An Interview with a Successful Freelancer

An Interview with a Successful Freelancer

Matt Sackley is a Freelance Animator based out of Chicago, IL. Here, we ask him about his career to help give a 'behind the scenes' look at what it takes to be a successful freelancer. 

He has spent the past 4.5 years animating for various studios such as a The Mill, Carbon VFX, Framestore, Wizart and many others. He has experience working on films, tv series, and commercials. Some of the clients he has completed work for include: Nike, Nintendo, Disney/Pixar, and countless others. 

He attended Purdue University for his Bachelors degree in Animation and Visual Effects and continued his education through Animation Mentor. 

When not animating he loves traveling, cooking, working out and spending time with his wife.

Q. Can you tell us how it began for you? When, in your opinion, did you join the art community? What was your ‘big break.’

It all probably started when I was around 6 years old and saw Toy Story for the first time. I didn’t quite know I wanted to be an animator, but I just was so blown away by that movie. I eventually learned that there were people that made that movie as their job. Ever since then, I was hooked on that combination of art and technology coming together. I tried to learn as much as I could about computer graphics when I was younger, starting in middle school dabbling with web design early versions of Photoshop and eventually 3DS Max during high school.

I attended Purdue University for college. At Purdue I got to experience a little bit of every part of the CG process. When I got to do character animation that is where I really fell in love. The ability to take a static character and breathe life into it with my own ideas and personality was just awesome. I really haven’t looked back since.

After finishing my Bachelor’s degree at Purdue, I had a pretty good foundation in the whole CG pipeline, but I really didn’t learn enough about the art of character animation to be able to get a job in the industry. So I decided to continue my education through an online mentorship program at Animation Mentor. Through this program, I spent another 1.5 years being trained and mentored working animators at all the major Feature and VFX animation studios, such as Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, ILM,  and many more! It was the most intense, inspiring, and best decision I made for my career. I really owe a lot of my success to that program and my mentors. 

So I’d say I’ve always been in the “art” community, maybe not the professional one, but I’ve definitely always love to create. My biggest break, however, wouldn’t come until many years later when, I landed my first professional animation job!

Q. How did you transition from student to professional?

Being a student I knew that in order to get into the animation/vfx industry I had to have a good demo reel to land a job. So my biggest goal when I was in Animation Mentor was to make sure I had a demo reel completed with only my best work, so I could start to apply for jobs as soon as I finished. I also knew that sometimes even the best reel isn’t enough. I would definitely need a little bit of luck and the right timing to get that first job. While I was still early on in my training at AM, I made sure to start talking to my classmates and alumni from the program. Networking is important, folks! Thanks to some great advice from alumni of the program on how to proactively reach out to the right people using Linkedin, I was able to successfully land my very first animation job. It took about 1 month after finishing Animation Mentor before I got that job. During that time, I continued practicing and making new work. Using a combination of having a sufficient reel to get the job, and also contacting the right people at just the right time, it worked out.

My first job was as a Freelance Animator working (remotely) on a Netflix Children’s TV series for a studio called Wizart Animation out of Moscow, Russia. It was truly an awesome experience. 

Q. How did your goals then compare to your goals now?

As a student, my goals were to just get into the industry. I was willing to work on any type of work as long as I could start getting professional experience. I was focused on trying to learn as much as I could about animation so that I could be good enough to get that first industry job.

As I started working in the industry, my goals have changed to be more about improving my skills in specific styles of animation and types of work such as, cartoony, naturalistic or even creature work. I also have been learning more about other areas of the pipeline such as tracking, camera animation, layout and pre-visualization in order to have more tools at my disposal.

Q. At the start of your career you worked remotely for international companies, what did you enjoy about the work? How did you land some of those jobs?

Working remotely wasn’t my first choice, especially starting out in the industry, but at the time, I was living in a very small beach town in Florida. There was ZERO animation industry near me, and I wasn’t able to move, so I had to find a way to work in animation remotely.

That first job with Wizart Animation was the perfect setup for me. I was lucky enough to get hired on to that show at the very beginning of production for the first season of YOKO. This project went on for nearly 2.5 years. I animated hundreds of shots over that time and learned so much in the first couple of years working professionally.  I also was given the chance to help out with their Feature Film department on a few scenes towards the end of production on their movie, “The Snow Queen 3”. Working with Wizart was an amazing opportunity and really allowed me to progress in my career. 

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I worked with a team of other freelance animators who all had a wealth of experience and knowledge to share, as well as a very supportive Animation Supervisor, who acted as another mentor for me in the early days. The actual process of working was great, too. With the tools we have today to keep track of files and production needs, working remotely is really quite seamless.  Remote work had its own perks, too; no long commutes, flexible hours, and the ability to not have to live in an expensive city. However, the downsides are that you may not always have the easiest time finding work, unless you are truly a veteran in the industry. The big studios still primarily work with only in-house artists, and only the select few rock star artists get to work remotely. However, there are plenty of smaller studios willing to work with remote artists, because it can save them a lot of money in overhead. 

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After working with Wizart, I continued to work remotely for other studios around the world on some smaller advertising jobs and eventually another TV series. Every job I have ever gotten was because of networking and word-of-mouth. When your only option is to work remotely, you cannot be afraid to reach out to studios for work. I am not afraid to reach out to recruiters, animation supervisors, hiring managers and producers to introduce myself. Of course, your work has to be good enough, but, you never know when the right person will see your message and bring you in for a job! 

Q. What did you find most difficult about freelancing?

As a freelancer, you are responsible for finding your own work. That means you need to always be looking for that next gig. Staying in contact with your clients and keeping them posted on your availability is almost a daily task. It is very rare to find work that lasts more than a few weeks to a couple of months at a time. It is crucial to build your network, because you never know who may have job for you. I’d say the thing I like least about freelancing is this unpredictability. However, it also forces you to not get too comfortable, and always be improving your skills and building your network. 

