A few weeks ago, I got together for lunch with a friend of mine who is an editor and after the usual chit chat the conversation naturally transitioned to talking shop.
‘I’m just so fucking mad! I’ve somehow got a client base that I dread working with, I don’t like the people, I don’t like the projects. About the only thing that I still like about what I do is editing – I still love that, but the rest of it’ she quipped ‘I hate it!’
If you’ve worked in a creative business for long enough like editing, mixing, coloring, etc., you’ve probably experienced something similar – that ache that you dislike some of your clients, you don’t like their projects and you really just want to be done with them, BUT you need them to earn a living and survive.
After talking to my friend for an hour I realized that only a few years ago I was in her same spot with many of my clients. In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that conversation – my previous experience with clients and how it can be easy to fall into the trap of disliking your clients and projects you’re working on.
So, in this Insight, I’d like to share some ways to fight client/project hate.
#1 Weed Out The Low Dollar & Unprofitable Jobs
One of the best lessons I’ve learned from my MixingLight business partner Patrick Inhofer is ‘I don’t take jobs I’m going to resent’.
What Patrick means are jobs that are much lower than market value, or don’t have any alternative value – like use of footage for a tutorial or something similar.
Maybe due to a slow period or just an aversion to the word no, we’ve all taken on jobs that somewhere in the back of your mind you knew that you shouldn’t have taken. Five hundred dollars for an hour-long film? $150 and a six-pack for a music video? There is almost no chance that you’ll look back on a job like that and feel good about it. Here are some benchmarks I’ve been using to avoid falling into the race to the bottom trap:
Never do anything for less than 1 hour of your actual rate
In other words, have a minimum charge for any task. If it takes me 30sec to output a 60sec spot with one minor change – that’s an hour. Some clients will push back and ask for fractional hourly rates, but my logic is any task from conception to completion can be rationalized as an hour if looked at as a multi-step thing.
Sure, it takes 30 sec to output a spot but if you consider the 5min spent to take the phone call, or read the email about the request, finish what you were doing, load the project, make the change, check the change, output the spot, upload the spot, call or email the client and then switch back to what you were doing – yeah I consider that an hour no matter what.
Does your estimate have wiggle room? Or profit built-in?
If I watch down a project and think it’ll take me 6 hours to grade, what happens if it takes me 7 or 8? Projects that you were too tight in your estimates (especially if you’re flat bidding) are more likely candidates to be ones you resent because you’ll probably just need to eat those additional hours.
There are two ways to handle this – pad your estimate by an hour or two, or what I do is provide a range for the client in the estimate. Instead of 6 hours, I’ll say 6-8 hours. Six hours representing the best (and hopefully likely case if you’re good at estimates), but up to 8 if the project requires more work or the client throws a curve ball.
I tend to keep my ranges to two or three-hour blocks as to not have a huge cost deviation for the client. While there are a couple of different approaches to building an hourly rate, I’m often surprised by how many people’s hourly rates don’t incorporate profit. If your rate is just for your time alone, then you need to consider building in profit into project bids – not doing so will absolutely have you resenting a project.
Review past jobs
Every quarter I like to look back at my books and get an idea of the average project cost, and the average amount of hours spent on projects. While I’m just like everyone else and take on small jobs, if those jobs are dominating my quarter it’s a good sign that I’m not getting the right kind of jobs in. If you’re doing a lot of small, lower dollar jobs it may be time to re-access the types of projects that you’re going after. Take a look at your rates or how you’re bidding.
I know every project isn’t going to be a Marvel film, but simply saying yes to every small job is NOT playing the volume game. Playing the volume game is about doing a lot of mid-dollar and profitable jobs. Don’t take jobs you’re going to resent.
#2 Don’t Work With People Who Don’t Respect You
When I was a kid, after my Dad disciplined me for doing something stupid and I’d offer the typical kid retort of ‘I hate you!’ My dad would respond with ‘you don’t have to like me, but you need to respect me’.
Forty years later, my Dad’s response has stuck with me and informs my relationships with clients.
We’ve all had clients that could best be described as difficult or perhaps particular. I can deal with tough clients and I don’t ever expect to become good pals with my clients either (although it’s nice when that happens), but if a client doesn’t respect me, the creative work I do and what my opinion does for the project, then I don’t want to work with them.
Earlier this year, I had a client who’s a one-man band production company hired me to grade a short 8-minutes piece. After a discussion about the project, digesting some references, and a few test grades, I set out grading the project. Even after all the preparation I applied to the project, when the client came into the review session he hated everything. Not once did he have constructive comments on my grade, but rather offered ‘I have to Resolve too, I really want it to look like this’ as he motioned to the Resolve viewer on his laptop.
