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"Made in NY" Production Crafts Training Program Graduates Achieve Union Membership

December 1, 2011 - Some of the newest members of Studio Mechanics Local 52 and International Cinematographers Guild Local 600 have something in common: they’re from the “Made in NY” Production Crafts Training Program.

At present, six individuals from the “Made in NY” Production Crafts Training Program have recently gained membership into the unions. The program, which aims to help women, minorities and struggling New Yorkers prepare for advanced careers in film and television, was launched by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in 2010 when Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the program on the set of “Law & Order.” Taught by industry professionals and administered by Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, which instructed the trainees in production basics and job readiness skills, the “Made in NY” Production Crafts Training Program is the latest initiative from MOME to help diversify the local production industry.

The first cycle, which consisted of fifteen individuals, began an intensive five weeks of training for the grip department in spring 2010, learning practical skills like laying dolly tracks, building scaffolding and expertly tying knots. The space and equipment were provided by Silvercup Studios in Long Island City. Billy Miller, a veteran grip, led the training and shared the knowledge he had accumulated from 30 years experience in the industry. The trainees also visited sets like “30 Rock” and “Boardwalk Empire” where they saw grips working in action.

“The program was very hands-on,” said Mike Represa, one of the trainees. “[That’s] important because you can read a book from cover to cover, but never know exactly how to apply that in the real world.”

"Made in NY" trainees watch as instructor Billy Miller demonstrates how to set up a c-stand. Photo courtesy of BWI.

Within the last few months Represa, Vanessa Alexis and Jesse-Smith-Weiss have accrued enough qualifying hours by working on union jobs to become eligible to take the entry exam for Local 52. All three passed. When it came time for the union to vote in new members, Miller, who’s now retired, spoke on behalf of the “Made in NY” trainees.

“I would stand behind any of them,” he said. “They’ll continue the craft as I would have done it.”

“The commitment from the trainees has been excellent,” said John Ford, president of Studio Mechanics Local 52. “It is not easy, no matter what the craft, and I am confident that those who stick with it will succeed.”

During the training, Alexis recalled that the most important thing she learned was tying knots. “I remember practicing knots on the train,” she said. “People looked at me funny; at home, my family made fun of me. When I came home after the last grip test, I told my dad they complimented me on my knots.” His response? “‘They better have. That’s all I’ve seen you do.’”

“Vanessa has a tremendous amount of drive,” said Miller. “She loved what she’s doing. I’m glad she jumped on. When she found out [she got accepted into the union], she called me first, and then her grandmother.”

Becoming members of the union is “going to change their lives,” said Miller, noting that with membership comes health insurance, a pension and a 401K.

“People always ask me why I want to be a grip,” said Alexis, who’s now working on the CBS drama “The 2-2.” “I love being a grip because grips stick together. You have a problem; we fix it. Most of all is that sense of unity. It’s my other family.”

Ford also shared some advice for the new union members: “Always feel free to call the union with any questions or issues no matter how small, never be late, work hard, do a good job, and you will make it.”

This past spring, another cycle of “Made in NY” Crafts Training took place, this time for the camera department. The equipment was donated by Panavision and Camera Service Center and Kaufman-Astoria Studios provided training space and access to stages for hands-on learning. Led by Angelo DiGiacomo, who worked as a camera assistant and has been a member of Local 600 for 33 years until his recent retirement, eight trainees learned the technical skills associated with Film and Digital Loaders. DiGiacomo was instantly impressed by everyone’s dedication. “They came early, they didn’t want to take breaks, they stayed late, they came back early from lunch,” he remembered. “They wouldn’t have taken lunch if we didn’t make them.”

“This is an extremely comprehensive program, teaching both technical and soft skills necessary to start a career in our industry,” said Chaim Kantor, Eastern Region Director, Local 600 IATSE. “The application process, as designed and administered by Katy Finch at Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, requires a total commitment from the trainees. They come into the program with a full understanding of what is expected of them, and what it takes to succeed.”

Following the training, Myo Campbell became a Local 600 member while he was working on a union project. “The hands-on training [during the program] with the different makes and models of equipment could take years if I learned in a live environment,” he said. Two other trainees from the program – Zakiya Lucas and Inga Moren – took the entrance exam and have been accepted as members as well.

“They really all had a passion,” said DiGiacomo. “They all really wanted this.”

“To me, being in the union is a new way of looking at my career, with obviously a new pay grade,” said Campbell, “but more so a new respect for what I do…[N]ot only do I respect my craft, but others will too. It feels like a special recognition.”

Lucas, who had struggled to break into the camera department before taking part in the fulltime training, remembered how everyone in the program worked together because they all wanted to achieve the same goal. “It means a lot to get into the union,” she said. She recently wrapped production on a Spike Lee pilot for HBO as a camera loader and is looking forward to her next project.

“Fundamentally, the core mission of any labor organization is to improve the lives of working families,” said Kantor. “The ‘Made in NY’ Production Crafts Training Program provides Local 600 and the other IATSE New York Production Locals with the ability to connect with young workers at the start of their career and to engage them by providing training that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, for them to obtain elsewhere.”

The other trainees from the “Made in NY” Production Craft Training Program plan to take the union entry exams in the spring.

“We help open doors, but our alumni are the ones walking through them and making the most of the opportunities,” said BWI’s Finch. “I look forward to going to the movies for the rest of my life and recognizing names in the credits of people I knew when they just started.”
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