Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Being Stupid.

After all this talk about the deadly accident that happened last year on a student film out in Georgia, one important thing that has been pointed out on D's post from Dollygrippery is that it could've been him once upon a time. Michael Taylor also mentions that thirty years ago, that guy lying on the ground dying could've been him. And I have no doubt in my mind that it could've been me three years ago... or yesterday... or even tomorrow (but not today. I have the day off.).

We do stupid stuff every day at work, especially at the low-budget / non-union level. I've been guilty of flying 12'x12' rags outside on a windy day without tying them down. I've moved Road Runners with 18Ks at top stick. I've ridden on dollys like a soap box car going down hill. Working in a condor at full height without a safety harness? Been there, done that. Some of the stupid stuff we did was because we didn't know any better. Or because we didn't have the proper gear. Or because if we didn't do it, Production would find someone even less qualified who will. Or a mix of all of the above. (Except for the joy riding dolly. We were bored.)

One comment on D's post that I was particularly surprised by was from The Grip Works: "Are you telling me a student was operating the Condor???" Every once in a while, I'll meet an old school union guy who learns that I do non-union work, and they'll look confused and ask, "That stuff still exists??" Yes, non-union work does exist. Sometimes I forget that not everyone out there realizes that low budget indie shoots still happen, and when you're not immersed in it all the time, it can be hard to see how utterly fucked up it can be. And no, a student wasn't the one operating the condor that night; but unlike The Grip Works, I'm surprised that it wasn't a student up there.

Though I haven't personally rented a condor myself, I've been on plenty of shows that had them. Including ones where the whole crew was working for free (and the "you get what you pay for" skill level that comes with it). There's no "safety/competency test" you need to pass to rent one. There's no one making you prove you know what you're doing before going up in one (though there should be). And there's certainly nothing from stopping a young teen from operating one, let alone a twenty-something college student.

The first time I ever went up a condor was a few years ago when I was fresh out of college with almost no experience. It was a night shoot in the middle of nowhere. It was miserably cold and the wind wasn't helping. The ground was so unlevel that the condor refused to move at certain points when we were driving it to where it needed to be on set. I had no idea how to operate one, and was given a three minute run-down on the controls by the Gaffer who had just figured it out himself a few minutes ago as I watched nervously from the ground. The harness they gave me to wear was too big. It was a crew I've never worked with before, so trusting them with my safety was certainly a leap of faith. And when I got the basket and lights into position up in the air, I noticed that there was some extra grip gear laying around before I realized that it was the stuff that's supposed to be securing the lights and gel frames into place.

From the moment I pulled up to set and noticed the old, rickety condor to the moment I finally got in my car again to go home, there was a voice in my mind screaming, "THIS IS STUPID. THIS IS UNSAFE. I CAN'T BELIEVE I AGREED TO DO THIS. THIS FEELS WAY TOO UNSTABLE. THIS IS STUPID!" And yet, I did it anyway. I don't really know why. Maybe because I needed the work. Maybe because I convinced myself that I'm probably overreacting. Maybe because I wanted to see if I really could do it. Maybe because once I got up there, I felt like it was too late to wuss out and come back down.

I eventually made it back to the ground safely, despite shivering uncontrollably and unable to feel my fingers due to the cold. But looking back, I could have easily not made it home at all that night.

There are so many stupidly unsafe things that I've done in my short career as a grip/juicer. Some I knew at the time were dumb but took the gamble anyway; others I just didn't know any better. And as long as I keep surviving these stupid choices, I have no doubt in my mind that somewhere down the line, despite all the knowledge I've gained or the training I've had, I'll say "fuck it" and do something else that's ill advised.

But despite me admitting to continually putting my own health and safety on the line, I'm not saying it's a good idea. And I'm definitely not saying that those students out in Georgia had any business being out there, with a crew as inexperienced as the one they had and with the equipment they decided to use. I guess what I'm trying to say is that despite all the stupid, stupid choices they made, I understand where they were coming from and how the worst case scenario ended up happening.

We cheat death so many times in this industry, that sometimes, I don't think we realize how lucky we really are.

Related Reading.


The Grip Works said...

I guess ignorance is bliss .... or maybe there is the feeling that this could never happen to me. ..... until it does.
And then suddenly you will have people bemoaning the lack of safety norms in the business.
I don't mean to sound like a cliched old timer, but there was a time when all grips and electricians, and riggers went through a rigorous schedule of apprenticeship.
You earned your reputation by sticking with, and learning the ropes from people who knew what they were doing.
It took years before you earned the right to push a dolly on set or rig truss on overheads.
We took pride in returning rentals back to rental houses the way we got them or better.
Take care of your gear ... it will take care of you.
A grips reputation was built on these things.
On a movie I just wrapped, the cherry picker was boomed out full stick (40 metres approx 120ft) with the arm swung out over a stabilising leg that was not extended.
The Gaffer had Okayed this on a pre call.
As soon as I walked in, I had it brought down, derigged, re oriented an redeployed.
Was I being a tight ass? Maybe.
But I didnt feel ok leaving room to find out what might happen if I didn't follow protocol, common sense and physics.
I dont mind being unpopular if it means the life of one juicer riding the basket, or the life of one passerby, crew member or actor unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place when something goes awfully wrong.
I understand that low budget film making has constraints. But if you can afford a cherry picker or condor, I'm afraid you must pay for a qualified operator.
I am not surprised at all that non union work exists.
But non union does not mean you have the right to violate basic safety norms that could entail people losing their lives.
It is just not fair.
These are people so cosy in their ignorance, and so confident in their "Cinematic Immunity" that they could never believe something could go wrong. They believe that the guy or girl operating the 120ft crane looming over their heads knows what they are doing.
They believe that the light underslung 12 stories above them has been safetied.
God bless them.
We can go on talking about what went wrong that fateful night in Georgia.
But if nothing productive comes of it, its just talk.
And nothing will happen.
Until the next school project or indie film.
Sanjay Sami

JD said...

