In late 2016, IATSE Local 479 celebrated its 30-year anniversary with a grand gala at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Midtown.
The event was one for the record books, replete with plenty of delectable food, an open bar, a staggering number of tasty cupcakes, a DJ blasting tunes, and a packed dance floor. Hundreds of attendees bore witness to a 25-year pin ceremony for veterans of the organization, emotionally-stirring speeches, and even some very entertaining dance-offs, all to celebrate the longevity of the union.
As an outsider, being present at this sophisticated event was a tremendous honor. The crowd was an interesting mix, especially given that pretty much everyone there is truly a character in their own right. Spirits were high, and conversations with strangers came easily. A familial vibe and inclusive tone imbued the evening with a sort of magic. The members of this union are all incredibly hard workers and team players, and they truly appreciate the efforts of others, which makes them a chummy bunch who treat one another like family.
If you ask just about anyone, working full time in the film industry can be at once fulfilling and challenging. The work is positively dreamy for those who have a passion for film. The magic of production, of being part of a team that brings a story to life on screen, that’s what drives many professionals into their chosen careers within the industry. But it’s not always red carpets and Hollywood glitz...sometimes the real world catches up to you, and it becomes necessary to take care of details like health insurance and retirement.
So how do career professionals within the world of film and television manage it all? For many, it’s through affiliations with unions and workers’ associations that help to bridge the logistical gaps for industry folks. One such organization that is hard at work making careers in film more viable for Atlantans is Local 479.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is a labor union representing over 130,000 technicians, artisans and craftspeople in the entertainment industry. With 375 IATSE locals spread between 13 geographical districts in the United States and Canada, the union provides numerous benefits to its members.
In the film world, where job security doesn’t exist and nearly everyone could be considered a freelancer, IATSE has responded to the needs of its constituents by providing resources that would otherwise be out of reach for many industry professionals. Those resources include health insurance, retirement funding, worker’s compensation, disability programs, and negotiated base pay for productions. Additionally, the networking gained through attending IATSE events and participating in sponsored workshops and classes help those who are just getting into the industry to learn to meet the work standards set by directors and producers. The union serves many different professions, and each individual craft falls into one of four categories: stagecraft, motion picture and TV, broadcast, and tradeshow.
The Georgia union falls into the 7th IATSE district in the United States, and represents those working within the categories of construction, paint & scenic, props, set dressing, greens, wardrobe, grips, electric, special effects, sound, video assist, craft service, first aid, script supervisor, hair and makeup, production office, art department coordinator, and projection. All of Georgia is represented by Local 479 with the exception of the city of Savannah. While being a member of the union is not a job-placement guarantee, and it is understood that members must rely upon their own connections within the industry to get new leads, they do put out casting and crew calls when they get wind of them which can be a much needed safety net for professionals who are seeking their next gig.
There From Day One
few of the members found some time between gigs to speak with Oz about their experiences with the Local 479; some who have been members for many years, and some who have just gotten started. One such member, Kathleen Tonkin, has been a member of the 479 for 30 years, and was bestowed with a pin awarded during the 30th anniversary party.
Tonkin is an explosives special effects specialist and the owner of East Coast Films, a full-service production resource facility. The company offers services that range from architectural fabrication to scenic artistry, and from custom props to mechanical special effects. In productions, when making an action film or anything that requires extensive special effects, there are a couple of ways to achieve it. There’s mechanical, which is what Tonkin does—that’s any mechanized prop that is physically made and able to move along with atmospheric effects like rain, sleet, snow, fog, etc., and then there is computer generated, which is CGI and other digitally added effects.
“I really love special effects, always have. It’s fun!” said Tonkin. She has an impressively long resume that includes work on big name productions such as Me, Myself & Irene, A Walk To Remember, 21 Grams, Quantum Break, and most recently Daytime Divas. Tonkin’s family history includes four generations of film industry professionals dating all the way back to 1924, and even her father was a grip. Clearly, a love for movie magic runs in Tonkin’s blood.
The work itself is very rewarding, but is not without its challenges. There are some especially demanding aspects to working in mechanical special effects beyond the long hours and unpredictable schedules. “It’s a very tiring field,” she said, noting that she lives her life differently as a consequence of her line of work. “I don’t have long nails, I have short hair,” she continued with a laugh. For Tonkin, these style choices are more than just for looks; it makes the work easier. She also hinted at an on-set singed hair incident that played a part in that decision.
"We are like a family, our whole industry is."
Tonkin was born in Manhattan, raised in Queens, and eventually ended up across the river in New Jersey where she was living when she first saw the hiring call for a production in Georgia for the 1992 film, Freejack. Starring Mick Jagger, Emilio Esteves, Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins, Freejack is a time travel saga into the futuristic world of...2009. It was on that set that Tonkin met the man who would become her husband, and later the president of the 479, Robert Vazquez.
