Long story short, I've sort of fallen into an animation career this past year, and I could really benefit from some sound advice about how to do this sort of thing "professionally". I don't consider myself a professional yet by any stretch, but I do really really enjoy animation, and I've fallen into the hands of a small company that wants me to keep making things for them. 

The biggest (and most uncomfortable) question I have is - How do you determine what to charge? I did not negotiate a very good contract at all for my first commercial project, and it ended up actually costing me money to make it. I don't mind though. I'm actually thrilled and lucky to get any creative work, especially animating! However, I'm being asked to do it again when I'm finished... twice... Gulp...

So how do I do this without becoming a traveling, homeless animator? Would you typically charge by an hourly rate? Daily rate? Length of the film or commercial? Flat rate?  I know there are many factors, but what is fair and reasonable to charge?

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I'm in a different country, so you can't strictly go by the rates here (in Australia).  When I worked on short films that had a small amount of public funding, I was charging a daily rate of $230 Australian dollars, which is about US $207.  I worked in their studios. I basically worked whatever hours it took to get the shot or shots done that day, so it varied between 9 and 14 hours, at just the flat rate.  They could only afford me for one or two days a week.  Working for commercials would usually pay more.  I got paid more when I worked full time at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation network too.  But this was for director/animators who ended up paying themselves virtually nothing, and had to take on some part time work outside the film project, to keep paying their own rent.  I think a pro rate for properly funded projects should be more like $300 per day.

I guess as a basic guide, ask yourself, if you have to spend a week working on something, and do nothing else that week, what does it cost you for a week's food, rent, electricity bill, health insurance?   Plus tools and materials for doing the job?  There has to be a basic minimum, maybe the minimum wage in your state, regardless of how inexperienced you are.   You look like you have some experience at modelmaking and illustration and should be worth more than a minimum rate.

I guess you have to tell them that it cost you money on that first project, and you can't do it for that amount again.  I'd want you to keep animating  or propsmaking too, if I paid you less than your expenses!  (Come to think of it, that probably accounts for most of my repeat customers...)

StopmoNick said:

...// I'd want you to keep animating  or propsmaking too, if I paid you less than your expenses!  (Come to think of it, that probably accounts for most of my repeat customers...)

Haha! Thank you, Nick. That gives me a much better perspective.

The first project worked out to be much less than minimum wage, but it was a foot in the door. I've been working through Fall and Winter as well, which is the slow season for film and tv work out here anyway. Although, I'd much rather be making animations than building sets or standing around on a set for hours doing nothing. So I will try to negotiate a better wage the second time around. Then maybe (just maybe) I can gradually replace the more boring work with more fulfilling work. 

The other question I have is a tricky one. I'm sure it's different for everyone, too. What's a good turnaround for the different stages of a stop-motion production?

I've been doing this little 30 second bumper myself, and it's taking me roughly 9 months for concept art, turnaround illustrations, multiple storyboard submissions, custom armature, stage and set building, etc... It's a bit of a special case though. I had a partner, and my partner lost interest at the start over creative differences with the client, but the client still wanted the "grand design" I'd planned for two people to execute. (It's amazing what a difference another pair of hands could make).  He also insisted he'd at least still build the set, but ended up dropping it altogether after 7 months of finding other things to do (like watching Game of Thrones. haha.)

Anyway, my point of sharing that is that my own experience is skewed. Had I known I'd be doing the whole thing from the start, I might have planned very differently, and might have even been closer to finishing (or finished) already. But what's done is done, and I'm only concerned about how to plan better and work more efficiently next time.

I made myself schedules and deadlines for this project, but I didn't meet any of them! HaHa... I based my estimates off of what I know from making props and building sets at full scale. I figured building smaller things would take less time than larger things, but I learned it could actually be the opposite. It took 2 weeks, with the help of 5 PAs, to build and dress a full scale office, a workshop, and a grungy basement. It's taken me 3 months to build a 7x4 foot scrolling forest, and there's still more work to be done! Yikes...

I work 12-16 hours a day, make fairly steady progress, but it feels like it still takes too long. Am I just being hard on myself? Or is this a fact of life for building miniatures?

The next short I've been commissioned for is a germinating seed growing into a plant, dropping another seed, then looping again and again. I have a much more simplified idea for a set this time, and I'll probably be doing some compositing so I have more control over that sort of animation. I *think* 2 months is reasonable, but my gut tells me it could end up being 3-4 months.

Again, I know everyone is different. I just feel like I'm excessively slow. What is a "good" turnaround that I should be striving to work toward without burning myself out?

That's a pretty rough introduction to stopmo film making!
I found, as a propsmaker and designer, that miniature scale didn't save much time over full scale sets. Each piece has the same set of operations needed to shape it. Making a small mould was only a little quicker than making a big mould. Mostly it saved in materials. With my miniature sets, I usually have to make nearly everything from scratch, but with full scale, we had access to a props store, or going out and buying or hiring stuff, to dress the sets. Exteriors could be shot in the real world, out in the street or in a forest, but there is a lot to make for a miniature forest. So there was more to make for miniature sets. Those ready made objects I could use - like 1:6 model motorcycles or a metal pencil sharpener in the form of a lantern - took a lot of hours of looking to find.

Overall, I was taking about 6 months to do a 5 minute animated film - make the puppets and sets, animate, and do post production. Things were generally not quite as finely finished as I would have liked, and some scenes were simpler than I first imagined, but I couldn't afford to take longer. I had done the storyboards before that, so that is from when I got approval, and knew what I had to do. To put it another way, I allowed a month per minute of finished animation, plus a month for post production. It often took very long days, and working 7 days a week, to get there. If I hired someone to work 8 hour days, I expected them to get about half as much done as i would, because I couldn't expect massive unpaid hours from them when it wasn't their project, and because I was faster at doing things my way, to the vision in my head. As I was budgeted for one assistant for 6 weeks on each 6 month production, that didn't speed things up a huge amount.
The amount of set and props is not completely dependent on running time, so a new production could be fairly simple, or have a lot to make. After taking 8 1/2 months on my first short, I set the next one in a small prison cell with one main character, to try and make up time. So it's hard to put a figure on how long it should take.

Well, I don't feel so overwhelmed anymore. It sounds like these things do take time, and I just don't have enough experience under my belt yet to gauge how much time it should take me. What you've shared sounds more reasonable though. For example I'm planning to try to squeeze post production into a week or two, but it's much more likely that it could take a month or so. I think for the next one I'll start logging my hours better. Maybe that would help me get familiar with my own speed.

It's funny that you decided to do a much smaller set for your second film, too. That's exactly how I feel after taking on this beast. haha. I may not even build much at all, just a small field in forced perspective, and a painting for a backdrop.

Out of curiosity, is the pencil sharpener lantern you used anything like this one? Because that's exactly what I'm using for a lantern in the forest short. I might make a mold out of it though and wire in a little light bulb. :)

Exactly like that one! I have a couple of them, bought at charity shops or weekend car park trash 'n treasure markets. That's why it takes time to find these things. But I painted them so they wouldn't be instantly recognisable as those cast metal pencil sharpeners.

StopmoNick said:

Exactly like that one! I have a couple of them, bought at charity shops or weekend car park trash 'n treasure markets. That's why it takes time to find these things. But I painted them so they wouldn't be instantly recognisable as those cast metal pencil sharpeners.

What are the chances, I wonder. A friend of mine found this one at a little antique shop, along with a couple others. The shopkeeper said they are pretty rare, but were very popular when they were first made.

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