Friday, May 28, 2010

"A Film Set Tragedy & Lessons Learned"

In case you haven't noticed, posting on this blog has been slightly different the past couple of weeks, veering from (more or less) thought out pieces to a series of short blurbs. A hopefully momentary change that can be attributed to the good/weird/crazy/stressful/amazing/holy shit!/WTF-just-happened?? moments that I've been enduring recently. In other words: I've been busy. The plan is to get back to your regularly scheduled programming soon, but until then, please bear with me as I try to navigate these unusual, scary and awesome changes in both my personal and professional life.

That said, this weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and with that, the usual slew of independent productions taking advantage of bored crew members in the months to come. Shoots like those often have an "anything to get the film done... cheaply" mentality and unfortunately, safety and common sense end up as nothing more than an afterthought.

One such example came about last summer on a student film shooting out in Georgia. I had heard bits and pieces about it almost right after it happened, but never got the full story... Until a few days ago. An e-mail that had been forwarded around recently found its way into my inbox and I found it too important that I can't not share it, especially since today happens to be the one year anniversary of the tragedy. It was written by the Safety and Training Director of Local 728 and serves an all too important reminder of how dangerous our jobs can be, how one person can affect the lives and safety of others, how we should always be aware of our surroundings, never assume that something is "safe" and definitely not last nor least, how much electricity scares the bejeezus out of me.

So as you read this letter, I hope you take to heart the message it sends. The lessons learned from it can and will save your life, the lives of others and get everyone safely home at the end of the day.

"For those who have not heard of this accident, a person was killed on an NYU student film set last summer. We were aware of it almost as soon as it happened but due to the inevitable lawsuits, many of the details are now coming to light.

The accident happened on a student film set in a rural area of Georgia when a condor rigged with a 12k made contact with a high voltage power line. As with many "no budget" productions, the electrical aspect of the production was almost an afterthought so the production had hired a local person to be responsible for the generator and distribution system. This person, while eager to work, had limited experience and absolutely no training. The rest of the lighting crew was made up of students.

The mistakes were many: the power lines were assumed to be dead or telephone lines; the set was in a cellular dead zone; they had made no provision for first aid or emergency action plan; and the students apparently were never given any safety classes what-so-ever. [ed note: I've never even heard of a film school giving safety classes.]

The accident scenario is one that we have all envisioned at one point in time. It was a dark night exterior and the DP was giving directions to the person who was operating the condor. No one noticed just how close the basket was to the power line until the diffusion frame made contact. There was an explosion, the lights went out, and one person lay on the ground dying.

Surprisingly enough, the student killed was not the person operating the condor. He survived, not because he was wearing rubber soled shoes as was stated in the news, but because he remained at the same potential of the lift and provided no path to ground. Since the contact was made with the diffusion frame on the 12k, the power sought earth through the equipment ground of the light. In so doing, it energized the ground of the entire distribution system. Every metal piece of the distribution system and every device plugged into it became energized at 14,000 volts. It was unfortunate that a film student on the other side of the set was holding a light at the time and he became the path to earth.

Act II of this great tragedy was the complete unpreparedness of the production to respond to an accident. They were many miles away from the nearest city at an abandoned house in a cellular dead zone. They had not informed any local authority that they were shooting and when they finally did contact emergency services, they could not give the address of where they were. The ambulance took 45 minutes to get to the scene while getting lost on the way.

So what are the lessons learned? First that you can survive if your condor makes contact with a power line, though I must caution that this person was extremely lucky that he wasn't hit by the arc blast. Had he been hit by the arc blast, he would have instantly caught fire with no way to extinguish himself. In other words, don't count on surviving if it happens to you.

The second lesson is that someone not involved with the electrical accident can still be injured (or in this case killed) by it. This person had no idea anything was even close to being wrong when he got shocked. It was almost literally a "bolt out of the blue."

The third lesson is that you should NEVER take an emergency action plan for granted and never assume that anyone else has done the work. When you are in a hazardous area or situation, ASK about the emergency action plan if you are not briefed on it. Production is responsible for your safety and they are ALWAYS supposed to have an emergency action plan (that is why the nearest hospital is listed on the call sheet.) However, you need to take responsibility for yourself and anytime you are in a hazardous situation make sure that an emergency action plan is in place just in case the unthinkable happens. Make sure that YOU know what to do when the worst case scenario unfolds to protect yourself and the other people on your crew.

Alan "


Niall said...

That email really makes you think back to all the really unsafe stupid shit one has done over the years and makes you appreciate that your still alive.

