Safety, Social Media and the Film Business
This is another blog-entry inspired by conversations on Facebook's Atlanta Art Department Group and the Set Dressing 102 Workshop. The topic of safety came up in the workshop; particularly when it came to not being afraid to ask for instruction on the job-site when learning new skills or saying you weren't comfortable performing a certain task because you weren't proficient enough with that certain skill-set, ie operating a scissor-lift or a condor (Aerial Work Platform), using a more specialized tool that could be dangerous; blowtorch, chain-saw, chop saw, etc.
While this is certainly important in regards to workplace safety, if you are in constant need of instruction or continually are unable to perform various tasks you won't find yourself collecting a paycheck on a regular basis. But if you're new and don't have the experience what is one to do?
Be observant and fake it, to a point. Knowing when to ask questions and when to bluff your way through situations can be a key to making it in the set dressing department and I'm sure it holds true in other departments as well. Because the class was made up of a lot of beginners, we stressed safety and reassured them that the majority of time it is best to say you don't know and ask questions.
The following day, this was posted on the Facebook Atlanta Art Dept group:
"Carry Bolt Cutters Everywhere": Werner Herzog Has 24 Amazing Pieces Of Advice
There are directors, and there are artists, and then there is Werner Herzog. He stands alone, occupying his own Werner Herzog-ian place in the movie world.
On the back cover of the recent book "Werner Herzog--A Guide for the Perplexed" by Paul Cronin, are 24 maxims by German director.
1. Always take the initiative.
2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
12. Take your fate into your own hands.
13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
17. Don’t be fearful of rejection.
18. Develop your own voice.
19. Day one is the point of no return.
20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
23. Take revenge if need be.
24. Get used to the bear behind you.
The responses were varied, but it did not take long for the Sarah Jones incident to come up. A lot of the local Atlanta crew new Sarah, a lot knew other people who were on that shoot.
A couple of crew members I had worked with were on the tracks at the time.
- Dude is sort of my hero
- Yes, advice from a badass film maker. I mean , I like money and I'm a film industry whore ( sluts don't get paid) but, there has to be some level of why motion picture are a form of art. Possibly the ultimate form. Still, we all need to make a living even if we work on Vampire tv and other shit
- Hahaha. Next time I see you, I've got a pretty terrific anecdote to share.
- #1 Initiate
- Hr makes some cool stuff, but he sounds dangerous. I don't like working for risk taking, dangerous people. Dumb things happen....Sarah Jones
- I liked several of the things on the list but there's some crazy ass shit, too. When I direct now, I am - if anything- overly paranoid about everyone's safety!
- Have to be. "Its better to be dead and cool, than alive and uncool" sounds romantic, but it ain't.
- I agree with you ......, especially since the lower down the food chain you go, the more often you tend to be put in the line of fire as it were and you certainly don't reap the rearwards. I've certainly changed my perspective of this over the years
- Herzog is crazy brilliant!
- It is just a testament to those foolish enough to take such risks in order to make a film. The danger in film is fun until somebody gets wasted and then we all remember why people like Werner Herzog were madmen
- Yes. Brilliance become stupidity around Set Dec, PA level. It all depends on what level of the totem you work at.
- I've seen little room for stupidity in the set dec department. If you're a maverick in set dec it's due to on the spot innovation and not foolishness.
"Don't kill the actor" as Frank Raffa says.
- I agree. Most set deccers i know are on it.
- Asking questions , planning and cooperation are all part of the safety process. Happens every day.3 hrs · Like
- Unless you were on Fast 7.
- I may have dodged a bullet there
- Say *******who taught you all this? LOL!….. and no jumping off of lift gates Thanks for whippin me into shape all those years ago Alba. I'm the "old- guy" that yells at people to never jump off the gate.
When I started in the film business in Los Angeles almost 30 years ago the industry was a very different place, I was very different, the world was very different.
The internet, social media, the 24-hour news cycle; none of these things existed. People died making movies, but unless it involved major actors or children, it very often didn't make the news and it was soon forgotten, except of course for the family and friends of the deceased and those involved in the accident. It changed their lives for ever.
It was hard to get into the Union when I started and there was enough non-union work that I wasn't so sure that I wanted to join any way. The Union represented to me the Establishment and I wanted no part of it. Plus it was an enormous financial commitment because of the high initiation fee. And I didn't know anyone in the union, so I knew it would be hard to get my foot in the door. So since I wasn't convinced that set dressing was going to be my career, I was happy to continue doing non-Union projects.
And it wasn't just a bunch of low-budget straight-to-video projects. I worked on Twin Peaks for both seasons, the first thing I ever lead was a Ridley Scott commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, I worked on a massive Michael Jackson video. In fact, True Lies, one of the biggest shows started off non-Union. My point is that it wasn't only small indie-type stuff where guerrilla film-making is a given that I was involved in.
