The redesign of this website, which launched several months ago, is easily the most substantial change The Black and Blue has ever undergone since it moved from a portfolio site into a WordPress blog over four years ago. Looking at the simplicity of the site, you may think this was an easy transition.
You’d be wrong. Nothing came easy. Everything had immense obstacles.
The first step of the redesign took place over a year and a half ago and it seemed every subsequent step was uphill through a swamp in the middle of a hurricane. I spent a lot of money, wasted a lot of time, and made an astronomical number of mistakes.
But I learned plenty along the way: about freelancing, hard work, and persistence. Most importantly, I learned what it’s like to be on the other side of the freelance fence – to be the one doing the hiring and cutting the checks. That’s an experience I’ve never had working below the line as a camera assistant.
And it’s an experience, thanks to this website, that has taught me incredibly useful lessons I’ll carry with me throughout my filmmaking career wherever it takes me.
So, for those of you who came by to read a post all about filmmaking, turn away now. But for those of you who want a peek behind the curtain of this website and to learn some valuable lessons to apply to your filmmaking career, keep reading – you’re going to want to hear what happened.
The Story of The Black and Blue Redesign
Don’t call it a comeback
I been here for years.
– LL Cool J
The redesign started in May 2012 when I got bored of The Black and Blue’s logo. The logo always provided somewhat of an identity crisis for the website since I’m an average graphic designer and an even worse illustrator. So I’d often revert to simple shapes paired with a nice font for any logos.
By May 2012, however, the website had enough money from advertising to afford a logo. I went to 99designs.com, started a contest, and watched it like a hawk. The first entries were extremely discouraging, but as the contest went on, the logo you now see at the top of the website was born.
So I slapped it up on the header of my blog, sat back, and scowled.
I had a new problem: the logo looked great, but it made the rest of the site look dated.
During the logo contest, my friend Kevin, who is a talented graphic designer, reached out to me with his own logo concept. It was good, but I wanted to award the prize money to my original choice because I liked that logo better. Plus, with 99designs.com, you have to award the prize money or lose the rights to any of the logos in the contest. I knew I could always pay my friend for his logo whenever.
Kevin had also done a redesign mockup of the website as a whole: he added textures, gradients, adjusted typography. It looked beautiful. I struck a deal with him – I would award the contest to the logo designer, but I wanted him to redesign the rest of the site. He agreed. So I, wanting to be fair to a fellow freelancer, offered him a decent amount of money for the work. I’m not saying it was his full-rate or a gangbusters amount, but it was fair and more than most looking for a “favor” would part with.
But I wasn’t looking for a favor – I was looking for a designer. Kevin just happened to be my friend.
He agreed on the rate without negotiation and I gave him a bit of direction for what I liked and wanted to see. I waited two weeks and still hadn’t heard from him, so I sent him a message.
Another week and no response.
Another message, another week, another lack of response.
Lesson #1: Be Careful When Working with Friends
Not only was Kevin my friend, but I was also willing to pay him to do this work — it’s not like he had to turn down other clients to do my project – I was a client!
My final message to Kevin went through two months after he had agreed to take on the project. I wasn’t an asshole, nor was I mean, but I was frustrated he had let me down:
Hey dude — Is this project something you’re still interested in?
If you’re too busy or caught up with other stuff to take it on, that’s cool and I understand. Just let me know so I know if I need to start looking at other designers.
He never responded. To this day, I have yet to see Kevin or even talk to him again. Him and I hang in the same circles, but we have somehow, miraculously, avoided mingling around each other.
I am still disappointed in him and my respect for him has waned even as I continue to see him put out excellent designs on Twitter and Facebook. I no longer recommend him for design work and it kills me whenever I have a project I think he would be great for that I have to avoid sending his way because I can’t trust him to deliver.
The lesson learned was to be extra careful when working with friends. They have the tendency to view you as a buddy instead of their client and, in Kevin’s case, that gave him the go-ahead to miss deadlines and ultimately avoid delivering on our project completely.
That’s why I wanted to pay Kevin a reasonable rate: I wanted him to feel like he owed me the project, not that I owed him for doing the project pro-bono or at a super low price.
For filmmakers, I urge you to be selective with the friends you call on for help, especially with mission critical aspects of your project. The last thing you want is a phone call from your pal the day of the shoot saying they can’t make it while they expect you to be cool with it since you’re friends.
For those doing favors for others, understand that your friend trusts you and respects your abilities. You don’t have to call them “Sir” or bend over backwards to meet demands, but you should know that when your friend gives you a gig, for those 8/10/12 hours on set, you have a professional relationship and it should be treated as such – especially if they’re going to be your supervisor/department head.