Throughout the years, Tonkin has accomplished many things in addition to beefing up her resume with lots of cool productions. One such accomplishment is becoming the Sergeant at Arms for the 479, as well as serving on the executive board. For Tonkin, being a part of the union is not just good for her continued career prospects: it’s also a crucial part of her daily life. “We are like a family, our whole industry is,” she said, noting that she has been able to curate the team she has worked with for many years. That kind of familial support is key for not only finding and keeping good work, but also for surmounting the sadness of personal tragedy, as with the passing of her husband a few years ago.
Working in mechanical effects is often difficult and trying, and not everything “tests out” as Tonkin explains it. First, you must build the internal structure of a prop and ensure that it moves; then you add the aesthetic elements to the piece. Some of Tonkin’s most memorable films have presented unique challenges. When asked her favorite production to work on, she will tell you that it was working on the set of Dreamer, a 2005 film starring Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell about racehorses. For that production, Tonkin had to create a mechanical horse that would behave in a realistic manner.
“I guess you could say we are the MacGyvers of the industry,” laughed Tonkin. Throughout the process of developing, manipulating, testing, and applying mechanical props for production, it’s important to remain cognitively engaged. “You have to use your brain a lot,” she said.
A Desire To Learn And Network
Beyond just a basic understanding of one’s role on set, and a technical understanding of the equipment to be operated, it’s also important to continue to expand one’s understanding and education of film productions. Nigel Kim, an IATSE member since August of 2016, cites a desire to learn and network as driving his desire to join the union.
"Atlanta is clearly the place for me."
“I realized you really need a hands-on experience to learn,” said Kim. It was at the early age of twelve that he first came to understand the “how” of film production. As a first-generation Korean immigrant, Kim realized that his parents were not really going to be able to educate him on how to be an American. That’s where his love for film was truly born, when his family opted to rent movies in an effort to learn the culture and ways of their new home. Most of the films they watched were either action, fantasy or sci-fi. Kim was obsessed with spaghetti westerns.
“It was the grandness of it all” that really appealed to Kim about spaghetti westerns. His favorites include Tombstone and Magnificent 7. “There was an attention to detail that they put into those films that you don’t often see in productions today,” Kim said. As a young man, he quickly realized just how crucial special effects were to productions. He cites one case in particular on the set of Aliens, where designers had to create the illusion of twelve pods with the budget for only six, and they did so by using creative thinking and a mirror. “How is that not magic?” he remembers thinking.
Kim was born in Kennesaw, lived in Atlanta for a time, and then attended Birmingham Southern University in Alabama before ultimately returning to seek industry work. He prefers to work in special effects, props, and set decoration, with a special affinity for the greens department (plants, trees, and flowers).
Recently, Kim has worked on The Walking Dead as well as his own independent film concepts. It has been through networking and working with other creatives that he has developed a sort of filmmaking crew. “My endgame is I want to be a director,” he said, asserting that Atlanta is a good place to be for burgeoning directors and film professionals. “I don’t know why I didn’t just come back here to begin with, Atlanta is clearly the place for me,” said Kim.
Success and Steady Benefits
As Georgia’s film industry has flourished, the city has been increasingly drawing talented and passionate film professionals for many years. Elizabeth Evans is a set lighting tech who joined the 479 in late summer 2015 and has since worked as a day-player on productions such as The Originals, Stranger Things, Survivor’s Remorse, and will soon work on the set of the Jumanji remake. Originally hailing from Kentucky, Evans’s path started with attending college at SCAD in Savannah. It was during her time there that she first came to know Atlanta.
“I thought I was going to hate it,” Evans laughed. “But really, this is the perfect mix of city and country.” She cites connections and networking that she gained through participation with the 479 as the main reason that she has found success so early on in her career. “I need that small town feel,” she said. In that way, Atlanta is the perfect place for Evans. It’s only a short drive to get outside the city for hiking and natural excursions, but also replete with a thriving metropolitan city vibe.
When asked what aspects of union membership have been the most beneficial for Evans, she cites plenty of practical and logistical aids, such as health insurance, worker’s comp, and retirement. “I think it has given me a step up when I didn’t know how to do those things myself,” she said. “You don’t feel like you’re just floating.”
No Set Place on Set
“Our union is super cool,” said Joy Phrasavath, a set painter and scenic artist who has been a member of the union since 2012. With a background in the arts, sign painting, event coordination, and construction it should come as no surprise that Phrasavath found himself working in the set dec area of many Atlanta productions. His experience includes work on films such as 5th Wave, Triple 9, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Too Close to Home, and Game of Silence.
Phrasavath made the point that not all unions allow members to explore other areas of interest within film production, but that in Georgia you can try working in multiple departments. This flexibility makes weathering the unpredictability of working in film better for specialists by allowing for supplementary work on set. He opines that while everyone has to start somewhere, it’s very feasible to make the necessary connections and find work within the Georgia production scene. “It’s one degree of separation,” he said.
"They protect you."
