Surviving down time when you're self employed (with a filmic twist)

 The harsh reality of freelancing is that we won't always know what tomorrow will bring..

The harsh reality of freelancing is that we won't always know what tomorrow will bring..

According to my website builder, I started writing this article in September 2017. "Winter is coming" I was probably thinking. "Better get that great idea you've had for ages about surviving down time, ready for the new year when some freelancers might be struggling and need advice..". Of course, now it's May 2018 and it seems I completely and utterly failed at that one. Oops!

Apart from deeply upsetting the 'diehard fans' of my blog (one day I'm sure it'll reach double figures!) who have had to wait an unbearably long time for a new post, it's only good news for me as business has been going so well that I simply haven't had the time to get this finished until now. I had assumed winter would be dead like it has been in the past and that I'd have time to do it, but I was wrong. No matter how much I try to predict where the peaks and troughs will be in this line of work I'm always caught out eventually. This is very important to all self employed workers because it proves the one thing that we can all be certain about: there will always be uncertainty! Although some industries and disciplines can be more seasonal than others, the harsh reality for the self employed is 'when it rains, it pours', but sooner or later we will all face a drought.

This may sound like a very negative start (I assure you, I'm not trying to put you off freelancing) but, is it really all that bad? How might someone considering going freelance deal with the prospect of facing indefinite periods without work? Is there a trick to surviving down time or are all the professionals constantly living in fear?

I decided to ask a few of my collaborators from over the years about how they survive their down time, and we're talking more than just binge watching Netflix for "research"! I was keen to find out how attitudes and coping strategies differed between different specialisms and ultimately how the lifestyle affected them in terms of happiness and wellbeing.

So, if you're thinking of going self employed or are already in the industry then these honest accounts of what it's really like to experience a lack of job security may provide you some useful insight and advice, as well as help you make informed decisions moving forward in your own career.

 

 
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Phil Hutchins - Sound Trainee & PSC Sound Recordist

From his first paid freelance job in 2015, Phil has worked across TV and film including on Sky Atlantic drama The Tunnel, Emmerdale as well as numerous independent feature films. Having recently joined the Sara Putt Associates Trainee Scheme, Phil shared his thoughts on his career so far and how he manages his down time:

 
 

How would you sum up your career and the inevitable quiet periods so far?

"Its been very up and down but [the work is] gradually increasing. More and more high end productions just slowly over time building and building. The beginning of my career [was] very much like the stock market. It really does depend on what I’ve got going on in my life as much as anything. Over the summer- my girlfriend’s a teacher- so being able to take time off, get out the house and actually spend some time with someone that isn’t at work made a huge difference. I didn’t actually search for too much work because I've been away so much. In the last 2 months I’ve been away for 6 and a half weeks."

As important as actually getting the work and doing the work, is staying on top of everything else surrounding it.

"Today I’ve had, well I wouldn’t say a day off – it’s never a day off - but a ‘home day’ and I’ve just been doing admin all day. Even if it’s just the expense forms and getting my accounts in order, doing something proactive. And I think that’s as important as actually getting the work and doing the work, is staying on top of everything else surrounding it. You have to go through all the pain of actually doing all the boring expenses and tax – all the stuff that no one wants to do unless you’re an accountant [laughs].

In terms of actual down time, I’m at the stage where I’m getting recordist [jobs] but I know I want to work on big features – Game of Thrones - all that kind of stuff, but I’m not going to be there as a mixer. I haven’t got enough experience, so I’m looking for trainee positions and 2nd assistant positions.

The thing I don’t like about it is you’re on your own quite a lot; there’s no sense of community unless you’re working.

It’s just trying to maintain positivity about down time in a proactive way without getting cabin fever and wanting to curl up in a ball and cry [laughs]. Just getting out the house for a little bit, even if it’s for an hour a day does help."

 

Despite the quiet periods and the insecurity do you still enjoy freelancing?

