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We all get them; projects that have been shot with no budget or self funded, which have been cut on a friends Final Cut system in a spare room & suddenly they want to finish the film & need sound editorial & a mix... But they have no budget - how do you respond? And what success (& horror) stories can you share?

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I work for free on friends/creative projects but my approach to others is now: Are you asking me to be an investor in your project? Because that can take many forms (defferred payments, points in the film etc) and requires experienced advice from people who understand how film finance & the likelihood of ever seeing a return on that investment. I would happily invest in a project I believed in... But early in ones career, gaining experience can be far more important than charging (presuming you can pay rent/survive) - it can set a dangerous precedent.. –  user49 Apr 7 '10 at 21:00
    
Thank you for this question. This is a fantastic thread. –  Karol Urban Mar 25 '11 at 16:29
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13 Answers

A man long ago told me, "You'll be asked to work for free, because 'It'll be great exposure.' Exposure won't feed you or pay your rent. As any explorer will tell you, you can die from exposure."


This is a very important question, and a great topic, Tim. I think any reasonable answer must be nuanced, as it's not just going to be different for every person, but every gig is different. I used to think it was bad 100% of the time to work for free, but not anymore.

In my experience, it boils down to if you feel like you're being taken advantage of, and that if you work for free, you are entitled to set the terms of such an engagement.

People should work for free if they don't need the money, or if they want to make an investment in a project that's supposed to be fun, ultra-creative, or a good cause. Sometimes it's necessary to break into a new field, or market vertical. It needs to be the decision of the artist/designer, though, to work for all parties. If you think it's worth working for free, make it worth your while, and don't get abused. It could lead to something big, fun, or just plain different. Free gigs have paid off for me in this regard.

Drawing boundaries is key. Be super-explicit: Don't have them expect immediate turnarounds, they can't call you at all hours of the day, they must have respect for your craft, they must exhibit patience. If the "please work for free" asker balks at any of that, walk the %$&#! away immediately. Your life will be hell. Having no money exchange hands is more reason to have workflow, process, and schedules, not less of a reason. (If they balk, remind them that's why you pay the "big bucks" for professional work.)

People should not work for free if it would otherwise be a real, paying gig. No one should pressure you to do so. Read any online forum and you'll see that very few people are ever really paid "deferred wages." Assumptions around super-professional services for free can lead to unrealistic expectations and clients who nag worse than paid ones. Free gigs have killed me in this regard.

Professional work should yield professional pay. Everyone owes it to their current and future clients to underscore it's not about price, it's about value, and decent schedules and proper pay benefits the final product, yielding greater value.

In my opinion, no professional should casually work for free - it should be a strategic decision and not a desperate one. This can deflate wages by altering the perception of the value of one's services. In the US, our union-centric industries really frown upon the practice, but even in non-unionized industries, it is indeed true. Look at the commoditization of Web design skills as a good example of downward price pressure - a quick read on Clients From Hell reveals many classic "But my dog will design my website for free, why won't you?" stories that we'll all probably find disturbingly familiar.

But that's just me! :-) What do others think?

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Well said! My husband and I take a certain amount of passion work a year that feeds our creative gremlins and we also consider jobs that allow us to expand our professional experience and expose ourselves to great mentors in the field. But being specific about what you are willing to give and making sure you are not eliminating paying work from the industry is hugely important. It's just good karma. –  Karol Urban Mar 25 '11 at 16:28
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NoiseJokey's words are perfect for me. I could summarize them as definitve laws:

  1. You should not work for free if you are a professional
  2. You must work for free if you don't need money, want to have fun, be ultra-creative, or be involved in good cause project (no profit, etc.)
  3. impose boundaries to your client immediately: draw schedules, time, access to you phone or chat or whatever
  4. you can't always be a strategic hero, just decide how many free projects per year you want to accept
  5. if the project supposes even a little budget for other professionals, you have to refuse it
  6. read Clients from Hell eveyday, but don't laugh about it

best :)

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Thanks for the much-improved concision! :-) –  NoiseJockey Apr 7 '10 at 15:32
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I think that there are certainly times when professionals can and should donate services.

I use the term "donate services" as opposed to "work for free" because that's really the perspective that one needs to have in order to do it well. With that said, the circumstances in which I'll donate significant services tend to be pretty unique. If a project comes in the door and the guys have no money, I'll evaluate it as follows:

  • Do I have or want to have a relationship with this person or organization?
  • Is this person being up front about the fact that the job doesn't pay anything?
  • Is the project worthy of me donating services? Is it interesting/important enough?
  • Am I capable of doing this job at the high level I expect for myself?
  • Do I have the bandwidth to do the job well?
  • Is the rest of the production up to par with the level of sound work that I intend to deliver?

I find that very few projects can provide clear "yes" answers to all of the above, but if one comes around that does then I really must consider donating services to bring the project into respectability. I recently had a great little short film come across my radar made by a friend of mine that met all of the criteria. My friend was upfront about money, the short was very impressive, and I had some nights and weekends free to get it done.

The end result turned out great, and the short has won in several festivals both in the US and in Mexico since it came out last year. My relationship with the director and the rest of the production staff became rock solid, and the quality of the short will definitely get him financed properly for his next endeavor.

With all that said the number of projects that can meet all of the above criteria is pretty darn small. The reason being that the people and projects that can have their acts enough together to get yeses from me on all of those criteria generally are together enough to have or to be able to acquire an audio post budget.

When a no-budget project comes across that is not good enough, or the producers are not straightforward enough, or I do not have the time to do a good job on it, I'll politely turn it down.

I'll also echo noiseJockey here:

no professional should casually work for free - it should be a strategic decision and not a desperate one. This can deflate wages by altering the perception of the value of one's services. In the US, our union-centric industries really frown upon the practice, but even in non-unionized industries, it is indeed true.

