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How to navigate your creative relationship with clients

Written by: Alex Westfall



Time to read 5 min

From  visualizing songs by Lady Gaga and BLACKPINK to facilitating mind-bending, improvisational  performances  at MoMA, duo Sam and Andy Rolfes are in a perpetual toggle between real life and the screen. Cleverly using VR, mixed reality, figurative animation, and motion capture tools to highlight the absurdity of life, dream up ironic characters, and make anti-capitalist statements, Sam and Andy discovered and perfected a digital fluency that’s uniquely theirs. They also happen to be brothers. 

Here, Sam and Andy speak about navigating the client-creative relationship—how they find clients, how they present their work to them, and how they set boundaries.

Sam and Andy leaning against a wall

When you first started making work, how did you make this new form legible or explainable when appealing to different groups and institutions?

Andy: None of our stuff is made to be packaged.

Sam: To make our work legible, we reference game things, show the one-to-one process and relationship in our work. We do demos. When we have a music video come out, we push on the press, when we do an interview, we say, “This is how we do it,” because that helps every understand how this all works.

Andy: Also, just inherently knowing what you’re trying to create so well that you can easily explain it, along with the fact that you’re tying it to some other part of media or something that people can actually understand. I was like, “This is like this plus this and this is VR.”

Sam: It’s gotten easier since 2020, because there’s more v-tubers.

Andy: There’s more native languages.

Sam: Our vibe already self-selects that a type of person is going to be in it and probably they’re going to be willing to read into it or whatever.

Andy: You will have to explain a lot more to a corporation than to your professional friend.

Sam: We’ve done meetings with executives, where we go through an entire hour-long spiel, and you’ve heard me talk, going through everything, all this stuff we could do. We get to the end and the guy’s like, “What is the cube? What is this 3D?” Worthless! Understanding who you’re talking to, and then just going from the ground up and trying to find as many analogues and metaphors will help.

performers onstage with hands raised

How do you find clients? 

Sam: Typically, clients come to us. I say that as if it should be loose, laid-back. We’re very much in the music scene. I’m always at shows.

Andy: Showing up counts.

Sam: Going to the shows, getting to know everybody. Just being nice.

Andy: Be nice. Be involved. Put yourself out there. Put yourself into the situations. Don’t try to latch on. Come into the community that you’re interested in and say, “Hi, how are you? I’m this. This is what I want to do,” and become friends with people. That’s how you can keep growing.

Sam: Typically, the arc has been, start within a community, try and construct some sort of financing. Try and make a living within the community, which obviously is hard. Even if it’s not underground, even this big music stuff, like it’s very hard to make a living.

If you’re trying to get clients, certain creative companies are also in the scene, looking for stuff. They’re mood-boarding you, for better for worse. The big question for us always is whether we’ve managed to crawl into a certain room. We can pitch to this media company. You’ve got your art practice, you’ve got all the stuff you want to do, all these things that you think are meaningful, these things you want to say. How do you distill that, how do you pull it out and make a marketing pitch for it in a way that can convince the right people?

Sometimes, you can do smokescreen with tech stuff. It’s real-time ya-da ya-da. Metaverse, metaverse, metaverse. All that shit. That’s how a lot of people make their money. When it comes to clients, doing a certain amount of pushback, not just saying yes to whatever, saying, like, “Look, we can do this, under these conditions, with this amount.” To a certain extent, it helps having a few projects in your belt, so you can be like, “Well,” so you can back it up, but just straight up being willing to tell clients, “No,” for stuff, goes a long way. You’ll lose out on some work, but you’ll get better work overall.

behind the scenes in Unreal

Andy: The word no is the most important thing in freelancing is like, “Okay, sure.” In little reproduction, the no can be like, “This is cool, but what if we just like re-rendered in a completely different engine?”

That’s where you can say, “No,” or say, “It’s going to cost this much, and have this much time, if you want that. If you’re willing to pay that, cool, I have the time,” or if you don’t have the time, you just like, “This is my timeline. I can’t do any more.” You can just end the conversation there.

It is setting boundaries—for your self-worth and your timeline. With your projects, it’s good to have boundaries in terms of what you’re trying to create. It’s good to set boundaries with your clients in terms of what is being allowed. Sometimes you can have great clients. They can completely understand, otherwise they’re just very by-the-books and just need to be told, every situation is like, “No, we can’t do that, because this and this,” or like, “This is going to be the cost,” because they might not know, which is exhausting. Ultimately, it is going to be worth it for making sure that you’re setting healthy hours and getting an actual living wage for the work that you’re doing.

Sam: We’ve all been atomized into individual monad freelancers. There’s no solidarity. There’s always going to be somebody who is going to undercut you. A lot of it is establishing your own voice. Copying other people, taking a lot of inspiration from other people—you’re going to have started doing that anyway, but finding a way to personalize your practice and then just stick to your guns, honestly.

Getting a producer, getting a friend to pretend to be a producer, getting anybody else to help handle emails with you, or even pretending to be somebody else on an email. I created a character called El-lol, spelled like, like trompe-l’œil, but L-O-L. I briefly had a character that I had on email that I would send to corporate context be like, “Hi just checking in. It’s El. We were just checking on that invoice,” because they hadn’t paid us in months.

Sam: Having some sort of intermediary can help with the pitching or the negotiation process. For us, it’s the deadline. You just have to use what are you trying to do? Are you trying to show a bunch of cool shit, or are you trying to communicate something?

Oftentimes, there’s a conceptual performative element that it’s really important to us that I do not want to lose. Although there’s a bunch of facts, weird fancy stuff that I might want to get to, I might want to like 10 other levels, whatever. Sticking to what is the most important thing—What are you trying to communicate? What is the essence of this thing?—will not only going to help you make a better performance and better video in itself, but helps you make judgment calls for what you do and how you budget your time.


Adapted and condensed from our live demo event with the Rolfes brothers: Building an Informed Virtual Reality

Photography by Timothy Saccenti for Setta Studio