What They Don’t Tell You in Film School About the Freelance Hustle

By Ella Riley-Adams July 28th, 2014

A creative writing program isn’t going to have a how-to on writing marketing materials; after all, the narrow goal of MFA programs is for graduates to publish books and essays. Similarly, in between showings of Godard and lectures on camera placement, film professors don’t hand out sheets with bullet-points about how to make a living shooting and editing as a freelancer videographer. And they would never tell you that the rules are made to be broken (they are).

To get a better sense of the practical skills necessary to make it in “the biz,” three young videographers discussed what they wish they’d been taught in college.

Even before Anna Quinlan and Isabel Farrington graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, and Charlie Cole graduated from the Pratt Institute, they were all making money by shooting and editing video. They’ve battled balloons at bar mitzvahs and triumphed over crashed hard drives. They’ve worked for art magazines, brands like Coca-Cola, and Kickstarter campaigns. They’ve also filmed a fair amount of weddings. A lot of the initial work just took nerve. As Cole put it, “Everything I learned was based on the fact that I was able to pretend like I knew what I was doing, until I actually knew what I was doing.”

All three credit the “snowball effect” for their current client rosters. Quinlan found her initial clients on Craigslist and through an unpaid internship. Since then, she’s been referred to every other client. Cole has gotten new clients by showing them old commercial work and passion projects, while Farrington once got a small job from someone who found her on OKCupid. An Internet presence, especially on video sites like Vimeo, is key to sharing old work and getting new jobs.

Cole has gotten new clients by showing them old commercial work and passion projects, while Farrington once got a small job from someone who found her on OKCupid.

Of course, not all clients are created equally. Even if they tried, college professors could never consolidate all the quirks of the world’s bosses into one lecture. Clients prefer different editing platforms and vary in communication styles. Some are lenient with deadlines while others monitor progress closely. To deal with the unpredictability, Quinlan said, “You have to learn to become a people person.”

And when kindness doesn’t cut it, make sure the work agreement is in writing. Get a contract or just ensure the terms of your work are spelled out in an email. “I’ve never not been paid for a job that I’ve done,” she said, “But from time to time, I’ve had to stand up for myself.”

As deadlines can be a collaborative decision, freelance video editors have to be realistic about how long a job will take. “We all want to be able to say: ‘Oh yeah, I can get that to you by tomorrow!’ but if you know that it will actually take about a week—factoring in the sleeping, the eating, the procrastination—you should say so,” Quinlan added. Better to be transparent and on time than to be overeager and late.

And while freelancing tends to be solo action, fashioning a support system makes every job easier. “Find good people to work with and stick with those people. While freelancing is an independent endeavor, it doesn’t have to be a lonely one,” Farrington said. That’s one thing crucial aspect of the videographer life she did learn in film school—finding like-minded teammates in classes at Sarah Lawrence.

Finally, if your hard drive crashes after you film a wedding—as Cole’s did—know that there is hope. Though he spent all the money he was paid to get the thing fixed, he managed to save the footage of the couple’s special day. The solution? A lifesaving visit to Tekserve.

Image by Thomas Hawk
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