The film school students can always find money for the things they consider essential, film-stock, cameras, lights, grip, locations, transportation, food, etc., but never (or rarely) for crew. I'm tired of hearing, "....being a student film, no pay, but meals, copy, networking opportunity, chance to work with experienced crew, etc." Experience costs, just like a semester's tuition and books, budget for it.

A.J. said...

The Grip Works and JD - You both make very valid points. (And for the record, Grip Works, I don't think you were being a tight ass. You did the right thing.) However, I think the point of my post is being missed. Sometimes, no matter how much training or experience you have, you'll end up doing something you know is risky anyway. In Michael's post that I linked to, he does something ill advised and he's been in this business much longer than I have. In that case, the only difference between him doing something stupid and some fresh-faced kid on a student film doing something stupid is that Michael knows better. And yet, he did it anyway.* It had nothing to do with lack of skill or training. Whether you're a student or a professional, sometimes you do dumb things despite knowing they're dumb and have faith that it'll all work out in the end.

*Michael, if you're reading this, despite me referring to your decision to climb on that set wall as "stupid" and "dumb" and inadvertently comparing you to a college student, please know that I have nothing but the utmost respect for you!

The Grip Works said...

Hi AJ,
No offense taken. In Michaels case (and I am guessing here) there are very different elements at play.
The first one being that having experience, you can take calculated risks. This is very different from head in the clouds ignorance. The most important being, that when you put your life and limb out there, you do not endanger OTHER people.
Grip / Electric is not an extreme sport. There are tremendous risks and dangers out there if you dont know what you are doing.
Part of our job is to eliminate these risks as far as possible.
Not add to them.
I guess there will always be overenthusiastic guys/girls out there who quickly find themselves in over their heads.
The job of the Key Grip on set is to ensure this does not happen.
The guys without experience get the jobs that dont need experience.
They watch from the sidelines and learn.
I'm sure things work differently in the low/no budget world. But these key positions need to be filled with some responsibility.


Sanjay Sami

Michael Taylor said...

Sanjay has it exactly right: experience on the job provides a personal data base with which to judge relative risk versus reward -- the "reward" being getting the job done. Last week, while laying in the basic lighting for a new sit-com, I had to push the envelope several times, not out of some crazy desire to take chances, but simply because the circumstances required such actions. Although I thoroughly violated the official Industry safety regulations all week long (it's hard not to these days), nothing I did was particularly risky -- and the risk was limited to myself. In each questionable situation, the worst that would have happened was me falling or dropping a lamp on the unfinished set.

I have a healthy regard for my own well-being, and an absolute terror that a mistake on my part might hurt someone else on set. All of this is factored in when calculating the risks and venturing beyond the borders of the safety rules and regulations to get the job done.

In a perfect world, it might be stupid to take any risks at all on the job, but the film/television industry is (and probably always will be) a highly imperfect world. Some situations are trickier than others, and that's where having some experience allows for a better calculation of the risks involved -- and a much safer outcome.

Students don't yet have the experience to make such judgment calls, which is why they have no business playing with the big boy toys.

And no worries, AJ -- I hear you.

D said...

Excellent post AJ and excellent answers by Sanjay and Michael who both nailed it in a way that I hadn't thought of. I remember doing incredibly stupid things as a rookie. I had no idea how dangerous they were and assumed the person in the Key slot knew I would be ok. Now I know enough to know when the risk is negligeable and when it's not, and also what I'm capable of. Something tells me you do too.

A.J. said...

Grip Works - Experience definitely plays a factor, however, I don't think anything in my post refers to ignorance. Instead, I knew the risks and did it anyway. I'm just playing devil's advocate here and throwing out the idea that somewhere down the line, someone on that student crew knew that some of the elements of their project was probably a bad idea and decided to take that chance anyway.

Michael - You said it yourself, "I had to push the envelope several times, not out of some crazy desire to take chances, but simply because the circumstances required such actions." I'm sure passionate film students everywhere share the same sentiment.

And with all due respect, when you take risks like that, I would argue that the risk is rarely, if ever, limited to yourself. Using the example you provided about you climbing that set wall, if you had slipped or fallen, would you have taken the wall down with you? Would the lens from the light shatter when it hit the ground, sending tiny shards of glass into the air? Would your boss be reprimanded for hiring a guy who'll break safety rules?

Again, taking out the student factor, the point of my post was that sometimes, we do stupid things knowing it's stupid. Whether it be stepping on the gas when the traffic light turns yellow or climbing on a set wall, we break rules and take risks all the time.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License .