This year it finally happened. I plunged into the pit of uncertainty in the most uncertain times we have ever faced — I moved from the safe haven of German permanent employment in Tech into the turbulent life as a freelance animator!
I want to share my journey with you up to that point because it was never as straight-forward as anyone might think. It was never certain for me that I would end up in a creative field.
Looking into the future, I want to also disclose some of my goals and motivations. There are a lot of possibilities here, and that might actually be the scary part.
Art does not make money?
Drawing a lot as a kid, I never realized you could grow up and continue painting, drawing, and doing creative things as a grown-up. Knowing no one who worked in a creative field, it simply did not occur to me. Having role models is important. With my closest family, it always seemed, being an adult involved either hard physical work or hard “intellectual” work.
The first time I discovered animation as an approachable medium was in late high school trying out Adobe Flash and getting inspired by the silly animations of Newgrounds. This is the first time that I thought — I want to be an animator. Back then it was with the typical adolescent naiveté. I wasn’t truly pursuing it. Mostly it was comprised of doodling around and creating silly GIFs for me and my friends, and daydreaming of the grandiose animation series I would produce, with characters and storylines based around high school experiences. But In the back of my mind, the notion was ringing: Art does not make money!
The Certainty of Programming
Instead, I decided — Let’s study computer science and learn programming. As a programmer, I can make video games! Video games are creative, too! And if that doesn’t work out, I still get a job.
I think there are tons of people starting a computer science degree having the same thoughts in the back of their minds. And it rarely works out. Once you taste the first paycheck of an actual programming job you get corrupted.
That’s when I laid my plans to do animation to rest for another 7 years. Well, kind of. During my time as a programmer, I was always steering towards the more visual parts of the job. Working in frontend, building, and designing user interfaces. Building interactive experiences, with sound and animation. Putting way too much effort into the design and layout of presentations.
I also got side-tracked into studying M.Sc. Audio Communication and Technology with a certain goal in mind, but this is a story for another time. The good thing is, in this program, I learned everything I need to know about audio recording, production and music-making. Another significant skill needed for an independent animator was added to my toolbelt! (I went into this program with a certain goal in mind, but that story is for another time.)
The First Spark and The Chase
In 2015, 7 years into my career in Tech, I questioned for the first time my current path. I was reminded of my initial dreams of animation and decided I have to give it a try. Just for my peace of mind. Maybe I don’t even like animating. I decided to animate for 100 days straight every day: You can read all about my experiences and insights on it here: 100 Days of Walk Cycles.
It ended up being quite a success, the article got featured in some online magazines and the video got featured on Vimeo and some other sites! It is still my biggest success to date in terms of exposure. I even got a little product out of it, that I could sell on Gumroad.
I had fun doing it, with some success attached to it! This was the spark I needed! Unfortunately, during that time, the startup I worked for went bankrupt, and I didn’t have enough savings to support myself.
As they say, when one door closes, another door opens. Through a lucky coincidence, I got the chance to work for one of the most successful startups in Europe at a very early stage. Thus began my prime time in tech. The 4 most exciting years I had in my career, with the most motivated and fun people I can imagine.
It sidetracked me on my creative goals once again, but I learned so much and acquired many tools to be a successful entrepreneur during this time, that I certainly would not change a thing about it. I also transitioned by the end further into the creative field and became a UX designer within the company.
After 3 years though, a plan began to form and surfaced into my consciousness to finally chase my own creative goals. I needed to work on 3 things to make the leap — animation practice, reputation, and customers. All of that would be used to build a showreel.
EDIT 2021: One major part I left out at publication of this article, was that I also met my life partner in 2018 and it sparked a newfound enthusiasm for art. I re-discovered my passions for creative work. We started drawing together and going to museums, and I started to enjoy the world from a new and different angle. I was filled with new inspirations.
That was probably the biggest influence that pushed me to think that there are deeper goals within me worth pursuing.
I started to learn and study more fundamentals of animation. I knew there were still many things I had to learn about and try out. Storytelling, lip-sync, After Effects skills, composition. There are great resources and books out there to learn animation, it was probably never easier to learn from the comfort of your home. Many of these resources are even free.
I decided also to try out one of the paid ones over at Motion Design School, which has a ton of good courses on Motion Design and animation. I went with the Science of Character Animation and it’s quite awesome, funny instructor and a nice community on Facebook.
Finally, to test out if I would enjoy the interaction with customers, I also set up a small side gig on Fiverr. Just to make small 3 second animations for a small price. I wanted to know, which kind of requests customers would have, How many revisions would they request? How good would I be at handling their expectations?
I would not recommend anyone working professionally to offer their services on Fiverr, since usually the prices are 5 times lower than what you should actually charge. I preferred it to other freelancing platforms since you could exactly specify what your delivery will be before the start of a project, and thus I could ensure that my main job never suffers and I could do it in my spare time.
Over the course of approximately one year, I had several clients from Fiverr and different work to now show off in my future portfolio. The feedback I was getting was overwhelmingly positive and I was proud of the work I was producing. The communication with clients was very positive for the most part, and with the others, I simply declined.
On social media, I made also some fruitful connections with directors of short films and other creatives. I was even fortunate to contribute to 2 short films which inspired some of my best work.
In the middle of the pandemic is when I made the decision, it is time to move on and start my own journey.
The Ambiguity of Art
During the last weeks, I had time to think about my decision, my goals, and my roadmap as a self-employed chap. It led me back to my first decision back in university.
Why did I decide to go for computer science instead of something more art-related?
Whenever I’m asked for a reason, I always give the money argument. I thought art makes no money, so I went for something where there’s tons of potential income and opportunities. But now I realize it is only one part of the truth.
The truth is — hard science, math, physics, and computer science have a reassuring certainty to it. There seems to be a clear right and wrong. When an equation proofs something, it’s objectively true. And there is a way to verify it for yourself.
The same with a program you write. If you run it and it works. At that point you know, you have done something right, since it works.
Art on the other hand. Is very uncertain. Feelings towards it can be ambivalent. You can like it, everybody else can hate it, or vice versa. You never know exactly where you are standing. You rely on feedback from the world. You have to be good at living with that ambiguity.
There is often no right or wrong.
That is terrifying.
I still enjoy the act of programming, exactly for that reason. When I’ve created something that works, I feel a sense of accomplishment. And I feel good about it. It’s addicting. Being in the flow.
It’s time to learn to live with ambiguity. As an artist. As a freelancer. And as a human being.
Because this story is pretty lengthy already, I’ll break it up into 2 parts. In part 2, I will discuss possibilities, opportunities, motivations, and goals. Everything that is exciting and scary!
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