan. or so?) on a small flash animation intro, well long story short i sent the guy a rough cut of the animation and he didn’t get back to me, i recently met him last week and he then tells me that he doesn’t like over 90% of what i did, and he’d like me to do a whole different thing ( i was pretty shocked he wanted that much done) so i tried to get what ever info i could from him about what he’d like, needless to say he hasn’t called or emailed me back since and that goes right into your point about people not knowing what they want and not having any knowledge towards what we’re doing for them.
    I hate to admit it but i do find most of the little jobs from craigslist, (its a bit harder for us locally i’d say since everyone is super slow at the moment) this isn’t to say i haven’t tried calling and emailing bigger studios for work.

    But yes thank you for pointing it out, i’m always on alert when taking an offer from CL just because of the nature of the site itself.

  8. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey Dan,

    Like I said to Jonathan, don’t feel bad about the stuff you’ve already done (or for looking on craigslist). Just try to learn from those experiences and apply that to the next job.

    Your story is probably a very common one. And yes, it is tough when the industry is slow and you just want to work. Sometimes anything will do…but be careful (as you’ve learned).

    And as I was saying to Quinn, there may very well be legitimate ads on Craigslist. They just might be far and few between. And those posters should realize the company they’re keeping too. Having ads on there could have a ‘stigma’ with all the baddies out there.

    Hopefully things will pick up yet again (it always does and it’s the folks who stick with it that succeed).
    Good luck and keep at it. 🙂

  9. Debi

    Yahh, I found time to read this finally! Great advice as always! Good replies too. But where are the cookies you mentioned!? 🙂

    On the Craigslist front…I just finished up working on a job from there. It worked out great. The client paid, was great to work with, and we’ll hopefully work together on another project soon. I will say that was a rarity from there. Most people who list, seem to never follow through. I’ve gotten tons of “we love your work and want to work with you” replies that are followed by a disappearing act. I suspect aliens.

    Another note on the working for free and for the self-taught people. Free jobs can take the place of a classroom. Its a great way to build confidence and experience. Books can only teach you so much, and working on your own film can only teach you so much. To actully have a job with a client to practice on is priceless (hence, free!) . Just, as Karen said, be careful on who you choose to do a free job with. You want someone who will challenge you and will hopefully follow through on their film. And remember to keep an eye out for when it’s time for you to “graduate” and try to move on to paid gigs.

  10. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey Deb.
    Those cookies are providing padding to my butt…I think that’s where they are. But it’s OK…you need it when you sit this much. 😉

    That’s great to hear about your experience with Craigslist! I’m sure those ‘good jobs’ do exist…just gotta do a little digging to find them. I don’t want to make a blanket statement that everything on CL is bad. I’m probably taking the animator’s view on that one. As in the big studios usually don’t post there.

    And your views on the self-taught thing is valuable too. Getting feedback and working with a client is training too…for sure. Weather you’ve been trained or not, it’s still an education…an ongoing one.

  11. Sue Keely

    Hi Karen,
    Just poking around your TERRIFIC blog and found this posting. It’s great advice for any industry I would say. I’m not in this field, but when you’re doing creative work there are people who just don’t understand how much time and effort goes into it. They love it but they don’t get it.

    I tend to ask myslef if I will still value myself and my work if I agree to do “pro-bono” work. If the answer is yes, and it’s something I’m passionate about…or at least care about… I set my boundaries and enjoy the ride…letting them know this is a one-time deal.

    I LOVE your blog and am envious *in a friendly sort of way* of your talent!


  12. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Sue and welcome!
    At first I was, “I know that name…I know that name…” then, “OH! Sue!” Not expecting to see you here, but thanks a bunch for dropping by.

    I’m glad you still found it helpful. You’re right, it can apply to any creative field. It’s usually the creative types that get screwed over with stuff like this. Never doctors or accountants…hmm…

    Thanks for the compliment and ‘hear you’ soon. 🙂

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  14. Franko

    Hi Karen

    Your post is up as a recent post in our Australian blog since one of my colleague’s has just discovered your excellent blog. Takes a while for the internet information packet beetles to travel the wires from your side of the world to where it’s always summer.

