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Is it worth working for free? I have worked on a few shorts and done some sound design, learning my chops and the things I have done are well received by people. A director asked me awhile ago to work on his first feature film. He is an award winning director and I have been working with him for his last two shorts, plus he has a masters in screenwriting. Last time I checked, there was no budget for post-production sound/design. I am pretty sure that I don't want to take on the responsibility of a feature film for free. On the other hand, judging from his track record, it may be worth it to make a name for myself and get myself out there. Some people say, "yeah, work for free," and other people especially game sound designers determinedly say "never work for free."

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17 Answers

I rarely have ever worked for free, but on the occasions I have it has been for atleast one of the following reasons:

For a friend trying to get a start. Helping friends is always a good thing, they will normally come back around to help you out later, be it with work or simply helping you move.

A project I really believe in. Sometimes something comes along that is a genuine and great project, something that is simply not out there and needs to be. I have helped a few documentaries get finished because I thought they had a really special point of view and people needed to see it, so I helped it along and get finished.

Finally if it is something very different then you normally do and you want to sharpen your skill set before you jump in charging full rates. This is a very rare set of circumstances.

The thing about free work is it is normally the most difficult. Deadlines are never met, because people are squeezing it in between paying gigs. Steps get overlooked because people are not putting the proper focus on it or do not have the experience needed. By the time the project gets to audio post, normally one of the last stages, things can be a total disaster. Don't fall for the selling point when they say that it will be a simple job, free ones are almost always much more time consuming then paying jobs. You will spend as much time problem solving as actually doing audio work. Also since your time is not related to a monetary value you can often get taken advantage of with wasted time waiting for things/people to arrive.

In the end you have to decide if you are getting enough out of it to make it worth your while. In my experience it is very rare that it is a good trade off.

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When starting out I worked for free. But only on shorts, and only one gratis per director. I would never do a feature for free, even if there's a so-called back-end. It's just too much time to give someone.

The goal of working for free is to make connections and get your chops up to a point where you feel confident charging for your services. Besides, if you work for free for someone multiple times, you'll be known to them as "the free guy." It ultimately cheapens their opinion of your skills.

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+1 to this - it's a hard discussion to go from free to paying...you'll almost always end up making less than you should have been if you had just charged from the get-go. –  VCProd Jun 15 '11 at 12:23
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I think its becoming quite a joke now how many producers and directors expect sound done for free. There are a few valid exceptions mentioned here by others, if I were a student I may consider it or for a friend or charity. I sometimes work on student films and will always give a reduced rate but working for free is in 95% of cases taking the piss. The amount of directors who are willing to fork out for a DOP or hire amazing cameras but offer us only food and drink on set whilst expecting you to bring thousands of pounds worth of equipment along and work for zilch astounds me. I wonder how many plumbers or electricians work for free even when they are learning the trade. The more people do it, the more it becomes acceptable.

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Yes. That is exactly how I feel, it is a joke that people expect it to be done for free. Plus look at those retarded camera budgets. Everybody else on the staff is getting food drink and money where post audio people get zilch? The more I'm becoming involved in this industry the more I hear about people "filming on RED's" and I kind of want to puke when I hear it –  Chris Jun 14 '11 at 18:48
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In my humble opinion, I think this website answers your question quite nicely:

Should I work for free?

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I'm in a similar boat right now. I recently moved to a different state and am trying to make new connections so I agreed to take on the role of re-recording mixer for a sci-fi, feature length, action flick gratis. I'm slowly discovering as others have said that the free projects are more difficult to work on than the regular ones.

It is a great project which is why I joined on but looking back now at the work load I would probably have turned it down.

I think working for free is great for making connections but don't over extend yourself like I have with taking on larger projects. Be clear with the director before signing on to do the work how much time you are willing to dedicate per week, day or whatever.

Also, keep track of your time. At the end of the project give the director an invoice with the time you spent and your normal hourly rate with a zero balance. This way they know what you gave them and what to expect when they use you next time.


I forgot to add this youtube video that goes along great with this thread, pretty funny

[youtube]c38CekaAtfI[/youtube]

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One of the interesting things with this project is that it is a romantic comedy and I would rather be working on something more exciting like a sci-fi flick, games, or something else and considering the workload that restricts my time considerably –  Chris Jun 14 '11 at 18:46
    
@chris yeah, the great thing about working on this project is that I get to play pretty freely with a lot of different sound design elements. There are also a couple other really talented sound designers on this project and working with them has been interesting. –  Kyoti Jun 14 '11 at 18:50
    
I like this idea. Might be a little passive aggressive for some, but it's better they know than not. –  g.a.harry Jun 14 '11 at 18:58
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There's this older thread on this topic, as well: http://socialsounddesign.com/questions/597/how-do-you-respond-to-requests-to-work-for-free

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Thanks. Good reference. –  Chris Jun 14 '11 at 21:44
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In certain, very limited circumstances, it can be worth it...but know what you're getting into, and be realistic about the time you're willing to commit. If you're going to do something for free, you have to be able to have fun doing it. It has to be a "hobby" endeavor, not "work"...much like you might consider a video game, or reading a book. As other's have mentioned, free projects tend to fit in around more important task schedules. So you need some back end flexibility and to be working with people who understand how valuable your time is.

If I can have some fun with a short project, working with a friend who understands the reasonable limits of investment I can put into it...I'll consider it. I'm working on an animated short right now in just that sort of situation: fixing and fleshing out existing sound design, designing for segments that are basically at zero, and mixing. I have no stress from the project whatsoever, and I'm having fun. It just means I spend a few less hours playing video games and reading each week.

