Photo by Jakob Owens @jakobowens1
Posted by Fred Ginsburg CAS PhD
GROUP | Safety on the Set
First rule: Make sure that it is a visible film set! There should be an abundance of lights, stands, grip gear, tripods/cranes, etc so that any idiot passing by can readily see that you are making a movie. This is not the time to practice guerilla cinematography to avoid permits or being noticed by the public. Doesn’t matter if the prop weapons are functional or made of harmless rubber — if it appears to a passersby that a crime is being committed, real police may respond with real guns drawn!
One time, I coached some middle school students who chose to photograph a bank robbery and police shootout as part of their project. After the screening, audiences were amazed that these youngsters were able to do a gunfight in the parking lot in front of Bank of America. We pointed out that there were no weapons visible in front of the bank itself. Through the magic of editing, the actual gunfight took place a mile away — staged in a secluded, private location completely enclosed and out of sight.
Next: Use non-firing replica props as much as possible. They are easy to rent; or inexpensive to purchase online. I own several “wall hangers” that look cool above my fireplace, or that can fill my holsters if I am in costume.
If you do require a functioning firearm for an insert shot of loading or muzzle flash — arrange to do it at a later date, in a safe location. I used to host a lot of filmmakers up at our gun club, and assist them with getting good footage and sound effects that could be intercut.
Most muzzle flashes can be added with special effects software, especially in wide shots involving lots of characters, or characters positioned “down range” in the line of fire.
If there does need to show functioning firearms (capable of being loaded with blanks) — you MUST hire a qualified ARMORER to supervise the use of these weapons. Not just an experienced “gun person” nor even a certified Instructor, but an experienced film person.
The Armorer is in charge of the weapons. Period. They are not responsible for other props on the set. All of the weapons remain in their possession until the moment before the take. Weapons are checked and re-checked as they are handed to the actors. Actors should also be taught how to re-check their weapons every time they receive them.
Any weapon that is damaged or prone to misfire (perhaps a very light trigger pull) needs to be removed from service immediately.
Blank firing weapons are dangerous. Even blank cartridges (the term is NOT bullets) can cause harm up to 20 or so feet away. In our Safety Classes for Filmmakers & Actors, we blow up water bottles several paces away, just using blanks!
Never “sweep” the barrel around so that it points at people at any time. Drawing a gun from a shoulder holster or cross draw may expose people behind or to the side of you. Choreograph your moves carefully.
Use “bad aim” to avoid pointing the barrel at characters in front of you. Aim to their side by several feet, or way low or way high. Cheat your camera angle to give the illusion that the barrel is pointing towards the characters. Use your editing skills; pointing and firing can be two separate takes, so the non-firing replica can be swapped out when no one is at risk down range.
At no time should there ever be live ammo on the set, and the prop weapons should never be accessible to anyone on the set other than the Armorer. Absolutely no recreational plinking on or near the set; and never with a prop gun. Blanks should be accounted for at all times, because we know that actors and some crew members can be really stupid.
Prior to filming, the Armorer should hold classes and instruct the actors about their weapons. There should be additional training for the crew.
I strongly advise every one to take some NRA certified classes and learn about firearms. Whether or not you support the Second Amendment regarding personal use of firearms is not the issue — but if you are going to work around weapons as props, then you NEED to learn how to be safe around them.
On a film set, every crew member IS a Safety Officer. If you see a weapon, make sure that it is safe. Revolvers should have their cylinders swung open and remain so. Pistols and rifles should be locked open with chambers visible, and insert a safety flag (a broken pencil with a streamer of gaffers tape) to show that it is unloaded.
Do not rely on the prop master or Armorer to keep you and the rest of the film company safe. Be pro-active and keep an eye on things.
Fred Ginsburg, CAS, Ph.D. is a highly experienced and award-winning professional sound mixer (retired) whose decades of work included features, episodic TV series, national TV commercials, corporate, and government. A member of the Cinema Audio Society and the University Film & Video Association, Fred holds doctorate, graduate, and undergraduate degrees in filmmaking; has published more than 250 technical articles along with textbooks, instruction manuals, and hosts an educational website. Fred, recently retired, is professor emeritus at California State University Northridge.