891 Members celebrate Paint booth on Superman and Lois
Painters play an important role on film and TV show sets, working in tangent with other departments to bring new worlds and characters to life.
A properly ventilated work area is a must, and the gold standard is a paint or spray booth - an enclosed space that takes in and circulates fresh air while venting out toxic fumes.
The Union has long been advocating for more purpose-built paint booths in the industry here in BC, but they’re not common because of rapid growth that’s outpaced studio infrastructure, cost, and the short-term lifespan of some productions.
With only a handful of purpose-built paint booths up and running in the Lower Mainland, the addition of a brand-new one on the set of Superman & Lois is being celebrated by the Union and IATSE 891 members.
“This is sort of a special situation that this production and Warner Bros. are choosing to spend this money and are investing this money into this facility,” says Bryan Wadsworth, Head of the Paint department on Superman & Lois and an IATSE 891 member.
“They're making everyone's life better. I have to commend them on that.”
Installing the paint booth was no small feat. It cost roughly $50,000 and took almost three months due to labour and supply shortages related to the pandemic. Built into the set’s warehouse, it required safety inspections, city approvals, and engineering reports. Roofers cut holes in the ceiling to ensure a proper ventilation system, while a fire suppression system had to be set up inside due to the flammable nature of some paints.
It’s an investment that will benefit not only Superman & Lois, currently shooting its second season, but future shows who may end up using the same warehouse.
“It is pricey and it’s not something that a show that’s here for short time could really afford,” says Melissa Crich, the show’s Production Manager.
“We knew that Warnes Bros. had a 10-year lease on this property so if it isn’t us using this space in the future it will be another Warner Bros. show and they would be able to benefit from it.”
Specialized superhero props and set pieces used for Superman & Lois can be given a higher quality look from being sprayed with certain finishes and paints that are more durable and fast drying. Some of these products, however, are also more toxic.
Paints and finishes can contain toxic chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), many of which are known carcinogens. Repeated exposure can have serious health consequences, including respiratory problems, allergies, skin problems, and even life-threatening diseases like cancer.
Without a paint booth, crews need to be nimble and creative problem solvers, using workarounds like figuring out their paint schedule based on the weather and when they can spray outside, or coordinating with another show that has a paint booth and sending items to be sprayed.
Before getting the paint booth on the set of Superman & Lois, the Paint department was sharing the show’s Costumes breakdown booth, a smaller enclosure that’s safely set up to allow for the use of chemicals to break down superhero costumes.
Once Melissa determined just how much spray painting would be required for props and set pieces, she put getting a paint booth on a priority list.
“If you’re doing a lot of spraying, it’s a safety thing, you just have to get a paint booth. I’ve been in this business for 30 years and honestly, I remember 25 years ago people were dying from painting. They’d put them in little tents with the fumes and what they were using was killing people in this business.”
“We have to change. We have to be better. We have to take care of our crews or we’re not going to have them for long.”
When Margo McKenzie heard about the new paint booth on the set of Superman & Lois she said it was the best news she’d heard in many weeks.
As a paint coordinator who has worked in the motion picture industry for over 20 years, and the current Vice President of IATSE 891, she says awareness is growing of the safety hazards of working with certain paints without a spray booth and proper personal protective equipment.
She remembers having to spray bomb a product outside in a breezeway on one show and somebody’s car ended up getting sprayed 50 feet away, showing how far the paint molecules can travel.
“The importance of good air quality has been undermined for years,” says Margo. “It’s really amazing to see this movement to actually take care of each other.”
“It’s great, but we shouldn’t have to fight that hard for it. It should be standard.”
Margo says in her career, it’s not always been so easy to get access to a paint booth. She’s heard safety concerns brushed off with a bravado attitude in more than one occasion on different shows she’s worked on.
“You do need to have outspoken people who will lobby for that space,” says Margo, adding the challenge is some people don’t speak up for fear of not getting called back for work.
Another challenge has been that the pace of production has outgrown the number of purpose-built studios in the Lower Mainland, with many shows using warehouses and industrial spaces. The Union’s education efforts on safety, however, are starting to pay off.
“We’re seeing a shift,” says Jonathan Helgason, a Union Representative who speaks regularly to people working in productions’ Paint departments.
More productions are realizing early on that they’re going to have to budget for a paint booth if they require a lot of items to be spray painted, and WorkSafeBC is starting to step up inspections, with Section 12.131 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation outlining paint booth requirements if any spraying is being done.
Having a paint booth, after all, doesn’t just protect painters but everyone on set.
“Caterers don’t want to be smelling spray paint when they’re trying to cook pasta,” says Bryan.
There are benefits beyond safety too. What might take 6 hours to paint by hand outside can be done in 40 minutes through spraying in the booth.
“Quality. Time. Health. Money. There are all these benefits to having it,” says Bryan, adding the Paint, Construction, Special Effects, Props, and Set Decorating departments will all get to use the booth for their needs.
“They’ve basically brought this item into the production that is going to make everybody happy.”
“Every production should have access to one,” says Margo.
Smaller productions may not have the money to invest in building a brand-new paint booth, she acknowledges, but a spray booth in town that productions could rent for the day could have an enormous positive impact and address a safety concern the Union has been working on for years.
“If every production had one it would be a really positive change to our workplace.”
Special thanks to Amanda Bronswyk, IATSE 891 Senior Steward, for her advocacy and for bringing this positive story to our attention
If any 891 member has any concerns regarding air quality or other safety issues on set, please contact the Stewards Office at firstname.lastname@example.org