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Respecting the Spec

Eric Oldrin looks at how spec work is always the last thing someone may want to do, but its sometimes the first thing someone has to do to kick off their career.

There are many reasons to take on spec work, but be sure to know what youll be gaining and why.

Nobody wants to do work on spec.

Spec work is free work and who wants to work for free?

Even the person asking for spec work would prefer to be paying for it.

If you pay for something, you have more control over it. You have more leverage over schedules, quality, and direction. Not to mention, you wont owe anyone any favors.

But, there are times when working for free can be a great opportunity. Understanding those opportunities, their value and their place, is an important part of anyones career, especially a career in animation.

The Value of Spec Work

Weve all done work on spec. A reel, a résumé, a trailer, a treatment theyre all speculation, work done in the hope of generating work. Essentially, spec work is marketing but with a specific project attached, a short film or commercial campaign and often, at the request of someone else, an agency or producer.

There are lots of reasons to work on spec and not all of them will be covered here. Whatever your reason, its important to have it clearly in mind, to know what youre gaining and why. Then, you can protect that alternative payment along the way.

As animation director Jacquie Trowell explains, shes had both good and bad experiences working for free. The best results have come from a clear sense of what I wanted and needed from the project.

Four of the more common reasons to work on spec are to build a reputation, form relationships, raise awareness for an idea, and to land a paid project.

Reputation

Spec work is of particular use to fresh talent and new groups, looking to build a reputation. It goes without saying; you need to show work to get work. You need a portfolio, a reel, a track record. Whether youre a new, cutting-edge studio or the star graduate, a track record not only proves your skills; it builds confidence in your ability to deliver.

The right spec job allows aspiring professionals to build that track record. Its one thing to do something for yourself, on your own time. Its quite another to be part of a larger project, with other people and other priorities. Choosing the right spec opportunity can be a fast track to the kind of reputation youll need to get paid work.

A reel is often not enough, especially if its filled with all your own projects and ideas. The good thing about spec work is once its done; no ones going to ask later how much you got paid. As far as anyone is concerned, it was a professional job with professional results.

Find the right project to put your efforts into. Take something you respect, like a great band or a favorite charity and use the opportunity to create what you really want to create.

So, take that reel of personal work and leverage it into the best opportunities, the most exciting projects you can find. If you know a great band, make them a music video. If you have a favorite charity, offer to produce them a PSA. Often, there may need to be more people involved than just yourself, but with the right producer and the right team, it can be done.

Working on spec if often the best work, the best opportunity to create what you really want to create, according to stop-motion animator Anthony Silverston.

The key here is to find the right project. Find something you respect. Meet the right people. Get them excited. And make it happen.

Just be sure to keep your reasons in mind. If reputation and experience is your goal, it is essential to define your rights to use work on your reel and to get credit for what youve done. It shouldnt be difficult to make that clear but its important to do so. Be specific. Tell your client exactly what you expect and write it down.

Relationships

Another reason to work on spec is to form relationships. Producers, directors and ad agencies are good people to know and they respond well to hungry talent. If you agree to work on a project for free, it demonstrates your passion and your commitment to what you do. If you do the work well, it demonstrates the value of that passion. One project with the right producer and youre part of their network.

The best relationships Ive made have come from work I did for free, says Silverston.

Hopefully, the work youre doing for them is part of some larger, budgeted project a treatment for a commercial or a pilot for a series. If the producer has integrity and if you demonstrate your talent, you may be part of the team to produce that commercial or that series. However, there are also risks.

The opportunity to form new relationships is another reason to work on spec. One project with the right producer, director or ad agency and youre part of their network.

One, the work youre doing may not lead to anything. The series may not be funded, the treatment may not be chosen. More of often than not, this is the case. So, dont get your hopes up. No matter how confidant that producer may be, dont expect anything to happen and form your own opinion about the projects potential. Be selective. Do you really think its a good idea?

Its definitely important to be careful before you commit your time, to understand the full scope of the project and the final outcome, adds director Jacquie Trowell.