I’ve faced this kind of thing before, but usually can find a way to improve on the client’s approach (which often lacks consistency). But this particular client literally wanted me to take drxs from his project and apply them to shots. He wouldn’t accept any modifications.
I eventually asked ‘why did you hire me if you just want to use your grades?’. He said ‘because you have much better monitors than I do!’ ARRRGH! If that was the case he should have rented the room, and not hired me as the artist. Needless to say I felt a best mislead, but actually really disrespected. He and I have not worked together again although he’s called several times.
You know the stereotypical story of the client who thinks that if they yell at you or at least louder than you, that’s somehow a way to motivate & inspire you? If I wanted to have a drill sergeant in my suite I would have joined the army. Furthermore, I won’t accept belittling and creative insecurity. Last month I started work on a 22 min short with a new director and our initial online reviews went great – some small comments here there, but nothing out of the ordinary. When the director came into the suite things took a wild turn.
The first set of complaints was about my equipment ‘oh, if I had known you weren’t using Sony displays I would have hired a proper post facility’ – OK, whatever I can scientifically prove my displays are accurate. Next came explosive (and unnecessary use) of expletives during our watch down – ‘What the fuck man! What the fuck is wrong with you! Why is that sky so blue!’
Finally, came the demonstration and lashing out typical with creative insecurity ‘I don’t know what the fix is, but what you’ve done is shit’ – this after I offered two or three solutions for a problematic shot.
I know some of you might disagree that you could put up with pretty much anything if the money is right, but not me. I don’t need that noise! The work we do should be collaborative and respectful, if you have assholes for clients it’s just not worth it in my opinion.
In many ways, refusing to work with people who don’t respect you, is respecting yourself. I simply don’t have time for assholes. I don’t subscribe to the idea that creative work ALWAYS has to be a struggle. Even when creative work is a struggle, it can still be accomplished with respectful collaboration.
#3 Bid On Projects You Believe In
I used to joke with colleagues that if a show had murder or forensics in the title, I probably graded it. For years, I worked on reality true crime – you know the type of show – interview of a police officer, or the district attorney, then cut to a heavily effected flashback scene that ends with a smoking gun or drops of blood on a knife, then cut to detectives in the field and the coroner doing coroner stuff in the lab.
For a long time, these shows/series paid the bills, but you know what?
Working on them became so formulaic, and their redeeming social value so low, that I feel like they actually changed my outlook on the world! In other words, I got burned out them and longed for something that was better. Around this time, I started seeking out projects about subjects or with messages that I believed in or on some level inspired me. Things like conservation, equality, but even less serious stuff like biofilms on artists, musicians and other people who have or bring joy and hope to the world.
You’re never going to love every project you work on, but finding ones that motivate you and make you feel better about your world view has positive benefits:
- You’ll likely do better work – I was an average high-school student because I couldn’t stand simply regurgitating information. When I got to college and into studio recording and later color, I got nearly straights As. Why? Because I loved the work. If you work on projects that you feel passionate about (really on any level) I can almost guarantee you’ll do better work and be very proud of that work.
- Work feels less like work – when you’re working on something that you’re emotionally invested in work becomes less like work and more like a craving or a need – something you have to complete. Recently, when grading a film on famed artist Marcel Duchamp, I couldn’t wait to get to the office every day to grade – because I ‘needed to’ see the images develop and learn more about the odd and interesting life of Duchamp – a 10 hour day felt like an hour or two.
If you’re struggling with projects that really don’t fulfill you, I’d urge you to seek out projects you can believe in. While doing so can be a bit challenging here some ways that I’ve built up relationships with clients that are doing work I relate with:
I’m fascinated by nearly every sort of scientific field. So years ago I started cold emailing and calling production companies producing shows that I really liked that were science and natural history-based. These days I grade shows ranging from complex particle physics to compelling arguments on consciousness. In addition, I’ve been lucky to work on a lot of projects related to air and space travel. All of these relationships started with an email or phone call after finding the producer or production company’s name in the credit.
There are advocacy, policy groups and companies for everything!
From big topics like climate change & energy use to conservation and consumer rights, there is no shortage of advocacy and policy groups around the globe. Identifying these groups and getting in touch is a great way to score work.
Sure, I get it, doing a video on reef conservation might not be as sexy as a Roger Deakins lensed film, but trust me, these groups often have large grants and can pay well.
