Most of you in the filmmaking industry have probably already heard about the recent death of Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who was killed after being struck by a train while shooting on-location for the movie, “Midnight Rider.” According to the story, the production was preparing to shoot a scene on live train tracks without a permit. You can read the full story here:
Regarding the topic at hand, I find that most production problems are caused by 1 or all of the following:
- The Producer(s) and/or Director are novices.
- The Producer(s) and/or Director are sloppy (unprofessional).
- The Producer(s) and/or Director are more concerned about getting the shot than the respect and safety of their team.
- The Unit Production Manager, First Assistant Director and DP are guilty of the same traits listed above.
Regardless of how much we love movies and the art of making them, you can never put someone’s well-being in jeopardy. And at the end of the day, a film is not as significant as someone’s life.
Let me continue by providing some insight on production safety.
If it requires a permit, there’s a reason. I know you don’t want to fill out complicated paperwork or pay expensive fees, but at the end of the day, what’s at stake?
- The lives of the cast, crew and pedestrians are in danger when stunts are being filmed on busy streets.
- The lives of the cast, crew and pedestrians are in danger if props (guns, knives, etc.) are mistaken for real weapons.
- The lives of the cast, crew and pedestrians are in danger when special equipment is utilized (like large jibs) and not properly supervised.
- Financial Loses
Additionally, this can all lead to the loss of your good reputation (if you have one), the end of your filmmaking career and imprisonment. All of this is very real even when permits are taken out of the equation.
When you contact your local film commission about securing permits, they’ll assist you by making sure you have everything you need. If not prepared, your permit request will be denied. You’re required to specify all of your desired shooting locations, all of your intentions, the size of your cast & crew and a detailed equipment list. Once they know that, they’ll let you know if you are required to shut down entire streets (for example) and if you will need other types of assistance (like police officers). Yes, this all costs money, but that’s show business. That’s why indie filmmakers should keep their stories simple and avoid complicated scenes in public (a.k.a. on location) that are not studios or closed sets.
Before your first day of shooting, make sure everyone has received detailed information about production guidelines and protocols. And don’t forget to send everyone a Call Sheet!
When it comes to the camera / lighting departments, you want to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s the role of the Director of Photography & Gaffer to make sure their crew doesn’t put anyone in danger. Never ask someone to use equipment they’re not trained to use. Additionally, when people are assigned to use special equipment, like jibs (cranes), it should always be supervised.
Please watch this YouTube video to see a live recording of a jib accident:
The lesson: when you don’t know how to use equipment, put your ego aside and ask for help.
- You need to know the address of the nearest hospital.
- You need a first aid kit on set.
- If performing dangerous scenes (stunts), you need a medical technician on set (unfortunately, they’re not free).
- Make sure all equipment is secure (for example, you don’t want a set light falling on someone’s head).
Also, it’s the duty of each department head to always make sure their team is safe. Actually, that’s everyone’s job.
I remember this one time when I was working as a boom operator (sound guy) on a student project and noticed something about the producer: safety was her biggest concern. As soon as I got on a ladder to extend a long boom pole above 2 of the actors, she immediately had a production assistant hold me and the ladder down. Throughout the shoot, she continually made sure everyone was safe.
Always be observant of yourself, others and your surroundings.
About 2 years ago, while shooting “The Encampments,” I remember when me and my friend, Ruth Delph (producer), were in an industrial part of downtown Fresno shooting footage of the homeless tent city communities. As we circled around the area, there was something that we noticed: 2 homeless men were following us around the whole time in the distance. Ruth told me that if they got too close and tried to steal my video equipment, she would beat them with my Glidecam, which would have been very ironic if you think about it. Luckily, those 2 people never got too close to us.
- Be mindful of your surroundings.
- Never shoot alone because you literally need someone to watch your back.
- There is strength in numbers: when shooting in public, strangers are less likely to harass or attack you when in groups.
What about meeting up with your cast & crew for drinks before your first day of production? This has a few benefits. One, it’s common courtesy. Two, you want everyone on the same page. Three, it builds team spirit. This last one is important because a happy cast & crew increases your chances of production success.
Bad vibes among your team can sabotage your entire project. I’ve never had this experience, but I do remember back in college when one of my instructors mentioned a serious scuffle between 2 students while shooting on a film set in one of his other classes. The outcome: both students were expelled and their reputations ruined. This is why it’s important to get everyone on the same page. People fighting on set can be a major liability.
This might seem odd, but what about food and beverages? I bring this up because providing this is important. What if you’re doing a long shoot? Unless your cast & crew are hydrated and nourished, it can cause an accident. What if someone passes out on set? What if you piss people off because they want something to eat or drink? When it comes to filmmaking, if you don’t have the common courtesy to provide your cast & crew something as basic as craft service, you might as well do everyone a big favor and find another profession.