I’m great friends with a director of photography (DP) I frequently work with, but when we are on set together I make every effort to treat him like the boss that he is to me because that’s what he expects out of his camera assistant (AC).
That’s what I wanted when working with Kevin. It didn’t happen that way and, unfortunately, it cost me two months of time on my project and potentially a friendship.
I wanted him to treat me like a client with the project and then treat me like a friend at the bar.
Consider this your warning that that’s much easier said than done.
Better Communication from Across the Globe
After the failure of Kevin, I turned to a designer recommended by a friend named Ajie. He was located in another country, which made me nervous because of the language barrier, but he did excellent work.
Him and I hit it off immediately. He took my design cues well, listened to feedback without taking it personally, and did an amazing job of implementing critiques into new iterations of each design. He also paid significant attention to detail (especially important to me), was willing to work until he felt the design was “right,” and was effective at communicating every step about how the work was coming.
I was blown away when, for free and without prompting, he redesigned my personal website.
Over the course of three to four months, Ajie and I worked on a complete overhaul of The Black and Blue. The goals I shared with him were simple:
- Better delivery of more content
- Mobile responsiveness and optimization (including retina displays)
- Better aesthetics that communicate a stronger relation to filmmaking while pushing the boundaries of design
I told Ajie to completely ignore what the site currently looked like and to start with a blank slate. By the time December 2012 rolled around, I had a massive Photoshop file with fresh versions of the homepage, single post page, Becoming the Reel Deal page, pocket guides page, and the about page.
Lesson #2: Make Your Crew Feel Appreciated
I was so happy with Ajie and appreciated his hard work so much that I gave him a 20% tip.
I’m not suggesting you pay another 20% to crew (they wouldn’t complain), but you should let them know they’re appreciated. Here are three examples of productions that have made me feel valued:
1. On a feature film, the director would shake the hands of every single crew and cast member at the end of everyday and thank them for their time. He once ran after me as I was walking to my car because he hadn’t thanked me yet. He was a pleasure to work for and I’d go to the ends of the earth working 18 hour days for that man.
2. Another feature in which a production that was paying me peanuts as a Camera Production Assistant (I was doing it for experience) gave me a small bonus at the end of the shoot because they still had money left in their contingency budget. I had even more respect for them when they told me they were doing this for all the production assistants.
3. After a particularly tough day, a director of photography insisted on buying me a beer. He had had a rough day too, but wanted to thank me for helping him get through it by not complaining and keeping the department running as smooth as possible.
This is something you should absolutely strive to do when crew perform well. When I work as 1st AC, I always make sure to thank my 2nd AC at the end of the shoot and acknowledge their hard work. Sometimes during a chaotic day, I don’t always have the time nor the luxury to let them know how much I appreciate it, but it’s important they realize I notice their work.
Of course, this goes both ways: if someone is underperforming, you need to let them know. Which brings me to the next stepping stone in the journey of this redesign: finding a web developer.
Damaged Goods and a Lack of Soul
For those unfamiliar with building websites, traditionally there are two major roles: a designer and a developer. Imagine them like a director and a producer. The designer, like the director, pushes forth a creative agenda to find the voice of a film or a website. The developer, like a producer, makes it happen.
Put another way, the designer creates the visuals that the developer translates into code. Frequently, these can be the same person. Indeed that’s the role I’ve inhabited for The Black and Blue since the beginning of its time on the web – I’ve always designed and developed it.
But just like I handed the design duties over to someone else, I also passed along the development because the ambitions I had, and that Ajie designed for, were out of my skill range.
That’s where Sam came in.
Sam was one of several developers I had extensively researched online. I viewed many portfolios, sent many emails asking for quotes, and ultimately landed on Sam. His asking price was higher than I wanted to pay, but I didn’t want to cheap out. And, as a fellow freelancer, I understand the value in paying somebody their rate (or close to it).
Sam and I seemed to be on the same page about everything. I trusted him completely. I had only a few stipulations for his work, one of which was to build on the Genesis framework and the other was to build the website in a way that I could easily customize it myself later on.
On day one of the site build, I received an urgent voicemail from Sam. When I called him back he gave me a rundown of why building on the Genesis framework wasn’t the best idea and suggested going a different, more custom route. This wasn’t particularly good news for me, but I hired him as an expert so I deferred to his professional opinion and told him to move forward with the custom build.
In retrospect, this was the first sign of a collaboration about to go wrong.
Sam told me he would deliver the redesign within a week. That fast timetable surprised me and I even urged him to take longer. I told him I wanted to release it in about a month, so there was a cushion.
It took him two weeks, while still promising one week, to deliver the redesign.
And it looked awful.