The reason why I bring this all up is because when the discussion about Midnight Rider comes up, the size of project often gets mentioned, that it was being filmed in Georgia not California gets thrown in there, and more than one person I've talked to insists that they wouldn't have gone onto the tracks.
I'm not sure if I would have or not.
I can pretty much guarantee you that my 24-year old self would have been out there on those tracks.
I've worked on rail-road cars and around the tracks on movie sets in the past. In Mexico, where safety violations happen constantly.
But my friend who happened to be in charge of a great deal of the safety matters during, before and after shooting was very vigilante about safety meetings, who was allowed on and around the trains, etc. After months working of shooting stunts involving horses, fight sequences, explosions everyone went home alive. As it most certainly should happen.
On a different show, my crew and myself as well as several other departments that were involved in pre-rigging, had to take a shuttle boat out to the container ship that the set was built upon. At which point we would board the much larger vessel by way of a rope ladder and then have to haul our tools up the side of the boat with a rope.
It was exciting and challenging. But it was also dangerous. When the weather was less than ideal, it was scary. I video-taped our boarding one day and brought it to production because I wanted my crew paid hazard pay. Plenty of other people on the show were getting it, not for this, but things covered under the union contract, like working in water deeper than four feet for more than a couple of hours.
He said no.
We continued to step off one moving boat and climb up a rope ladder as the captain did his best to keep the smaller boat close and steady. When the shooting crew were shuttled out to do the same thing, they refused and the larger container ship was brought into board to load everybody from shore, something that cost the company time and money.
Should I have been more adamant? If someone would have been hurt or killed the answer would be obvious, but since that didn't happen, I'll never know.
Immediately after something like what happened on Midnight Rider occurs, everybody is safety-aware and respectful about it. As time passes, so do the concerns about safety, not completely of course, but to a certain extent.
I have said no in the past. I have refused to have my crew work under certain conditions. It doesn't go over well. I have never lost my job because of it, but I have sure pissed some people off.
It seems like we never have enough time to get our job done with rushing and often cutting corners. We were working on a stage set in a converted warehouse that didn't have adequate ventilation and the paint department was using some pretty toxic stuff. They were all wearing respirators, but none of the other departments working on the set were, including my crew. I rented several large industrial fans in an attempt to exhaust the fumes. (By the way, it is in no way the duty of the set dressing department to provide off-camera fans for the paint department, but I was doing my part and my best to find a solution)
It wasn't enough and the place still was in my opinion and many on my crew unsafe.
I decided to wait until the painters finished and the fumes had dissipated to continue our work. There were other things we could be doing on the stage next door until that time.
The production designer was furious and ordered me and my crew back in. He wanted the set roughed in for when the director was to do his walk-through.
I assured him that we could get the job done after the painters were done and it was safe to go back in, but I refused to have my crew go in.
He was not very happy with me.
However when we did get the job done as I promised and in a safe working environment, he did come and apologize for his request.
It was not easy for me to say no, but I'm glad I did.
There are many things I've done over the years, particularly in my younger days, that I hopefully wouldn't do today.
There are also things that I did in the past that I probably wouldn't get away with these days, like using a tank to age and distress set dressing pieces. It was fun to watch and no one was in harm's way but in today's safety-conscious climate, it might have been frowned on.
I have used rope instead of the proper lifting slings because the previous crew had left them on the truck. That ended up with us being dressed down by the rigging grip and then having to sit through a long studio safety video. We would have a grip assigned to us, which was awesome and the rigging grip who had given me grief, rightly so, would end up borrowing some of our rappelling gear, which was not deemed safe by the studio guidelines but was actually the better equipment to use and much safer for the situation we were in.
And physically there are things I just can't do that I used to be able to, like carrying an anvil on my shoulder across the stage instead of waiting for a dolly.
There are times when all the safety rules are followed and things still go amiss. Accidents happen.
We were shooting once on top of a building in Miami. Lightning struck and 2 crew members holding onto the safety rail got quite a jolt. Now production has much stricter rules when it comes to working in areas where the danger of lightning exists.
I was working in a defunct copper-mine when someone cut a pipe that had residual chemicals in it and it mixed with something and created a bad chemical reaction with toxic smoke filling the corridor we were working in. Unfortunately we were evacuated in the wrong direction and went right through the cloud.
We we all checked out by the medics. Most of us were fine although a couple of people were taken to the hospital to be safe. Everyone was fine and after establishing a better defined escape route we were back in the mine working the next day.
I've worked in 122 degrees heat hauling dressing by hand up and down 100 foot plus sand dunes. As a team we were constantly reminding each other to take breaks and remain hydrated.
I can think of many, many more instances where I have been in unsafe situations. The film business and set dressing is not for everyone. It at times can be unsafe. And it can be hard to know when something that seems OK, takes a turn for the worst.
At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own safety as well as how your actions may endanger those around you.