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Should Animators Work For Free?

// Business, Featured

The short answer is – no. The long answer is – read below:

So, you’re freshly graduated, you have a few skills and a lot of ideas and – let me guess – you are absolutely terrified. Me too. As a recent graduate I’m terrified about not finding work in the animation industry, for many reasons: not knowing if I have what it takes to work in this field and trying to convince my family that their daughter won’t wind up on the streets despite having been an art student. Generally keeping one’s own ambition and drive alive is a day-to-day challenge.

I have been searching and applying for internships and jobs since December across the world. Very few have got back in contact and even fewer have actually offered me work, which was genuinely what I was expecting and, as such, not exactly disappointing.  However one piece of advice my tutor gave me has stuck with me – never do free work.

This is an incredibly tricky situation and needs to be considered from both your side and the side of the employer.

Why you should work for free?

If your Mum, very close relative or someone that helped you out a lot at one point asks you to do some simple design work don’t be cruel, lend them a hand. However if it’s your family member/friend’s company they are asking for work for, no dice. Companies, even start-up companies, have some form of budget and their visual branding is very important to the organisation’s overall success.

If your buddy’s band that you’ve supported from the beginning asks you to design their logo, get paid and get a contract. ‘Rocky and the snot hounds’ may not seem like much now from their Mum’s garage, but one day when they’re waving a flag on MTV with your logo design on it, you might be kicking yourself from the dole office.

Charity -if you know this for a fact that an organisation is non-profit and you really believe in the cause, then of course feel free to do it. However there is still no harm in asking for something to make it worth your while, like creative control, a good reference or coverage. Keep in mind that some charities have CEOs that are on six figure salaries, can they really not afford to pay an animator?

If someone you really admire offers you the opportunity to work on his or her new film, definitely think about it. Most people in the industry would probably like to offer you some kind of stipend, such as covering travel expenses or at least feeding you during your services. Either way, having that name on your CV and your name in that set of credits will probably help you in the long run, and being able to say you worked for or alongside a big name that’ll make your CV stand out is worth a few of your days off. It’s this philosophy that motivates the coverage – written or otherwise –  that I take on for this very website.


Follow link to helpful flow chart about free work.

Why should I not work for free?

By working for free it sets a bad precedent for not only you but for the industry as whole. Put simply if you offer your services for free, and they pass your name on there is no guarantee the next person won’t simply just turn around and say “Well you worked for that company for free, why should we pay you?” Which is a very good point.

Also, there is massive problem currently with companies seeking out recent, inexperienced graduates, asking for free work and offering a wide range of rubbish incentives. The graduates do the work, get nothing and as well as feeling used, they’ve taken a potential job from a trained and experienced professional.

It is important to try and build upon the reputation and not cheapen the creative industries. You may have always had a passion and love for drawing from childhood, but just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid for it. You wouldn’t ask a builder to stick an extension on your house because you used to go to school together, nor lie down on the plastic surgeon’s table and say quickly before going under “Sorry if the cheque bounces, things are a bit tight this month”. The fact of the matter is, this is not a hobby, it’s your career and livelihood and as a graduate you’ll have paid an unholy amount of money to have that piece of scrolled paper that reads ‘Animator’. As such you deserve to be paid for your training.


Even the old ‘Will work for Food’ is better than working for nothing. If you are offered alternative payment, such as equipment, exposure, a potential contract or opportunities such as travel or meetings with top names are all things that should be considered, but be smart about it; A promise isn’t worth anything unless it is written down in a contract.

Creative control, being able to work in a way you haven’t tried before under the umbrella of a live brief is also worth consideration but make sure that with that ‘creative control’ comes complete freedom to use that method or idea again; If you’re selling your services for free, definitely don’t give away your ideas.

“Getting your work out there” is a very small incentive which is used a lot, in the age where blogs and social media are so accessible, there isn’t really much problem with promoting your own work. Fact of the matter is, if you have the time to do free work, why wouldn’t you use that time to produce work of your own invention? The only way this is potentially useful is if they are offering to screen it at events you wouldn’t normally have access to, thus opening your work up to a more global client/fan-base.