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I’m gonna be a pain and say yes and no. I mean, I absolutely love it. I much prefer working for myself than working for someone else. If I wasn’t in the industry I’d probably work for someone. The thing I don’t like about it is you’re on your own quite a lot; there’s no sense of community unless you’re working. I’m stuck in an office on my own all day and if you’re not working you do get quite lonely. But when you are working the money should be really good, you control the terms that you’re working on. It’s that level of freedom that I absolutely love. There are a few things I dislike, but as a whole I love freelancing more than not.

If I didn’t enjoy the freelancing aspect and wanted stable money and stable hours I could potentially go and work in a post production house to try and stay in the industry. If I didn’t like that I’d go and do something else.

 

Considering that the quiet periods can be stressful, what advice would you give to a new entrant to the industry who is facing the prospect of down time?

Stay organised, try to stay positive and think beyond the immediate dead period..I’d also say financially try to have a buffer as much as you can

Stay organised, try to stay positive and think beyond the immediate dead period, so to speak. I’d also say financially try to have a buffer as much as you can. Say your tax is 20% taken away – I set aside 40%.10% of it goes to my pension and the other 10% goes to kit. I know if anything were to happen that money I use for kit throughout the year could be used for a bill or rent. Always try to have at least a months rent in there. I know it’s not always possible, especially when kit is so expensive.. but that’s what I would in an ideal world do.

Eliminating that element of worry is such a crucial thing when you’re doing this. The moment you start to worry - and this is coming from experience - it starts to eat at you, especially when you’re at home on the down time because you can’t see any progress. It isn’t just the film industry that has this though.

 
 

 
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Veronica Keszthelyi - 2nd Assistant Camera

Freelancing since 2012, Veronica has worked in the camera department on a number of big budget television and film productions including the BBC's Sherlock, Sky Atlantic drama The Last Panthers and feature film The Death of Stalin, to name a few. Veronica shared her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities the seasonal nature of her work has brought her:

 

What are your quiet periods like and how do you manage them?

[I] did temp office jobs to see me through the winter. It’s challenging every year; you question your worth as a camera technician and your value.

The quiet periods are always over the winter. Between November and April every year it just dies. The first few years I was able to live off of savings that I’d accumulated during the work of the summer months. Once I stepped up to 2nding a few years ago - because I’m a new loader I haven’t had as many jobs - so it was more difficult. What I’ve done is sign up to a temp agency and did temp office jobs to see me through the winter. It’s challenging every year; you question your worth as a camera technician and your value. You always end up questioning your career, especially if that quiet period extends into when you think jobs should be picking up again. So It’s really difficult not to get depressed, especially with the fewer sunshine hours as well, and the cold weather. To combat that I usually end up doing a lot of exercise or just eating a lot [laughs]. I use those periods a lot when I can muster up the energy to catch up on my accounts, organise the house..whenever I’m on a job the house just gets busted.

This past winter, because I knew I wouldn’t be working, I did the GBCT (Guild of British Camera Technicians) workshops. I went to two of them; they were very valuable, a really good way to spend my ‘off’ time.

 
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It sounds very challenging but at the same time you're being quite proactive..

I find it very difficult to not do anything. I never sit still!

So actually it’s quite popular for camera technicians to do really well throughout the year, to take the winter months that they’re not working and go skiing. It’s like the running joke because it’s so much a thing that camera technicians just travel throughout December and January because there’s nowt else to do!

 

Despite the challenges would you say this freelance lifestyle is enjoyable?

Hell yeah! It’s quite interesting actually because with doing so many days on things like Hollyoaks and Emmerdale I can see how it’s quite easy to - if they offered a full time position - to just take it. You’re still on set, still doing the thing you enjoy doing but you’re doing it full time. But I just get so bored if I do the same thing for too long, I get antsy. So I really like freelance because I’m always doing something different, I’m always meeting new people, I’m always going to different places. It really sucks when I’m broke but it’s really nice when I’ve got a lot of money coming in!

I love that you can dictate your own schedule and dictate your own terms. You’re your own boss.

I was made for freelance basically. I love that you can dictate your own schedule and dicate your own terms. You’re your own boss. Ultimately I think that’s what I was meant to be. I can’t imagine going back to a salary position or full time position anywhere unless it was teaching further along in my career.

 

What advice would you give to someone who is considering going freelance?

