In this business you have to have a thick skin, which is easier to say than it is to practice. There are numerous ways for people to get under your skin. From a puppeteer who mistreats your creation during a performance and then bitches about the quality of the craftsmanship, to a client who misleads you about their measurements and blames you when the suit comes back bursting at the seams -- we have enough to worry about without having to defend the value of our time and expertise.
No matter what artistic genre you fall into, no matter what skill level you have achieved, there will always be people who want what we provide, but refuse to pay for it.
The situations that really give me the “Brain Fire," are brought on by the uneducated troglodytes who trivialize our work by asking us to work for free or for a inconsequential sum. It doesn’t matter how proficient you are, or even if you are quasi-famous for your work; someone is going to ask you to work your brand of magic for an offensively low amount of money. We all have stories like these.
I have a friend, a well-known puppet designer, who attended a comic con with me in Salt Lake City, Utah, a year or two ago. She brought some of her work in hopes of generating excitement, and perhaps to sell a few pieces to our fans. A convention volunteer came up to our table and seemed blown away by these marvels of fabric and foam fabrication. The work was incredible.
The volunteer asked, “How much?”
My friend replied, “$800.”
The volunteer, void of social grace, didn’t bother to inquire about the puppets’ price tags; instead, she gave my friend the finger and walked away. That’s right, she gave this artist, a celebrity guest at this convention, the finger. Suddenly this incredible creation was devalued and dismissed as a sock-puppet.
Had she asked about the puppets, she would have learned a thing or two. These pieces were handmade by a skilled and sought-after professional who worked for prestigious organizations like The Jim Henson Company. Had the volunteer taken the time to ask, she might have learned that the fur that covered the puppets cost over a hundred dollars a square foot. This was NFT Fur, and is only sold by the square foot, not the by the yard like other furs and fabrics. The fur was a brilliant multi-tone mohair or yak hair — not a cheap acrylic, like fun-fur. This was one reason the puppets were so visually stunning. If you have ever worked with fur, you know that you can’t simply make linear cuts into this kind of material. Each patterned piece must be cut so the fur flows in a natural and clear direction. To complete a puppet this size it could easily have taken 4 maybe 5 square feet of this expensive fur. That is $400-$500 in fur alone. The puppet maker might have had another $50 invested in fabric and materials. At $800 a puppet, she was probably going to make $250 for her time, which worked out to an average of $9.20 an hour for a hand-sewn master piece.
None of this information would have convinced this volunteer to purchase the expensive work, but it would have explained the price tag. Instead, the volunteer had the audacity to flip off this artesan and walk away as if her skill and time didn't merit making $9.20 an hour.
Let me give you a little more insight into how much a professionally made puppet costs. To rent a puppet from Avenue Q for a two-month period, you’re going to pay about $2,000 and nearly $300 for round-trip shipping: $2,300 to rent a puppet. Those of us in the know understand that this is a good deal. Imagine for a second how much it would cost to buy one of these puppets. It’s not implausible to assume that these professionally made puppets are likely to cost $10,000 or more.
Hell, did you know the Big Bird suit flies first class? I mean the suit, not necessarily Carroll Spinney, the actor who occupies the suit. If a hollow Big Bird merits a $3,500 luxury flight, how much do you think the suit costs to build?
I've endured my own artistic injuries. In fact, I was recently asked to build a Gamorrian Guard suit for a client’s cosplay aspirations. After spending a week discussing the details of what went into the creation of this suit, the foam fabrication, the sculpting, molding, casting, seaming, cleaning, and finishing of the mask alone, this individual seriously asked me, “Do you think you could do it for $100?”
There is easily two months of work, material, and overhead costs involved, totaling nearly $1,100, and this clown asks me if I could do it for $100. That doesn’t even cover the collective shipping cost of the materials.
I told him the suit would cost him $5,500 to $6,500, on the low side. This is half of what most my peers charge. He then asked me if I could show him how to build it himself. Remaining professional, I mentioned very politely that I have a how-to book for sale on Amazon for $14.99. This book, Latex Mask Making: A Workshop with Russ Adams, will teach you how to sculpt, mold, cast, and finish a latex mask.
“This will get you started on your project," I said.
His reply: “Can you just give me the book?”
The practical effects community isn’t the only group of artists who have to deal with this re-occurring bullshit. I have friends in all categories and artistic genres who are constantly disrespected by offers that would never be uttered to professionals in any other career fields. Who would walk into a lawyer’s office, doctor’s offices, accountant’s office, or even a Walmart and low-ball their way into getting what they want? Their asses would likely meet the sidewalk before any of these professionals entertained such lunacy. Yet, these people do it to artists every day.
Here is what I propose: If you are seeking creative products, do your research. Talk to several artists who do similar work. Feel free to ask them how they arrived at that price point. Look at the cost of raw materials. Take a moment to review the process on YouTube, or read a book. You're likely to be surprised at just how much goes into what you need done.
As a community, we need to educate these people. Our first reaction might be to toss gasoline on them, and tease lighting the match. It’s a good idea, but “if ya kill 'em, they won’t learn nothin’.”
Tell them why your skill set costs what it does. Inform them of what goes into your process. Explain to them what their pathetic offer translates into as an hourly rate. For example, it takes 27 to 40 hours of labor to make a finished latex mask. Material costs aside, a client asking me to work 40 hours for a mere $100 is insulting. After all, how willing would they be to work for $2.50 an hour?
Explain your material cost, shipping, and how these affect the price. Some materials may need to be specially ordered, require special handling, and there may even be minimum order. Like the fur my friend used on the puppets: there is a minimum order of 10 square feet, a setup fee of over $200, and there is a 10-week lead-time. This all factors in.
If we take the time to explain our process, the unseen costs of the job, and the realistic timeframe of production, these people will stop looking at our professions as little more than a fun little hobby, and start seeing it for what it is — a valued service that they need.
We shouldn’t be penalized because we love our jobs. We earn our money like everyone else, and it’s about time people respect that.