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Shaun, what video games do you play? Do you play COD Black Op's? It'd be cool to play together –  Chris Jun 15 '11 at 20:02
    
@Chris - to be honest, i haven't gotten too deeply into any multiplayer games. i enjoy the story elements in single player campaigns, and find i don't have a lot of time afterwards for multiplayer stuff. i do want to play through the portal 2 multiplayer campaign eventually though. –  Shaun Farley Jun 15 '11 at 23:51
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There are a couple local directors who I will work for free on their projects. That is, something that they personally finance. These directors are good friends of mine and I know they put the time into the projects. I also require them to bring me on in pre production so I can avoid problems before they happen. That is the key for free work I have found. Is to give them the guidance they need through the process before it hits you. Saves you time in the end. The funny thing is that the directors I will work for free with are the same directors that will always find some way to pay whether I want it or not, they don't let me work for free anymore because they understand. Those are the kinds of folks who I have no problem doing free work for.

The moment a backer is involved and its not the director financing the movie, then my actual rate hits the table haha.

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That is very interesting Michael. Thanks for sharing. What exactly are the problems that you avoid by being in pre production? –  Chris Jun 14 '11 at 18:43
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If I hadn't worked for free (a hell of a lot, too), I wouldn't have a got a job working for one of the best sound design companies in the world. It's a sad fact, and I wish the industry was different but trust me, if you work hard, prove to others that you're determined...that it's a lifestyle rather than just another career to make a quick buck...you'll do well.

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Re @AzimuthAudio's post, in particular this part —

A project I really believe in. Sometimes something comes along that is a genuine and great project, something that is simply not out there and needs to be. I have helped a few documentaries get finished because I thought they had a really special point of view and people needed to see it, so I helped it along and get finished.

This is what gets me working for free, too, and actually quite often. I've just come off two weeks of sleeping between 0-5 hours a night (I currently haven't slept for 38 hours) in order to finish something for free because I really believe it should exist, and there's not enough challenging or unique art and media being made.

Money is great and obviously it makes our lives easier and gives our skills some tangible, measurable value. But money is quickly forgotten. Enduring work isn't.

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I worked for free/low pay to begin with, but I rarely do it now unless it is for a close friend.

Only do it if the project is worth it, and ask for some expenses at least, food, travel and equipment and/or some sort of per diems.

I've made some contacts by working for free who have now passed on my name to others etc. and when they get paid gigs then they always come to me first for sound. It helps, just don't let yourself fall into a trap of a massive workload and being pushed around.

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Yah, tough one when you are starting out. I found that it is always good to secure a job at a post house or as a trainee boom op with a veteran. Then, when short films do come along with no budget, you can take them on in your spare time so that the extra experience will give that edge on the paying gigs and and you can also try out what you have learned with the seasoned pros within the capacity of a short film. A feature is a different story. I wouldn't do it because of the time involved and how it could eat into your paid work time. If you do do it, the producer should schedule around you so that you don't compromise your relationship with an employer.

When I started out, I did do alot of short freebees but I always made sure that they understood that I have to eat and pay rent so when a paid gig did come through, that it came first. I found that the freebees I did do were invaluable to me when it came to maturing my problem solving skills since it was just me making the calls. I think it is important to do some shorts because you never know how well the short will do and what other work will come your way in the future via that producer and director.

Happy playing

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I've worked on a few shorts and a couple of interviews for free. I took on the jobs to get experience and make contacts whilst starting out. Some of the contacts have proven to be quite fruitful.

But experience wise only 1 of the short films has ever turned any heads and that is because it had a celebrity cast (funny story that one. I saw a half ass'd call on mandy.com for Boom operator and had nothing to do that weekend, so I applied thinking I can turn it down if it turned out to be a graduate film. Turned out to be quite a big production). The interviews always seem to gain interest.

Now, every week I get a phone call asking me if I'm available for to do an unpaid short film.

If you do decide to take on unpaid work make sure that your expenses are being covered (and I mean DOUBLE CHECK). I did a TV doc pilot recently, where I wrote in my acceptance of the role that I would need to have all of my expenses paid. The producer "didn't see this" and £100 worth of train tickets later they told me there was no expense budget. I was not best pleased!

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AzimuthAudio has hit the nail on the head with this:

"Since your time is not related to a monetary value you can often get taken advantage of with wasted time waiting for things/people to arrive"

I found this to be the case on a short film I was mixng / sound designing on. I was sent the "final cut" of the film maybe 10-12 times and music probably more than that, meaning that I had to keep shifting and fixing it each time. Considering it was about 30 minutes long and they never bothered to mention what they changed in new edits it took ages!

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Crazy editors... –  Chris Jun 16 '11 at 0:01
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I am just about to consider a free feature project a friend of mine financed out of his own pocket, and this is a great thread of arguments to take into consideration. I too have done freebies that turned out to be more work than the paid jobs I do, and those have been shorts and documentaries - feature for free is pretty daunting, and not a decision to be made lightly. However, because this is a director that is just starting out, and I also want to show him that you should ALWAYS BUDGET IN SOUND, I am trying a new approach: giving him a number of hours. I am thinking 100 pluss ADR and foley that will be considered when I have seen the 2nd edit in a couple of weeks. So let's say approx. 150 hrs over the next 6 months. That way we can set up a schedule very early and his view of a regular production is formed in the process. Hopefully. I might still be the fool at the end of this (feel free to critique the idea). If it works I'll report back to you all.

Oh, and I always make sure there's a contract saying I get paid a percentage per screening if the movie turns out to sell tickets or gets tv distribution. Just wanted that to be out there, too.

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Right. Always get a contract. Just in case. –  Chris Jun 16 '11 at 21:32
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I had an all around life mentor give me her thoughts on working for free once. She answered me with a question; "How valuable is your free time?"

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It's worth it when your working on something like this

I cant begin to explain the gratification I get out of it.

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