How do you balance passion projects vs paying work?
Hello, friends, and welcome back to the penultimate episode of my 31 Day Challenge. It's day 30. I cannot believe how fast this month is gone. Day 30 of 31 days where every single day, I've been answering your questions about creating a career or business that you love. In today's episode, I'm going to be answering the question, how do you balance creative slash original passion kind of projects? How do you balance all of that with paying client work?
This is a full transcription of the podcast episode. Instead you can listen to the podcast episode below:
For a long time, I used to think that my business model was going to be to, like most people who start in the video production world, my business model was going to be to do as fewer paying jobs as possible to create a comfortable enough lifestyle for myself, to then use all the profit from those jobs to funnel into my passion projects. And that is the business model that a lot of companies have. It seems like for the majority of people that I know that work in very, very high level VR entertainment. This is their business model. Whether it be they create VR games that they know they're going to sell really well so that they can then use the profit to make more artistic or more kind of experimental VR entertainment, that then gains profile and is kind of scratching that passion edge, which then feeds back into doing the kind of more commercial mainstream stuff, which then gets money which then funds back into the budget projects. Whether it's that side of things or whether it's, you know, like a marshmallow laser feast company, which I know that they're in the last kind of year they are they have more move towards doing almost entirely their own work, but for a long, long time. And for those of you who don't know marshmallow laser feast is another company who loves a weird kooky name for tech company. But yeah, they are a massive, they do massive VR, multi user experiences and installations, they had an incredible, incredibly popular piece at the Saatchi Gallery in London last year, I believe, or might be the year before called Oceans of Air, or We Live In A Nation Of Ai...I'm not sure but it was a room scale multi user experience where you would walk around and you would basically see your breath, you would see how your breath and other people in the experience is breath and oxygen and how it goes kind of in and out of the trees and in and out of your body and you would see it kind of they were using some really cool technology to like track things like your pulse and your breath and all that kind of stuff. And it was like tracked in real time. It was all very very high level incredible stuff but that company, you know they basically make their money or did up until very, very recently by doing big commercial events. They would put on these like insanely awesome light shows or drone shows or you know they would do like...I think one of the biggest things they did was like the YouTube concerts where they would like design all of the light shows, fashion shows they like they do all sorts of stuff, basically. But you know, that's most people's business model is to do the enough commercial work to then fund some of the more experimental stuff that isn't...isn't necessarily as commercially viable. Which, wink wink, nudge nudge, VR drama, not necessarily commercially viable yet. So that was how I looked at it for a long time, it was kind of like - right, you do this thing and then that thing feeds the other thing, and the passion and the original thing, that's what you want to get to, but realistically, the other stuff is what's going to fund it. And I feel like people have an attitude about that. And I was certainly one of these people.
When I first started working in that way, where I was almost a bit...I was complacent about the work that I was doing, which was paid for, because ultimately, I just thought of it as a means to an end and then probably about...I want to say a couple of years ago, what I started to realise was actually because I spend so much of my time and my brain space on this commercial work because, of course, like, especially when you're building from the ground up, and you want a fairly decent, comfortable life rather than being a starving artists. A lot of my hours of the day, were going towards paying work, and I realised that actually, it wasn't good enough to just be complacent with that work. It wasn't good enough to just take on any project, because just for the money. So I realised that that was one of the things that was burning me out and was making me miserable, because I was falling out of love with the art of VR because I was just taking on any job just for the money and then I started to realise, okay, well
what do I love? Maybe the more original side of stuff? So what do I love creating if money wasn't a problem? I could create any project in VR, what would it be? Well, it would probably be character driven, emotionally impactful film based VR experiences because I'm a filmmaker. I love film based projects. I love characters. I love storytelling where you can, like so much of the world you discover through through TV through film, you explore so many big ideas about the world through it. And also the thing that I like about film and TV, which I don't necessarily like as much about the art world is filled with TV. Like there's something for everyone. Of course, there's like different kinds of genres, which feel a little bit more snooty, but...I don't know, because I don't really exist in the art world. I'm not an artist, like I wouldn't, I would call myself a filmmaker, not an artist. And I know that there is so much nuance in that. And I know that we could literally have a whole episode debating, what even as an artist, but essentially, if you're a creative person, you're probably an artist. But in terms of like the art industry, I feel like it's quite elitist. It's quite classist. There's a barrier to entry there is like this kind of there is intentionally this, this mystery around it this sense of like - oh, you have to know what you're talking about and you have to be able to saunter into the gallery and, you know, have an opinion. I've just never really felt comfortable operating in the art world, which is hilarious given that VR pretty much at the moment only operates in the art world when it comes to entertainment. But the thing I like about film based stuff is it's super accessible and like you can reach a lot of people and you can convey a lot and there's obviously there's there's there's nuance, and you've got like independent film, but some independent film that could be seen as more arts, which kind of wouldn't necessarily appeal to a mainstream, but I like that most people can understand the world through seeing characters that they feel like a kin to, or they can kind of empathise with. So I knew quite quickly that I wanted to work with actors in character based drama, VR experiences, even though that's not like what's cool at the moment, even though that's the thing that doesn't necessarily sell as well. Even though I can make a lot more money, doing a lot more different stuff. I know that, but that's not what interests me or interests me is character based, emotionally impactful, I want someone's put on the headset and step into someone