Cinematography veterans speak-out on the production industry’s “safety crisis”

Feb 14, 2022

Safety First & Foremost

By Michael Goldman

The tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the feature film Rust, last year in New Mexico, made major headlines and led to calls for stricter protocols for handling firearms on set, or the removal of firearms from sets altogether in favour of CG alternatives. That’s not unusual, since the debate over what can be done to make film and television sets – which are, after all, essentially industrial work sites – safer is nothing new. 

This photo by Jack Caswell shows cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of “Archenemy” on Dec. 17, 2019, in Los Angeles. Hutchins was fatally shot on the New Mexico set of the western film “Rust.” (Jack Caswell via AP)


Industry veterans across the globe, who recently spoke with Cinematography World, vividly recall similar reactions over the years in the wake of other tragedies. The car-crash death of assistant cameraman Brent Hershman, following a 19-hour workday in 1997, brought calls to reexamine industry working hours and conditions – a debate that continues today. Recent Hollywood labour negotiations had the issue on the table and were eventually settled with additional rest periods and support for exhausted crew members, but no specific agreement on working hours.

More recently, camera assistant Sarah Jones died when she was hit by a train on location for the movie Midnight Rider in 2014. That same year, an audio professional was killed by a stray bullet during a shootout being recorded for the TV show Cops. In 2016, South African stuntwoman Olivia Jackson lost her arm following a horrific motorcycle crash on the set of the movie Resident Evil: Final Chapter, and camera operator Mark Milsome died in 2017 shooting a TV drama in Ghana when a car stunt went awry. Also in 2017, stuntwoman Sequana Joi Harris was killed in a motorcycle crash on-set while filming an action scene in Vancouver for the feature film, Deadpool 2 – an incident that led to major fines for the production based on safety protocol violations. And, those are just a handful of headline-inducing recent incidents. 

Sarah Jones

“The death of Halyna is not the first time we’ve seen these tragedies,” says John Lindley ASC, president of Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild. “Personally, I’ve had enough of simply saying my thoughts and prayers are with people’s families. I want to see if we can move from thoughts and prayers to actually doing something more substantive.”

The 1982 helicopter crash that killed actor Vic Morrow and two child actors on the set of The Twilight Zone, and the 1993 on-set shooting death of actor Brandon Lee, are among the most famous examples of how mistakes, negligence and disregard for regulations threaten film crews. Sometimes, action has come out of such tragedies. The Twilight Zone incident, for instance, led to legal inquiries, a wide range of safety committees, publication of safety bulletins, new standards for filming aircraft, and the introduction of safety telephone hotlines at studios and guilds. Eventually, the studios financed an independent organisation known as the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund (CSATF) that today administers a series of training classes for crew members in all categories – classes that are required to work on productions in the 13 US Western states. The CSATF also maintains the so-called Industry Experience Roster (IER) that lists the names of union craftspeople in the US who have obtained safety experience and certifications. 

However, the death of Halyna Hutchins has come to symbolise what many believe: “We have a safety crisis in our industry,” in the opinion of Stephen Lighthill, ASC, president of the ASC and cinematography discipline head at the AFI Conservatory. 

“We have a safety crisis in our industry”

The question of what to do about it, how to address these issues in a global and unified, rather than piecemeal, way has no quick or clear answer to it. Following are the thoughts, suggestions, and concerns of several major industry voices about such questions.

Stephen Lighthill ASC

Lighthill says that he is speaking as an experienced filmmaker, and not on behalf of the ASC or AFI. He emphasises that, to a degree, a foundational problem vexing the industry, that routinely impacts accidents involving crew members, is the lingering issue of working hours in an industry where 15-18-hour workdays are not unheard of. 

Stephen Lighthill ASC

“The kind of hours we all work has the biggest impact on safety, in my opinion,” he says. “It’s well established that after about 12 hours of labour, a human being becomes impaired from their normal ability, whether that involves driving a car or working on a film set. I congratulate the ICG/Local 600 for working on this with producers, but there is much more work to be done.”

In concert with the topic of long work hours is the issue of why productions are frequently pushed so long and hard – because there is an unquenching thirst for entertainment content from consumers, with studios lusting major revenues. 

