Becoming an Old Freelancer – Mental & Emotional Health

Originally, the idea on sustainability and becoming an Older Freelancer dealt mostly – I thought – with finances. I'm on the back side of my thirties at this point and spending more and more time thinking about what this line of work looks like into my 40s, 50s, and past that.

Not sure what this looks like to you, but if you're planning to stick around as a freelancer – especially if you're married and/or have kids – you’ve got to be intentional about keeping your mental and emotional well-being in check. Obviously freelance creatives aren't the only ones susceptible to depression and anxiety issues, but as a freelancer myself I've gone through it, I know that it's a thing, and learned ways to cope with it.

I do want to add as well that I'm happily married to my best friend and we've got two young boys; My mental and emotional health very much impacts our home life as well as our friends and family and the people I get to work with.

By no means am I a qualified medical and/or mental health professional, but there are people who are and they are literally there to help. I went through a season of deep depression after college and came out in a better place thanks to a licensed professional counselor. I've also gone through a short season of taking prescription medication to help with depression. I've had quite a few conversations with other freelancers I've worked with over the years and I know I'm not alone in dealing with anxiety and depression. Thank God I lucked out and got a wife who can read me and knows when I'm close to my mental and emotional limits.

There are seasons where I’m a hot-mess emotionally and the winter and early spring are typically the toughest. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing. The aftermath of holiday bills is a thing too. Oh, and the typical client work and cashflow slowdown after the holidays isn't helpful either.

You've got to figure out your thing. For me, my mental and emotional panacea during the winter and early spring is running. Those first few years in full-time freelancing were especially tough and I started running as a mental break while preparing for the LSAT exam. I figured law school would help me to become an adult and get a "real job," but the best things to come out of that season of studying were knowing I didn't need to be in law school and the importance of healthy mental breaks now and then.

Since I started running in fall 2011, I've run two full-marathons and six halfs. The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon is in late April, so the training schedule starting January 1 each year with the OKC Running Club is quite the antithesis to my seasonal depression. Running allows me to veg out and just focus on breathing and not falling down vs. being mentallly overwhelmed by family, personal, and professional responsibilities. I know all those things will still be there when I finish my run, but that break is a godsend.

Some less physically demanding coping mechanisms are spending time with friends outside my family and work circles, my Moleskine notebook, and foam earplugs. As a parent with young kids I don't get as much time outside work and family, so those times are gold. Journalling has always been an outlet for me to mentally work through the good and the bad of whatever is going on. The ear plugs are there when I need some quiet and help focusing.

Another means of keeping myself in check knowing when to shut off the social media. Theodore Roosevelt's "comparison is the thief of joy" is a much more eloquent way of saying "comparison is a bitch." I typically distance myself from people who're self-promoters and opportunists, so I tend to not follow accounts that are the same. I saw a couple Instagram Story posts from Oren Soffer the other day dealing with anxiety that I thought were helpful.

"...[don't] let yourself get overwhelmed with how big the pond is[.] You just have to focus on your own work and making your own little corner of the pond as prosperous and enjoyable as possible, and avoid as much as you can getting bogged down with comparing yourself to any of the other fish."

"...someone once said that a cinematography career is a marathon, not a sprint. ...when you run a marathon, unlike a sprint or another foot race, you're not actually competing against the other runners; you're only competing against your own best time. ...remind yourself to stay in your lane and focus on your own career, and not keep looking at other people's marathons..."

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Becoming an Old Freelancer – Finances

Sustainability as a freelancer is something I don't think gets enough attention. It's not flashy and for sure doesn't make for a good Instagram post. Still, to stick around you've got try and figure out what works for you and your situation.

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If you know me at all, you'll know I'm always up to talk about money. Not in the "Hey plebeian! Look what I've got!" way but more in the mindset of "You're in this hot mess too?! What are you doing?! Is it working? Is there a way we can learn from each other?"

