How Much Should An Independent Animator Make?
An animator acquaintance recently told me her previous employer gaslighted her into working for $15/hr - this despite her 10 years of industry experience and high level of skill. Her employer said pay calculators were based on inflated California numbers, not real-world numbers. When she found out she was being sorely underpaid, she didn't stick around. Now she faces the world of independent freelancing. She asked me what I thought she should be paid - the million-dollar question. Or should it be 2 million?
(Note: If you're just breaking into the industry, $15/hr is a great place to start. But you shouldn't still be there in 10 years!)
Here's what I shared with my colleague, with a few tweaks for clarity and confidentiality:
I'm very sorry to hear that your previous employer made you believe you were worth less than you are! The truth is, probably most animators are underpaid. It's one of those industries where clients can usually find someone willing to do it on the cheap, so that drags the price down for everyone. And Hollywood has its problems too - I'm sure you remember the wage-fixing scandal between the major studios a few years ago.
A client who complains about a $20/hr price tag is probably not a good client. Some people simply don't have the budget for animation and don't realize it. That said, I find it often helps to charge by the project, instead of hourly. That way, the client knows ahead of time if the project will fit into their budget. But this means you will have to do a good job estimating your own hours, limiting revisions, and managing expectations.
You shouldn't be doing any projects under $20/hr. With your experience and skill level, you should be making $30-40 if you're an animator only, and higher than that if you're also writing/directing/storyboarding. But in all reality, you won't always get that. $25/hr is probably the sweet spot (it's what I could afford to pay my contractors in most cases), and if you can find a full-time gig offering that you should take it. Full-time animation gigs are competitive and super hard to come by. (As you know!)
Most clients don't really care about what you're making per hour - they only care if your work fits their budget. My clients see a flat estimate for the project and decide whether or not that works for them. If they accept, great, if they don't -- also great. It means I don't have to work with a cheapskate client. (Note: I am usually bidding on making an entire video. It may be necessary to have an hourly rate if you're contracted by an animation studio to animate specific scenes.)
Finding good gigs takes a lot of work. At least until you have a solid client base, promotion will be about 2/3 of your time spent. Unless you're desperate (or new), I'd stay away from freelancing sites. They take a significant cut, and they often attract less-committed, poorly budgeted projects. Instead, you want to research potential clients (specific businesses) and contact them directly. Like you did to me!
So, those are the thoughts I shared with her. What about you? How does this scan with your experience? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.