else's shoes, I want someone to put on a headset, and put them in a situation that changes their views on real world topics, that changes their view about a situation. And, that can be the case, when even you're working on commercial projects. I think I've talked about on previous podcasts like a cybersecurity project, or looking at kind of marketing a new product that stops your car from getting dirty, like there are ways of doing those things through character driven projects. And all I started to realise that that's, that's what I'm passionate about. That's what I want to focus on. And I'm not going to segment out what I do commercially, versus what I do kind of original words wise, because otherwise I'm going to be miserable. And also the other flip side to this is when you start to define the kind of experience you're interested in, like if you're interested in more documentary based, or you're interesting, more like action based or more like travel based or fantastical act animation type based stuff, like whenever you start to kind of define what it is that you like, in general, regardless of whether you're doing it for money, or whether you're doing it for passion. What you start to realise is you start to attract those kind of projects into your life, you start to you start to get this opportunity to work on paying projects, where you're learning skills, and working on. Yeah, skills, I guess, that translate directly over to your passion based stuff. And if you're really clever, you can, you know, tack on a little bit of kind of like r&d, if you've got like a specific thing that you want to r&d for an original project that happens to coincide with the same kind of time that you're doing a commercial project and you're like, I really need to r&d, a little bit of that and this commercial project needs a little bit of, I don't know, whatever it might be ambisonics audio like this could be a great opportunity for me to r&d something for my original work through funding it through the commercial project, because I was going to need to fund it through the commercial project. Anyway, this is something that I really need and want for the the paying client. But I can just piggyback on that. And just pay really close attention to that and use that as learning for my original project.
So the the stuff that I've been working on for the last two years since I've kind of pivoted Cats Are Not Peas into that specialist company but I've had to work my ass off to get to a point where I get to choose like those kind of projects only. And it took a while to like weed out the kind of clients that would let me do that kind of work. But when you're in that position, now I can look back at the last two years of commercial projects I've worked on and say, every single one of them, I have been able to test a new theory about like either my directing skills, or I've tested different workflows on how to record voiceovers, how's best to kind of build a scene from the ground up, how best to kind of have people interact and also you've got that guaranteed audience. You know that this piece is going to be seen by people and if you stay close to the client, if you don't just go - alright, I've done my job BUT if you stay in touch with them, if you start to kind of like try and understand you try and like kind of understand their business and want to be integral and understand that their distribution of the VR project, you can then actually sometimes even be there. I've been there several times where my clients have showed the bts and I'm getting that real time feedback from the people who are watching it. So that then feeds back into my directing process, that feeds back into my editing process, that feeds back into my creative ideas going forward. This work, this comment didn't work, the way that we did that with that camera, that didn't work, so let's do this, next time. Let's have this kind of operations, even something as simple as like - oh, someone didn't understand how to use the controller. Okay, so the next time we need to like, maybe we put in a bit at the top that says, like, you know, welcome to the we are experienced this, like, if you hold your controller in your right hand, like this is how you use it, blah, blah, blah. So it all feeds into that process, which all gathers that knowledge, which then propels you, and makes it so much easier and more efficient when you do start to work on your passion projects again, and
obviously, you can be doing them side by side.
So when it comes back to the actual question of like, how do you balance them? I've started to see them as intertwined. I've started to see them as I mean, I try now to I think I've mentioned this in previous episodes, but I try now to only really work with two or three clients maximum for free for the whole year, like, I want long term clients that have big budgets, work on big projects, who I trust, who I like to work with, I like to work on those projects. So that I know that I've definitely got cash flow but then also now I'm kind of like now seeing them as intertwined in like those projects. I'm only really doing them now, if I am a little bit passionate about them, if they are in the niche that I've decided to carve out for myself, because now all of a sudden, I'm not necessarily seeing them as well, this is the pain work. And this is the passion work that I don't get paid for, it's not that black and white anymore. It's more, it's more seamless. And for so long, I never thought that that was an option. And now I'm realising that that absolutely is an option. And it's an option for you, it's an option for you, no matter what level you are, of course, you have to build your experience, but even deciding that very early on, like oh, I really want to work in like action travel, film, like VR films, all of a sudden, that kind of changes your strategy about what portfolio pieces you go after what con what clients, you're kind of going after what circles you want to run in. And when you're like, when you're passionate about the subject that you all doing in a commercial sense as well. It just makes life so much, so much more worth living. I think so many artists, they go into the commercial game. Again, they think, in fact, I know so many people that have done this, that have opened up a video production company, and they're like, I'm going to make a feature film, I just need a few clients to pay the bills, but then like, then I'm going to write that feature film script, I'm going to make that feature film and then we're going to turn into a feature film company. And it's like, I know exactly zero companies that have managed to do that successfully and I operated in those circles for a while. So it's not just like one or two people I know, like a lot of people, but that was their ambition. And it never happened. Because if you get on the treadmill of corporate work, or commercial work, and you get into a sector, or you get into doing the kind of projects that you don't actually want to, like you're just doing for the money, there will never be the opportunity to kind of like to make them both work intertwined to benefit you, they will always remain separate. And you'll always be disappointed. And actually this actually another interesting point.. sometimes you do have to make the call about when it's time to say no to commercial work.
