Tuesday, June 08, 2010

There But For The Grace of God....

"We'll go around this curve and maybe the car won't flip over."
                       -The stunt coordinator on a movie I did at age 21, speaking of the Shotmaker on which I was riding.

   Before you read this, read this: http://hollywoodjuicer.blogspot.com/2010/05/rainy-night-in-georgia.html and this: http://thehillsareburning.blogspot.com/2010/05/film-set-tragedy-lessons-learned.html.
  OK, now that you're back, I want to relate my experience with this incident. I recieved a call from one of my readers (who I'll call Andy) right after this happened. Andy was very upset because this production had contacted him previously about working this shoot and he had declined the job. More importantly, he had warned the production coordinator that they needed to have an experienced rigger as well as gaffer before attempting any of the things they wanted to do. When Andy called me, he was furious, upset, and confused about what was a completely avoidable situation that they were WARNED about. Georgia being my backyard, I made some calls to find out the details. I didn't learn much, only that the "local" gaffer was no one I knew, and the crew was made up of students. This immediately told me three things: these guys had no business doing the things they were doing, this promising young man died as a direct result of this fact, and this could have easily been me twenty years ago.
  The film business is a nebulous world at best. Staffed by freelancers, crews tend to move around a lot. They get work mostly by reputation, and there aren't any real competency standards. As far as production knows, the guy tightening the bolts on the truss hanging over Tom Hank's head has a serious coke problem and was just released from prison this morning. It's up to the people doing the immediate hiring- the Key Grips, and Gaffers, to ensure that their crews are competent and safe. As a fresh faced twenty year old, I was just excited to be a part of this world and I didn't really think too much about the danger level of the things I was often asked to do, or the sanity of the person asking me to do them. You want me to hold this 2x4 and whack you with it if you get bit while tying-in? Okay. I'm just honored to be the one you trust your life with. You want me to go rig this condor? Okay. Now which one is the crescent wrench? I would gladly do things I wasn't even remotely qualified to do, often at great danger to myself or others. As I got older and more experienced I learned when to say no, and more importantly, that I could say no. It's up to us to largely police ourselves, and as far as professional studio productions go we do a pretty good job. As a general rule, someone who is unsafe or incompetent is gone before lunch. The unions and studios  have stepped up their attempts to lower the probability of accidents (and lawsuits) by instituting the safety passport program. This only applies to West Coast locals, though, and the "tests" at the end of the classes are arguably geared toward the  most moronic among us. The union/ studio world also tends to be a little "smaller." Most of us know who the players are and the bad apples get bad reputations pretty quick. It's the world of student films and low budget productions where more things are apt to slip through the cracks. The bottom line is this, and I think Michael Taylor said it best: it takes years to learn and master gripping and juicing. If you haven't put a lot of time in with a lot of experienced mentors, you've got no business rigging a condor or running the kind of power it takes to juice up a film set with 18k's. You wouldn't hire a college freshman to plumb or wire your house, why would you trust him or her with thousands of volts or steel over your head? This was a stupid, needless tragedy that happened because production didn't want or have the money to hire someone who knew what they were doing. They treated it as an afterthought. A hobby. And now they're trying to hide. Atlanta is full of top notch grips and juicers. I'd put a lot of them up against anyone in the business. A quick call to the union local or the film office could probably have resulted in someone willing to come out for a couple hundred to  help out some students. I actually lived very close to Monticello a few years ago. If I had been there when these guys were shooting, and had nothing else going on, I would have gladly gone and helped them out just for a free meal. I've got no problem helping students. And the first thing I would have noticed is the power lines. It's the most basic thing you learn when dealing with crane arms or condors. Scout the area and know what the hazards are.
    As you can see, at least two better writers than I have covered this unfortunate happening. I was just struck by how young this boy was and saw in him a little of that skinny, naive, but determined young man I once was. Then I was reminded of Andy's phone call and how upset he was that his advice to these students had been ignored. So if you're a young grip or juicer or just a student trying to break in, keep your eyes open.  Ultimately you are responsible for yourself.


Nathan said...

I haven't commented on either A.J. or Michael's pieces because, frankly, they speak for themselves. I have nothing to add. (Although, I admit that after reading the Village Voice piece that Michael linked, I'm less sure who will be held culpable in the civil suit the parents have brought.)

That being said, you make another valid point about saying "No". And this is a problem I've seen on the most professional of sets. Even though there are any number of people whose jobs it is to say "No" in various situations, the willingness to do so seems lacking sometimes. The fact is that not every whim of a director can be accommodated safely, and if it can, it can't necessarily be accommodated "on the fly" when the idea hadn't been planned for.

Being willing to put your ass on the line and emphatically say "No" is one of the most valuable lessons I had beat into my skull when I was a total noob. It's a lesson worth passing on.

A.J. said...

While this is the first time I've heard of anyone specifically warning those NYU kids about having experienced professionals on set, for all we know, they could have honestly thought the guy they hired was qualified and competent enough to do the job. During my student film years, if someone with a big budget movie on their resume wanted to work on my project, I'd be ecstatic. I would also assume that if they were working on films of that caliber, they should at least know enough to easily help us out on our modest budgeted student film. Plus, back then, I had no idea who to call for a good crew in my own area, let alone in another state. I'm not trying to make excuses for these kids for a tragic accident that was 100% avoidable, but sadly, I can't honestly say I wouldn't have made the same mistake if I were in their shoes back when I was younger and so naive.

