Lessons from the Sarah Jones Tragedy

Steven Poster, ASC was busy prepping his latest feature when I reached him. The movie is a Tier 1 project, and Poster plans to shoot using Canon C500 cameras, Codex recorders and a 2K 12-bit file format. The shoot will take place in Los Angeles, on stages and at practical locations in Hancock Park and Long Beach.

Candelight Vigil in remembrance of Sarah Jones on March 6. Photo by Craig T. Mathew..

Candelight Vigil in remembrance of Sarah Jones on March 6. Photo by Craig T. Mathew..

Of course our conversation quickly turned to the Sarah Jones tragedy, in which a 27-year-old camera assistant was killed and six others injured on a film set in Georgia. I asked Steven for his perspective as ICG Local 600 president, and as an experienced filmmaker.

“One of the issues is that we are working in show business,” he says. “Nobody should ever be injured for the purposes of entertainment. We must work with a sense of shared responsibility. As a community, we need to get that message and that lesson across. It’s not a matter of rules — there are rules and guidelines for everything, and in this case they were not followed. That’s the crux. Had they been followed, Sarah and her fellow crewmembers in Georgia would never have been up on that trestle. We all know that ours is not a safe business, but if the rules are followed, you’re far more likely to have a safe workplace.

“In our contract, it says that every crew person has the absolute right to refuse work if that person feels concerned or unsafe,” says Steven. “We have the right to make that refusal without negative consequences. There are always filmmakers downplaying the risks saying, ‘C’mon, let’s just grab this.’ This is combined with our can-do attitude, and the culture that teaches us to always find a way.

“But this tragedy underscores that it’s imperative that we be vigilant in watching out for ourselves and for each other,” he says. “I’ve had enough experience that I can usually tell when something doesn’t smell right. That’s an extremely important part of the job. I’ve shut down a number of shows for safety concerns, but I am in a different position. People have to understand that there are consequences. But we also need to trust our instincts, and have the confidence to step up and say, ‘This is not right.’”

“The safety of our crews is of paramount importance to this union and we will work tirelessly to ensure that a tragedy of this kind never happens again,” Poster told the L.A. Times. “There is no way we can mitigate the pain and the loss of Sarah. But we hope that something productive can come out of this very unfortunate situation.”


The March 6 candlelight vigil in Hollywood was attended by more than 1000. A similar events occurred in Jones’ hometown of Columbia, South Carolina and in Atlanta Local 600 hosted an event that was attended by as many as 700. At the Hollywood event, Poster read from a letter that Jones wrote to the cast and crew of Army Wives 2, her first professional job.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, good and bad,” she wrote. “It’s been the most stressful, tiresome, best summer of my life. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it any other way. I know I’m young and I know I still have so much to learn, but being only 21 and just knowing this is right is an incredible feeling. I feel I can conquer so much more and handle situations better knowing what I know now.”

Poster addressing the crowd. Photo by Craig T. Mathew.

Poster addressing the crowd. Photo by Craig T. Mathew.

Poster concluded his remarks by saying, “We are here to commemorate her life. We’re here to etch into our memories this tragic event. And we’re here in solidarity. We will never forget Sarah. Her memory is our beacon, guiding us in the right direction… Let’s celebrate Sarah’s life every day by watching each other’s backs. That is the human expression of union solidarity. Thanks to all of you, we’re showing the world that our union is a family. And this union vows: Never forget, never again!”

About David Heuring

David Heuring

David Heuring is a freelance writer and consultant for companies serving the cinematography community. He was the editor of American Cinematographer in the early 1990s, and he spent 17 years working on behalf of Eastman Kodak at Creative Communications Services. He divides his time between Madison, Wis., and Los Angeles.



    When fellow CREW MEMBERS and CAST…stand by and do or say NOTHING about the situation? When their so called vastness of experein ce forces them to be truly honest in ordre to save a life?

    I’m angry at the producers/director for goping forward with this unethical situation that caused the death of an innocent life which should not have happened, especially in order to keep he bottom line profit margin viable.

    I’m even more anrgy at the CREW and CATS who stood by and said nothing…and did nothing, all in order for a goddamn, ******* paycheck.