Q. What about the best part of freelancing?

It is definitely the freedom that comes with it! The ability to choose how much you work is certainly nice. If you are budgeting properly and feel comfortable with your situation, you can decide to take a month off and travel if you wanted to. Also, it is really fun to get to work with various different studios. Every studio is unique, and you get to meet so many awesome people. It really helps you build your network, because you are exposed to a lot more people around the industry. You are also able to work on a larger variety of projects. If you are permanent staff at a studio, you are limited to the work that particular studio brings in, and not all studios do the same style of work, so if you want to work in other styles or mediums you may have a hard time doing so.

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Q. What ultimately led you to work for studios in-house? 

While I am still a freelance animator, I have spent the past two years working almost entirely in-studio, except for a couple of remote jobs to fill in some gaps between in-house gigs. It is really all because in 2016, my wife and I moved back to my home city of Chicago, because she was offered a new job up here. Chicago has always had a pretty good sized animation and creative industry, due to the large amount of advertising agencies here in the city. So when I finally was going to be in a city with studios I could actually work with in-person, I hit the ground running. I put together a new reel with my work from my remote jobs over the years, spiced up the resume a little bit, and immediately started reaching out to studios here in Chicago. Once again, thanks to LinkedIn and some lucky timing, I was able to get in contact with the animation supervisor at The Mill. A couple days later I had my first in-house gig! Since then I have had the chance to work with The Mill, Carbon VFX, and Framestore on a regular basis here in Chicago.

Q. If you were to give students and/or ambitious artists advice on working as they grow what would it be?

Keep working! Just keep creating, every test, every new piece you do is putting you that much closer to your goal. Do not be afraid to ask for feedback, do it early and do it often. It might be scary, but get used to it! You will get a whole lot of feedback everyday as a professional. Do not get too attached to your work, understand that it will change constantly until it is approved. Learn to take those notes, apply them, and make the work better. Understand that it is a team effort in most cases, and everyone is striving for the same goal; to put out the best work. 

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help! As a student you are not expected to know everything. Lean on your mentors, professors, and fellow students when you need to. Lastly, understand that everyone’s path is different, and some students will walk right out of school into amazing jobs, while most will not. Many will give up along the way, but if you really want to work in this industry, you just have to trust that if you keep working and improving, you will eventually get in. Just keep going! 

Q. Now that you’re primarily in studio what do you love about it?

I love being surrounded by so many other talented people who all have different experiences and backgrounds. The animation industry is truly a diverse one with people from all walks of life! It is amazing being surrounded by other people who all have a passion for this art like yourself. It is so fun to see the work other departments are doing and learn from them as well. I may be working as animator, but when you get to interact with people in the other departments and learn how your work affects them and vice versa, it really opens up your eyes to how it all comes together in the end. I also really enjoy the feeling of camaraderie that comes with being in-house. Going to lunches, Friday evening beers, or even just being in the trenches late at night on a project is more fun when you’ve got others right there with you, hammering it out. This is something that is definitely missed when working from home.  You really feel like you are a part of the team when you are there in-person versus remotely. 

Q. Can you explain which type of project you prefer to work on? Commercial/Advertising or Film/TV? What are the major differences you’ve found?

I don’t know if I have a preference; they all have their fun parts and challenges. With the Film and TV series projects, I definitely enjoyed getting into the story, because we had so much time to develop a character over the course of a film or series. With Advertising work, the run time is typically only 15-60seconds to tell the story, so you might not develop the character as much. But, at the same time, getting to work with iconic brands is pretty awesome. 

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Also, I really like variety. In advertising, you can work on something very cartoony one job, and then a couple weeks later you might be working on a photo-real creature. With Film/series projects, you are working on that same project for a lot longer, so you might not be working in as many styles as quickly. The biggest difference is probably the deadlines. Film and TV series deadlines are much longer than a typical commercial. The actual process of animating doesn’t change too much, though. Either way, I’m still focusing on great poses, acting choices, timing, and spacing!

Q. What is your favorite project you’ve worked on? Why? 

That is a hard one! Every project has a special spot in my heart, but if I had to choose, it is probably the series of ads I did for Super Mario: Odyssey. Getting to animate Mario, who is quite possibly one of the most iconic video game characters in history, was an honor and so much fun. I learned a ton on this job and it was also my first time working in-house.

Q. In 5 years what does your career look like?

It has always been a goal of mine to work as a staff animator at a studio; I really enjoy being part of a team. I would love to get the opportunity to be staff at a studio and really contribute and grow within a company. Freelancing has been great for me and I will happily continue to do so until I get the chance at a staff job. 5 years from now, I’ll be approaching my 10th year as a professional, so I’d also love to be given the chance to work as a Lead Animator on a job one day.

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists out there?

Put in the work, never stop learning and network! The creative industries are challenging, and ultra competitive but also very rewarding. The hours can be long, but the feeling of seeing your work on the big screen, TV, or video game is really something special. You will have many bumps in the road along the way, days when you feel like you might not ever be good enough. We have all been there. Just keep your head up and keep working!

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In terms of networking, just remember to be yourself, build genuine relationships with people and don’t be rude -- EVER! It is a small industry, and you don’t want to have the reputation of being a rude person. Be kind to everyone, and try and be as helpful as possible. You never know who will return the favor and help you out some day! Attend conferences, local meet-ups, take classes, and just keep building that network. It is pivotal and will likely help you stay employed as an artist. Always try to have some fun with your work. Even when there are tough projects and you are feeling the pressure, stay positive. The end results are worth it! You are creating art after all; it is supposed to be fun!

Follow Matt on Instagram or his website.