There has been several times in my VR career where I've gotten to the point where I'm stretched too thin. I'm really burned out, I know that I should be focusing on an original project. But there's a part of me that's like - oh my god, I'm like a kid in the candy shop. I've been offered this much money to work on this kind of project for this brand and it's really hard to say no to that. But I know ultimately, it doesn't align with my values. It doesn't align with, the direction that I want to go in and this all ties back to the to the first ever episode that I did a 31 day challenge all about dream lining and it's not necessarily looking at how much money you need to make (although that is a big part of it), It's about first looking at the big picture. What do you want your life to be like? What kind of projects what what what do you want your day to look like? How many hours do you want to work a day? How many days you want to work a month? How many months do you want to work a year? How many adventures do you want to have? Do you want to travel? Do you want to like buy a big house? Then once you understand that, then it's like -okay, well how much money do I need for that? Then, okay, well, this is the amount that I need every month, so how can I do as minimal amount of work as possible and the work I do, how can I make that work, pay the bills? But also be stuff I actually enjoy with people that I enjoy working with? That's the that is the goal. That's the winner. And then obviously then, then you can start to kind of like look at... okay, well, in my free time, I'm not burned out and stressed and tired, because I'm actually doing work, I'm doing a normal amount of work, because I've said no to the things that don't align with that dream lining goal, that like that dream lining idea of what I want my life to be, like I've said no to the work that doesn't align with that and now I can use that free time to write that script, or to find that partner that might go and raise funds for that next project or whatever it might be.
Of course, right now is particularly difficult for as creators, because there aren't many ways that you can make 100% of your income. In fact, it's pretty much almost impossible to make 100% of your income from VR entertainment, unless you're in the game space and even then, you'd have to be pretty conservative, I think. But that isn't to say that we won't get there. But I don't want all of you to burn out and destroy and quit the industry, because it's so hard to make original work. And the reason you got into this was because you wanted to make original work and the only way to make original work was to take on corporate and paying work, but it wasn't the right type of stuff. So you're burned out and you don't like the projects you're working on don't like the clients you're working with, and so you end up leaving the industry, because I could go out with a few mates and make a feature film on my iPhone. So why on earth would I break my back to go that extra mile and have to do all the extra legwork to work on VR?
You know, that's where I'm coming from, wow, this was a really ranty episode was that I got on several high horses. I'm coming back down to earth now but you have to ask yourself why you are doing it? If you want to do a reason, there obviously is a path to do purely original work and it is the route more more like the starving artists route. I've got a friend that only does his own work and he lives very, very humbly and he lives off artist grants. He lives you know, on Arts Council grants, or actually no, that's that's not entirely true, because he does do work producing for other people's art projects as well, but he you know, he works within the original workspace in the art world. But he's constantly having to fight tooth and nail for every grant, every fund that he goes after and God I love him, he's a hero in my eyes. And he's a phenomenal person with very strong opinions about things as most artists are, but for me, that's not necessarily the life that I want and you have to ask yourself, if that's the life that you want, If you're so diehard passionate about being an artist, then maybe this isn't the podcast for you? Maybe this isn't the industry for you right now? But if you're interested in working in VR, because you believe in the technology, because you have seen a VR piece that made you go - holy shit, this is the future. This is exciting. This is amazing. I need to be a part of this, especially because we all know that in 20 years time, it will be the thing and to be part of that original kind of like squad that was part of shaping the industry. That's pretty goddamn cool. These are the things you need to ask yourself. So coming back to the question, how do you balance original work with paying work? My answer is find a way that you can make your paying work more akin to the stuff that you're passionate about and then you can do your original work around it. I hope this helps!
Join me tomorrow for the last episode of the 31 day challenge! Let me know if that is something that you're interested in? I hope this helped. I hope that this at least sparked some interesting questions for you to consider about the work that you're doing and why you're in this industry.
If you've not listened to episode one, definitely recommend go back and listening to that because it sets the stage for all of this kind of like more nitty gritty work to do on yourself. With that said, you can send me a message or ask me a question at @alexmakesvr on Instagram and Twitter. You send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org and you can sign up for the newsletter where I'm sharing the insider scoops on the VR industry and the business of VR at www.alexmakesvr.com.
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