Here’s a list of a few things wrong with it:
- The ebook signup page had no form to signup with
- Fonts were different colors than in the design
- Pixel width and heights were ignored
- Visual elements were swapped out without telling me
- And many more I cannot even list (the first set of revisions was 5 pages of bullet points)
After viewing the deliverables, my heart was crushed. I had expected to see the beautiful design Ajie made come to life on the page. Instead, it looked like damaged goods. It had the visuals of the new design, but lacked the soul. The details were completely off and large chunks of the site weren’t up to any sort of acceptable standard.
I immediately wrote Sam an impassioned email explaining why I felt so terrible. I told him I didn’t want to be a client from hell, but that the site didn’t look anything like what we agreed to. He claimed “of course the first submission wouldn’t be perfect” – an excuse I now find silly when you consider he didn’t send me the files with any such qualifying statements.
As work went on, the site slowly got better while Sam and I’s working relationship got worse. The only way changes got made were if I explicitly listed them out. Because of that, everytime I was sent a new version of the site, I sent back pages of bullet points with hyper-specific instructions. I didn’t want to micro-manage, but after the 3rd time of “this doesn’t look like the design,” it became significantly easier to write the code for them.
It was not how I had imagined hiring a developer would go. Worse, it was now about 4 months into a project Sam promised would take one week and I had hoped would take no longer than four.
By this time, I realized Sam didn’t have the bandwidth to keep putting time into my project even though he promised to work on it until my satisfaction. It had been several months and the site still wasn’t done. I hadn’t changed the design nor implemented any new features during the build, Sam and his team were simply incapable of translating the designs to a high enough standard.
So, with a site about 70% done and 80% of Sam’s rate paid, I fired him.
Lesson #3: Know When to Cut Loose
Firing Sam immediately triggered the clause in our contract where I paid him the rest of the money in full and he gave me what he had finished on the website. It was a bitter pill to swallow. I didn’t want to pay him the rest of the money, but I also didn’t want to prolong the situation. And, as a freelancer, I understood the terms of the signed contract.
Looking back, I should’ve fired Sam much earlier. It could’ve saved me some money (“This isn’t working out, how about we prorate the contract and go separate ways?”) and it definitely would’ve saved me time. Time certainly was the most important thing I hemorrhaged while keeping Sam on board as I began to hoard blog posts waiting for the redesign to finish.
On the hiring side of the freelance fence, I learned that I need to know when to cut loose.
I waited much too long to fire Sam even as it became apparent that his skills weren’t meeting my standards. My hesitations arose from the fact that I had signed the contract, paid him 50% upfront, and I was perpetually hopeful the next delivery from him would be “the one.”
But “the one” never came.
As a result, I was left with a website struggling to look like its amazing designs and a significantly drained bank account. So, like a gambler who needs to hit it big just one last time, I went back to the pool of freelancers to try and buy my website back to life.
That pool happened to be named Elance and there I found Alex. He promised to finish the design, add a few extra features I had decided I wanted, and to do it all within a couple weeks for a low price.
(I found Alex after trying to get in touch with a previous developer named Sergei who had done my personal website. Sergei expressed mild interest, but after several emails and several weeks, stopped returning my messages. Turns out this project was poisoned!)
Alex was great to work with – communicative, collaborative, and friendly – and I was happy to be back on track. But as Alex turned in his version of the website, it wasn’t done either. Several things weren’t up to standards and he relented I was right. The only problem was he wouldn’t be able to finish my project for another month because he had moved on to work on several other projects.
Together we came to the conclusion that it was best if I paid him for partial work done and went to find, yet again, another developer.
Which brings me to the next lesson…
Lesson #4: Deliver on the Money You Ask For
I understand now why producers are skeptical when they hire crew they haven’t worked with before. Or why producers exclusively hire crew that come with recommendations. It’s incredibly hard to gauge the likelihood that someone will deliver like they say they will. Most people are well-intentioned, but few are able to provide a level of competency that meets the expectations of those hiring.
In my case, Sam wasn’t able to deliver on my expectations and, subsequently, the money I paid him. Alex, too, while being much more amicable to work with, was unable to meet the expectations we had laid out together in exchange for paying his rate.
Don’t be one of those people!
The best way to get continued work is to deliver value in exchange for the money you’re paid. Many producers are more than happy to pay good money to crew they know will provide them excellent work. It’s crew they don’t know very well that they often negotiate with. But even a recommendation from somebody they trust ups your ability to cash in – as long as you live up to it.
It all goes back to this old aphorism:
If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.
It costs a production more money to hire a camera assistant that blows focus every other take because of increased time on more takes. It costs a production more money for a cinematographer who has to swap lights every lens change because they didn’t set them properly in the first place. It costs a production more money for a grip that takes five minutes to set a flag instead of one.
