LOS ANGELES – Hollywood was in shock on Friday, a day after Alec Baldwin shot a gun used as a prop on a film set in New Mexico, killing a director of photography and injuring the director. Real firearms are commonly used while cameras are rolling, and injuries of any kind are rare. The reason for this is that the safety protocols for guns on sets are well established and straightforward.
Weapons must be closely managed by a gunsmith, sometimes credited on films as a “fencing master,” who holds various government-issued permits. Some states, for example, require an entertainment firearms license in addition to standard firearms licenses. Cast members should be trained in gun safety in advance. Firearms should never be pointed directly at anyone, especially during rehearsals, but even during filming, as the cunning of the camera can be used to compensate for the angle. If necessary, plexiglass is used to protect the camera operator and surrounding crew members.
And no live bullets, ever.
“Protocol had to be broken,” said Daniel Leonard, associate dean of Chapman University’s film school, which specializes in established procedures. “We’ll have to see what the details are, but the industry has a very specific set of guidelines to follow to prevent something like this from happening.”
Weapons on sets vary. Some are rubber props (used for shots when the actors are away) and others are airsoft guns that fire non-lethal pellets. Often, however, productions use real guns.
Studios prefer to digitally create the live shot in post-production whenever possible. Sometimes this is not the case. Even in the movie age where visual effects artists use computers to convincingly create disintegrating cities, it can be difficult to replicate the weight and recoil of a real gun, studio executives say. . Some actors find it difficult to pretend.
Depending on the complexity of the scene, the effects magic is also costly, Mr. Leonard noted, and independently funded films like “Rust,” the movie Mr. Baldwin was shooting in New Mexico, are operating on shoestring budgets. .
When rifles are to be fired, they are loaded with blanks, which are casings without bullets. People tend to think of blanks as kid’s hooded guns – a little pop and a little smoke. This is not the case. White can still be dangerous as it involves gunpowder and paper or wax, which produces a flame and spark, which looks great on camera. (When people are injured by guns on sets, it usually involves a burn, safety coordinators said.)
“White people contribute to the authenticity of a scene in a way that cannot be achieved in any other way,” David Brown, a Canadian gun safety coordinator, wrote to American Cinematographer magazine in 2019. . “If the cinematographer is there to paint a story with light and framing, the gun experts are there to enhance a story with drama and excitement.
A production safety coordinator, in collaboration with the gunsmith, establishes rules to maintain a safe distance from the muzzle of a rifle loaded with a blank. At least 20 feet is a rule of thumb, according to Larry Zanoff, a gunsmith for films like “Django Unchained”. Mr Brown wrote that “the safety distances vary considerably depending on the load and the type of firearm, which is why we test everything in advance.”
“Take the distance people need to get away with a shot, then triple it,” Brown wrote. He declined a telephone interview on Friday but added in an email: “Firearms are no more dangerous than any other prop on the set when handled responsibly. All industry safety procedures make these situations virtually impossible when firearms are handled by professionals who give them their full attention.
If a movie involves gunfire, security planning typically begins long before anyone meets on set, according to studio executives overseeing physical production. First, the gunsmith is brought on board to analyze the scenario and, together with the director and prop master, decide which weapons are needed. Studios tend to work over and over again with the same gunsmiths; one such expert, John Fox, has credits in 190 films and 650 television episodes over 25 years.
The gunsmiths themselves own the weapons or rent them out; Mike Tristano & Company in Los Angeles has a large inventory of propeller pistols that includes AK-47s in blank-fire, blank-suitable, and non-shot versions. The gunsmiths (or sometimes the approved accessory masters) are responsible for storing them on the shelf. Firearms are not supposed to leave their hands until the cameras are rolling; the actors return them as soon as we call “cut” or “wrap” and the cameras stop.
“There’s a big difference between being a gun expert and handling them on a set,” said Jeremy Goldstein, a props master and licensed gunsmith in Los Angeles whose credits include films for Netflix, Amazon and Universal. . “On a set, you meet people who have never had a gun and who don’t understand the gravity of what can happen.” (Mr. Goldstein, like Mr. Zanoff and Mr. Brown, has no connection with “Rust.”)
Studios generally require that all cast members who will perform with firearms undergo training at a range in advance. There, they learn safety and receive general information on how firearms work. Independent productions, for reasons of cost and time, can manage safety demonstrations on set. Various unions operate safety hotlines where anyone on the set can report issues anonymously.
It is not known exactly what type of weapon was used in “Rust”, what it was loaded with, or what exactly was happening on the set when it was fired. It was also unclear what kind of training the cast members had. “As for the projectile, the objective of the investigation is to find out what type it was and how it got there,” said Juan Ríos, spokesperson for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office. .
A reporter for the New York Times got an idea of what usually happens on a set right before a scene involving mock shooting. It happened in October 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on the set of the “Roots” remake. Before the cameras rolled, a team leader stood in the middle of the wooded location, with dozens of performers and crews watching, and gave a safety speech in an urgent and serious tone. The scene they were about to film involved gunfire and vintage weapons.
“Very good everyone,” said the team leader. “We have to unload the gun. So we don’t play with toys, guys. If something’s wrong, I’ll yell cut, and we’ll all back down calmly.
“The guns are all turned outwards. We’ve all been through this training, we’ve said it over and over, we’ve all understood it. But beware, this is not a game. I keep saying it, guys. These weapons are real.
Melena Ryzik, Nicole sperling, Julia jacobs and Simon romero contributed reports.