Phrasavath’s learned from some of the best in the industry, though much of what he knows about set dec is self-taught. He had just mastered wallpapering on his own when he was called upon to do just that by scenic charge Carol Francoso for a film called +1. It was on the set of that production that Phrasavath first really found his stride working as an on-set painter.
Years later, Phrasavath found himself working on the sets of Mockingjay Part 1 and 2 and still honing his craft. “On every show you learn something new,” he said, adding that a level of humility and commitment to getting the job done are necessary to mastering the skills of this work. Much of what he has learned has been on the fly, and is thanks to the leadership of some of his union mentors throughout the years. “A good lead will teach you.”
Of all the techniques and applications that being a set painter uses, it’s ageing and specialty finishes that Phrasavath enjoys the most. Those effects can include making faux marble and concrete, making wood look like metal, and making a space appear as if it has endured wear and tear consistent with the story. As he thought back on his work, Phrasavath remarked, “it’s really interesting, you know, because you can’t really apply this skill to the real world.” Ultimately, he says, “you are trying to mimic nature.”
Though Phrasavath is originally from Laos and grew up in St. Petersburg, he has been a Georgia resident since he was a student at the Atlanta College of Art back in the 90s. As such, he has seen changes come through the city, and has come to appreciate the 479 as a resource. Working in the entertainment industry is often a dog-eat-dog world, and it helps to have support. “They protect you,” Phrasavath said.
A Lifelong Partnership
For many film professionals, being a member of the union becomes a lifelong partnership of sorts. Throughout the years, as industry folks work long hours and attend regular meetings and events, they come to know and form a bond with one another. One such longtime union member and film professional is Andrew Duncan who has been involved with the 479 since 1996. These days, Duncan is primarily a consultant to the union, providing assistance for the development and maintenance of their website and social media accounts.
Duncan hasn’t always been in this type of role. Originally, he was in props, and has worked on many productions such as Sweet Home Alabama, Remember the Titans, Radio, Run Ronnie Run, Stroke of Genius, and Dumb and Dumberer, just to name a few. As a young man growing up near Riverdale, Georgia, Duncan was initially skeptical of joining the union.
“People in the south tend to not be union-friendly,” he explained. There is an underlying distrust of unions and labor organizations that seems to be more inherent within the communities where Duncan grew up, and as such, it took a bit of convincing before he ultimately became a member of the 479. “Ultimately, as I talked to people back in 1996, I realized that the actors, producers, and directors all have their guilds which were essentially a union,” Duncan said, and noted that once he joined it became clear that “the benefits are there.”
When Duncan initially joined the union, its membership was pretty small at around 200 to 300 members. “It was very touch and go,” he recalls of those early days. In contrast, now 479 has their own building, they host classes, are able to teleconference across the country, and hold regular meetings throughout the year. “It’s booming,” said Duncan. The union’s membership is now above 2,000 and continuing to grow.
Duncan’s experience is varied, with a background that includes work for a local architectural design company, graphic design support, and program management. As a vendor and contractor, he is able to maintain a role within the union while working in a more administrative type of role, rather than just as a member and prop master. “It’s more fun the younger you are,” said Duncan of working on set. The difficulty of leading a balanced life as a full time film professional is something that he can appreciate from personal experience.
“Your schedule is not your own,” he continued, and mentioned the decline of working with actual film as a detriment to his personal enjoyment of the work. “Things have changed. When I left, nobody was shooting digitally,” Duncan continued. Working on the set of a production shot with film requires a high level of attention to detail and forethought in order to execute properly, and when you film digitally it is much easier to redo a scene in a million different ways. That shift to digital has changed the approach to production from within, and also has “affected the discipline on set.”
Despite having developed some hang-ups about production, it’s pretty clear that in his prop master heyday, Duncan had plenty of interesting experiences on set. One of his favorite productions to work on was Sweet Home Alabama starring Reese Witherspoon. Some parts were fun and funny, while others were harrowing - he recounts one time in particular when he briefly lost Witherspoon’s prop wedding ring. It was a Tiffany ring made with cubic zirconium especially for the film, and therefore was an item that the company did not feel comfortable having in the hands of the public. Luckily for Duncan he later found that ring in the parking lot, and no harm came of the temporary misplacement, but the memory has clearly made a lasting impact.
It was also on the set of Sweet Home Alabama that Duncan had the honor of repeatedly throwing pork femurs into a body of water for the production. “That was a terrible day; driving home from set smelling like pork,” he recalls. However, despite the mishaps and odors, Duncan laughed as he thought back fondly on the production of that film. “It was so much fun that by the end of it, our AD Louis D'Esposito was going around joking that ‘the next person who says this is the best show ever to work on is fired!’”
Working in film is a challenging, consuming, and incredibly rewarding career for many industry professionals. Throughout the journey, from the first internship to the top of the credit list, it can be very beneficial to join groups and organizations that support you, your craft and your industry.