Out- of- work set painter takes what he can get

Many in the in­dus­try fear the writ­ers’ strike, high Cana­dian dol­lar could dampen fu­ture prospects


For al­most 17 years, Mark Tomp­kins has been paint­ing sets here for movie pro­duc­tions and television shows.

The North Van­cou­ver artist never set out to work in this capri­cious busi­ness. While go­ing to univer­sity, he planned to be­come a child psy­chol­o­gist but af­ter his first job on a film set, he was hooked.

“ T h e r e w a s t h i s g i a n t monastery made out of foam. It blew me away. I was watch­ing all of th­ese artists paint­ing stones to look old and de­crepit, to be cov­ered with moss and drip­ping with age. It was re­ally, re­ally cool.”

Then he got his pay­cheque. That, too, was pretty cool. The dream of be­com­ing a child psy­chol­o­gist dis­si­pated like a cloud of vapour.

He has worked on some of the big­ger fea­tures that have come to town, such as I. Ro­bot, the X- Men films and Fan­tas­tic Four. He has also seen the film in­dus­try here flour­ish and wither like a fickle flower.

“ There have been peaks and val­leys, lots of work, no work, feast or famine,” said Tomp­kins over cof­fee one morn­ing at Lons­dale Quay. “ It has al­ways been that way.”

But he and oth­ers fear that this time, what they are wit­ness­ing is not just a tem­po­rary shift in the wind.

“ My thoughts are this is more se­ri­ous. I think our busi­ness is, to some de­gree, shrink­ing.”

The film and television busi­ness here has been dealt a dou­ble whammy with the strong Cana­dian dol­lar, which de­nies Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tions the ben­e­fit of a weak cur­rency where they are shoot­ing, and the three- mon­thold writ­ers strike that saw al­most ev­ery U. S. television pro­duc­tion here shut down.

The shows started shut­ting down in mid- Novem­ber and fell one by one like domi­noes. The first to go were Bionic Wo­man and Bat­tlestar Galac­tica. Aliens in Amer­ica, Reaper, Su­per­nat­u­ral, Men in Trees and Smal­lville fol­lowed. Ac­cord­ing to the B. C. Film Com­mis­sion web­site, the only U. S. TV show still in pro­duc­tion here is Star­gate At­lantis.

Add to that the fact that var­i­ous U. S. states and coun­tries in east­ern Europe have ush­ered in tax cred­its equal to or bet­ter than ours.

The B. C. gov­ern­ment pro­vides a 35- per- cent labour tax credit for work by B. C. pro­duc­ers and a 25p e r - c e n t c re d i t fo r o u t - o fprovince pro­duc­ers. In ad­di­tion, there is a re­gional tax credit of six per cent if you shoot in some of the outer fringes of the Lower Main­land and a dig­i­tal an­i­ma­tion or vis­ual ef­fects tax credit of 15 per cent of B. C. labour ex­pen­di­tures. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­vides a tax credit, pri­mar­ily for for­eign pro­duc­tion, of 16 per cent of Cana­dian labour costs.

In re­cent years, the B. C. film and television in­dus­try has pro­vided roughly 30,000 di­rect and in­di­rect jobs. There is no ball­park fig­ure avail­able of how many of those jobs ex­ist to­day. But pre­lim­i­nary sta­tis­tics from the Cana­dian Film and Television Pro­duc­tion As­so­ci­a­tion for the pe­riod from March 2006 to April 2007 paint a sober pic­ture.

Across Canada, do­mes­tic fea­ture film pro­duc­tion plunged 14 per cent to $ 282 mil­lion and ser­vice pro­duc­tion dropped a pre­cip­i­tous 19 per cent, to $ 1.4 bil­lion from $ 1.7 bil­lion, tak­ing it to its low­est level since 1998/ 99. That is re­ally bad news for B. C., where ser­vice pro­duc­tion ac­counts for well over 80 per cent of the in­dus­try.

