Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


                   They're fun and undeniably romantic, but very dangerous...

Filming on trains can be a blast.  Among my favorite industry memories are the two days I spent working in the caboose of a fifty year old train as it chugged through the crystalline winter wonderland of rural Vermont, the snowy countryside dazzling under a bright sun and clear blue skies. There’s just something very cool about working on a train -- it always feels like an adventure.

But as the film industry learned the hard way last week, working on or around trains can be extremely dangerous.  Trains are deceptively fast, and so massive they require enormous distances to stop -- Newtonian physics do not allow an engineer to hit the brakes and stop on a dime -- which means a film crew should stay off the tracks and well out of the way until the A.D. is absolutely certain it’s safe.  Everyone working on a train, in a train-yard, or anywhere near the tracks should remain alert to the dangers and be aware of what’s going on around them at all times -- otherwise it can all go sideways in the blink of an eye... and when things go wrong with a train, the result is often a horrific tragedy.

I received a useful lesson on trains while working as a Best Boy doing commercials back in the early 80’s.  We were on the road south of LA doing run-and-gun filming, stopping to grab (ahem: “steal”) shots here and there, and at a certain point, set up a camera on the railroad tracks of the coastal route to San Diego.  According to the Amtrack schedule carried by our producer, no trains were due to come through for at least another hour, so there was no reason to worry.

Or so we thought.  A few minutes later a horn blast sounded in the distance -- loud and getting louder by the second -- and suddenly a passenger express was hurtling toward us at close to ninety miles an hour.  The entire crew scrambled to get the camera gear off the tracks, then watched wide-eyed as that big train rocketed past.  Thanks to the engineer's sharp eyes and loud horn (which was audible long before we heard anything else), we had a good thirty seconds warning to clear the tracks, but had he been daydreaming, asleep at the wheel, or texting, we might well have ended up leaping for our lives.  

All this went through my mind when I read about the senseless death of camera assistant Sarah Jones while doing camera tests for a feature in Georgia.  I don’t know what really happened down there and probably never will, but it now appears that the producers did not have permits to film on those tracks... and if that turns out to be true, they're in big trouble -- and deservedly so.  I suspect the repercussions of this will make everyone more conscious of on-set safety for a while, but will it last?  I sure as hell hope so, because that's the only way to bring some meaning to the tragic death of a young woman who was good at her job and well-liked among the local film community.  It's bad enough to suffer the heartbreak and pointless waste of yet another promising young life from an accident that should never have happened, but if the industry can't -- or won't -- learn from this, then her death really will have been for nothing.

I live and work on the west coast, and thus never met Sarah Jones, but "D" -- a veteran dolly grip now working in the South East U.S. -- did know her, and has written a moving post about this young woman and the responsibility of industry veterans to look out for their younger crew brethern on set.  He's right.  These kids -- like all of us when we were starting out in the biz -- are willing to meet the challenge of almost any risk in order get the job done and prove themselves, but not all of them have enough experience to properly evaluate those risks.  We veterans do, so it's on us to speak out when some over-caffienated producer or director allows a situation on set to drift into the danger zone.

Because if we don't speak up, nobody will, and then we'll all be reading about another tragic on-set death in a year or two.

You should read that post.*  I'm just sorry "D" had to write it.

* This one too -- and this one --  offer thoughtful takes on the death of Sarah Jones...

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