Getting Back to Work in the Art Department: Part 1

New York City entered Phase Three Monday, July 6th, and the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment have been permitting shoots with 25 crew members or less, shooting on or after July 17th, 2020.

Yet, beginning May 4th, we have seen non-union Art Department gigs on ArtCube Nation grow from a trickle to a smattering New York City. So, we thought it was time to check in with our membership via a survey - just how ready are Art Department crew members to get back to work?

"I have already heard about some commercial shoots where crew members removed masks within the first hours of shooting and went back to a pre-COVID mentality. That is terrifying."

Production Designer, Los Angeles

After reading all the comments and anecdotes in the survey, it appears we not only are fighting a pandemic but an enduring culture in the entertainment industry that is worrisome to many.

"I want to feel reassured that they are flexible and willing to change the way shoots are written, budgeted, structured in order to keep the crew making them safe. The old way of doing things won't be back in full for a long time."

Prop Stylist, Brooklyn

Concerns fall under four main categories:

  • Accountability

  • Hours and Workload

  • Whose Job is it to disinfect?

  • Union v. Non-union protection


The Interim Guidance for Media Production During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency

makes it clear that the production company and producers are the "Responsible Party".

For a while there, production companies considered having freelance staff sign a waiver. The DGA and SAG have advised their members NOT to sign waivers and crew have the same sentiment.

"Seeing a lot of non-union work posts without any mention of COVID precautions... yikes. Also, I’m sure as heck not signing any waivers."

Union Props/Set Dressing, Brooklyn

Producers are facing an estimated 10% increase in the budget. Do *not* expect a COVID epiphany from producers to suddenly want to crew to take as big a paycheck as possible to ease their suffering and anxiety. These uncertain times are, indeed, fertile ground for loopholes.

"I’ve seen shoots try to start up in states near NY or upstate that have casting calls for people only based in NYC, traveling the actors with the crew hired locally.

The productions follow the [location's] COVID-19 guidelines without testing upon arrival. A lot of these jobs are non-union pharma spots, and we have no idea how much this is happening. There seems to be a lot of lack of accountability and loophole-finding, which is sad. "

SAG-AFTRA staff/weekend Set Dresser, Brooklyn


This used to be funny.

It's no secret the hours in the film business can be long and grueling. 12-18 hours days are not uncommon and sleep deprivation can affect concentration and the immune system. Exhaustion from long hours are so common and potentially deadly, there is a documentary on the subject inspired by assistant cameraperson of Brent Hershman who was killed after fell asleep a the wheel driving home.

So what happens on a set now with a crew slashed in numbers? The Art Department is the department of making anything and everything on-the-spot, with what they've got. "Need an until-now unscripted Purple People Eater? Give us half an hour." But can these miracles still happen in the COVID workplace? Will there be the same expectations doubling or tripling the already intense workload?

"I’m worried productions will still try to shoehorn the same amount of work into the same or shorter amount of time."

Production Designer, Los Angeles


69% of crew members surveyed think a dedicated team or an outside service should handle the requisite disinfection duties.

Not a bad idea considering the varying degrees of sentiments surrounding COVID-19.

"I don't think returning to work is safe for anyone at this time...

many people who return to work will die."

Production Designer, NYC

"The whole thing is a massive hoax...This is a fake virus."

Scenic / Carpenter, Brooklyn

"I do not plan to seek out new projects until September."

Set Decorator, Burbank

It does appear that while an agreed-upon protocol is hammered out by the stakeholders, a Compliance Officer or similar will be part of the new film production reality. But, even so, not unlike Hair and Makeup Artists, some contact is unavoidable.

"I usually do props. We have a lot of contact with actors and I think the experience of our department stands to change quite a bit in post-COVID jobs."

Production Design / Props, NYC

Union vs. Non-Union

Variety reported in late May about "a feeling among many senior executives that crew sizes are too big and that technology can enable crews to do more with less. Unions, on the other hand, are looking to ensure the safety of their members. And they want to guard against employers taking advantage of the social and economic chaos to slash jobs."

Many have expressed faith in the unions and equally, lament the lack of strength of the worker on non-union shoots.

"I feel that IATSE, at least 52, will pull enough weight to keep the workers safer. I’m very concerned about non-union work. It was the wild West of OSHA hazards and cut corners before COVID. "

Production Design Non-Union / 52 applicant, New York City

Some are rather befuddled why so much of the existing white papers contain so little detail, particularly for the Art Department which has everything from picture cars to hand props to special effects to greenery to construction to set dressing to scenic painting and so much more.

"I read the [Union's]white paper and was concerned that recommendations for departments like makeup or props are basically: don't spend too much time doing the part of your job that requires you to be exposed to actors who aren't wearing PPE. That's not a real solution to the problem."

Union Leadman/Designer/Carpenter, Brooklyn

Additionally, at the time of this writing, we have not been able to find any other

"For the purpose of this guidance, “media production activities” encompass all activities undertaken in the motion picture, music, television, and streaming productions on set, on location, or at any production or recording site."

"I’ve seen no concrete mention of shop safety aside from disinfecting things before they go to set but that hardly helps the shop workers."

Union Props/Set Dresser, Brooklyn, NY

Already, we are already hearing about productions offering less than the standard rates - all non-union, of course. Considering protocols are not finalized in Los Angeles or New York City, unless a crew member reports an unsafe set to a municipal entity, there is no real recourse at this time.

"The unions must back us on pursuing more humane and healthy lifestyles."

Art Department Coordinator, New York City

On ArtCube Nation, we posted that any job offered that does not feel safe to walk and call us. We've dealt with OSHA violations before COVID, so we will red flag and call out any reckless employer who uses ArtCube Nation for hiring crew.

I'm afraid that the only protection will be for union jobs. There are a lot of talented people who can't get into 52. What will become of us?

Production Design / Props, NYC

Read more:

Getting back to work the Art Department: Part 2 - all written survey answers

Getting back to work the Art Department: Part 3 - Art Department specific suggestions for white papers

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