The last few weeks have been a welcomed whirlwind. I've broken record'd the battle cry of "oh man, I'm so busy" and I'm absolutely aware of it. What's freakin' awesome though is the fact that money is coming through the doors and for that I'm insanely thankful. Freelance is "feast or famine" and I know the financial spigot could shut off for a season at any point.

Turns out it's expensive AF to be a freelancer, especially as you get further into your career. The amount of overhead I've accumulated over the years running this freelance operation is DUMB. Thinking back to when this whole thing started as a side hustle back in 2004-ish I'd have never imagined the amount of money it takes to keep this up plus trying to be intentional about the future.

At times it feels like I'm working just to keep up: Gear and business insurance, health insurance for me and our two boys, plus life and disability insurance. Then there's the money set aside for taxes and retirement accounts. Oh, then there's paying off bank loans, paying myself every two weeks, phone and internet bills, and on and on and on. It's dumb.

Positive side note: I paid off my car today – several months early BTW – so that's rad.

The biggest leg up I've had in terms of money management as a freelancer has come from a book I read back in 2010-11-ish – The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed.

Here are some of my biggest take aways from the book:

"If you’re trying to create financial security as an independent worker, but you are following guidelines that are designed for traditional workers, you’re going to get yourself into trouble."

"They [percentages] are the best - and really only - way to save consistently based on what you actually earn, especially when what you earn varies widely and doesn’t arrive on a predictable schedule."

This was the biggest thing for me. As a former full-time employee, I was used to working on a very specific budget with close to exact numbers. Unlike my wife's very reliable paycheck each month, there's not a way to know a specific amount that my freelance work will be bringing in each month. I've already written about using past records to help me predict my busy and slow seasons, but that's still just an educated guess. In planning ahead financially, I stick with setting aside 15% of my profits to pay my taxes as well as 10% to put towards retirement. I've been slowly and steadily stashing money into a RothIRA since I was 21 as well as another RothIRA under my wife's name as I max out the first one each year.

"If you don’t pay yourself first, you probably won’t do it at all."

"Debt is by far the biggest threat to both your career and your stability and stands between you and your success."

"Debt is sucking the money from your present to pay for your past at the expense of your future."

"If you don't save for your retirement, no one else will."

"Being an independent worker means you have to save more, plain and simple."

Paid Work and Demo Prep

I've spent the last week keeping my head down working through a handful of shoots and editing my guts out on another couple projects. On top of that I'm also working to get a new demo reel out before the end of September. Happy Labor Day ya'll...

Working on a demo reel ranks right up there with cleaning up curdled dog puke from between your car seat and console in the dead of summer. It's bad. I don't like doing it, but it needs to happen or things will get worse. I'd honestly rather get angry jalapeño juice in my eye.

"No, I'm not being dramatic; You're being dramatic."

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As usual, the vast majority of the past year's shoots won't end up as part of the bite-seized representation of the year. You kill a good deal of your darlings in culling through the good stuff in order to highlight the better stuff. But then you do that again, and again – and then again – till you're too numb to know otherwise.

Still Busy (but not much to show for it)

The original goal of this weekly blog project was to setup artificial deadlines and force myself to regularly work on and post new content. Google said we're 34 weeks into 2018 and I think I've only missed one week so far.

I'm itching to work on another personal project but THANKFULLY I'm still swimming client projects that are paying the bills in an otherwise very slow year. Oh, and it's the start of the school year so Anne the Wife – an elementary school teacher – has been busy getting situated and I've had both the boys more than usual.

The last two to three weeks have been a bit of an outlier and had me crazy busy: shooting in Oklahoma City for a group from Wichita, KS; producing, directing, shooting, and currently editing a commercial campaign with a longtime OKC client; shooting in West Virginia with a Tulsa based agency; shooting a multi-cam project in OKC that'll need to be edited soon; shooting in OKC with a group I've never worked with based out of New York. Oh, and there's the pre-production part of a good deal of stuff on the horizon.

