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Finding Work in the Quiet Times

How Freelancers Can Succeed: In the spirit of the upcoming 'Survive & Thri


How Freelancers Can Succeed: In the spirit of the upcoming 'Survive & Thrive' forum (July 8), Ande Schurr examines the common freelancer belief that the market has died down.

He argues that the industry as a whole never dies down, rather the work often hides below the radar and is visible to those who are willing to diversify and move seamlessly between different markets.

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I often hear from colleagues that there is no work out there and I wonder - is it that there is no work “out there” or that there is no work for that person at this present time. It is a small shift in perspective that, arguably, will lead that person back into work promptly.

It is a serious matter when a freelancer is convinced there is no work. As their only source of income, it is frustrating to rely on the cycles and initiatives of others to earn their living. For sure, we all rely on our clients in some way or another, regardless of the size of our company.

In fact, being employed full time can cause even more drama as it creates the illusion that there will always be work and a consistent pay cheque week after week. If, and when, redundancies “hit”, it can come as a shock and even turn into a crises for the affected person.

Contrast that with the freelancer who, being so much closer to the fluctuations of the market, does not react negatively when the “famine” hits because they have come to expect it from time to time!

So we are left with the question of whether this “famine” is across all the filming formats or just the ones that affect the freelancer’s usual market. My belief is simple. If my colleagues are working, when I am not, then that is all I need to know. There IS work out there.

Here are three thoughts to consider when you feel the famine has hit you:

1. Take Responsibility

Telling yourself that there is no work out there is a denial of responsibility. Like I mentioned, if your colleagues are working then why are you not? Relying on one market to give you your income or, on the other hand, relying on your agent – whether you be an actor or crew member – is over-dependence and this will prevent you from being proactive and sniffing out the next job.

It reminds me of a favourite saying of my business advisor, David Samuel: “Those who patiently wait for the right opportunity and things to be just right, end up with other people's leftovers”

In my experience, the market works mainly under the radar. With the exception of the larger commercials and feature films, I would hesitate a guess that over 80% of work is through word of mouth, and not broadcast in any obvious way. The effort, then, lies in tapping into the work that hovers off the radar.

2. Diversify

Perhaps there will be times when neither you or your colleagues have work. Now you really think it is the market “out there” and this time you could say, quite honestly, that the shortage of work is based on circumstances beyond your control.

The reality of our film and TV industry is that some months there will be twenty commercial companies crewing for jobs, other months there will be five so that is a fair comment. Compounding this is the problem for the freelance sound recordist who works in commercials; the trend may be slipping away from dialogue-driven campaigns and more reliant on post-production sound FX and music – although some notable exceptions occur such as the current ALAC Ease up on the drink series of commercials that I recorded the sound for.

This trend however, has prevented me from relying on commercials as my only source of work. From the beginning of my career, thanks to the good example of sound mixer Mike Westgate, I got involved in documentaries, feature films and also corporate and TV work.

When there is a “famine” in one format, I always have the others to fall back on. The beauty of this approach too, is that there is a cross-over in skills that occurs – specifically between factual documentaries and film/TV drama – that has to be experienced to be understood.

When I came back last month from my Discovery Channel documentary, my feature film work, directly afterwards, benefited. Working with the cameraman for three weeks solid filming on the edges of cliffs, tramping 15KM through swampy terrain, volcanic lakes and hanging out of helicopters, taught me to do my job with even more attention to what he was doing. Glued to the camera lens, I was an extension of his eyes and ears and this forged a very tight team, along with the field producer great direction. When I walked into this large feature film job afterwards, the same understanding of team work was transferred over and I understood to an even deeper level the importance that every person has in the creation of the best result possible on screen.

3. Have a break

With that said, why not take a break? The point I am making is that it is you and not the market as a whole that is having a quiet patch. So, having understood that you are responsible for the quantity of work you get, now may be a good time to reconnect with family or do some more research.

I know freelancers who spend more time with their kids and grandkids. One experienced crew member told me that after a feature film we had worked on together, he had some time off during which he was able to build a routine with his kids which both of them appreciated.

Keep busy so your mind doesn’t lose its sharpness yet that doesn’t always have to mean “busy working”. I know one of our top career steady-cam operators likes to wear his rig a few times a week when he’s not working just to keep himself at the top of his game.

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Finally, I remember what I told the students last year at one of the film schools I guest lecture at: “if you have work – do it with all your heart, if you don’t, go and find it”. I learned this also from my business coach. It is such a simple thing when you break it down.

Written by

Ande Schurr

30 Jun 2010

Corporate video producer and production sound recordist now based in Singapore after a 15-year career in New Zealand. Video clients incl. universities, tech startups, medical clinics and business consulting agencies. Sound clients incl. Netflix, Discovery, BBC, National Geo.