There is a magic bubble of invulnerability that can seem to enclose a movie crew filming out on the streets, more so than on the artifice of a stage set. For just a few moments, as the cameras turn over, there exists a kind of parallel reality that lives inside that bubble. It burst on February 20 above a 100 year old, single-track railroad trestle over the Altamaha River near Doctortown, Georgia. The fallout injured half a dozen crew members of a feature film on its first day of shooting; it also killed the 27-year-old camera assistant, Sarah Jones.
No more details are needed here; we already know them. The ongoing revelations about this totally preventable incident have swept social media and trade press on an international scale—a cry of support to Sarah’s memory, but also a cri de coeur, a recognition by frontline filmmakers around the world, of our shared vulnerability— this, ironically, at a time when cutting edge digital artists are creating ever more spectacular visual effects and stunts, not in the streets, but in darkened rooms on computer work stations far removed from the hazards of physical production.
The struggle to create a cinematic illusion of reality, side by side with the all too real world, with the chaos of people living their lives indifferent or even hostile to the presence of the film crew, can create a sensory experience that is schizophrenic. Controlling that illusory reality out to the very edges of the frame constitutes a brief triumph of movie artifice. During the course of a day’s production, filmmakers move in an out of that artifice/reality bubble dozens of times. The sheer volume of the filmmaking equipment employed, the often very vocal demarcation of the shooting space by a harried assistant director or PA, easily creates a sense of magical, even mandarin-like power. “WTF, get that guy out of there. Doesn’t he know we’re trying to make a movie,” blares out of a bullhorn as some hapless gent stumbles out of a bar or a soccer mom exits a Starbucks juggling her soy latte.
Such “empowerment,” even for the few minutes that the camera is running, can make that bubble seem to be a “thin invisible shield” against the world—that is until the laws of nature intervene. This is what happened on the set of Midnight Rider when an oncoming train struck a bed and mattress that had been placed on the track. Sarah was knocked onto the path of the train, ending her young life.
Like tens of thousands of above and below the line filmmakers from around the world, I have been caught up in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions: anger, yes, but mostly sadness at the stupidity that could have allowed this to happen. We all have a deep recognition that each of us could have met Sarah’s fate.
Everything about the filmmaking process is temporary, ad hoc. Build it, shoot it, knock it down, move on. Breakneck schedules are the rule rather than the exception in filmmaking today, and no more so than in the world of “Tier” productions, where the crew is expected to provide the same level of filmmaking skill as in the past, but at a fraction of the time and budget. There is a fallacy too often embraced by some producers and studios that new lighter weight cameras and lights mean that we can all work faster, a corollary being that line producers and UPMs who actually know better, are often pressured to find shortcuts, putting crews into problematic, unsecured environments and mandating unreasonable work hours of 14-16 hour days.
As filmmaking moves ever outward and away from Hollywood and close union scrutiny, it is too easy for places that boast lucrative rebate incentives, to look askew at close monitoring of workplace safety —some of these places being known as “right to work” enclaves, coded speech for “anti-union.” The decades long struggle for safety protocols that is well defined in veteran filmmaking centers is still being worked out in cities that have benefitted from greater production due to state incentives.
Regardless what these investigations and the judicial system determine (and there is plenty of blame to pass around) one thing stays in sharp focus for me as a cinematographer. In every shot of a movie, the cinematographer and director decide where to place the camera. The camera assistants, camera operator and dolly grip secure that mark and the crew moves up to it. The magic bubble I spoke of begins to form, a perimeter of expected control. For the director of photography, there is more at stake than just getting a great shot; there is the very real ethical responsibility for the safety of the crew enclosed in this magic bubble.
A Facebook page, “Slates for Sarah,” was swamped with photos from around the world: production camera slates with tributes to Sarah Jones. The Vampire Diaries on which she had worked for several seasons ended its Feb. 27 episode with this legend,
“In Loving Memory of Sarah Jones, 1986 – 2014.”
A petition to include Sarah in the March 2 Oscar telecast “In Memoriam” segment garnered over 60,000 signatures before the awards show aired. As a standing Governor of the Academy in the Cinematographers Branch, I was moved to send a personal note to President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson advocating for Sarah’s inclusion; mine was only one of the thousand of voices that reached out to the Academy. Inclusion in the “In Memoriam” is much sought after by friends and families of the men and women with distinguished careers who have died the past year. Yes, Sarah Jones was not a well-known celebrity with a long career—but the outpouring of support for who she is and for what her death represents, finally overshadows any 5-second TV tribute. The Academy listened, giving lie to the notion of it being only an enclave of the elite. After Bette Midler’s moving anthem “Wind Beneath My Wings,” a wide shot of the audience served as background for a banner photo of Sarah, a stand alone moment. This simple acknowledgement resonates as a clear message to the entire film and television industry: “We are all Sarah Jones.”
NB: There has been another tribute to Sarah Jones, this one from her cinematography peers: a candlelight walk and vigil on Friday evening March 7, from the entry steps of the Directors Guild of America, to the International Cinematographers Guild offices several blocks away. As thousands of movie loving commuters drove past the procession along Sunset Blvd, “Never forget, never again,” was the silent, internal refrain above the traffic, from the hundreds walking in honor of one of our own.
(also a video tribute from the recent SOC awards at the HR website:) http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/video/sarah-jones-tribute-society-camera-687364