By no means am I complaining about being busy – far from it. It's not always rainbows and sunshine, but good grief I'm insanely thankful for people and organizations willing to pay me for work I love doing. I'll rant about waiting for invoices to be paid, but that'll have to wait for another day.

In this world of "if there's no pic it didn't happen," it's frustrating to not always have something to show that you're actually working. There's no reason for me to show you what my pre-production process looks like – unless you're up to see me sitting in front of a pile of notebooks and my computer at a coffee shop. I don't have behind the scenes images from being on sets mostly because I'm focused on the people and the work and don't always have the margin to share it on social media. No one cares how many recent trips I've made to FedEx and the local rental house to pick-up and drop-off rental equipment. There's no reason to post another image from an airplane or gripe about the flight attendant making you gate check your camera bag even after the last one on the same plane didn't.

All that being said, I still jealously collect – and try to learn from – piles of screen grabs from other DPs and Directors posting this kind of nonsense to their Instagram accounts.

This is an insanely visual world that's constantly whispering to our insecurities, "You're only as good as your last project/image."

West Virginia

Deep in Trump country a few days this past week on a client project in West Virginia. We spent two days filming a client testimonial in a small city about an hour and a half north of Charleston; Thx Signal Factory.

All that work footage will end up cut together to make something rad I'm sure, but I did get some time on the drive back to Charleston to get psudo-lost on some seriously sketchy – but beautiful – backroads. Word to the wise: if given the option, always schedule extra travel time and make sure to rent an SUV at the airport.

Benefits to Staying Busy

Good grief... My bad for all the whining and moping I've done the last few incredibly slow months. Freelancing is feast or famine and I'm now neck deep in multiple client projects – Thank God.

That being said, I'm diggin' some of the benefits of staying busy while things were so slow. The creative treatments I'm writing now for client projects are better thanks to the the effort I put into my slow season personal projects. In working those creative muscles on my own time, I feel somewhat more confident now that I'm putting client names and logos on them.

Writing has always been important to me and I'm intentional about being overly prepared and having a clear direction for projects. Still I've never been overly confident in putting together a creative treatment. I'm like 90% certain there's a book or something out there on the topic that all the cool kids have read and I've somehow missed.

What I've somewhat put together about treatments come from Google searches and a solid collection of "look-at-how-busy-I-am-writing-treatments" screenshots from various directors' Instagram Stories. I still remember seeing Spike Jonze's single page treatment for Pharcyde's “Drop” video years ago. That and the Filmsupply fam had a solid post with Diego Contreras on creative treatments not too long ago.

I'm crazy thankful for the treatments I've found online and the friends who've shared theirs with me over the years. I still feel that writing a good treatment is like spotting a unicorn, but now it's like I know the Unicorn's name is Steve and somehow he's a couple people in front of me ordering at my regular coffee shop. If you need me, I'll be silently fanboying from my place in line and absolutely trying not to bother him – no promises though.

Composition with Henri Cartier-Bresson

Seems more often than not I'm late to the game, but still happy to be here. I'm assuming that every proper photography student knows who Henri Cartier-Bresson is. If not – especially the cool kids shooting street stuff and portraits – they should be doing something else.

I've talked about it before, but I've been spending a dumb amount of time this past year or so digging through the photography and fine arts sections in public and university libraries. I figure studying the work of others I respect and admire will hopefully seep into the work I'm doing. Cartier-Bresson has easily become one of my favorites and this week I picked up "An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson."

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As a cinematographer I'm always approaching composition in how it would fit a wider aspect ratio vs. being able to shoot still photos in a taller portrait. Obviously there are visual ideas better suited to a taller frame, but I'm still interested in how they can be used in a widescreen, 2:1, or 16:9 image. I'm not here to write a dissertation on composition, but no question Cartier-Bresson's work is something to study.

