Freelance Wars' has given us a year of hilarious, oh-too-true GIFs about nightmare clients and spec work – and now it's over

In a galaxy not too far away – this one, in fact – a plucky band of rebels are trying to stand up to the crushing power of a ruthless and relentless tyrant with a huge organisation behind them. And if that sounds like the relationship you have with (hopefully only some of) your clients, you're not alone.

For the past year, the Freelance Wars Twitter account has combined two of our favourite things: GIFs and snarky commentary on the daily frustrations of being a creative. Whether it's clients changing the scope of projects moments before a deadline – or bringing it forward to an unreasonably close date – or software crashing on you for no reason you can discern, there's a FW GIF for you.

The account has been produced by Minneapolis-based designer and illustrator Alex Griendling, whose day job is co-running the studio Lunar Saloon with his wife Meg. They draw on the two years Meg and he have been running the studio, but also the nine years before that where Alex worked on movie posters and at Google.

The GIFs have appeared every week and have been widely shared – the most popular being retweeted over 2,200 times.

After a year, Alex has decided to let Freelance Wars fade to black. The final GIF was tweeted yesterday, just ahead of the official anniversary of the first FW tweet this Thursday (but in keeping with the Alex's regular posting day). 

I caught up with Alex over email to look back over the project's success and find out if he's likely to resurrect it in 16 years time (or just next year with an embarrassing holiday special).

NB: Where did the idea for Freelance Wars come from? Are you a big Star Wars fan or did you use Star Wars just because it works so well?

AG: "I think it stems from my friend [and film poster designer] Brandon Schaefer and I sending each other Star Wars reaction GIFs in response to frustrating or funny work situations. We’re both big Star Wars fans – I’ve been a fan since middle school, make a lot of Star Wars stuff for fun, and own a full suit of Boba Fett armour – I have fully ascended Star Wars Dork Mountain.

"Brandon also helped edit a lot of the GIFs, but refused credit every time I brought it up. Freelance Wars wouldn’t have been as consistent without Brandon and Meg around to right the ship from time to time."

NB: And why do these scenes from Star Wars work so well? Is it because the films have these verbal confrontations with power dynamics that are so clearly telegraphed?

AG: "At its core, Star Wars is about a scrappy few against an overpowering many – which lends itself particularly well to being co-opted for common and/or bad freelancer/client interactions.

"That said, the goal was never to dump on clients or hold up self-employed people as a saintly few. After years of watching designers nudge and wink while sharing Clients From Hell comics, I just wanted to make something that, sure, we could use to commiserate, but more-so something that was just kind of light-hearted and fun."

NB: There’s an additional pleasure when the words you’ve written fit with the on-screen dialog. How much do you try to make them fit?

AG: "As often as possible! Sometimes the lines are iconic enough that it’s worth trying to write around. The biggest problem I ran into early on was that a lot of scenes play out faster than you’d remember, or, in the case of the prequels, are edited quickly and awkwardly.

"No one ever mentioned it, but I slowed some scenes down to around 85% – just so there’s enough time to actually process what’s being said. Sometimes I cut a few seconds for the sake of the gag.

"I decided early on that making the GIFs in Photoshop would be the easiest, but Photoshop has a 500-frame limit that served as a nice restriction. Well, that and Twitter’s 15MB GIF limit."

NB: Was the weekly schedule something you intended from the beginning? And have you found it hard to stick to?

AG: "Yeah, I’ve created and organised a few daily and weekly series before, like Future 52 and Vectober. I’ve found the daily stuff to be totally overwhelming and too dependent on my undependable work schedule.

"The weekly schedule wasn’t hard to stick to, though most of the time I had no idea what the next week’s would be. Inevitably, by thinking of situations I’d experienced or watched others experience, or by watching Star Wars clips on YouTube, something would present itself. Winging it from week to week ended up being a good pressure-cooker – there was never really enough time to overthink stuff."

NB: Getting over 2,200 retweets on your 4th tweet is pretty amazing. Why do you think the account found an audience so quickly?

AG: "I honestly have no idea. Maybe Rian Johnson retweeted that one? I think he retweeted one of them.

"What always surprised me was seeing which GIFs resonated with people and which didn’t. From where I was sitting, it seemed like a total crapshoot. Strangely enough, one of my biggest takeaways from the project was a reaffirmation of what I already held true – the work’s quality has no bearing on how much it will be shared across Twitter, what matters is that someone with an engaged following is willing to hit a little green retweet button.

NB: The most popular tweets seem to be based around clients attempting to pay too little or nothing. Why do you think these resonated so widely with creatives?

AG: "My income has gone down consistently every year for the past five years. It’s almost half of what it was five years ago. I’m fortunate to still be able to make a living creating work I enjoy, but I know plenty of self-employed people who have to take jobs they don’t want to, or live with much less than they should have to.

"Incomes lowering in the face of a rising cost of living is a widespread issue, and it’s really impacting creative industries. It doesn’t help that attitudes like 'do what you love' frame creative work as a hobby rather than a job, and when something’s a hobby, people want to pay less for it.

"Financial instability is, unfortunately, just an incredibly relatable issue among freelancers. It’s like my Dad always said while watching Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, “You just gotta laugh to keep from crying.”

NB: Which has been your favourite?

"Chirrut walking across a battlefield repeating, “I am not the work, and the work is not me”.

"It was Brandon’s concept; in Rogue One, he’s saying 'I’m one with the Force and the Force is with me'. When you’re self-employed, it’s especially hard to pull yourself and your emotions out of your work, because that work is your livelihood. It’s not a salaried job – you can’t have slumps and still get a paycheck.

"And so, all the work becomes more personal, and it becomes easy to fall into the trap of attaching your value to the work. 'I am not the work, and the work is not me' is a mantra I’ve found myself repeating a lot over the past year. It’s not the funniest of the bunch, but it’s proven the most helpful."

NB: Why are you thinking of putting the account on ice? And do you think we’ll see a sequel (or prequel) at some point?

AG: "Hah! I have no idea what a Freelance Wars prequel would be, but that’s a pretty good thought exercise. Ironically, I’m putting Freelance Wars on ice (in carbonite?) because it just eats up too much time I could spend making work that pays the bills.

"So, being a freelancer is why Freelance Wars is stopping, for now; I might revisit it down the line, or post occasionally if I stumble upon a particularly good GIF. After all, Disney is going to keep making these things forever, so there’s only going to be more and more material to pull from."

NB: What’s the most awful thing you’ve had to deal with with a client yourself?

AG: "A while back we had a client that became completely delinquent in providing feedback, so much so that they ran out the clock on our contract. They seemed to be liking everything we had delivered up to that point, so I gave them the materials we’d designed thus far, and offered to extend the contract.

"They responded to say they had never been happy with any of the work, and weren’t going to pay our invoice because of it. Fortunately, we had a contract in place, and pointed out that it didn’t stipulate their happiness – and if they didn’t pay us promptly, they’d incur additional late fees. After dragging their feet and consulting their lawyer, they relented and paid us, and that situation is why I made this GIF of Leia encouraging everyone to use contracts.

"I was never able to find the right Star Wars scene to bring that specific 'I’m Not Happy And I Won’t Pay' scenario to life, but who knows, maybe in the future..."

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