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)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Rainy Night in Georgia

Death by Film School

Note: I'd been working on this one for a while (in my usual plodding manner) when AJ over at The Hills are Burning put up a post describing a tragic accident that killed an NYU film student last year. As it turns out, she knew about the accident long before I did -- indeed, I learned of it only recently when one of this blog's readers sent me a link to a Village Voice piece on the accident. AJ's post sparked a lively discussion of the issues, so rather than flush this one (redundant though it may be at this point), here it is...

During my stint in school – not a dedicated film school, but a school where I studied film -- someone much wiser than I taped a cartoon to a wall in the editing room depicting a young man holding a fancy new movie camera and exulting “Now I can make great films!” In the background, another young man held up a freshly sharpened pencil, declaring “Now I can write the great American novel!”

That cartoon should be posted in every film school in the country. It’s not the hardware that makes a good film, but the software in the brain of the filmmaker – the ideas and creative execution of the storytelling. Creativity remains the most elusive and mysterious of human qualities. To thoroughly mangle an already worn-out cliché, it's something like a lump of coal -- when subjected to enough pressure, that ugly chunk of coal can morph into a diamond. Working within the constraints of a meager budget and limited equipment is a form of pressure forcing a young filmmaker to tell the story with what he or she’s got. The truly talented will find a way to make those limits work for them –- to actually serve the story -- and in the process, develop skills that set them apart from the vast herd of cinematic wannabes. Learning to make the most of such creativity can take you a long way in the film/television world.

Most film students aren't ready to hear this -- I certainly wasn't. Like so many others, I clung to the assumption that making a truly good student film required the use of professional grade cameras and lighting equipment. While that might be true for a tiny percentage of highly advanced students on the cusp of professional careers (cinematography majors in particular), most film students do themselves a disservice in spinning their wheels trying to get their hands on fancy equipment. At best this lust for technical sophistication represents a distraction from the real work of coming up with a story worth telling, then finding a way to tell it. At worst, the pursuit of a professional “look” can turn deadly.

An east coast reader (thanks, Frank...) passed along this link to a Village Voice article delving into the tragic death of a young NYU film student who had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time on a student film shoot – and when a totally avoidable mistake was made, all hell broke loose. A condor lift with a 12K HMI aboard inadvertently contacted a high tension power line late at night, and when the smoke finally cleared, John Hunt Lamensdorf was left holding the ace of spades. Read it and weep for a smart young man who -- through no fault of his own -- suffered an utterly pointless and unnecessary death.

I won't beat around the bush here -- film students have no business using condor lifts or big HMI units without truly competent support and supervision, and certainly not at night on a distant rural location far from emergency help. Any school-sanctioned production using such equipment should have at least two Industry professionals on set to handle the basic power and lighting chores. If that's beyond the budgetary scope of the school or student producer/directors, then they should dial down to a less technically ambitious approach. Without trying to duplicate Hollywood production values, they just might find a simpler, better way to shoot their story.

Most student films are put together on a wing, a prayer, and a credit card. Using wheelchairs or shopping carts for improvised dolly shots is one thing, but when untrained students start plugging in the sort of lighting equipment they can afford – which often means old, beat-up, poorly-maintained crap – they’re asking for trouble. Although young people tend to consider themselves immortal, electricity is utterly merciless -- it doesn't care how talented you are or what a wonderful cinematic future you might have. If you don't know what you're doing, electricity can turn your golden future to ashes in an instant.

It's the nature of youth to take chances, push boundaries, and do exactly that which they've been warned against. Growing up -- coming of age -- is an inherently risky business, and not everybody makes it. Accidents happen. I wasn't there, and thus don't know what really happened that night in Georgia, but it’s clear from the Village Voice piece that those kids were in way over their heads. The film they were making could have been the most original and brilliant student film in history -- or just another clumsy, overheated exercise in cinematic self-indulgence. It doesn’t matter. No film is worth the electrocution death of a young man just getting his start in life. This was a stupid, tragic, and utterly avoidable accident that should never have happened.

I don't know anything about the culture inside a serious film school, but in reading the comments following AJ’s post, there seems to be some real confusion in the mission of university-based film schools. Are they intended to be trade schools funneling talented young people into the Industry mainstream, or academic institutions dedicated to studying cinema as an art form? It's my impression that most film schools attempt to do both -- but film production is an expensive undertaking, and in stretching their limited resources to the breaking point, these schools inevitably leave their students pretty much on their own when it comes to safety issues on set. As that awful night in Georgia demonstrated, such ignorance can be lethal.

I’m not sure the answer is for film schools to train students to be grips and juicers (it takes years to master these jobs, and film students don’t have that kind of time), but if a school's mission is to teach film production on a high level -– providing young directors, producers, and DP’s with the basic tools of their future trade -- then they have an obligation to put experienced industry professionals in charge of handling the power and lighting chores for the most technically demanding projects. That would cost more money, of course, but sometimes you get what you pay for. It might be worth paying higher tuition to make sure student films are made in a safe environment. The alternative is to adopt NYU's post-Georgia tactics by clamping down with absurdly draconian rules only the most timid students will actually follow. The rest will just wing it and hope for the best -- and sooner or later, another promising young film student will end up dead.

It’s just a matter of time.


Anonymous said...

As long as NYU and Columbia Film school students continue to shoot Hollywood style epics and insist that "experienced" crew work for free, this will continue to happen. They can pay upward of 20k per year for tuition/etc., but can't pay a meager $100 per day for someone with experience. Expulsion from school should be their reward for this accident.

Anonymous said...

Make thet, "....often refuse to pay a meager..."

The "new rules" alluded to in the newspaper article, will make matter worse. It will be like the blind leading the deaf.

chris said...

I fully agree that film students have no business operating aerial lifts, high wattage lights, or even larger camera support gear like cranes or car mounts.

I would propose that rental houses be on the ball about this sort of thing, too. No one should be allowed to rent an aerial lift without a licensed operator on their crew, and no one should be allowed to rent a big-gun light or heavy duty distro without an experienced juicer present. Just like no one should be rigging cars without a real grip on the scene.

I understand that these places need to make money, but at some point you have to draw a line and say that people's lives are more important than their credit limits.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

I agree -- that's why I think any film school offering hands-on production experience should have some people on staff who actually know what they're doing. I'm not talking big-buck, fully-tenured positions, but a few Industry professionals who have reached a point where they'd rather work in an academic environment than on set -- passing on some of what they've learned over the years, and maybe keeping the students from killing themselves.

Chris --

Good point. I don't imagine a heavy equipment rental yard would give me the keys to a D-8 Caterpillar tractor for the weekend without seeing tangible evidence of my operational expertise.

Same thing should go for film equipment -- but the key word in that sentence is "should." As I understand it, anybody with the proper insurance coverage can do business with a rental house.

JD said...

Actually, many rental yards will rent you a lift without proof of training or certification. Rental yards will give customers the "short course" before they sign the equipment out, if asked.

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