“As the popularity of streaming has increased, there is lots of production everywhere,” Lighthill elaborates. “Consequently, there is much production that takes place not in the 13 Western states or the LA area, where safety training is taken very seriously, and there is more production going on involving entry-level people with less experience.”

He emphasises that there are solid safety protocols in place in many production regions across the world, but that the problem of making sure everyone strictly follows them – as illustrated by the Hutchins tragedy – is growing worse. Therefore, Lighthill believes it’s time for a massive industry-wide safety summit, which would “bring together all the major organisations involved in filmmaking to discuss these issues.”  

“It’s time for a global, industry-wide safety summit”

Lighthill hopes that if such an industry-wide summit was held, the issue of enforcement could be addressed in the form of some kind of independent watchdog or safety officer for every production. He adds that such a protocol is already in effect in many countries, and more recently, a form of this approach was implemented across the industry in the form of a Covid Compliance Officer – something he hopes could be a template for wider use of the concept. 

“LA County Department Of Public Health made us have proper, Covid-related safety enforcement,” he says. “It’s already being done in Australia and South Africa and elsewhere. And there is clear precedent in the Los Angeles area. Any place a production films, where there is a possibility of starting a fire, we have to have a fire marshal on-set. These ideas need to be expanded so that we have full-time health-and-safety officers on our sets. I hope the death of Halyna Hutchins will be a watershed moment for getting this done.”

John Lindley ASC

ICG president John Lindley strongly agrees that the industry needs to formally introduce the concept of a safety officer on every set. 

“This is the one positive step we can take,” he says. “We’ve talked about it in the past. They do it in other places. That person’s entire job should be to keep an eye on the practices that are going on around workers, to make sure they are being safe. That would include watching the length of the workday, making sure people aren’t too tired to drive home safely, but also many other things. This could be a real, substantive step forward in preventing accidents, and I think it’s something we ought to do.

John Lindley ASC

“To my mind, the industry is able to make such changes. The question is about the will and timing. In the US, a coalition was formed to create the return-to-work agreements between producers and a range of industry guilds that followed the Covid shutdown. That coalition worked with employers to create guidelines to open the industry back up, which we successfully did. So clearly it is possible to create coalitions to deal with safety.”

As to the issue of what organisations could possibly coalesce to implement such a change, considering all the studios, guilds, trade organisations, and local regulatory bodies that populate the production world globally, Lindley insists the reaction to the Covid pandemic clearly illustrated that hurdle can be jumped. As to the whether such a position would need to involve a government-related representative, which some people would object to, Lindley likewise feels that is not a good reason to avoid pursuing the idea either. 

“Labour guilds need to demand family-friendly working times, efficient resting times, and less dangerous situations.”

“I don’t know that the safety officer I’m talking about would require government guidance, but we already have government guidance on all kinds of other things on-set,” he says. “We have to follow government regulation for kids working on set – OSHA in the US is a government agency and some of their standards apply to our work. So, I don’t think that’s an inhibition. I think the will from the rank-and-file is out there now, and so, the only real question is can we get employers to agree to move forward on something that would ultimately benefit them as much as their workers.”

Lindley also feels the issue of reporting safety violations or concerns is a big worry in an industry where freelance employees fear future employment retaliation against them for speaking out. He reminds that the ICG offers a Safety Bill of Rights about procedures to follow if members feel unsafe, and a state-of-the-art digital app that not only provides safety information and guidance, but also a portal for reporting concerns anonymously. 

“A film set, like many industries, is a hierarchical system and has a chain of command,” he says. “I believe there is a social contract between the director of photography and their camera, grip and lighting crews to bring concerns forward. But people ask all the time, will it hurt their career to do that? One of our reporting mechanisms to insulate members in this area is the Local 600 Safety App, which allows reporting to our business representatives. You can report data, or you can request somebody intervene, and that helps create a safer environment.” 

Kurt Brazda AAC

Meanwhile, such issues present a global challenge far beyond the production centres of Hollywood and the US generally, and many entities around the world are likewise working on solutions. One of the most visible of these is the IMAGO, The International Federation Of Cinematographers, and its Working Conditions Committee. Austrian cinematographer Kurt Brazda AAC chairs that committee, and was central in that organisation’s “urgent call” late last year to address safety issues in the wake of the Hutchins’ tragedy. 