This Week's Phoned in Blogpost

Yo. Got uber busy this week and a decent blog post didn't make the cut. In the meantime, here’s a shotgun blast of things from the last few days.

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Not sure what the cool kids do to stash away visuals found via their phones, but I'm a fan of photos and screenshots – especially with filing away ideas I dig on Instagram. I try to clean up the rats nest of content I pack away on a regular basis by transferring the collected images to my computer and then organize them across my different devices via iCloud. Here's a few from this week:

And speaking of phoned in, part of the cinematographer's life is spent on the road and away from family. Anne the Wife and I try to be intentional about staying connecting via phone calls and FaceTime while we're apart. I for sure don't travel as much as some of the DPs and camera department pros I follow online, but there are seasons where I'm out. In 2013 I was overseas for over three months as a crew member on a big project plus some additional travel with other clients. My first kid was born at the end of 2012 so all that travel had me gone almost a third of his first year. I'm pretty sure he associated me with living in his mom's iPhone. Anne the Wife is the best part of my life and we've now got two little house fires – I'd be wise to not screw this up.

...and by the way, have you seen Boots Riley's "Sorry to Bother You" yet? EASILY one of the most interesting films I've seen in a good while. Do yourself and see it while it's still in theaters. We need more art like this in our lives.

So we made a thing...

No clue. Absolutely no clue what was going on here. I'm just diggin' the fact that I've got friends who trust me and are basically up to make stuff no matter what.

In the latter part of June I'd bought a one-way ticket to New York City with plans to connect with friends, make stuff, and meet new people. In prepping for the trip I reached out to Olivia Abiassi to see if she'd be up to make something while I was in town.

Olivia is an actress friend of mine who I stumbled upon while casting a short film a few years ago. I say stumbled because she was actually off camera reading the female lead's part to help with the male talent's audition video. In hearing her read I immediately knew she was the lead I was looking for. She worked her tail off for that little passion project of mine and her performance was more than I could ask for. Fast forward a couple years she's now living and working in NYC.

Normally I'll put solid time and effort into prepping for a shoot. This project was more or less thrown together during my 45 minute subway commute from Washington Heights to her place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There was no scout ahead of time; Not even a decent concept. Just me plowing through her Instagram account and listening to a TON of Logic's "The Incredible True Story" album.

A few months ago she had posted a short clip of herself prepping for something and accidentally – and absolutely – struck gold. She's got a great sense of humor and doesn't seem to take herself very seriously. She's also got great eyes and facial expressions which absolutely deliver on camera.

This simple Instagram post opened the idea of her getting completely lost in her own world and caring less about what people around her thought. In just about everything I try to make there's a bit of me braided in somewhere. For this utterly informal short I started her off buried in her phone trying to keep up with either the nonsense of social media or the non-stop stream of the world's bad news. In putting on her headphones, she's able to escape for a bit.

From a production standpoint, the headphones were key. I sent her a playlist I'd put together during my commute, but we ended up keeping Logic's "Fade Away" on repeat and that kept her movement timing consistent. I on the other hand couldn't hear the music, gave some basic direction, and just had to keep up.

Just about every movement piece I've done recently has been shot off speed. There's a TON of grace and forgiveness in shooting in higher frame rates, but for this piece I wanted to challenge myself with shooting in real time and intentionally using longer takes in the edit vs. the easy out with quick pacing to hide mistakes.

The edit took a bit longer than I expected in trying to sync her movements to the music as well as the un-rehearsed and un-controllable aspects of the footage we got. There were plently of interesting looking shots that I just couldn't use because they didn't fit the music – not to mention the unusably soft shots I blew focus on.

We're not curing cancer or anything, but we did have a very loose storyline with a beginning, middle, and end. We honestly just wandered around the Lower East Side of Manhattan not far from her apartment just looking for good/interesting looking light. The ice cream break was intentional, but accidentally hitting someone on the subway with her purse while she was dancing wasn't; Thank God that very large man was cool as hell.