The perilous life of a camera operator

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From the Slates for Sarah Facebook page.

From the Slates for Sarah Facebook page.

Less than two weeks ago, I found my Facebook feed flooded with remembrances of 27-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Jones, a second assistant camerawoman who was struck by a train and killed in a terrible set accident in Georgia. My mind reeled for days. In my 10 years as a camera assistant in New York, from 1981 to 1991, I was endangered many times. But I was lucky enough to survive a similar set accident during my time doing Sarah’s job.

I was working on a commercial, ironically, for an insurance company. We were in the Pennsylvania countryside shooting a high-budget period piece on an old steam engine. It was the same crew I had worked with for years on movies, television, and big-budget music videos. We were shooting an actor in a period costume waving goodbye from the back of the train, and so, as instructed, the crew built a platform for the camera on a modified handcar that was attached to and pulled by the train.

The first take went fine. Then, as we sat on the modified handcar, there was a call to “go back to one” (film jargon for going back to our start position). But trains don’t turn around. They back up, and they can’t stop instantly. This train backed up right into the un-motorized platform, shattering it into splinters. In that split second, the entire crew jumped off, surviving with only cuts and bruises, and what we thought at the time was a great bar story. The first assistant, feeling the need to “protect” the camera, almost didn’t make it. I was a bit younger than Sarah Jones, and like her, still early in my career. Had I been closer to the camera, I probably would have felt the need to “protect” the film, too.

This experience was par for the course during my time as a member of what was then Local 644 I.A.T.S.E. (now Local 600), a union comprised of camera trainees, camera assistants, camera operators, still photographers, and directors of photography. My father, a director of photography, was also in the union, and I was a legacy member. After starting out my career working at General Camera (the Panavision rental house in Manhattan), cleaning and prepping 35 mm film equipment, I got into the union when I was 18. I became the first woman camera trainee in my local, and I soon landed a plum job on Woody Allen’s Radio Days. After that, I moved to the job of second assistant camerawoman. My responsibilities included loading the film in magazines, charging batteries, changing lenses, inventorying film stock, communicating with the film lab, organizing multiple-camera shoots, and marking each scene with an iconic slate identifying the shot.

It’s a special breed of person who wants to work on a movie set. There is a great sense of camaraderie and a feeling that you are solving extraordinary problems to achieve a great artistic goal, even if you’re only working on Home Alone 2. We even had our own jargon, some familiar (like “best boy,” the assistant to the head electrician) and some less so (like a “Montana,” a shot that cuts the person at the “mountains” where a woman’s breasts would be).

And then there are the movie stars and the directors I had the pleasure of working with. I spent my 25th birthday on the set of a Bruce Springsteen video, “Brilliant Disguise”; Springsteen sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I confess that—good or bad—most of my dreams and nightmares still take place on movie sets.

Of course, I was not on the set with Sarah Jones, but all accounts I have read refer to the day of the accident as a “pre-shoot” or a “camera test” day. This is a sort of code for an extra day of shooting that allows a smaller crew to get a few more miscellaneous shots. It’s common practice for keeping the cost of filming down.

Bending the rules feeds into the sense that those of us who work on films are, in the most romantic sense, outlaws. We crew members felt like we were special—covered by what we half jokingly referred to as “cinematic immunity.” We were exempt from regular life, which included normal and logical safety protocol.

During my time in production, I was faced with many dangerous situations, and I never backed away. As one of the only women in my position at the time, I wouldn’t have risked the ridicule I could have faced by refusing to do something a guy would do. I was 5 foot 3 inches and weighed about 100 pounds. A loaded 35 mm Panavision camera can weigh 60 pounds.

I had great organizational and communication skills, and I was precise, which made up for my lack of physical strength. I was also brave (or stupid) enough to be hit numerous times with hot shell casings from guns with blanks, to be stuffed in the rear of a speeding car without seats or seatbelts, and to do countless shots from doorless helicopters. As a union member, I was compensated for my peril with “hazard pay”—a sort of tax to the producers to make them think twice before putting crew members in dangerous positions. As ineffective as that was, I am told even that doesn’t exist anymore.

I also inherited a bravado about getting the shot—framing, focusing, and capturing the right moment at the right angle—from my father. To get an extraordinary shot gives a great sense of exhilaration. My father was proud to have been in dangerous situations, once having hung off the Golden Gate Bridge to get a shot for a Ronzoni commercial.

I think we can all agree that no one should have to die to produce our entertainment. But safety on film sets is complicated. Many people are willing to take risks for the privilege and the fun of working on film crews. And keeping the crew out of danger can cost time and money—two things that strike fear in the hearts of producers.

I was a troubled teenager when I got into the union and became a camera assistant. It was an opportunity to work with great people in an unconventional setting. I got health insurance. I got to meet people I admired, like Kurt Vonnegut and Paul McCartney, and to work with prominent directors. I wanted to be a director of photography like my father, but I eventually learned that the job entails all the responsibilities of the above-the-line people—who are rewarded not just with high salaries but also residuals—while receiving below-the-line pay. And at the time, the only women directors of photography I knew were shooting low-budget documentaries. I left the camera department in 1991 when I saw the Internet. I knew I could use it to tell my stories and make my own films. This virtual place had fewer barriers for me, and far less danger.

The death of Sarah Elizabeth Jones has become a rallying cry for on-set safety. Though accidents like the one that killed Sarah Jones are relatively rare, there is a pressing safety issue that is common, far more lethal, and easy to change: “turn-around” time. That is the time crew members have between leaving work and the next day’s call time. A camera assistant gets 10 hours, including travel time. On a good day, after the commute, he or she may get six hours of sleep. On a day that is very bad, but unfortunately alarmingly frequent, someone will die at the wheel going home.

So even as film crews around the country have honored Jones with photo tributes, and posthumous recognition has come from the Society of Camera Operators and the Academy Awards broadcast, we wait and wonder: Will Sarah Jones’ needless death be the catalyst for widespread safety reforms?

Liz Dubelman is the founder of the content creation company VidLit.com. She currently edits allosego.com and lives in Santa Monica. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.