Amen brutha.

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I can't remember who's sound blog I saw this posted on first, but I figured I would pass it on here for those who haven't seen it yet.

[youtube]R2a8TRSgzZY[/youtube]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2a8TRSgzZY

I think it would be funnier if it didn't happen to me all the time.

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Yes @Matt very good, –  Ryanhdd Aug 19 '10 at 21:19
    
@Matt great one =) –  Michael Manzke Nov 16 '10 at 13:31
    
LOL, yep, that hits the nail on the head! :) –  Andre Feldmann Nov 17 '10 at 14:22
    
Awesome! LOL. I also once heard someone caution me not to do work on spec....cause you can "spec not be paid." Classic. –  Karol Urban Mar 25 '11 at 16:15
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I started out many years ago by working for free. Then came the occasional very low paid job. I was able to build on this with the same clients and picking up news one to create a nice little CV of projects to my name, all built on hard work and very little money.

I think that starting out you need to pay your dues and working for free can be seen as an investment on your part. You need to build your experience and reputation before you can start asking people to part with large sums of money.

Now I work as a full time employee for a post-production company. I still work for free for some people as they became friends and their projects are great fun to work on from a creative point of view. My day job is more mundane than I'd like it to be so this gives me an outlet to have some fun.

This is my limit though as I don't need to work on lots of short films to add to my CV anymore. I still get many requests from random people wanting me to work on their "amazing" or "innovative" or "creative" short film. I say a firm no but do point them to people who might be interested. I see giving advice to people starting out my way of giving back to the industry. Any more can be damaging as I agree it can be detrimental to the industry.

After all, you get what you pay for.

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Hey Tim,

Great thread! Since you asked for some successes/horrors, I'll post a few of my own.

A few years back I mixed my first feature film for free, squeezing it in late nights/weekends between my other duties at work. A few months later, the film debuted at SXSW, got a distribution deal with IFC Films, and the director came back and said, "Hey, check it out, now I have some money for you! Thanks again!" Success! A great experience, some exposure and even some money!

Here's an epic fail:

Last summer I agreed to mix a friend's short film at a time where I was extremely busy with paying gigs. I pushed it off for months until she pressured me to spend some time with it.

The production sound was pretty terrible - the lavs were unusable with earth-shattering hiss and tons of clothing rustle, dropouts, etc, so before I began digging in to a dialogue edit, I told her, "Just so you know, I'm going to use the boom mics for your film - there's a little more ambient highway noise, but the tonal quality of their voice is much more consistent and natural." So I proceed and mix her film over the next few days, send it to her and get a laundry list of changes - fine, acceptable. She comes in, spends a day with me and we address those changes, sometimes dipping into the lav tracks to salvage a line, etc.

A few days later, she comes back with another laundry list of notes and says that she'd like to start over and see what we can do with the lav mics. I tell her no way - I TOLD you why I decided to use the booms, if you don't trust my professional judgment, that's fine, you can take it to someone else, but I can't continue working on your film for free any longer.

So she questions my motives (apparently I only do what I do for the money...?) and my integrity - I make a few of her fixes and send her on her way - friendship ruptured. Fail.

So lesson learned - I would tend to agree with a lot of the above. Work for free if it will cultivate a lasting relationship, if you are excited about the project or if you need some experience in a new field you don't have exposure to. DON'T work for free because of guilt. That will never work.

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One of the things I've been doing with low/no budgets (which sadly is the norm for films around here), is working for BARTER... OK, Mr. Producer, so you don't have any money, what DO you have? (exposure and credit don't count for anything with me, I have plenty of both...).

Example... A local attraction wants some sound fx and music, but don't have nearly enough to pay for it. Said attraction is popular with my family, and we usually take the kids ANYWAY... so fine, you only have $X? I'll do it for that AND passes for my family (which easily make up the difference)... Voila! Win, win...

Deane Ogden at Scorecast Online, talked about this in one of his posts. Don't be afraid to ask Producers what they can do for YOU... we already know what we can do for THEM! Need a new piece of gear? Can said producer get it for you in trade or at a great discount? Working with little money, need not mean people working for FREE.

Of course if the Producer takes the attitude that they're doing me a favour by "including" me in their film, I politely terminate the meeting.

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Here is a funny video depicting a producer talking to an audio engineer about working on a picture. "But we have a Red Camera that shoots in 4k" its hilariously funny but sooo true.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c38CekaAtfI&feature=player_embedded

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"a 17k brick with a noisy fan" :) –  Justin Huss Aug 19 '10 at 12:47
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A colleague sent me to this page which reminded me of this question. While it feels fictitious and obliterates the boundaries of professionalism in the workplace, it's freakin' hilarious.

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@Steve Urban - that does seem to have a fictitious bent, but it's still damned funny. this one might top it though. boreme.com/boreme/funny-2009/logo-design-brief-p1.php –  Shaun Farley Aug 9 '10 at 16:55
    
@Shaun LOL! That's a re-post of the previous entry on the same site! Check out "Simon's Pie Charts" under Articles on the left. –  Steve Urban Aug 9 '10 at 17:02
    
@Steve Urban - lol. should have notcied. –  Shaun Farley Aug 9 '10 at 18:35
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I saw this yesterday! It's relevant and made me chuckle!

[youtube]mj5IV23g-fE[/youtube]

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I accept them when I am asked by good friend or person whom I respect. It is good to do no-budget projects, because when there is no money involved you have more artistic freedom.

This is one of short no-budget film that I worked on.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjcMt-Xl88w

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0816581/combined

It won few awards....

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I agree with all which has been stated. This sums up the boundaries point pretty well:

Sound Mixer Hell

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