    I just graduated as an animator and participated in a non-moneyed animation job over here. The aim was to do a short sequence and apply the craft and skills (professionalism) to get a good written reference to add to my resume for the other job I was aiming for and am I’m now starting.

    I needed some ‘experience’ and references more than I needed the cash at the moment. The goal being to build some positive references and start developing links and relationships within the local animation industry.

    I stuck to my guns when I got through my workload on time (on budget :D) and with good reviews from the producer. Who then offered me more work in a more senior role on the same project at the same rate. That would then have taken too much of my time. I was flattered but that’s when I said “no thanks”. The producer was cool with that and standing by the agreement I got a nice reference for my CV, and then got the real job that was the real goal.

    So that was my only experience of working for free as a new graduate animator.

    Now that I have fully read your post, I feel even more clear on how to make working for free work and the reasons not to work for free. Working for free doesn’t always mean working for no reward. Define your reward. Working for free isn’t a career path but it might be a stepping stone.

  15. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Franko!

    Your story is another great example of when working for free paid off.

    You were clear about what you wanted to get out of it: experience, a reference, hone your professionalism skills. And money wasn’t as important at the time.

    BUT you knew when to say “no” and draw the line. I’ve seen people in your shoes who stay on and keep working for free WAY longer than they should, just to please someone else. They are really just being taking advantage of.

    You didn’t let that happen and I applaud you! You got what you wanted, they got some good work (on time and on budget) and everyone is happy. And you never know when that will pay off even more down the road.

    You totally got the point of this article. Yay!

    Define your reward, indeed. 🙂

  16. Joma

    Thanks for all the helpful tips Karen! Especially regarding the topic about how you value your self. It’s really a big issue for me when it comes to getting work. Im a freelance animator here in the Philippines and I just recently shifted to pre-production work such as character development and storyboards for tv series. The real problem is that the people that hire my services really low ball me to the point that I might as well work for free.

    I like the way you said that they’re basically paying for your experience and that’s the toughest part in dealing with some studios and some people. All they say is that the characters are ‘simple’ to draw so it’s not that big of a deal, therefore, the rates aren’t that high. They totally miss the point.

    I actually have a question, how much is a standard 12-minute storyboard for television these days? I just ask this because I just worked on a 12-minute episode of an Australian animated tv show and i just got paid $445 US. I did it in a month and ended up with 190 pages and 337 scenes. Now tell me this is ridiculous, right? Like I said, I might as well be working for free. The reason I accepted this is because I just wanted to make a good enough impression to get another gig from them, hopefully, where they’ll pay me the ‘industry rate’. But I got so disenchanted with the whole thing and I’d just like to know what you can say about this. So that’s also why I want to know the going rate for these types of boards, so I have a ‘jump off point’ when I’m negotiating for other storyboard work.

    I’m glad I found this blog of yours, and I gotta tell ya, sometimes it’s as though you were speaking directly to me. I can relate with most of what you said, especially on this topic. You’re right, we should never sell ourselves short.

    More power and I look forward to more insightful topics!

  17. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    My goodness Joma.

    If you put a zero at the end of that $445, it would still be quite low for a 12 minute cartoon in North America. It should be between $5000 and $7000, believe it or not.

    That is a crime and makes me very sad. Sad that people/studios try to pay this pittance for that much work and sad that people feel trapped that they have to take it.

    And when people take the work for that kind of money it hurts everybody (please don’t think I’m blaming you for taking it…not at all). It brings the value of the work down and then bad studios think this is all it’s worth. And it’s not.

    I don’t care that your cost of living is probably lower than mine (it has to be…I live in the ‘officially’ most unaffordable city in the world! Ha!) . It’s the same work. Yes, studios send plenty of work to cheaper countries and I understand that. But what you got paid is ridiculous for a months worth of work (if not more) and should *at least* reflect your regular cost of living. And I doubt that $445 a month is what it costs you to live.