    The next time any of these same CREW and CAST MEMBERS brag about being professional, crafts people and artsist…especially in front of a camera for ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT? I hope they’ve washed the bloof off their hands…the color of money and success at all costs in Hollywood.

  2. Haskell Wexler

    Jon, I just read your March 23rd reply about safety and conditions on the set and what the IA doesn’t do about it. Your letter is to the point and there is enough rumble out there now that should let the IA know you don’t put on the table negotiations for safety, health, and your very life. The unanimous IA Resolution is being ignored by our Local.
    Let’s communicate, my email is haskellwexler@gmail.com

  3. Jon Salzman

    The real problem is that IATSE is a leaderless organization.

    Has anyone heard from Matt Loeb over the Sarah Jones incident? No. He is too busy hiding in New York.

    Does Steve Poster really care? I am sure he feels badly about what happened to Sarah as all of us do, but he isn’t really doing anything about abusive producers, lousy contracts, or long working hour situations. His resolution on it is a joke.

    12 on, 12 off. it expands the number of production days, and we can see our children grow up. unless you love the idea of the IATSE being a nomadic group of single people paying income taxes in 3 to 4 states, and never having time to be human…………………………………..then, keep letting people like Steve Poster and Matt Loeb run the show, into the ground.

    The next contract is coming up sooner than you think.

    Get in their faces if you can find them and let them know how you feel. I do constantly.

  4. Thom Shepard

    While I am in full agreement it is necessary for every crew member to know they have the right and the obligation to raise their hand and speak up whenever they see a situation that could endanger anyone on a film crew, we must continue to dig deeper.

    While standing up and saying stop is the last line, the first line is the education and standards we create from film schools to how we apprentice young crew members.

    While offical reports seem to be indicating that the Midnight Rider production specifically chose to ignore critical safety rules, and were likely in fact tresspassing on railroad property, there is one other critical factor.

    Midnight Rider was shooting an actual scene on a camera test day. This is actually very significant when we talk about unions and rules. It seems over the years the practice of “grabbing” shots from camera test days, to actually use in the film, has grown to include many large budget Hollywood films.

    The idea of a camera test day is to test unique lighting situations, actors skin tones and diffusions and visual effect concepts as well as testing cameras and lenses for quality and flaws.

    Often there are limited crews as departments are more concerned with preping for day 1 and may not even have all their gear checked in or prep-ed for a full shoot.

    So we can start to see why a decison to grab shots on a camera test day can quickly escalate into unsafe conditions. In fact it is likely that the Midnight Rider producers actually intended to use this confusion as cover to do something they knew was wrong.

    So when the unions over the years have looked the other way at this practice of shooting regular scenes during camera tests, they allowed very important safety procedures to be undermined. We see the same problem with the whole grey area of splinter units and second units that often start with a simple “insert” and can grow to a full shoot day, often without the necessary scouts, prep days or full crews of experienced professionals.

    The unions are right to tell crew members they need to speak up and say stop when productions are not following the rules. But when young crew members are taught on big Hollywood shows grabbing shots on camera test is ok, they are that much less likely to stand up and say, hold on, what is going on here, this is not the way a union show should be run. Of note is that although I have yet to see it reported, it seems Midnight Rider was a union show. Sarah Jones was a successful IATSE Local 600 member and likely would not have been working on this show if it were not.

    The unions clearly have been under pressure from producers to “look the other way” on many established rules, and clearly from camera tests to splinter and second units, they have. Whether these standards are established in laws, rules or contracts can be a complicated and confusing issue for crews, especially young crews.

    But one thing is clear, many safety rules are built into a regular shoot day and are followed and respected by union and non-union crews alike as necessary to run a safe, professional, effecient and effective set. And many of these rules tend not to apply to a camera test day.

    Individual crew members will feel much more confident standing up to producers on issues of safety when they feel like the unions have their back. When crews feel the unions are in fact caving to the constant pressure by production companies they will be less confident to stand up on their own.

    We constantly hear of another states new incentive plan meant to lure production away, or of cheaper costs in foreign countries where crew safety is lax We are led to believe if we don’t find ways to save production money, they will pack and leave.

    It is time to stand together and draw the line where safety is at risk.


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