Should I work for free?
I see a lot of posts, rants, debates and questions about the above from comic book creators and artists around the internet.
As a lowly, indie writer, I never really have to ask the question myself - I'm pretty much determined to be working for free by the definition of being a small press indie creator.
However, in my day-job, as a sound technician in film, I was often approached by producers and film makers to check my "availability" to work for free.
At one stage myself and my partner in sound came up with a system - kind of similar to the venn diagrams I've seen posted around:
You see, there are occasions when working for free will be appealing for some reason or another.
We had a model which worked on the following three criteria - Was the person a friend? Was the project being shot on film? Was there money for equipment?
Although not altogether a direct correlation to illustration and design work, there are some aspects to this which I think creators can apply to projects.
Was the person a friend?
I personally really like my job, and sometimes I like being around certain people whilst doing my job. The option between doing nothing and doing something I enjoy sometimes leans enough towards the doing something side that I'd happily go to work with a friend for nothing.
I don't do it too much these days, as a father and husband, I just see free time as more valuable than I once did.
If a project came along with a friend or someone I enjoyed working with, then I would consider it. I would set out boundaries first, however, making the scope and parimeters within which I was willing to work very clear.
Was the project being shot on film?
Before I approach this, there is something I would like to address. Something which I think is true in most creative ventures.
Very rarely do you work towards a goal and then move up to the next level.
More often than not you either force yourself up to the next level, or you are lucky enough to be working with someone who moves up to the next level, and decides to take them with you.
In film, if you work at a certain level, you get a reputation as being someone who works at that level. The danger of working for free is that you become known as the person who works for free.
I've had many an occasion where you "do a favour" for someone, and then they hire someone else for their paid project.
Sometimes this is out of their hands. Sometimes it is not.
So what was so special about film? Two things - one of which is very important. Film brings with it a certain discipline, which video and digital will never have. A certain amount of planning has to go into a film shoot, a certain amount of preparation.
I happen to like that discipline.
The other thing as that people who shoot on film are more driven to do something with the finished project.
In comics this could be translated as to what is the final plan with the project? Web series? Print? Print on Demand? Micro-distrubution? Pitched?
Known what disciplines are in place for the final project, might help you to make a decision as to if the project appeals to you.
Is there money for equipment?
Film equipment is not cheap. Sound equipment for film work is not cheap. Repairing, replacing, insuring and hiring that equipment is not cheap. It should not fall solidly on the shoulders of the technician.
In comics, if you are willing to give your time and skills to a project for free, perhaps some other form of support or recompense is possible? What about shared ownership and profits?
Finally, as with all these things it is down to the individual to make these decisions.
There is a sense of cheapening the collective brand, making it harder for other creators to get their rates, which you should be aware of when undertaking any project gratis.
Also, the idea of working for free to build a portfolio is something I've never held much sway with, but it is something which will be suggested to you.
Again, remember that you can very easily fall into the category within which you choose to make a name for yourself.
Be sure what you set out to do is what you want to do, and be sure to establish the terms of any deals, the boundaries of any working relationships, and, even if you think it isn't real because it isn't paid, try to treat the whole affair as professionally as possible.