The creative industries are ripe with opportunities for freelancers with portfolio careers. When a freelancer learns skills in one genre or sector and then develops them through working in another, they nurture their creativity and, at a stroke, expand their range of clients.
The development of portfolio careers is encouraged right across the creative industries because it benefits the creative economy as well as the prospects of individuals. When a costume designer works in both theatre and TV, for example, not only do they increase their chances of finding work, but both sectors gain from expertise being shared.
“Constant innovation sits at the very heart of the games industry,” says Shahneila Saeed, head of education with Ukie, the trade body for the UK games industry. “We welcome people coming in from somewhere else with fresh perspectives and different ideas. It’s what keeps us moving forward.”
Definition of a portfolio career
A portfolio career is one in which a freelancer plies their craft in different genres or sectors. It’s a writer who works in scripted TV and business; an animation director who works in film and graphic design; an actor who works on stage, in screen and in developing motion capture.
It’s not about moving from one sector to another for good, which is something ScreenSkills calls “transferrers” (see our information on transferring your skills and making a career change); it’s about a freelancer expanding their creativity and their sources of revenue by being able to work effectively in different spheres.
It has always happened, but there hasn’t always been a word for it. It’s also known as a “blended career”, a “multi-hyphen career” or a “multi-faceted” career.” “Transitioning”, “up-skilling” and “identifying transferrable skills” are other ways people talk about a similar thing.
The benefits of portfolio careers in the creative industries
The obvious way in which a crossover career benefits a freelancer is that it diversifies the revenue stream and offers a greater number of potential clients. It can build resilience into a freelancer’s business by providing variety in terms of working hours and payment terms.
“It also nourishes your creativity,” says Alison Grade, author of the The Freelance Bible. “It enhances your skills. You learn from every project you do and every sector you work in. It enables you to think more holistically about what you’re doing. Good begets good.”
How to develop a portfolio career in the creative industries
Organisations across the UK claim the creative industries as a whole benefit when freelancers are able to work in different sectors at the same time.
“It’s about providing an environment where people are valued and respected and given opportunities to develop and hone their skills,” says Judy Wasdell, skills and talent manager, Creative Wales. “Creative Wales wishes to empower the freelance creative workforce to enable them to utilise their skills across a wide range of sectors without prioritising one sector over another.”
Portfolio careers across the UK
As a rule of thumb, freelancers become more adept at developing portfolio careers in areas of the country where there is less work in the creative industries than they do in areas like London and the Southeast, where the industries are larger.
“It’s quite a normal thing for the creative sectors to work together in Scotland,” says Steven Little, head of production, Screen Scotland. “Prior to the pandemic, we didn’t have a lot of studio space. Productions couldn’t shoot in the winter because we might only have five hours of daylight. So it wasn’t unusual for crew to go into theatre in the winter and into film and TV in the summer. Now we have expanded studio space, there has never been a busier time for the sector, but that natural crossover for crew working in construction and costume and hair and makeup still exists. There’s a friendliness about it.”
That friendliness can engender effective use of other resources, too. Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet have fantastically detailed costumes, for example. When hired out to the screen industries, screen benefits from wonderful costumes and Scottish Opera benefits from the extra revenue.
“Portfolio careers are common in Northern Ireland where everyone knows each other and people pride themselves on turning their hand to anything,” says Liz Barron, training liaison manager, Northern Ireland, ScreenSkills.
“A savvy Belfast VFX firm just hired a feature film production manager to improve the efficiency of their business. An accommodation co-ordinator who spent last summer managing nearly 200 apartment leases for a movie worked this spring managing travel for a BBC NI current affairs programme. Fine Point Films has drama and documentary in production and a production designer who specialises in agricultural sets and props works between high-end TV and unscripted series. It only makes sense and everybody wins.”
Impact of Covid-19 on portfolio careers in the creative industries
The Covid-19 pandemic affected portfolio careers in several ways. The screen industry was able to get back on its feet more quickly than the live events industry, which accelerated the movement of people from theatre and festivals into screen.
Screen Scotland, for example, funded RESET, a paid internship programme that offered people who had lost their work the opportunity to retrain and join Scotland's animation, visual effects (VFX) and games industries.
Screen Alliance Wales ran a scheme called Step Across, opening up its database of screen professionals so that people who worked in theatre and live events could register and offer their transferable skills to screen.
“The great thing with the pandemic was that even more of the work in the animation industry was online,” says Keiran Argo, ScreenSkills’ animation production liaison executive. “This made it easier to work from any part of the country and helped freelancers develop a portfolio career from wherever they were.”
It’s too early to say what the long-term impact has been on freelancers who used to work in theatre and live events picking up work in screen. There is a fear the transfer of skills has been one way. “We’ll find out in the next few years,” said Alistair Smith, editor of the The Stage. “Theatre has always been an incubator of talent, so everyone suffers if the talent drain is one way. The screen industries need theatre to be healthy.”
“The screen sector has seen a lot of change over the past few years,” says Steven Little. “We have a responsibility to make sure that screen is cross-fertilising all creative sectors, and we continue to work on this, as the creative sectors should benefit from the increased growth of the screen sector.”
Aileen Kelly, costume designer, in theatre and TV
The future of portfolio careers in the creative industries
The opportunities for portfolio careers look set to grow as there is increasing convergence within the creative industries in several ways. Live theatre in increasingly being streamed, which brings the skills and crew of screen and theatre into once place. And virtual production, which uses real-time game engines to create set effects, is bringing the games industry even closer to the realms of film, TV and live events.
With this convergence of industries, the ability of freelancers to use their skills in a range of sectors will become all the more valuable and a key component of the thriving of the UK’s creative industries.
That’s good news for freelancers. It’s good news for the UK. And it’s good news for creativity, too.