Kurt Brazda AAC

That urgent call asked the cinematography community to “assert their rights,” “show solidarity,” and implied that strong labour guild advocacy for changes in working hours, gun handling rules, and much more was needed to move the ball forward. At the heart of all this, Brazda suggests, is the fact that the global production industry is currently operating in what he calls “a big austerity situation”, in which reasonable work hours and existing guidelines are often sacrificed or circumvented as the raging demand for content takes centre stage. 

“The big players, the streaming platforms, the big TV stations all are using austerity politics right now,” he says. “They want to produce as much content as possible while saving as much money as possible while they do it. We think labour guilds need to demand family-friendly working times, efficient resting times, and less dangerous situations.”

Thus, Brazda urges a strong labour response to the industry’s safety predicament, particularly in Europe. 

“Eventually, the working environment has to change,” he says. “In much of Europe, they are cutting shooting days and lengthening hours, trying to get more work done in one day. I think the pandemic has taught us this is not sustainable. The producers need a lot of content, and they are dependent on us crew members, because we make that content. 

“So, I think now is the time to stand better for our rights and working conditions and do something to fight back against austerity politics. In Europe, the unions have been getting weaker, and they need to be strengthened to deal with this problem. There is no law of nature that says you have to work 14 hours.”

Brazda adds that related to these issues is the matter of mental health support. He suggests that “depression and burnout related to stress” are commonplace across the industry, which is yet another factor in why accidents happen on sets. In relation to these and other issues, he says that IMAGO has been surveying crew members across Europe about how they are treated on-set, what their working conditions and hours are like, and what their concerns are – data he says the organisation will publish within the coming year. 

Additionally, he says IMAGO is currently preparing a white paper of what the organisation calls “urgent demands” designed to increase momentum for pushing for improved working conditions. 

“Depression and burnout related to stress are commonplace”

Meanwhile, he urges cinematographers “to take special social responsibility” in their positions of authority on movie sets to prioritise safety for their crews. “The point is that we have to stand for our rights. This momentum has to come from the workers themselves.”

Kirk Jones, chairman, Mark Milsome Foundation

UK-based producer/filmmaker Kirk Jones personally knows the agony of losing a friend due to a safety breakdown on-set. In 2017, his filmschool friend and his son’s godfather, camera operator Mark Milsome, was killed filming a car stunt in Ghana. Jones quickly joined the effort to start a foundation in Milsome’s name, and the Mark Milsome Foundation soon put a laser focus on the issue of safety on sets. 

Jones strongly believes that safety education is a central ingredient in preventing such tragedies. “I don’t believe there are any freak accidents,” he explains. “These things happen because something has been ignored, neglected, or rushed, or common sense has been overruled in the rush to ‘make the day.’ There is an imbalance there.

Kirk Jones

“We need a world where the producer ultimately puts health and safety of the crew first, above everything – the director’s vision, the schedule, the budget. When that isn’t the case, things can go wrong. That’s why we say that Mark was ‘killed’ on set, not that he ‘had an accident.’ Everything we’ve seen suggests his death was completely and totally avoidable.”

In recent years, Jones’ research made him realise that while there are lots of safety tools generally available across the industry, very few are prioritised or made mandatory in many parts of the world. This realisation led him to design and produce a detailed safety training programme from scratch under the Foundation’s auspices with support from the UK’s National Film & Television School and Media Safety Limited. The course, dubbed the Mark Milsome Foundation Film & TV Online Safety Pass Course, went live on the Foundation’s site in December last year. His primary goals for the course were to make it comprehensive, affordable, accessible, and eventually, mandatory in the UK for prospective crew members to complete, earning a Safety Passport good for five years. 

On the way to creating the course, the Foundation conducted a health-and-safety survey to make sure there was sufficient concern for and interest in this topic. Among the conclusions that came out of that survey, he says, was the fact that a significant number of respondents did not feel that production sets were nearly as safe as they could be, and that production companies did not always respect working hours.

“Sleep deprivation was a huge issue,” he explains. “Mental health problems and lack of support for them was another one. Among the questions we asked was, if we presented this health and safety course, would you be interested in taking it? Around 72 percent said they would voluntarily take the course immediately, and that number rose to 92 percent if it was eventually accepted as a qualification within the film and television industry.

