Working for Free

Every now and again I see someone proclaiming that they don’t work for free as though it was a universal truth… And whether they are referring to the film industry or other industries, I’d like to suggest a slightly different take on the subject simply because based on my own experience there will be plenty of times in your career that you definitely should at least consider working for free. And bear in mind everything I have ever contributed to this blog was/is unpaid work… so if you don’t believe in working for free, then please be honest with yourself and stop reading. this blog. ever. Because it is created through unpaid work and accordingly it would be hypocritical of you to engage with it.

To even be asked to work for free seems to rile some people – they take it almost as an insult, and while examples like the diagram on this website are kind of funny, taken literally many of the responses could almost be a means of revealing the kind of person I wouldn’t want to work with, paid or not… But it is certainly a subject that has no shortage of debate:


3.5 billion results!?! Really? Oh well, now theres going to be 3.5 billion and one!

As with most things in life there is no definitive answer – it ALWAYS DEPENDS ON CONTEXT. And while a paying job might seem like a no brainer decision in comparison, that is simply not the case either – due diligence is required whether a project is fully funded, partially funded or completely no budget. Taking on a paid project with a toxic producer or director could well be more destructive than working for free… So that is our starting point: due diligence.
What does the project involve? What are the people like? Do you trust them? Do you feel you can collaborate with them? Do they respect what it is that you will contribute? Why are you being asked to work for free, and what does the person asking actually mean by free.

Any work you do, paid or not, is basically an investment; an investment of your time, energy and skills. Now if you have no time available then why even engage with this debate, but if you do have available time then it is possible a worthy project might come along and require you to engage with the idea. But even if you are prepared to consider such a project, its also important to consider your hard costs because free might not actually be free – in the hard light of day it may be that you are actually paying to work. Lets say you take on an unbudgeted short film and spend a week on it, and say you have agreed to do it for free. Who pays the rent for that week? The power bill? These are just the basics but if the producer isn’t paying you anything at all then the answer is you are – you are paying to work on the project. Working for free in this scenario is not working for free, it is paying to work.

The second aspect is that I believe it is dangerous to work for free without any acknowledgement of what it is you are specifically investing. If the project was a paying job, what would the realistic budget be for your work? Once you’ve worked that out, how many hours of work does that relate to? so now you have some parameters of your investment, and when discussing the idea of working for free you are now able to discuss with the producer what are the possible scenarios for that investment being acknowledged, because an important part of budgeting is setting boundaries and managing expectations.

The danger is that if you sign up for a project to work for free, without any parameters then you open yourself to exploitation. People won’t turn up on time, the media/EDLs/turnovers etc won’t be handled properly, the project will consume more time than you agreed to etc etc..

So while I’ve been talking hypothetically, lets consider a real world example. There is a great local website called THE BIG IDEA that provides local arts coverage and a free platform for advertising projects and work, paid and unpaid. I subscribe to an rss feed from it, just out of interest….. and today the ad below appeared:


Ok, so what is your immediate reaction to this?

It is being upfront and stating that the project is unpaid, but why would you take offence at that? If you don’t have time available to work on it then get over yourself & ignore it… But what if you do have time available and the project appeals, what steps would you take to decide whether to potentially invest in the project?

For me, the first step would be a meeting. This is effectively a job interview – you are pitching to do this project. But given the scenario, you are also interviewing them.

1. Research. Check out the website & people. Does the project, subject matter, story and execution excite you?

2. Email contact. Register interest, enthusiasm, credit list & show reel. Request meeting.

3. Meetings – there are a few key people you will want to meet with, first:

3.1 The director: What is their vision & aspirations for the project? Style, aesthetics, approach? What do they consider good sound? Have they already shot sound & if so are they happy with the dialogue performances? What films do they consider inspiring? (& do they bother to ask you for yours?) Are they open to collaboration & what is their process for giving feedback? (I’ve worked with some VFX people who want to treat sound like its some kind of media props, issuing lists of things to be done & then issuing notes for changes. I don’t find this approach collaborative or fun, so what do they mean by ‘virtual workflow’?)
Also: literally how much work do they imagine is involved?
(you’re the sound editor – you know how long it takes to do your work! Does their estimate seem realistic? Remember if the project gets funded they will likely use this allocation when budgeting the paid job that you want!)

3.2 The producer: Whats the budget? The ad says its unpaid but who covers your hard costs – electricity, rent etc? Who owns the content you create? What commitment is there for ongoing work? If the project sells, what is the deal? Do you provide invoices for deferred payment? Or do you get points in the project? How do you get reimbursed?
Also as with the director, literally how much work do they imagine is involved? (Remember if the project gets funded they will likely use this allocation when budgeting the paid job – be careful!)

3.3 The editor and/or post supervisor: Whats the workflow? What do they mean by ‘virtual workflow’? Is the process through sound post established? Can they provide full rez AAF/OMFs and EDLs so versions can be tracked & audio conformed? What is the final release format? Has dialogue been recorded properly – technically & performance?