However, even if it doesnt happen youve formed a valuable contact. Chances are that producer is working on other projects, trying to find other money. Shes got to pay her bills, too. So, even if your project doesnt happen, something else may happen a year from now.

That brings us to the second risk. The producer must have integrity. As an aspiring artist, its very easy to get used and abused. Make sure you trust the person youre helping. Discuss your expectations. You might even consider writing them down. But, you may find your client will hesitate committing too much. Until they see your work on the pilot, they wont be sure they want to use you on the series. So, at the end of the day, its a bit of a gamble and a lot of trust. Youll need to believe your abilities will make you indispensable.

Awareness

Weve already touched on the third reason to work on spec, raising awareness for an idea. This may be an idea from a producer or director, one whos relationship you value or not. Or you may be your own client, as an individual or as a team. The emphasis here is youre doing work to pitch an idea. The relationships and the experience may also be important but if the idea is your priority, make that clear.

If its your own idea, you probably own it. If its someone elses idea, you probably want to own it, want to work on it later, or simply want to be associated with it. All three are valid and worthwhile motivations.

If youre an aspiring artist, you shouldnt expect to get ownership in someone elses idea, especially an experienced producer, director or studio. But if youre an established, key player in the production, youll have a lot more leverage. If youre doing something on spec at this point in your career, you know about equity and youll want to negotiate a share, if not a production agreement.

Another option is a deferred payment. Estimate the amount of time the project will take and agree upon a rate. This payment will be made if the project is funded. Of course, write it down and you might want to be clear about any ideas related to this one. If the main character changes but the pilot is still used to get funding, you deserve to be paid.

Again, its important to trust the person youre helping and believe in the project. Dont rush into anything. Read the script. Meet the rest of the team. Understand the funding possibilities and the distribution plan. The more professional you are, the more respect youll get.

If its your own project, these are questions youll be answering for yourself. The issue becomes more about time than trust. In all spec work, you need to balance the amount of free work youre doing with paid work. If youre an aspiring artist, that work may be banner ads, print work or some part-time job in another industry. If youre a struggling studio, your spec is probably your dream project but its important to generate paid work in the process of building that pilot.

As Stefan Wessels, co-owner of emerging-media company Break Design declares, Although we have many of our own projects in development, we know how important it is too balance that work with paid work. Otherwise, we wont be around to finish what we really want to do!

Being asked to pitch a treatment on spec can be complimentary, but weigh how far you want to go with your ideas.

Treatments

Generating paid work is tricky, especially when youre pitching ad agencies. Its nice to be asked for a treatment, asked to pitch on a commercial or a campaign. But, it often takes a great deal of effort to prepare a compelling treatment and theres a fine balance between reflecting the vision of a brief and the vision you bring to the brief.

On the one hand, you dont want to go too far with your ideas. You want to leave room for the agency to get involved and you want to respect their creative direction. It can be frustrating to read an art director or copywriters mind, guessing what they want you to deliver. If you suggest too much, you may miss the mark.

However, its also important to bring your own voice to the treatment and have a definitive vision. Your treatment needs to stand out from the others. Do you flesh out the script? Do you produce a storyboard? Do you explore character design? These are questions that depend on the agency and your relationships. The best research you can probably do is over dinner or a drink with the art director.

Agency work is often the bread and butter for production companies. So, producing treatments on spec are necessary. But, its important to be selective, if possible. Understand the brief. Know your clients taste. Research the brand. Try not to spend too much time on something that seems unlikely to happen.

Whether your working on a treatment, a pilot, a line test, or a PSA, spec work should be filled with clear and well-defined opportunities. Even when there is no money, there is a currency. Reputation, relationships, awareness, and future employment are all of great value and should be considered before agreeing to any spec project. Most importantly, it should be fun and exciting. After all, if we were in it for the money, we wouldnt be doing it for free.

Eric Oldrin is a freelance producer from San Francisco, living in Cape Town. He is currently producing a clay-animated short, inspired by South Africas first decade of democracy and building a world-class Flash animation team.

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