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First of all, the most important thing is to not let it get you down so much that you give up. That’s the hardest thing when you’re not bringing in any money - is to give in, find your nearest job just to make money and lose sight of what you actually want to do. Number 2, just seek out any and all opportunities. If it’s the winter and there’s not much going on then get a temp job. It will bring in money but it won’t be forever and trying to not to let it kill you because, oh man do I hate it, but its kept me alive and afloat.

I think the most important thing is to just do whatever you can to support yourself. With my situation I didn’t have any family here, I didn’t have any resources to fall back on. If you have family stay with them rent free, save up some money. It will just help, even if they drive you crazy. Honestly, it’s the best thing!

If you want to assist then go through all the usual routes of hitting up creative skillset, trawling all over Facebook, Talent Manager..just look for any and all opportunities for freelance camera trainee work online, because online is the best entry resource. Meet as many technicians as you can and just keep a roof over your head somehow.

I always tell anyone who’s new to the industry - perseverance will be your best friend. If you’ve got that then everything else will fall in to place.

Freelancing isn’t for everybody. There’s so many people that I’ve met on really big jobs that left because they wanted the security. I know a camera trainee who was working on enormous films who left to start working with animals; he just left the industry entirely. He couldn’t take the egos, the politics..expecting to be a trainee for like 5 years; he was fed up with all of it and just left.

This job isn’t for anyone who is either lighthearted or who isn’t passionate about it, because that’s the only thing that will keep you going. I always tell anyone who’s new to the industry – perseverance will be your best friend. If you’ve got that then everything else will fall in to place. Just don’t give up, because it’s the hardest thing in the world.


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Daniel Kutcher - Videographer

Having moved to the UK from Spain in 2014 to test the water and finally settling permanently in 2015, Daniel's freelance video production career has spanned a wide range of organisations. From interviewing celebrities at the Cannes Lions festival of Creativity to working with charities promoting recycled paint, Dan's approach to his down time has been ultimately positive, despite the added challenge of relocating between countries:

 
 

How do you survive your down time?

The way I live now is a result of the way I used to live when I was in Spain 3 years before coming here. I was in a full time position and in Spain you have 2 hours siesta between 2 and 4 during the day, so normally your timetable is between 9 and 2 and then 4 until 7 in the evening, five days a week. It took me about an hour to get into work every day. I woke up at 7am, got home at 9pm and was there for about 2 and a half years. I really liked the actual job, but I had an issue with being out of the house basically just concentrating on work for 14 hours of the day. By the time the weekend came you needed to rest for one day completely and then one day you’d do something and move on. So that was a big point for me where I was realising that I’m really just not living.

 
 
I honestly don’t feel as much pressure when there isn’t work coming in for a few weeks because I use the time to learn a new piece of software or buy a new piece of equipment and learn how to use it

When I started to build up the routine of freelancing I realised that I was going to put my routine first rather than work. Not to put work as secondary, but if I had down time at some point I wouldn’t be stressed out. It wouldn’t be that different to when I’m working. I like to swim for example in the mornings, that’s a regular – unless I’ve got a shoot. I’ll attempt to go 2 or 3 times a week but I’ll try to go any time I’ve got the ability to, even if I’m editing. Then I’ll also go to the cinema in the evenings and meet up with friends. When all of a sudden I’ve got two weeks with nothing to do I’m still keeping up with all of the routines that I had when I was working. It’s not as much of an extreme; I put myself first in a way.

I honestly don’t feel as much pressure when there isn’t work coming in for a few weeks because I use the time to learn a new piece of software or buy a new piece of equipment and learn how to use it and then offer that on the website. I learned colouring six months ago and I still haven’t used it in a commercial way so now I’m shooting my own stuff that will need colouring and that’s the next thing that will take up the next free time that I have.

I haven’t had that long a period where I’ve actually had to start worrying, yet. Probably, if absolutely nothing came in after about 2 months I’d have to look into getting new clients.

 
 
 
 

Does the fear of prospective down time ever mean that you bite off more than you can chew?