    You are better off working on your own stuff for free. *sigh*

    I have no solution obviously. But when things were tight around here last year, I got offered a crap job for crap money and refused it on principle. Yes, I could have used the cash, but it wouldn’t have been worth it for me. It was just too much work for way too little cash. And I can’t bring myself to ‘crap it out’ and make horrible boards to make up for it.

    But it was ‘worth it’ for other people. They took it. And now that studio thinks they can always get boards that cheaply. Not good. What would happen if everyone refused to do it? I guess they’d have to find more money, huh?

    I feel very strongly about this stuff.

    I hope you find better work with better pay without selling yourself short. And I know it’s hard. But your talent and abilities are worth something. Period.

    Glad to have you here. 🙂


  18. Joma

    Thanks for the reply Karen!

    Tell me about it. That’s the problem with getting work from ‘middle-men’. You see, the show is originally from australia, then outsourced to Malaysia, then outsourced to my local contact, THEN outsourced it to me. Too many changing of hands I should say. That’s why I told him that I won’t work on any more storyboards unless they increase it to the ‘industry standard’ or at least close to it. It’s just isn’t worth it.

    The only positive I got out of that deal was a great chance to have fun doing the boards. If you have the time, you can check some of it out in my blog site too, although I ‘blurred’ out the details (ie. dialogue, title of the show) and I just posted random pages. Just go to if you can.

    Thanks for reminding all of us that we really shouldn’t sell ourselves short. Believe it or not, my favorite quote came from the Joker character from The Dark Knight. He said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free!” And it’s so true, especially in our profession where we can get easily exploited by other people.

    And you’re right, some studios will think that they can get these boards done this cheap and it might be a precedent. So we have to refuse this type of treatment. I consider this a lesson learned that won’t happen again.

    Again, thanks for the insight and I read your blog everyday to inspire me and educate me at the same time!

    Have a great day!


  19. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Ah! The middle-man with a middle -man between you and the studio doing the work! NOW that makes sense.

    I really couldn’t believe an Australian studio (even a bad one) would pay such low wages. A lot of Canadians go there to work. But with all those middle-man (probably taking a huge chunk while they do NOTHING) is why that happens. Blah.

    When you get the work straight from the studio doing it, you get paid what it’s worth (usually).

    I took a peek at your stuff and you’re *very* talented and deserve much better money. You really shouldn’t sell yourself short!

    Do keep in touch and let me know how things go.

    Cheers. 🙂

  20. Joma

    Thanks for the compliment Karen!

    Coming from you, it means a lot! And I’m happy to say I’ve already cut ties with that person that gave me that ridiculous rate. Last I heard, he’s having a hard time getting artists to work on the remaining scripts that he still has. If he only treated me better, I could’ve helped him find more board artists, because I really know a few. Again, good luck to him!

    It’s so hard to get ‘direct’ access to big studios without the middle man here in my country and that’s the bum thing about it. We really are at their mercy, and I really appreciate that you gave me a ballpark figure of the rates, so now I have an idea when bargaining time comes.

    I used a combination of Sketchbook Pro and Photoshop on my boards and I’m having fun with it. Unfortunately, a Cintiq here in the Philippines costs an arm and a leg, so I had to use the trusty Wacom Bamboo. The Cintiq really is quite a tool, I just wish it becomes cheaper as the years go by, to be more accessible for artists. That’s really the way to go. Im actually trying to save up for a tablet pc, which is probably the next best thing to a Cintiq.

    Btw, I read in your profile that you worked in Studio B. Do you happen to know a guy by the name of Eddie Soriano? He was once an officemate of mine here in the Philippines back in the 90’s and we actually were supposed to work on a project last year, but something came up, so it didn’t push through. He did storyboards for Class of the Titans and I animated a lot of scenes for that show when they outsourced it here in the Philippines. Anyway, if you do know him, it’s quite amazing to know that the world is indeed getting smaller!

    Thanks again, and I look forward to more informative stuff here in your blog site!



  21. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Yup, I know Eddie! Great guy. 🙂

    I didn’t do boards on Titans, but I was the final compositing checker for the second season.

    Very small world indeed!

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