I almost took a tumble out of a scissor lift just over a year ago. I was up high with my best boy trying to rig a 20x20 rag to the side of a barn. The weather was bad to say the least and production had gotten us a regular studio lift not a 4x4 that was needed and asked for. No safety harnesses were provided by production or the rental shop where said lift came from.

It's about mid afternoon and we've been struggling with this rag for about twenty minutes. The two guys on the ground stabilizing the rag are getting tossed around every once and while when the wind gusts. I had a moment of clarity(funny how they happen to late most of the time) thinking to my self 'this is a bad idea maybe we should stop and take it down.' Before I could finish that thought a huge gust took the rag, pulling it inside nearly tossing the guys on the ground like rag dolls. With their weight on the bottom of the rag and the sudden push and release of the wind the rag became a giant rubber sheet that bashed me in the face as I was leaning out to hold the rag.

It hit like a sucker punch, and it bloody well hurt.

I tumble back and hit the other side of the bucket managing to brace my self against it. The one thing keeping me in the bucket was that my baseball cap I wear at work had taken a bit of the punch off the rag and protected my face enough so I wasn't just knocked out by the hit. At that point I'm pissed at production, the weather, but mostly my self for not having the common sense to demand the right lift and safety gear for the people in it, and also for thinking a rag in those winds was safe. I have never made those mistake again.

Let that poor film student who died be a reminder that safety is a first and foremost part of our job. Not pandering to the whims of production's classic line about time restraints and working faster.

Unknown said...

I actually DPed an NYU film the week after that accident, and our location (a secluded backyard some 200 yards from the house) needed power for a night ext. I've been tying in for years so that was the obvious solution; I had the all-student crew help me run the distro, and then did the tie-in myself. The shoot went great, and what NYU didn't know didn't hurt them.

NYU, of course, had strictly prohibited tie-ins on their students' shoots after the Georgia shoot, so we had to keep it on the down-low. The troublesome thing was that when the director forwarded me some of the emails from NYU about why they weren't allowing it, none of them seemed to get that it was not a particular procedure or piece of equipment that had caused the accident, it was lack of knowledge about (and respect for) the lethal power that film lights carry.

We all know how ambitious student films are anyway; trying to tell them they can't make the movie they want works about as well as abstinence-only sex education. NYU (and all film schools) needs to educate their students about the SAFE way to do things, rather than trying to prevent them from being able to. Accidents will continue to happen until students are able to make informed decisions.

Anonymous said...

Clayton - Stupid decisions happen just as often in the non-student film world. Grip/Electric is a unique career, in that there is little if any job training available prior to actually doing, and learning on, the actual job. And this is one of those jobs that can end up really hurting, even killing someone. Its just a situation asking for someone to get hurt. I get upset when I work with more experienced people who treat greener kids or kids who ask questions like crap. Your life might be in that kids hands one if you drop the ego, you might be saving your own ass...

Additionally, most film schools have their heads up their ass. I went to a film school that was considered in NY to be one of the more technically-oriented schools. The schools (at least in NY) all run the other way from being considered a valid 'technichal' program, because they all want to project an film history or arty image, they want to be a university, not a vocational school. The answer to the issue of safety training and technical knowledge would ideally be, but will never be, the film school.

Unknown said...

Anon: agreed. Safety should always be top priority on any shoot, I just focused on film schools because it's the topic at hand.

And you're right, it's a shame that schools try to fit the image of artsy rather than vocational; they take the hands-on out of "hands-on" education. What's especially frustrating is that those of us who know G&E work have realized that more often than not, technical knowledge can lead to greater artistic vision. A pity that most students (hell, many professionals as well) think that films make themselves pretty.

Out of curiosity, which technically-oriented nyc film school did you attend?

A.J. said...

Niall - Looking back, I can't tell you how many stupid things we did when I was just starting out, not even knowing how stupid they were.

Thanks for sharing your story, and I'm glad you were wearing a hat that day...

Clayton - I can't say I'd do the same in your situation. While I'm not 100% sure about New York, tying in is definitely illegal in L.A. without a permit and a qualified (read: trained and certified) person to do it. Regardless of whether or not I'd been doing tie-ins for years, if anything had happened, I sure as hell wouldn't want to be held responsible for it and from my experience, any time the phrase "what they didn't know didn't hurt them" is used, that generally signals something bad. And above all, if Production was ignorant enough to not plan for a power source for a night exterior, then that's their problem. The sooner film students learn the consequences of their fuck ups, the better.

And I agree: it'd be in everyone's best interest to properly train students rather than throw a bunch of strict rules at them. Although, I don't quite see how performing an illegal tie-in for them is "safe" or making an "informed decision."