Take the time to boost your skills; If all you’re getting is free work then it might not be them, it may be you. A growing amount of graduates are coming out without the core skills the industry needs, who need to be pro-active and take charge of their post-university development. Asking for feedback is perfectly reasonable, just don’t be bitter or rude if they don’t respond or give you harsh criticism – while the latter can sting in the early years, it’s the most valuable advice a young creative can hear. The problem is that no-one can tell you honestly what exactly the industry is looking for from recent graduates, so being technically savvy or creatively ingenious won’t always be enough. Studios are trying to hire people that can fulfill many roles and try their hand at multiple disciplines, so expanding your creative repertoire can only help matters.

What do you need to do?

Really you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Ultimately it comes down to how much you’re willing to fight.

If you do take on free work or any other work for that matter do read the contracts or terms and conditions, a lot of companies will try and claim full copyright for your work, so don’t let go of visual concepts and ideas that are personal to you.

Understand that the global economy does come into play here – since the recession hit, budgets have been cut and companies have gone under, meaning less employment for everyone. However knowing this does not mean free work is acceptable, if it’s offered and you don’t absolutely have/want to take it, consider explaining to them what they are doing isn’t fair and quoting them an appropriate amount for the work they are suggesting. At the very least you get no or little reply, however you may be able to start a branch of conversation and debate.

Internships are the biggest provider of free work to companies. This isn’t always a problem, by definition you should be gaining skills and supervision from the organisation and ideally be given a small wage in order to live and travel to the company. You have to weigh up the options if you feel working for any dream studio is worth it, so if you go for it be aware that not all internships lead to paid positions afterwards, and when you are offering your services for free you are inevitably taking a paid position away from someone else.

A lot of work is also being outsourced to other countries that can afford to have a much cheaper rate of pay. This unfortunately is an unchangeable fact that we have to deal with. The hope is the potential for face-to-face interaction, and quality of work will keep the jobs here, but only time will tell.

Some important don’ts:

  • Don’t take my word as Law – I have researched this but at the end of the day this is simply my opinion. We all take responsibility for ourselves.
  • Don’t be rude – being rude, arrogant and overly self-assured has never got anyone anywhere. Well, it may have, but no one invites that guy for a drink. Don’t make enemies, be respectful and treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
  • Don’t be taken advantage of – think clearly what your worth is and what this opportunity means to you and your career.
  • Don’t suffer in silence – if you need help or advice on your rates, talk to your tutors and use your student advisers (at the end of the day this is what they are paid for, to advise). Alternatively, contact people in industry via a heartfelt and considered e-mail, or meet up and discuss with like-minded professionals at any local networking events.

What it all boils down to is that we are a necessary, invaluable commodity and not everyone can do what we do. Very few people, in fact, can be artists, animators or any type of creative. If everyone said no to free work the companies would have no alternative but to pay us. So be reasonable, be clear in your message and think about what you are doing, not just to yourself but to your peers and industry as a whole.

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  • Ewan Horne Green

    Very concise! Every student should read this.

    Competitions are another method by which free work is tricked out of people. Where a prize is offered for a fraction of the production cost, and there are hundreds of finished products to choose from. Channel 4’s E-stings are guilty, as are red bull’s canimations, ironically linked to at the bottom of this page.

    • Steve Henderson

      The entry of Canimation and E-stings and all that is relatively circumstantial, although you may not personally feel that such competitions are for you but when I was at University a fair number of students felt it was a good exercise and use of their time to enter such competitions making it a good use of time and the potential for exposure was an incentive. Obviously as a professional nowadays going for anything less than a paid job seems ridiculous. Its up to the individual to decide if the competition is for them at the end of the day, if Laura says anything in this article it is that!

      • Ewan Horne Green

        I might have gone a bit off topic, sorry. I just have a bee in my bonnet about animation competitions. They are potentially even more cynical and sinister than free internships. Moleskine got in a lot of trouble for a design competition very similar to the animation ones mentioned. Why are we not similarly outraged?

        • Steve Henderson

          You raised a good point, not rude at all.

      • Ewan Horne Green

        You know what, my original comment was really rude. May I delete it? I really did like the article.

  • Katie Steed

    I think the competitions like Red Bull and E4 stings are ok, especially for people at Uni or recent Graduates, because they do provide genuine exposure, complete creative control and something different for the reel – they might also be a person’s first opportunity to work on a commercial brief, which is an experience that is difficult to replicate at a University.