The meeting from part 3.1 will dictate whether it is worth having the other meetings….

The aspects of this project that would set off alarm bells for me is:

– they have a tight schedule

– VFX are ALWAYS late, this project will likely require some late nights!

– if you do the work and everyone is happy with the outcome, what guarantee is there that you will get further paid work? They may end up with a facility investment deal for a series which may potentially eliminate you from further work… How can you insure this investment is rewarded?

From the meetings, if everyone is potentially happy to move forward I think I would ask to do the sound post of a short clip, as a test case for you and them, before committing. Talk is cheap, check out what they are like to work with before committing…


As I mentioned at the start of this rant: Context is everything. Some people don’t work for free. Some people might, but can’t due to available free time (thats me!) But what is the potential if you are an up & coming sound editor who is between jobs and has time to commit?

A great outcome could lead to some paid work, some great material for your show reel, a credit, establish relationships with a production company and a lot of creative individuals any of whom may lead to further work… AND you will get to exercise your art, evolve your skills and take pride in your work…

All of these are a lot more than nothing, which is all you’d have from those ten days with no other work if you followed that funny and/or lame flowchart!

moral of story: you aren’t working for free, you are an investor so think like an investor and do your DUE DILIGENCE!

9 Responses to Working for Free

  1. Mark says:

    Great post Tim and I agree definitely not as black and white as all free work = bad and all paid work = good. I saw another ad on TBI today for a TV show Auckland Daze who were looking for a runner to work unpaid. I think there’s a definite line between the example you used in this post (a creative job that has some value for whoever takes it) and that Auckland Daze one (a job that should really be an internship or minimum wage position).

    It seems like that ad was taken down now.

    I’ve found paid work can very often feel unfulfilling and, as a student, enjoy having less pressure / responsibility as well as greater potential for learning from unpaid or personal projects.

  2. Great post, that applies to any & all freelance creatives really. But equally, it points out to the people asking us to work on their projects just how important their pitch for crew is! If they get the other elements right, it is possible to get top crew to volunteer their time – to convince someone that this project is so good, they NEED to be involved.

    I’ve been convinced myself, at times, and done work for free or next to it without regret – but I’ve also turned down a lot of requests that didn’t give me enough reasons why it’d be worth my underwriting their costs, or coming on board as a sponsor – as well as crew…

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  4. I’m one of those other 3.5 billion posts, Tim. Though I fall on the same side that you do. Context is everything. In my post, I did say never work for free, but I included the caveat that “payment” doesn’t necessarily have to equate to money. If what you can get out of a project happens to be something you value, and you have the availability to take on that project, it can be a rewarding experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject.

  5. Stephen says:

    This is a great post, Tim.

    Many thanks indeed.

  6. Jon Clark says:

    Excellent recommendations! I’m sharing these with my classes.
    After years of working on video games and doing post production, I’ve had the opportunity in the last couple of years to record a large symphonic band. I do it for free and sell them a few CD’s if they want them, but I’ve learned a LOT about recording large ensembles! context is everything.

  7. This post is great. It has laid down in (virtual) print, all my thoughts on the subject, so I absolutely concur with you Tim.

    As I am still starting out and trying to gain as much experience/credit etc as possible. The Majority of the work that I do is unpaid. However, I always think about time consumption and what I will take away from the project. There is no doubt that I will learn something new, each and every project brings new problems/solutions with it and this is why I am happy to work for free. The experience of resolving issues, or even producing something that makes the director/producer smile. This is often payment enough for me.

    I work a minimum wage job that allows me a decent amount of time to undertake projects as well as pay rent and survive on a healthy amount of rice. So I usually choose my projects based on what I think I will enjoy and learn from the most.

    Initially I would take anything and everything, just to have something to do. This led to some horrible experiences and results, but I learned from them none the less. I also made some great contacts and completed some fantastic projects with people that I am proud to have worked with. I am still in touch with these people now.

    I currently work for a non profit Radio theatre company as a sound editor (all my work here is unpaid) and by working with this company I have have obtained some really fun and interesting paid work.

    So I guess there is, and always will be two sides to this argument. I am on the side of “working for free is extremely beneficial”, and I will continue to work for free as long as it is not costing me money to do it, or if the project introduces unnecessary stress that affects my personal and professional life.

    I am willing to undertake as much work as possible, that will allow me to build my experience and hone my skills – as you say keeping active with work keeps you sharp and current.

    I was initially very naive when trying to get ahead within audio post, and it was only after applying for your virtual internship, that I realised I wasn’t working nearly as hard as I should have been to get ahead. Over the last year I have completed many projects and learnt a hell of a lot in the process. This is thanks to working for free.

    I think people who are starting out, who refuse or argue against doing free work are usually full of self entitlement and often want the world without having to work for it. As we all know, nothing that’s worth having comes for free.

    Thanks for writing this article, I shall be directing people here when this conversation crops up in future.

    Cheers again Tim.

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