By Mark London Williams
With some movies you can tell right away that members of IATSE Local 729 – the Motion Picture Set Painters & Sign Writers – did a lot of work. Think of the pastel-splashed suburb in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, for example. As soon as you see that wide shot, your first thought is “who painted all that?”
And the answer is: several of the 1,000 members who comprise Local 729, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary as a separate IATSE local. The union boasts around a 75 percent “employed” rate among its members – and at less obvious tasks, too: They’re not only painting the town red, or purple, or orange, as the case may be, they’re also working with production designers and art directors to get every square inch of faux marbleizing, wood graining—and every other painted/finished surface—just right before the cameras roll.
Additionally, as sign writers, this same Local has jurisdiction over creating advertising and store banners, highway signs, and billboards (one piece of their work, the “Welcome to Amity” sign for Jaws, has been canonized on the Universal Studios Tour) that the camera’s eye might wander over.
Less than 10 percent of the membership, according to George Palazzo, a second-generation business representative and secretary/treasurer (his father, Carmine, was the business agent for 25 years) is dedicated to being “sign wrights.” The bulk of the membership does on-set painting. And if you wonder how that membership keeps busy when there aren’t entire Tim Burton suburbs to paint over, recall that 729’s contract calls for them to do studio maintenance painting as well. All those buckets of institutional wash over all those soundstages are applied by the Local.
Indeed, the question of building painting is where 729 got its start as a separate guild, in the infamous IA strike of 1947. As men were returning from the war and Hollywood was again staffing up, the labor ranks swelled, and two unions, the IA and the Carpenters Union (supported by the Conference of Studio Unions, or CSU), wanted to represent on-set carpenters. Both were AFL-affiliated, and the work stoppages and attempts to eject one or the other union from the studios where they were entrenched resulted in a classic mid-century labor scuffle, with cops and hoses, strikers being sent to the hospital, etc.
Strife and Resolution
The IA was upset because a 1945 AFL committee ruling reversed some of the work that had previously been awarded to the union. Then-SAG president Robert Montgomery set the tone for how the Hollywood guilds not affected by a particular labor issue, would come to view any strike that slowed down work for their members: “Strikers and non-strikers are not fighting over a question of wages and hours. They are fighting because two international presidents of AFL unions cannot agree on which union should have jurisdiction over 350 jobs.”
Despite the flurry of CSU court filings, the IA held its ground. Enter the painters. The “regular” painters’ union, Painters 644, had been handling workplace representation for the brush-wielders, but by that point, according to Palazzo, a lot of membership that already worked for studios “had been wanting to break away for 10 years. They’d rather get on set,” he added, “and paint cool things.” Palazzo adds that the “strike was started by the painters – and turned ugly.”
But the ugliness seemed to pay off in 1947 when then head of the Local, Herb Sorrell, allowed his painters to cross picket lines and go back to work. The IA then represented them, and within five years, they had split off into their own local – 729 – dedicated specifically to their craft.
By 1948, the CSU picket lines were winding down, and the IA had become the main representative for stage workers in the U.S. and Canada. And just in time for the advent of television, too.
The Digital Future
Although 729 is Hollywood-based, and a separate local represents the East Coast wing, the march from the fuzzy black-and-white beginnings of TV to the full color digital future – which, more and more, is applying to film, as well – begs the question of where 729’s hard-won representation is headed. As other guilds and unions are asking: If what we do can be replicated on a computer, where are we getting work down the pike?
First, with everyone heading to their keyboards, Palazzo underlines the fact that 729 members “don’t paint portraits or scenic backdrops.” The matte painters, for example, have a separate local in league with story analysts.
And while sign makers are indeed using digits in their craft now – and the physical placement of completed signs also remains under their jurisdiction – they and their set-painting siblings have more work than ever, because the crisper high-def images reveal more details, so when it comes to signs, faux marble, and other surfaces, you can’t just “slap stuff together,” as Palazzo observes.
Other facts feathering the nest that 729 has built for itself include the Local being the “highest paid construction craft” in IA, the absence of any other strikes since ’47, and a near doubling, from 427 members to the current millennial number.
And if digits haven’t slowed the amount of work flowing to 729 members, what about the very real “wetspace” issue of job exportation? “It’s always been a global business,” Palazzo observes, citing previous panics when jobs were thought to be hemorrhaging to, variously, Europe, New York, South Carolina and Texas.
“The sky’s not falling for 729,” he adds. Which puts them in a rare enough position in the world at large these days.
Safety and Mentoring
Aside from technological adaptation – before digits there was the roller brush – Palazzo notes a number of workplace protection improvements that have come with increased environmental awareness, and the effects of long-term chemical exposure.
This awareness has increased severalfold over what Palazzo refers to as the “leather lung days,” and includes an industry-wide safety committee – started in conjunction with the producers via AMPTP – that hears grievances, issues safety bulletins, and makes sure that OSHA regulations are being followed by virtue of a “safety passport” that workers need to work around chemicals and paints. Getting your “passport” includes a working knowledge of injury and illness precaution, and respirator training.
Palazzo also expresses satisfaction with the mentoring process in place in the Local. “It’s gotten easier,” he says, with the advances in technology. “We use chemicals people can’t even imagine” – citing as one example, silica sode, a glass component noted for its “oozing quality.”
In spite of the inventions of new paints and equipment, mentors are still needed: “Nobody is born a Michelangelo,” Palazzo states. And he adds that time for such mentoring, and training members who will take the Local into the next 50 years, should always be available. “Paint,” he observes with a trace of satisfaction, “only dries so fast.”