    The problem is smaller companies, who have no means of giving the ‘winner’ any exposure and are just looking for a way of getting hundreds of submissions that they can pick their favourite from and generally pay the winner what would barely amount to a living fee. It’s normally because they don’t actually know what they’re looking for, and want to feed off the creativity of young animators rather than provide a proper brief to a studio.

    Only the company wins in that situation.

  • Laura cowley

    on the topic of canimation, I actually know the hand drawn winner from last year, and he’s doing very well, he was given an internship and was later taken on by the company, canimation was an amazing opportunity to work at some amazing studios. I just wished they’d run it again this year…canimation and E4 stings have very clear rules and outcome so you are fully aware of what your working towards, they offer a good opertunity to work towards a simple brief for people like myself who find it difficult to work indepntly with no guide lines.

  • Phillip L Ward

    I’ve done free work, it’s not always about money.. I do it because I love animation and love expressing myself visually. But then I also have a proper job, you have to do whatever it takes to be discovered and to keep producing, you wont get far sitting on your bum all day waiting for something to happen you have to make it happen, plus it’s good experience.

    Also you don’t have to go to university, to suggest you have to be a graduate to work is nonsense, some might find it helpful but it wasn’t for me, sometimes it’s a waste of time and money and it’s better to just get out there and start getting creative, that’s all I did.

    • Steve Henderson

      Cheers Phill, but she never suggested you had to be a graduate, she is writing from the point of view of a graduate.

    • Erika

      So Philly boy, you say you have a “proper job” then? Well, colour me stupid, I thought animation WAS a real job!

      • Phillip L Ward

        I was talking about a regular, everyday paid job. Which means I’m not relying on animation as my main form of income,.But i think you knew what i meant.

        Saying that, I’ve enjoyed working in animation, and puppetry for years and if i was doing it full time and able to earn a proper living from it i probably wouldn’t consider it a real job, in the same way a radio presenter, or sportsmen wouldn’t consider their positions as ‘real jobs’ I’m sure you know what i mean.

        • Erika

          I’m sure I don’t.

          • Phillip L Ward


        • Steve Henderson

          You should ALWAYS consider animation a proper job. Associating it as a hobby is the kind of bad excuse robbing employers use the hoodwink animators into working for free. Yes animators enjoy their work as much as sports stars and radio DJs but both Radio DJs and sport stars get paid 6 and 7, sometimes even 8 figure salaries, quite the other end of the scale to us animators. Enjoyment should never factor into the money you earn, if you are providing a service you should be compensated correctly for that service.

          We must all be of the same mindset if our industry is to be taken seriously. ANIMATION IS A PROPER JOB.

          • Phillip L Ward

            Yes i agree, I never said it wasn’t.
            But it’s all down to the individual, and personal choice. To tell someone they shouldn’t do free work is wrong, it’s up to them. Maybe they want some more hands on experience, or it’s a project they really want to be a part of. I think it’s up to individuals to decide what best for them. There are plenty of people doing it as a hobby too. nothing wrong in that either., I hope.

          • Steve Henderson

            People do their own work as a hobby not anyone else’s, they will gain just as much experience working on their skills. Is it actually wrong to tell people they should not work for free? I don’t think so because if I do I am also telling them to promote the idea that animation is worthless and animation is many things but certainly not worthless. It is only worthless when people encourage the idea that people can work for free. It is wrong to work for free, no other industry would do it so why should we be the exception? There really is no excuse.

          • Phillip L Ward

            It’s still down to the individual choice and is certainly not wrong, That’s a matter of opinion . Some of the free work I’ve done have been for charity or other non-profit organisation, there is nothing wrong in this, it’s is very degrading to say otherwise.

            The individual needs to decide what’s best for them, what will be the best way to further their career and what might create opportunities. To say free work is an absolute ‘no’ I think is wrong. This can be applied to any job.

            Things like those compositions that others have spoke about aren’t really the sort of thing that would appeal to a graduate, But again if they decide it could be useful who are well to tell them otherwise? It’s better than sitting around not doing anything I believe.

            But whatever I say isn’t going to change your opinion.

          • Steve Henderson

            You might not be able to change my opinion (and I may not be able to change yours) but that does not mean I am not listening. I just don’t agree with your thinking sir.