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If I can do it realistically I accept the work. I don’t mind working non stop though – between September and December 2016 I was working 7 days a week, and more stuff came in..that was a different case because I was producing. I hadn’t done that before so I was quite up for that. It kind of snowballed into this long period. I remember a couple more things coming in and I was like, 'I’m working 8 hours during the day, I don’t need to edit for another 4 hours after that'.

Honestly, when I told clients I couldn’t do [work for them] because I had too much work going on it’s not a bad thing. They understand that you don’t have the time, which is also a good sign for them. If you take on too much and you end up resenting the work because you can’t do your own thing..I did that before and it’s not the job’s fault, it’s your fault for doing it that way.

 
 
 

It sounds like it has been a positive lifestyle choice..

Yeah, definitely. You have that flexibility that you won’t have anywhere else. I remember just how stressful it was [in employment]..you need to do a piece of paperwork and you wait till lunch time to make a call and there’s 50 other people on the line and you’re going to be waiting for an hour. You have to rush back before the supermarket shuts..you’ve got half an hour to quickly buy lunch..it just adds up.

If you take on too much and you end up resenting the work..it’s not the job’s fault, it’s your fault for doing it that way.

They’re two lifestyles that are totally extreme opposites. One of them you’ve got all of that..though you do have the stability. You know where you’re going each day and you’re getting a pay cheque and you know what that pay cheque’s going to be so you can plan out your life a bit more. I totally understand people that go for that, just after having lived the two..I lasted a year in a fixed job and after a year I needed to get out. Now it’s close to 3 years and I cannot see myself giving this up unless I had to.

 
 
 
 

Any other tips for those going freelance?

You’ll know within a year whether you enjoy it or not. It’s one of those things where you have to consciously enjoy all of it. The stress level I think can be a lot of higher [than full time work] if you don’t manage it. You have to enjoy keeping track of the numbers, the down time, the not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow. Last week I had a shoot cancelled at 9pm the night before, so all of a sudden I had a free day but I personally saw it as a positive thing. Actually one free day was great and I could enjoy it.

Within one year you’ll know whether you enjoy it or not..try to build it around what you want in life, rather than letting it take over you.

Two weeks where nothing comes in and you decide to go away on holiday and when you’re away all of the work comes in – all that sort of stuff, it's gonna happen, for sure. After the first year of getting a bit annoyed at that happening I realised that’s the way it is and you can either accept it as part of what freelance is and don’t stress about it or find yourself a normal job where you don’t have to worry about that.

If you’re interested give it a go. Try to build it around what you want in life rather than letting it take over you. It might not work for everyone but it works for me.

 

Some key takeaways..

Hopefully with this advice from experienced freelancers you will have realised that down time isn't always a bad thing. Yes, we all need to pay bills, however with a calculated approach there are actually many ways that this time can be used to advance your career. When you're next facing a period of down time ask yourself this question:

"How can I make myself more employable?"

Once you know how to do this, prioritise your ideas and get going. If you have the motivation you'll never find yourself twiddling your thumbs again! Here are just a few ideas that I personally adopt (or plan to, when I have the time..):

  • Brush up on your hard or soft skills (for me that would be After Effects & time management)
  • Attend a course or workshop to gain a qualification (my union BECTU offer some great courses at great prices)
  • Ensure you're on top of your marketing (arguably the most important one. The 3rd point on this list has a few ideas how)
  • Update your CV (that includes Linkedin)
  • Go networking (and stick at it)
  • Research current trends in your industry (don't fall behind the competition)
  • Look for little ways to make your work life easier (e.g. data management)
  • Ensure you are fit and healthy before the next mad rush (and enjoying life, of course..)

At the end of the day if you're self employed and your to-do list is not a never ending one you're probably doing something wrong! But now my diary's telling me to put my feet up, so I should probably go and cross that one off..

Thanks for reading and a massive thanks to my willing participants for giving up their time to share their experiences. If you have any tips of your own for surviving down time in your particular specialism do share them below.

 

Other articles you may enjoy:

Last year I spoke about everything I had learned in my first 5 years of freelancing. Check it out here.

Just starting out working for yourself? For a while you may need to live a double work life (not seedy)! This is how I used to live mine..