With Production Shut Down, a Prop Maker Is Pivoting to Making Face Shields for Hospitals

Going from making custom motorcycles and backup dancers' headgear to face shields wasn't that much of a stretch for Robert West.
The LA Face Shields crew at work.
The LA Face Shields crew at work.
Mike Nelson/@mknlsn

As the coronavirus pandemic ground the work of Hollywood and the world to a halt, many in the industry are finding their skills are desperately needed to serve the skyrocketed demand for personal protective equipment. Among them is prop maker Robert West, who is leading a team of people who have fabricated and distributed over 2,700 face shields to Los Angeles-area hospitals.

Prior to this, West has built custom motorcycles, electronics for a popular theme park, and bespoke headwear for pop stars’ backup dancers.

“I’ve done a lot of gigs where you’re just thrown into the middle of it and you have 48 hours to come up with a thing and make 60 of them,” he said. “It’s not so dissimilar to what I normally do. I feel pretty fortunate that there was a place for me to contribute something. I’ve considered using my skills and joining a group overseas that builds homes or makes eyeglasses. But I never really considered that the entire US would be in a state of crisis and I would need to act on it in a humanitarian way to help my community.”

Around three weeks ago, West answered a call on an art department Facebook group from an ER doctor requesting face shields — simple transparent barriers that cover health care workers’ faces and prevent infectious droplets from entering their mouths, eyes, and noses.

Within 20 hours, West created a prototype and sent photos and videos to the doctor, who approved the design and paid for the first order of 600 to be used at the hospitals where he works.

They set up a crowdfunding site to recoup those costs. As word-of-mouth and media attention grew, the donations grew to over $12,000 and counting.

West tapped friends, neighbors, and colleagues. There’s a core group of about six people working in his Hollywood home and front yard to fabricate the shields, while others are savvy at negotiating deals or donations from suppliers for the vinyl, elastic bands, and foam needed to create the them. In total, about 25 people are directly helping the effort.

A photographer friend of West’s, Mike Nelson, helped create a website with headshots, while caterers have donated food to feed the hungry crew, who are not getting paid from the mask crowdfunding site, West said.

The group seeks to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and sterilizes the masks with a bleach solution and packages them every few days. The packages include instructions for reordering and how to defog the shields.

So far, the shields have been sent to more than a dozen hospitals across Los Angeles County, including Cedars-Sinai, LAC+USC Medical Center, Dignity Health-California Hospital Medical Center, and San Gabriel Valley Medical Center.

Back at the beginning of March, the World Health Organization called on industry and government to increase manufacturing of personal protective equipment by 40 percent to meet rising global demand as frontline workers have continued to report shortages of gloves, masks, respirators, goggles, shields, and gowns, forcing the reuse of such equipment in some cases. The crew is currently working on another 1,000.

Meantime, the Hollywood Costumers Local and Costume Designers Guild are leading an effort where members are sewing masks and distributing them to hospitals.

For more information and to donate visit the LA Face Shields website.

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