Anonymous - I think that's one of the main problems with film schools: They "train" you to be Writers, Directors, Producers, DPs... ie: people who don't need to know how to rig a condor or use a generator because that's not their job. Therefore, schools don't really see a need to safety train the students since they're not being taught how to be grips or electrics (nor do they want to be). It's sort of a Catch22... Film students are the ones who need safety training the most, yet it makes the least sense for them to have it.

Unknown said...

AJ, unfortunately we tend to treat tie-ins a bit differently on the east coast. There are times when the job is big enough for production to hire a certified electrician to tie in (or actually bring a genie truck), but when it comes to low-budget stuff, we tend to just do it. The concept of legality takes a backseat to the convenience of borrowing house power.

It's been a while now since I've had to perform a tie-in, and of course I'm glad about it. The idea of getting fried was never all that appealing. But regardless of how my NYU story sounds on paper, it was the practical solution to the problem, and didn't put anybody else in danger any more than a generator would have.

Also, the lack of a power source wasn't a mistake, just a budget restriction. A set of tricos is a lot cheaper than a 12,000w, it's not the ideal logic, but it was the best way to get it done.

Anonymous said...

Clayton - I went to SVA. I once worked with an NYU student who was shocked how professional SVA kids he worked with seem to be. I have to say I really, deeply respect a lot of ('cinematography major') students I went to school with. The good ones respect the danger and endeavor to do their job excellently, and do it safely, and are good at it; but there are always a few bad apples. I know that lot of people I went to school with will have excellent careeers as cinematographers or in the union. I do wish that there were classes at every film school aimed towards the G&E inclined. It would put them on a better track..towards safety, their career, and helping them pass the union test. But ultimately I get the fact that film schools exist for filmmakers, not filmworkers. Who would pay that much money for 4 years of safety/techincal/practical training? Its end up being about networking, not learning. No one ever really gets that film school is a scam till after they get there...

I have to say that the independent shoots, in my opinion, are worse than film schools shoots. Other film students I knew were aware of their inability to deal with our department, and respected the work. On independent shoots, Ive met a lot of directors and producers with dangerous or unrealistic expectations of what is possible or safe, and think everyone should work for free or below minimum wage.

A.J. - I'm pretty sure it might be illegal in NY as well, but there are tie-ins ALL THE TIME. I don't know and don't want to know how...

I heard a lot of different versions of the NYU shoot story before hearing one that blamed a locally hired lift operator for calling the power lines phone lines and deeming them safe, which was apparently the 'right' one.

I don't think film students need safety training 'more' than most. Being a film student doesn't make you more inclined to kill someone. Being an idiot does, being over-confident does, being reckless does. And all of those people remain that way after or whether or not they went to film school. I've worked with plenty of people, who when i watched them, rigged badly or safetied badly or just didnt know what they were doing, despite how long they'd been doing it, but they have the swagger and the talk and no one questions their work.

Not every person who does grip or electric goes to film school, and few film schools really cover grip or electric. So regardless of film school, people walk on set not knowing what they're doing, and knowing that there is no real training, the training just has to happen on set. It is absolutely a catch-22.

Maybe everyone would be better off if there was a certification program to put you on track towards a paid apprenticeship in the union. Or maybe it works the way it does now - maybe thats what independent films are for...

A.J. said...

Clayton - Thanks for taking the time to explain the situation to me. While I still may disagree with the choice of doing the illegal tie in to begin with, it seems that more thought and consideration went into it than I originally thought. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. I still wouldn't have done it though. :)

Anonymous - I have absolutely seen guys who have been in this industry for years doing things wrong or unsafely, and no one dare questions them because their seniority. I think one of the problems is that yes, we absolutely learn our jobs by doing our jobs and we learn from our bosses and co-workers. However, who taught them? If I start off with a crew of people who don't know what they're doing and accept their actions as the "right" way of doing things, those are habits I might carry with me when I "train" the next guy. What we need is some kind of standardized training, but I think we've also both agreed that it's all a big catch22...

Unknown said...

I've worked with several SVA students regularly, and Anon, the impressions you mentioned tend to be spot-on. Somehow SVA has managed to instill very little harmful ego into its students, and has produced hardworking, friendly, eager professionals. My hat is off to SVA, for sure.

My ultimate point has to do with NYU's handling of this tragedy. Instead of looking at the cause of the accident, they try to prevent others by prohibiting students from using certain equipment. But students need to LEARN something from this. If Lamensdorf died so that NYU could disallow a list of things that will continue to be done anyway, the tragedy becomes even greater.