            R.E Charity work, a relative of mine works for a charity he is on £35k a year and he is a junior. Charities make money and spend money just like any other organisation and people get paid just the same. Why should you not get paid? If the C.E.O of the company or anyone else in the business isn’t willing to work for free why are you?

            And I beleive an absolute no to working for free can be applied to any job, the individual should never work for free if the people hiring can afford to pay they bloody well should do. If it is a favour and not a “job” for your mum or whatever then that is completely different but if the person asking for work from you gets a wage then you should think twice before agreeing.

            We both agree that it is up to the individual however the individuals should be given the full picture and if the picture is presented by employers wanting free work the young impressionable graduates/people starting out are going to think it is the norm. Unfortunately it is now but it shouldn’t be and only we can change that with the right thinking.

          • Phillip L Ward

            I don’t disagree with you.
            The charity work I’ve been involved in has been for non-profit organisation.. nobody got paid, and if it was offered id give my wage to the charity itself anyway, but this is a special case I guess. (£35k a year is a lot, I live on 8k, clearly in the wrong job lol)

            I agree if there is a job available then a wage should be offered, absolutely. but I’ve known people who have asked to work for free when there hasn’t been a job, just to get the ‘experience’. I even did this when I was still in college, and personally the ‘on site’ experience did me the world of good.

          • Steve Henderson

            A non-profit organisation still earns and spends money. If they spend money on stationary and tea bags for the staff room they should spend money on animators. Simple. You appear to be duped by the words “charity” and “non-profit” as much as graduates are often duped by the words “good experience” and “helps pad out the C.V”. Offering up your own wage is personal choice but companies should pay animators when they use animation just as they would pay a plumber or painter and decorator working for the same organisation, a wishy washy “people should work for free if they want” approach gets us animators nowhere, there must be a similar mindset on this. Animators are awesome and need to hold themselves in higher regard and say no when people offer them free work for their “showreel”. If more people said no than yes to free work I think money for jobs would start to appear. That is core of my argument.

  • mayjay

    these companies have us recent graduates over a barrel. you only get paid work if you have experience and you only get experience by doing the jobs no one else will eg the free jobs and if you dont then someone else will and they will be the ones with the exp and then the paid jobs.

    • Katie Steed

      I know that it can suck having spent a fortune on a degree and still being expected to do work experience, but if you look at it from the company’s point of view, the problem is that graduates aren’t coming out of Uni with the necessary skills for the work place and so hiring them for their first job can sometimes prove to be time consuming, a waste of money and not worth the risk.

      The employer and the employee both need to benefit from work being given, and too often employees are only thinking about how they benefit.

      • mayjay

        i completely understand that companies want quality work, why wouldn’t they? but that is why we have show reels so they can make an informed decision on who to hire. also if they want quality why then ask people to work for free?

        • Katie Steed

          In my experience, if the showreel is quality enough to convince the employer that the applicant is good enough then they’ll pay – but if the showreel isn’t good enough (and they rarely are straight out of Uni) but the company still wants to give a graduate a chance to show what they can do, that’s when work experience is offered. The company rarely benefits from work experience as much as the employee does.

      • DisgruntledStudent

        I completely agree that graduates don’t leave Uni with the necessary skills. The quality of animation courses in this country really needs to improve. I’m very frustrated and disappointed with my course and lecturers who have cancelled every lecture we were promised at our interviews, and expect us to teach ourselves everything from The Illusion of Life and The Animator’s Survival Kit. These are fantastic resources of course, but I’m not paying £27,000 just to read these books.

    • Phillip L Ward

      You get experience by getting out there and doing it, the degree is the least important part of the puzzle, and I’ve work with company’s who would rather hire real artists than someone who’s just left “adult school” as some call it. Problem is youngster theses day don’t want to work hard, they don’t want to start from the bottom and work up.

  • Dyanne Cowley

    A really good article

  • Erika

    A wonderfully articulate article, I think anyone just starting in the animation industry (or any other creative proffession really) should read this!

Max Mörtl
One more time it's skwigly time. This one is with @robertloebel about his shorts LINK and ISLAND.
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Max Mörtl
If want to know more about our short ISLAND...listen to this. Thanks for the interview!
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