In addition, there are plenty of for-profit companies that have missions, and those missions have content that needs to be graded. I recently talked to a buddy who was grading videos for a beer company – not to sell beer, but for suppliers around the world to better understand their corporate sustainability practices -it was a high dollar job.
A partnership of belief
Yeah, I know I sound like a dirty hippie, but sometimes the only way you get to work on projects you believe in is by partnering with filmmakers. Over the past several years, I’ve worked with passionate, and what I think are visionary filmmakers that I just want to be a part of their films.
So, to that end, I’ve had skin in the game with their projects – meaning that I’ve invested in those projects, not a lot, but something. That has made me feel incredibly connected to the creative process and people who are passionate about creative endeavors – and that has been worthwhile and fulfilling.
To be honest, I don’t care how you do it, but do work, even if it’s only every once and a while that makes you feel good and makes you feel like you’re making a difference. It will give you a buffer for all those projects where you’re challenging your limits of desire and commitment.
#4 Push Your Boundaries
Over time, its really easy to get sucked into a particular niche. Short-form – spots & music videos, long-form – TV, features, etc., but I think the most successful colorists recognize grading is grading and switching it up every once in a while is helpful for keeping one’s creative juices flowing, and remaining attached and invigorated to the challenges of color grading.
Dave Hussey of Company 3 is widely regarded as one of the most successful, and most talented colorists in the world.
Dave’s breadth of work is really astounding, and the clients, directors, & DPs he’s worked with, are like a who’s who of the creative elite. One of the things that has always amazed me about Dave is that he can go from grading a music video for Taylor Swift, a car commercial for Cadillac to a feature with the same high-level artistry. Tom Poole (also at Company 3) is another person about which the same could be said.
These guys and the many men and women who do amazing work at the biggest grading houses in the world have expertise and focus – that’s a given. But what has always amazed me about these top artists is how they transition between different challenges, while bringing their own personal style to every project.
So, how do you do this on your own – take on work you’re not comfortable with…simple as that.
If your a commercial colorist, grade a feature. If you’re grading lots of long-form, grade commercials. Not only will this switch up change your grading style and possibly the tools that you use, but it’ll also give you a creative challenge that will hopefully get you over any static creative period and help you prevent resenting the day in, day out the monotony of the work you do.
#5 Duh! It’s About The Hours
Let’s wrap up this article with a nod to the obvious – you work too much. And when you work too much you end up resenting the work.
In July 2019, after tracking my hours I worked, I touched a project or otherwise did work for my business (invoicing, proposals, grading etc) 317.25 hours! On average there are about 730.5 hours per month of total time. Yeah so I worked almost half of all available time for the month – I HATED JULY.
Here’s an easy way to not resent the work you do – set boundaries and set working hours. Yea…I can hear all of you saying “but it doesn’t work like that”. Yes, it does. You’re just a pleaser, fixer or whatever other adjectives you want to apply. Your bank isn’t open 20 hours a day, either is your car dealership. The burrito place down the street – they aren’t either. Why are you?
It may feel like you’re on the hook around the clock, but you aren’t. The moment you set up the standard with clients that you’re available all the time, that’s the moment they walk all over you! To be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t exercise scheduling flexibility from time to time – but what I am saying is that you’re not an all-night diner – unless you have 3 or 4 shifts of people to work around the clock.
More so than any other aspect when it comes to project management – resenting time applied to a project, is definitely the number one thing creatives end up resenting.
Here are my suggestions for effective time management so you don’t resent what you do:
- 10 hours max per day – yea, yea I hear the push back on this. You’re right and you’re wrong. If it’s your choice to work an 18 hour day, I’m cool with it, we’ve all been there. If it’s your client’s to demand an 18 hour day that’s a problem as far as I’m concerned.
- Not spending time with your spouse, partner, significant other and kids is unacceptable – I’ve said it a lot here over the years on Mixing Light – TV & making films shouldn’t be a life or death choice. No grade, revision or reformat for social media should take me away from those I love more than once in a while. Make time for these people no matter what. At the end of the day, they’re all that matters.
- Take time off – contrary to popular belief that there is no downtime in post, in my 20+ years of grading taking time off has never had serious negative consequences. Sure, I may have missed out on a job or two, but taking time off to recharge has never alienated me from clients, and never lead to long-term loss of work. However, taking time off has afforded me the necessary time to refresh my mind, body, and soul to get back in the grading suite.
At the end of the day, the work we do as colorists should be challenging – but fun. Clients should push you – but not break you. Your work can and should be fulfilling.
With a little bit of effort, you can manage not to resent projects and clients and be happy to step into the suite each day.
If you have something to add to the conversation or a question please use the comments below.