Anonymous said...

For us non-juicers, what is a tie-in?

Nathan said...


There are a number of different types of tie-in, but the most common one is where Trico clips are clamped directly onto the bus bars in a property's electrical breaker box -- bypassing the breaker switches and (hopefully), running through your own bullswitch or breaker box. (You can "Google" images of a Trico clip and get the idea.) The fact is that, as others have mentioned, tie-ins are way more common than they should be. A film electrician may be completely "competent" to do a tie-in, but, since most film electricians aren't Licensed electricians, tying in to house power is pretty much verbotten.

JD said...

First comment goes to Niall: Your safety is your own business. If your "Employer" doesn't provide you with the necessary gear, either don't do the job or provide it yourself. In your case, you were responsible for providing your own safety belt and lanyard, just as an ironworker would.
Second comment is more general in nature. Who at NYU or Columbia is qualified to teach safe Grip and Electric procedures from anything more than a textbook approach? Some professor who lives in the "Ivory Tower of Education" and perhaps has Directed or Produced a few film in his career. These aren't hands-on type instructors. The schools need to hire some industry experienced adjuncts who can demonstrate and prepare the student for life in the real production world.
The decision to prevent students from using non-students on their crews, only increases the dangers.

Nathan said...


I don't know about Columbia, but NYU already makes use of outsiders as guest lecturers. (I've done a seminar on budgeting for Locations a couple of times.) If they're serious about safety, they wouldn't have any problem getting some appropriate lecturers from Local 52.

Niall said...

JD: You basically boiled down what I already said my self. I knew I was solely responsible for my own safety I was just too young and stupid to think about it for too long. That's what really made me pissed about the whole situation.

Also equipment rental place are required to provide proper safety equipment for the rigs they rent (I also told production to get two safety harnesses). They just don't because most people just have their own and never complain. Learned my lesson on that one real fast. I just never go up in a buck with out a harness anymore.

The eager film student in me died that day. I'm still invested in a project but, no longer am I bending over backwards to provide every possible thing production asks for. If it's out side our means I let them know in a professional manner. If they act like a minge about it I just tell them if they planed ahead this wouldn't of happened.

But yes your right we're all responsible for our own safety.

A.J. said...

Clayton - I think part of what NYU is trying to accomplish in its stricter guidelines is eliminating potential hazards. By saying "no tie ins" and "no condors" they're hoping to reduce the chances of a death or injury involving electrocution, falls, etc, because let's face it, tie ins and aerial lifts, no matter how safely done, come with inherent risks. When I was doing student films back in the day, did I always follow the rules? No. But if something was "forbidden," it definitely made me stop and think about why such a rule was put into place, causing me to proceed with extra caution.
I'm not saying that I 100% agree with the new "guidelines" at NYU, but then again, I personally don't know enough about them to make a judgment.

Nathan - Thanks a bunch for the explanation of what a tie-in is. Although, when I did a Google image search for a trico clip, I got pictures of windshield wipers instead... :)

Niall - "The eager film student in me died that day." Very nicely put. I'm sure all of us who started in the ultra low budget / student film world has had that moment were the importance of safety hits us hard (sometimes literally) and we realize we're not nearly as immortal as we thought we were.

Michael Taylor said...

Clayton --

Having been there, I completely understand your stance on tie-ins -- I've done too many myself for the same reasons -- but you're dead wrong in thinking that an illegal tie-in is no more dangerous than a generator. I learned the hard way that a poorly executed tie-in can start a fire, which raises the possibility of burning down somebody's house/condo/apartment building. The juice from a generator will kill you just as dead as that from a bad tie-in, but even if a genny catches fire (possible, but highly unlikely), at least you won't be burning somebody else out of house and home.

Or sending them to the morgue.

The short term economic logic behind tying in is undeniable, but never underestimate the danger of what you're doing or the liability you walk into when performing an illegal tie-in. If somebody gets fried or a building burns down because of such a tie-in, it will suddenly become the most expensive thing you've ever done in your life.

No movie is worth dying over, or having your life ruined, so you'd better assume the worst and act accordingly, or be prepared to accept the consequences. And pray that you'll be lucky...

JD said...

J Custom Supply which is still out on the web, makes Trico tie in sets and had a picture of them. Their site seems to be having some issues currently. If you want to see a set, walk into a rental place and ask. Typical problem with the rental ones: broken springs, arced and pitted jaws, bad isulation, sprung jaws, etc. I'd like to buy my own set for just those reasons mentioned.

Scissor Lift Rental said...

Post make to learn many thing in life happy to see u post.. thanks for post..

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