Safety First: Working with Mechanical and Makeup FX on Set: The End Never Justifies the Means by Myrl A. Schreibman

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, August 2007. Safety First: Working with Mechanical and Makeup FX on Set: The End Never Justifies the Means by Myrl A. Schreibman  Pages 38 & 39.

The end does not justify the means when it comes to directing a movie. With today’s ease and mobility in production this concept is often forgotten by inexperienced (and experienced) directors when it comes to “getting the shot”.

There is an old axiom for a theater director to never or rarely ask an actor to do something that he or she may or could not do themselves. Theater directors will often walk the set to make sure it is safe for their actors to work on especially when stage levels are concerned. And they keep in mind the wardrobe, shoes, and role characteristics their actors will undergo. They know that the bottom line is and must be the safety and comfort of their actors in order to realize the play. Why this is not always true with directors of movies has been a baffle for me for a long time. It gives rise to the thought that movie directors should have training in the theater before being given the responsibility of a movie’s set.

Safety must always be first! First and foremost. The safety officer on a set is the First Assistant Director, and they must be given the responsibility to always say when something that is happening is safe or not. They must never be usurped by the director’s schedule or creativity so that safety is an afterthought. They must speak up and not be concerned about what the consequences will be if they don’t.

One is immediately reminded of the tragic accident on The Twilight Zone movie when actor Vic Morrow and two young children were killed during an explosion sequence shot at night. In hindsight could this have any way been avoided?

During the making of the Joe Pesci and Danny Glover movie, Gone Fishin’, a young stunt woman was decapitated during a stunt. Planned and rehearsed very carefully by a second unit director stunt coordinator one day, the stunt was re-shot a second day for some apparent creative reason at the request of the picture’s director. The re-shoot resulted in the tragic outcome of a woman loosing her life. A lawsuit resulted with some questions about safety, creativity and responsibility.

I produced a movie that required one of our actors, Gene Glazer, to be discovered in the middle of the woods hanging on a tree with the skin from the middle of his body stripped away as if he were a deer who had been skinned. It required Gene to be in makeup for three hours and then driven to the location laying prone, and then carried to the set prone on a gurney and rigged to a tree. The platform rigged on the tree gave the actor somewhere to stand and was invisible to the camera angle. Production worked through every single element with safety in mind. I went to our makeup effects house to see how the prosthetic would be created and fit on Gene. I saw how they created a mold of his upper body to sculpt the effect of an empty body cavity and spoke to the effects company to see how the mold would be attached to his body. I was the producer and wanted to make sure that not only was the money that was being spent to do this important effect was worth it, but that Gene would be okay with what was to be done.

The day of the shoot proved to be a cold day in the woods. The production manager ordered standing heaters that were positioned near the tree outside of camera range so that Gene would not catch cold. Ultimately after all, he was naked! I watched our stunt coordinator Rawn Hutchinson (Hutch) rig the tree with the mechanical effects coordinator and waited for the van to bring Gene to the set. The director was working through the shot with the cinematographer; a long dolly shot a distance away from the tree which was designed as a reveal. The dolly grip was supervising the tracks for the dolly when the van carrying Gene pulled up.

I watched as they brought Gene out and carried him to the tree. I watched as they rigged him on the tree and put the noose around his neck. I asked Gene how he was feeling and he said “cold” and was anxious to do the shot. The director was still with the cinematographer and the dolly when I asked him to come over and speak to Gene while I conferred with the production manager.

A few minutes later, the first assistant director said they were ready to do the shot, and everyone positioned themselves behind or by the camera. Except me! Hutch and I positioned ourselves by one of the heaters outside of camera range and just behind Gene and the tree.

From my view, I could see the camera make its dolly move and see Gene at the same time. The first assistant director asked for the camera to role and the director yelled to Gene, “Hold your breath!…. Action!”

Hutch looked over at me with widened eyes. The dolly started its move, and I could see the back of Gene’s neck begin to turn blue and his head begin to bob more than it should if he were acting. I yelled, “Cut,” (something I never do as a producer) and then ordered Gene taken off the tree and rushed immediately to the hospital that was nearby.

As they were taking him off the tree, I went to him and saw that he was groggy and couldn’t speak. I knew immediately what had happened, and so did Hutch and the set medic who gave him oxygen. The body cast he wore was restricting and designed to purposely allow him to breathe in short slow breaths. So while the camera is rolling, we can’t see him breath, and thus, provides the illusion of a dead body.

When the director told him to hold his breath, Gene, always doing as his director asks, held his breath. He already had restricted breathing, and more restriction combined with the cold caused a reduction in the oxygen he needed for his brain to function. The director yelled at me for cutting the camera. Angrily, I told him why I yelled cut, and then, suggested he get coverage on the scene while avoiding a hanging body which was not there. We would worry about making it work later.

Gene was taken to the hospital in the van accompanied by the set medic and the production manager who was calling ahead to let them know what to expect. I told my production manager to call me the minute he got there and knew how Gene was.

The entire situation could have been avoided if the director had taken the time to find out how Gene was rigged in the body cast, or if he had spoken with Hutch, or if he had even asked Gene what his limitations were in the body cast. Safety first.

As a side comment to this situation, because I was the producer on the picture, and on the set at the time the sequence was being done, I was ultimately responsible for what took place. Therefore, I was justified to make the decisions I made. Had I not been there, the responsibility falls to the director. And, the director always has a team of people on set to advise him or her of safety issues as they relate to stunts, effects and other staging issues that involve safety: the First Assistant Director, the Stunt Coordinator, the Effects Coordinator, and of course, common sense. The end never justifies the means.

By the way, Gene agreed to do the shot again. This time it was a warmer day, and the director took every safety precaution to do it right.

Myrl A. Schreibman is a Producer/Director, professor at UCLA Film School, and author of the book, “The Film Director Prepares, A Practical Guide for Directing Film and Television.”

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