“I don’t believe there are any freak accidents”

“What we are saying is, if you are educated in modern health and safety, and if you instinctively know to do the right things, it means the shooting day will go smoother, you will get more work done in the end,” he says. “There will be less stopping and starting to figure out if something is or isn’t dangerous, and fewer accidents.”

Richard Crudo ASC

Richard Crudo ASC, a well-known cinematographer who has served as ASC president and as an Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences governor, does not believe, in the grand scheme of things, that the production industry is inherently dangerous, per se, in the sense that the vast majority of sets and productions typically have good safety records. However, he also feels that it is “well past time to show a heightened sensitivity to how easily things can go wrong” on-set.

“Ever crew member must take responsibility for creating a safe environment,” he says. “We all have to speak up in the moment if we see the potential for danger. There can be no hesitation anymore – those days must be over for good.”

US cinematographer Richard Crudo ASC Photo credit VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

Crudo concedes this is not always easy to do when one considers the fear of professional retaliation, and the fact that “although many rules already exist, they are sometimes flaunted or broken. Also, most of us are Type-A personalities. We’re passionate about what we do, love our work, and are prone to charge ahead. But we have to reign that in a little, especially among younger workers. We need to take extreme ownership of on-set safety and make a of looking out for one-another.”

He also strongly agrees that the issue of unusually long work hours is a major contributing factor to the on-set and off-set incidents that shake the industry every year.

“If you are unreasonably fatigued, things are going to go wrong,” he says. “No other profession considers 12- or 15-hour days normal. It confounds me how that ever became acceptable. Everyone knows there is a tipping point with fatigue that makes accidents and mishaps inevitable.”

At the end of the day, Crudo says it makes sense for crew members to look to their respective guilds to show leadership on such issues. But, once again, he emphasises that “it’s up to the rank-and-file to keep safety at the forefront. That begins with a commitment to guarding each-other’s well-being on the job. It’s also the best tribute we can pay to Halyna Hutchins.”

Dan Gold SOC

Dan Gold SOC is a recently-retired veteran camera operator who still serves on the executive board and as Sergeant-at-Arms for the Society Of Camera Operators (SOC). Reflecting on his long career as an operator, Gold emphasises that while he enjoyed his work tremendously, it is true that the potential dangers of working on motion-picture sets was a factor in his decision to retire. 

“I retired a couple of years ago, and actually, one of the factors I weighed was the fact that I won’t have to worry about potential close calls on-set, or driving home after a 16-hour day,” he says. “I was looking forward to getting over the finish line and escaping the various pitfalls that we come up against every day on-set. 

Dan Gold SOC

“I’ve found that when major accidents happen, the response kind of goes in waves. A tragedy happens, some rules or attitudes may change, everyone gets concerned for a while, but then it starts to swing the other way. Time becomes more important, budgets become more important, and when that happens, safety concerns can sort of fade into the background. So, in that sense, retiring was kind of a relief.”

Gold strongly agrees with other industry veterans that the issue of unreasonably long work hours is essentially “the issue that spans all other issues” when it comes to safety. “I’ve always believed you can get a certain amount of work done in maybe 12 hours, though that is a really long day, but doable,” he says. “But when you work more hours than that, you are not getting more work done anyway. It then becomes an inefficient and dangerous undertaking.”

He adds that some productions, historically, have unreasonably sped up, cut corners, or ignored certain safety protocols. A veteran crew member, however, can often walk onto such sets and almost instantly “feel the tempo, or rising tensions.” 

“Many sets are very well organised, and properly allot time to do stunt work or firearms work, and so on,” he says. “But then, there are other sets where you walk on and you instantly feel an edginess, a chaos to it—that maybe the people running the set are pushing a little too hard. To me, that was the scariest feeling—a sense of a runaway train regarding the speed the production is moving forward with, and the lack of care being exercised as it moves further down the tracks.”

He adds that, in at least one case, he personally experienced a particularly close call while filming a car stunt on a film he would rather not name. 

“A piece of debris [flying out of a flipped stunt car and into the air] landed near us,” he recalls. “We didn’t even know what it was at first, but it could have killed us. I often think that maybe if the tempo on that set had been saner or controlled better, a little slower paced, we could have prepared better. I really think this is a problem—the tempo and tenor of the set makes a huge difference.”

