How safe is the film industry?
In a month that has seen a Disney subsidiary company prosecuted for alleged safety lapses on the set of Star Wars, we take a look at whether changes need to be made in the production industry.
Harrison Ford broke his leg in June 2014 when a hydraulic door on the Pinewood Studios set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens collapsed onto him.
Filming was shut down for two weeks and the actor recovered, but 18 months later Disney subsidiary Foodles Production Ltd was prosecuted by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.
Filmmaking can be a notoriously risky enterprise, although a movie’s preparedness for accidents and injury generally increases as the budget climbs. Insurance companies are involved from the beginning and high-profile action movies normally hire industry-leading teams to organise stunts and other kinds of dangerous production.
Set-building involves creating an aesthetic that can be quite literally tailor-made to suit the needs of the filmmakers, while also ensuring the highest standards of safety to protect the cast and crew. This takes considerable skill, especially when a set may be specifically designed to create a landscape that in fact poses a threat to the story’s characters.
Technology can help minimise risks to the cast and crew. Filmmaker James Cameron used pioneering visual effects to create a digital alien world for Avatar (pictured above) that incorporated stunning heights and flight sequences.
Often the biggest risks to the cast and crew were tripping over the basic foam set that was built as a physical reference point for the actors to be built upon by the post-production team.
Drone technology too is in the process of revolutionising the way filmmakers approach aerial filming. Sending cast and crew into the air in helicopters and planes is an inherently dangerous task and periodically there are fatal crashes, not to mention the insurance costs. Unmanned drones remove this risk factor but their flight time is of yet still extremely limited and weather-dependent.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (pictured) famously saw the franchise return to the physical effects of the original trilogy. Showy computer effects have fallen out of favour among many directors, but as the demand increases for bigger sets and physical locations, the risk is elevated from a health and safety perspective.
The industry faces a persistent challenge to avoid cutting corners and taking short cuts with on-set safety in the face of constant time pressures. However, the studios may also be swayed by brutal economics. It’s more cost-effective to ensure a set is safe than it is to weather the expense of a law suit after an accident.
Avatar image: WETA/Twentieth Century Fox
Star Wars The Force Awakens image: Lucasfilm