Hollywood's Army of Craftspeople Take on COVID-19: 'We're the MacGyvers of This Industry'
The glorified version of a nation at war evokes people coming together, contributing to something larger than themselves, and collectively willing a victory in pursuit of a worthy cause.
Though the coronavirus is no traditional enemy, this feels like war. The battles rage in hospital rooms, biomedical labs and ICUs. The heroic soldiers don scrubs and wield microscopes. Meanwhile, the cloistered public tries to keep calm and carry on.
On the home front, one inspiring community is assembling its creative might, which has fallen into disuse amid the Hollywood shutdown, and joining the fight.
"We're the MacGyvers of this industry," said Nickolaus Brown, President of the Motion Picture Costumers Local #705, whose website reads: "If we can't buy it, we build it."
Now, working alongside the Costume Designers Guild #892 (CDG), Affiliated Property Craftpersons #44, and a host of theatrical groups, these "fabric nerds obsessed with creating the exact shade" just might save your life.
"We have a huge army of costumers and volunteers who've stepped up to the plate," Brown told dot.LA. They are coordinating to make masks, gowns and booties for delivery to the front lines.
"It started organically," said Salvador Perez, President of CDG.
Like virtually everyone in the motion picture industry, costumers and set designers cannot work due to social distancing. As infection counts climbed and news of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) began to surface, people wanted to help.
"Members started reaching out to me about these desperate pleas for PPE for medical professionals," recalls Brown. Though it surely feels longer, that started in the middle of last week. "I put a post on Facebook, a call to arms." Following an email solicitation to the #705 membership, about 130 people had enlisted.
As for #892, "it was just going to be 10 or 12 of us doing this," said Perez. "Now we have signed up about 100 people."
The participating unions, which also include Locals #80 and #768, began working independently. CDG received help from some of its suppliers, including Jo-Ann Fabrics and Michaels. Western Costume and Kagan Trim sent rolls of elastic to #705. In true MacGyver style, two CDG members watched a do-it-yourself YouTube video on mask design then improved the process and sent out guidelines to members.
"Everybody knew they had to act," said Brown.
IATSE, the umbrella guild comprised of numerous local affiliates, caught wind of the groundswell and got involved. Things began to streamline and scale.
"Their arms have a much greater reach to reach out to the governor's office or mayor's office and to have substantive conversations about what people need in the field," said Brown.
Now there are daily conference calls, where representatives from the locals and the west coast office of IATSE coordinate.
As the union offices procure supplies, they will divide the fabric, thread and elastic into kits. These will either be delivered to the members who've signed up, or picked up by members in staggered shifts. Completed masks will be dropped off at the CDG office in Burbank, before being delivered to hospitals.
Maintaining social distancing adds to the challenge, but the process has been designed accordingly. "We're trying to protect our members, but still help," said Perez.
Each kit, said Brown, will yield 24 masks. The first batch out of #705 will be 32 kits, meaning 768 masks, which should be completed and ready for delivery by early next week. Perez expects CDG members to make about 50 each on a similarly ambitious timeline.
"Mind you, we're the people that make the Batsuit," he crowed.
Based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the costumers learned over the weekend that without the proper supplies they could not make PPE of the quality required for high-risk situations like surgery. So, the first shipment is bound for lower-risk workers, like those in grocery stores, senior homes, homeless care facilities and auxiliary health practices like physical therapy.
But, said Perez, "we have a contract with 3M and we're trying to get them to give us the filter fabric" that's needed to make the higher-quality masks.
Still, noted Brown, supplying PPE for lower-risk situations could be extremely useful, since it theoretically should keep the higher-quality masks available for use in higher-risk situations.
As the costumer effort progresses and continues to streamline, more participants will likely volunteer. More requests will come in for supplies. And more things will be made. According to Brown, Local #44, which makes props and designs sets, "is working on making face shields."
Beyond helping others, the work is also helping the costumers.
"People at this time need a way to focus on contributing and to have a purpose in this really difficult time," said Brown. "They are champing at the bit to feel like they're doing something. Having this project has given a lot of people a purpose."
Sam Blake is dot.LA's entertainment and media reporter. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake
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