These are among the many reasons that Gold says he supports the idea of the implementation of some form of on-set health-and-safety officer as a regular crew position for all productions worldwide. He also recognises the issue of choosing to report a potential safety violation or concern can be particularly stress-inducing for crew members in the hierarchical world of filmmaking, particularly younger, less experienced crew. Gold therefore strongly encourages such crew members to actively seek out veteran colleagues as soon as they join productions for advice, encouragement, and guidance on what to do in the event they encounter safety concerns. 

“We need to make a habit of looking out for one-another on-set”

“The SOC recently posted a video on our site about this issue, and we have been having discussions about it,” he says. “We need to help crew members understand they are not alone and should never be alone. Specifically in the camera department—it’s a team. You need to feel comfortable with your team. If you want to bring something up, you don’t have to stand alone. I encourage younger, less experienced people to go to veteran operators or the director of photography and ask them to stand together with you as a team. That also makes things less threatening in terms of job security, if a group of people can come forward with the same concern, rather than a single individual.”    

Stephen Windon ACS ASC

Australian cinematographer Stephen Windon ACS ASC is a grizzled veteran of shooting high-octane, big-budget, highly-complex stunts for major motion pictures, most notably six of the films in the Fast & Furious franchise, and at press time, he was prepping to get to work on his seventh F&F feature. During his years on that franchise, he has become something of an expert at filming car stunts, aerial stunts, big action and firearm sequences. He says he is fortunate to have never experienced a major safety crisis during those years, but adds that is largely because he was working on productions that could afford the time and meticulous planning necessary to ensure all safety protocols were followed. Prep, in other words, is a significant aspect of ensuring safety on such productions. 

“With that particular franchise, every single thing is meticulously planned, and we do an incredible amount of testing for everything,” he says. “A lot of those car stunts are about physics ultimately – launching a car off a bridge or out of an airplane. We might only use the shell of a car, instead of the whole car, to reduce weight, or it might be made of fibreglass to create a lighter, easier to handle version. To do all that, every department has to be involved, and they give us the resources to plan correctly. So, every aspect is tested and most of the time there are no surprises.”

Stephen Windon ACS ASC

Nonetheless, Windon concedes that not every film, independent production, TV series or commercial will have the options, resources, experienced people, finances and talent to be quite so meticulous. And therefore, he can’t imagine why the position of Safety Officer is not mandatory on every set across the globe, as it is, for example, in his native Australia. 

“Even 42 years ago, when I started as a cinematographer on small films in Australia, we had a Safety Officer on set, and they still do,” he remarks. “So, I’m surprised that there are places in the world where that is not required. I personally think that should be mandatory – to have someone whose sole responsibility is to have their eyes and ears on the conversations, looking at what is going on – whether someone is stepping off a ladder, or on or off a boat, or learning the details of a stunt thoroughly. That is the best way we can minimise such risks.”

Windon adds that the global industry’s successful recent response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in terms of making sure all productions, as they reopened, had a Covid Compliance Officer on-set, illustrates that such a change could be implemented seamlessly. 

“You simply cannot make a film without a director of photography,” he says. “You can’t make a film without a sound mixer, you can’t make one without an actor or a director, so what would be wrong with declaring that you can’t make a film without a Safety Officer? In my opinion, it’s all very simple, and that’s the way it should be. I hope that change gets made in the near future.”

Learn More:

CSATF Training Page

https://www.csatf.org/

CSATF Industry Experience Roster

https://www.csatf.org/rosters-lists/industry-experience-roster/

ICG Local 600 Safety Page

https://www.icg600.com/SAFETY

 

ICG Safety Bill of Rights:

https://www.icg600.com/Portals/0/PDFs%20%28Public%29/Safety%20Bill%20of%20Rights%20on%20Set%20FINAL.pdf

  

ICG Handheld Safety (filming in vehicles safety)

https://www.icg600.com/SAFETY/Safety-Research-Information/Safety-Research-Handheld-Filming-in-Vehicles

 

ICG Safety APP

https://www.icg600.com/SAFETY/SAFETY-App

 

IMAGO Urgent Call

https://imago.org/news/urgent-call-2021/

Mark Milsome Foundation Online Training Course

https://www.mmfonlinetraining.com/

Mark Milsome Foundation

https://www.markmilsomefoundation.com/

 

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