True, over­all film and television pro­duc­tion was up by three per cent but that was thanks to sports and news broad­casts, en­joy­ing in­creases of 17 per cent to $ 2.1 bil­lion for the for­mer and of 11 per cent to $ 1.1 bil­lion for the lat­ter.

All of which spells the need to find work out­side the film and television busi­ness for many like Tomp­kins. He con­sid­ers him­self lucky in that he, along with car­pen­ters and other trades peo­ple, can trans­fer their skills to the boom­ing con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tion sec­tor.

But what about all those great cam­era op­er­a­tors, script su­per­vi­sors and film pro­duc­ers? Their skills aren’t so trans­ferrable.

Then, too, the trans­fer of skills can be both a good and a bad thing.

Tomp­kins, who is now paint­ing a bed- and- break­fast in North Van­cou­ver, doesn’t have to put in the long work days that are cus­tom­ary on a film set. So he gets to spend more time with his two kids, ages 12 and 14. His pay rate is about the same.

But the work is so much more bor­ing and he doesn’t get the big swak of over­time pay that he socked away dur­ing all those gravy years in the film busi­ness, en­abling him to buy two homes in North Van­cou­ver.

The other down side of work­ing in the “ real” world is you of­ten have to hunt down your pay­cheque and cater to home­own­ers who can be ir­ri­tat­ing at times. They al­ways seem to find a missed spot or the need to fix this or that.

Ella Heinrich, who is a paint labourer on film sets, met The Van­cou­ver Sun in an Ir­ish pub. Be­tween sips of her Snakebite, a com­bi­na­tion of beer and cider, she speaks in an un­mis­tak­able New Zealand ac­cent.

Af­ter mov­ing here about six years ago, her part­ner, who works in the film and television busi­ness, found work for her, too. She had been work­ing on the sci- fi television se­ries Bat­tlestar Galac­tica un­til it was shut down by the writ­ers strike.

Heinrich’s job is hardly glam­orous. She cleans brushes, keeps the shop clean, runs around the set and makes sure ev­ery­one has what they need. Yet her face is aglow as she de­scribes the won­ders of her job. Where else would you get to bask in all that cre­ativ­ity, to wit­ness the paint­ing of ev­ery­thing from haunted man­sions and pris­tine doc­tors’ of­fices to grungy, aged derelict shacks?

Ever since the shut­down of Bat­tlestar to­ward the end of Novem­ber, she has man­aged to pick up odd jobs but she has largely been out of work. “ I miss my job in­cred­i­bly,” she s a i d b e t w e e n s i p s o f Snakebite. “ I miss work­ing in the film in­dus­try.”

Be­cause she has worked on a television se­ries for about four years, she has seen mostly the same peo­ple ev­ery day for all that time.

“ You re­ally get to know them. They are like fam­ily and I miss my fam­ily. They are re­ally great peo­ple and I miss see­ing them ev­ery day.”

Still, in a way, she feels lucky that she doesn’t have a mort­gage, car pay­ments and chil­dren to sup­port.

“ I pay rent and I pay taxes but I am luck­ier than a lot of peo­ple who have been out of work for a long time and they have kids to feed. They don’t have other jobs they can fall back on. They are strug­gling. It’s ter­ri­ble.”

She sup­ports her brothers and sis­ters in the U. S. writ­ers union. What they are ask­ing for, she feels, is quite fair. Still, she keeps her fin­gers crossed that the writ­ers strike is about to end.

Oth­er­wise, who knows? Maybe she will have to head back to New Zealand where the film in­dus­try has been boom­ing.

Tomp­kins would like to be­lieve that the down­turn in the film and te l ev i s i o n i n d u s t r y w i l l b e re­versed as swiftly as the stroke of a pen with the end of the writ­ers strike, but he is doubt­ful.

“ Maybe peo­ple will be go­ing else­where to find work. Maybe New Zealand. It’s sort of a bum­mer.”


Mark Tomp­kins, a scene painter on movie sets, works on re­fin­ish­ing a floor while work­ing out­side of the film in­dus­try.

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