You and Nathan are absolutely right though: we have to learn how to say "no" sometimes. Unfortunately, I think most of us don't do so either because we don't know any better, or we're afraid our bosses will replace us with someone who's more "agreeable." Either situation sucks.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience on what happened out in Georgia. I enjoyed hearing your take on it.

The Grip Works said...

Hi D,
A combination of ignorance and being at the worst place at the worst time.
From what I understand, the condor was lifted into high voltage lines that basically energised the earth line.
Who was the operator, and how did he get his hands on the condor?
Overhead lines are one of the first things you learn to stay away from with cranes or cherry pickers, condors etc.
If you dont know what the line carries, stay away.
Dont assume its telephone or cable TV.
Cant imagine what the parents of that boy are going through.

D said...

Nathan- Been saying it for years. Thanks

AJ- The fact that these are students implies that somewhere there's a teacher. Someone was responsible to teach these kids that the things they were dealing with are dangerous and not all part of some fairyland alternate reality. They were funded and taught all manner of nifty film theory and history, just apparantly no practical reality. Anyone can fake a resume. I did it for years. You can't fake a reputation though which they could have easily checked. Hell, they didn't even know the address of the place. I do understand what you are saying though. Thanks.

Sanjay- Apparantly no one even at the rental place checked to see if they had an experienced operator. It all is sickening.

Anonymous said...

Don't necessarily blame the local talent. He wasn't in the condor. Was it his "job" to watch out for the inexperienced student operator? I think the original account of the accident said the operator bumped the lines, not once, but twice. The second time was deadly.

D said...

Actually, the Village Voice interview with him says he was in the condor. In any case, if he knew he was hired as the gaffer by a bunch of students, the lift should have been nowhere near the lines. No gaffer I know (or key grip) would have allowed it. I'm not "blaming" him at all though. He was a guy who got offered good money to do a job he wasn't ready for. We've all done it. That's one of the reasons I titled my post the way I did. I actually feel bad for him as he's caught in the middle.

The Grip Works said...

Are you telling me a student was operating the Condor???

Michael Taylor said...

The way I read the Village Voice piece, the so-called "gaffer" was in the basket of the condor. It was unclear to me whether he was actually at the controls of the rig when it contacted the hot wires, but I assume so. I can't imagine he'd have let a student run the thing from the ground.

Then again, no gaffer should ever be up in a condor while the rest of his crew -- very green students, one and all -- ran around setting lights and getting killed. He could have (and should have) put a student in the basket, then used the ground controls to place the 12K.

But that's the problem -- he wasn't a real gaffer in any sense of the word. He was just a guy with more experience than the students, which isn't saying much. I too feel bad for that poor bastard, who will have to live with this for the rest of his life. And as D points out, we've all bitten off more than we could chew at one or more times in our respective careers. Most of the time we get away with it, but every now and then the Devil's own serpent comes back around to bite some unlucky SOB on the ass -- and apparently that's just what happened down in Georgia. One simple assumption led to a fatal cascade of errors culminating in disaster.

Thirty years ago, that guy could have been me, but I got lucky every time I walked the high-wire of promising more than I could really deliver. There but for fortune -- and maybe that's why this tragedy burrowed so deep under my skin.

JD said...

What's really a shame is everyone seems to want to lay all the blame on one guy for this accident. Was the Gaffer supposed to say, "No." or "No you can't do this safely in this location or on your budget?" The students would just have gotten someone else. Probably with a similar outcome.
I had heard about this accident a year ago. NYU has done a good job obscuring the facts and insulating themselves from any blame or financial harm. I'll call my friend in the film department tomorrow and see if I can worm the truth out of them.

Crazy Eddie said...

Like all of you, it seems, this gets to me because of D's comment - more often than not, it's not about knowing WHEN to say "no", but feeling that you CAN say "no".

This industry is very aspirational. If you're not doing your job, there are a lot of very eager people waiting to jump into your shoes. You want to be known for your Can Do Attitude.

One of my mentors once told me that a grip is often looked upon as an on-set Health & Safety advisor, regardless of whether you have any qualifications in that area. If you say it's safe to put the camera there, it must be. And shortly, he said, in mentoring tones, people will start calling you and offering you attractively large amounts of money to do this job. Always remember that you're being paid for that responsibility.

Fast forward a year or so, and a student film.
"We want to track with a boy on a bicycle. We can't afford a tracking vehicle, but we do have lots of track. Think you'll be okay to run along with the dolly and track him?"

"Okay, as long as it's flat ground."

"Oh, yeah. Okay. Well. Yeah. It's fairly flat."

A few days later, we get to the location, which is on the side of a hill. An Elemack with two people on it. A track laid on grass. I KNEW I should have just said no, this can't be done like this. But I felt under pressure, and instead I said "Okay, we'll try it. I'll need a few people to help me slow the dolly at the end of the track."

Luckily I hopped away with only a very sprained ankle. Lesson learned. It doesn't matter how nice - or shouty - they are. If it's not safe, it's not safe.

gettheshot said...

Yeah, NYU needs to teach grip safety. I was on a NYU set helping out a neighbor's daughter and they wanted to fly a 12x12' solid. First thing I asked was where the ford axles were. They didn't know what those were, so I asked for sash. They handed me a couple hanks of trickline. After the wind tried to bring it down on a generous amount of HMIs and the picture car, they let me bring it down and secure it. Not a first thought to them, not even a thought at all until it becomes an incident. There's your problem.