What you get when you hire a professional – and pay their larger fee – are higher costs upfront, but significantly lower costs on the backend and a much improved finished product.
As a freelancer, I knew this lesson going into my redesign, but I can’t embed it into the minds of the people I hired. I chose them hoping they would embody it, but was ultimately disappointed and, thus, will not be hiring them again.
When it comes to freelancing, repeat clients and working for the same people help you establish a stability and consistency in the industry. And, I find, it’s much more rewarding financially and creatively.
So, take advantage of that. Do everything possible to deliver on your promise in exchange for your rate.
Exercising the Nuclear Option (Blow it All Up)
Once I split with Alex, I was worried about having had so many different developers work on the site. Imagine a film editor who is third in line coming to a project. It’s almost more difficult to pick up where somebody left off with an edit than it is to start from square one yourself. Without the previous drafts under your belt, you don’t learn the material or discover the story quite as organically.
After a few weeks of prolonged decision-making, I decided to do the redesign myself. I also decided to throw away the work done by Ajie, Sam, and Alex. I was blowing it all up: the nuclear option. It had been almost a year since work started and the trends of design had shifted dramatically. The site I was once so excited about was already beginning to look stale before it even launched.
The only thing I’d keep was the logo – fitting since it kick started this whole project in the first place.
So I started with a fresh Photoshop file. Then I taught myself PHP and jQuery on Codecadamy. Then I setup a test server and went to work. Four months later, it launched. Seven months later, you’re reading this article on the fruits of my labor.
All along, I had resisted doing the redesign and its development myself because I wanted those more skilled than I to place their hands on it, but also because I knew how tremendous the workload would be. As I consistently worked 12-hour days at my computer – sometimes only making minuscule progress on a simple feature – I felt validated, but I also felt accomplished.
The result of all that hard work is a website that is unequivocally mine, perfectly tuned to my sensibilities. And I can tweak the details to my heart’s content without having to worry about Sam overlooking them or Alex not having time to implement the changes.
In the end, I am pleased with the results.
Still, the amount of money and time I spent on the other side of the freelance fence was grueling. You can ask my friends and family and they’ll tell you it took its toll on me. And so, in remembering that anxiety and stress and frustration, I learned the most important lesson of all…
Lesson #5: Great Freelancers are Insanely Valuable
Put another way, YOU are insanely valuable. That is, if you’re good at what you do.
Being on the other side of the freelance fence was hard because I had to trust the person I hired and, ultimately, give up control. That’s not an easy thing to do when there’s money on the line. It’s even harder to do when there’s passion involved – whether for a website or a film.
I have a guy who I found on Elance to do administrative tasks for the server The Black and Blue is hosted on. At first I gave him small tasks, but he has since proven to be quick, affordable, and educated about what he does. I have no problem now sending him a few notes with what I’d like to achieve and deferring to him to figure it out.
That’s a true working relationship and it’s what everybody above-the-line values and wants.
Producers don’t want to hire somebody incompetent and they don’t want to have a shitty working relationship. They want desperately for you to be amazing and talented and excellent at your job because it’s one less thing they have to worry about and you’ll be one more piece of the puzzle they can account for in the future.
So if you’re good at what you do, if you can do it consistently, and if you can prove that to a producer or department head, you’re insanely valuable. Taking the leap of faith to hire someone and end up disappointed by their performance doesn’t result only in an inferior product, but it makes it harder to go hire randomly again.
That’s why the film industry places such a heavy premium on recommendations. Too many people have been burned before.
On the other side of the freelance fence, hiring based off recommendation is the smartest thing you can do besides hiring based on past experiences.
I know it’s easy to blame producers and directors and whoever else for never giving you a chance, but I’ve learned it’s not that simple. It really sucks to spend your money on somebody who doesn’t meet your standards. You can’t help but remember that feeling when you go to hire the next person. It’s just like when you work for a producer who sucks – you learn to avoid that “type.”
So while I can understand you may be bummed out or angered that you missed a gig simply because you didn’t know anybody, take solace in the fact that it’s not the world out to get you. And use it as motivation to kick ass when you finally do break through that barrier.
Because at some point, a producer is going to get burned and you may be their next option – prove to them why you’re not that other person and why you’re worth hiring. Do that several times and you’ll build a network of crew that call on you as projects come to them.
Redesigning a website or shooting a film isn’t rocket science. Neither is establishing a career for yourself as a freelancer. Seize opportunities when they come your way, hold yourself to a high standard, and meet the expectations of being a professional. Always be willing to communicate, collaborate, and improve.
Do that and you’ll always have job offers being tossed to you from the other side of the freelance fence.