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"We might as well have gone to the Philippines to make Apocalypse Now"
April 8, 2010 7:59 AM   Subscribe

NYU's Snuff Film. The Village Voice reports on the accidental death of NYU film student John Hunt Lamensdorf, on a shoot in Georgia. Besides the inevitable litigation and hush-up, the death has also resulted in a scramble at NYU to change the rules and safety procedures for student productions.
posted by availablelight (78 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Atlanta-based filmmaker was at the controls of the aerial lift that made contact with overhead power lines and created a powerful explosion of electrical energy on the set.

What is the first fucking rule of doing anything that gets you more than 5 feet off the ground?
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:24 AM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


You know, I don't think a town in Georgia quite qualifies as "Apocalypse Now," but I guess for New Yorkers it does.
posted by lukemeister at 8:29 AM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


God I loved ever minute of my time at Tisch but they basically taught us to fuck it all and get the shot however we had to for as cheaply as we could. Damn right they need better safety training.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:29 AM on April 8, 2010


What is the first fucking rule of doing anything that gets you more than 5 feet off the ground?

I'd assume it would be something about securing yourself and/or taking measures to prevent a fall.

Avoiding power lines seems damned important, but "don't fall" seems like a more general first-rule-of-thumb.
posted by explosion at 8:31 AM on April 8, 2010


Fascinating story..
posted by amethysts at 8:33 AM on April 8, 2010


Avoiding power lines seems damned important, but "don't fall" seems like a more general first-rule-of-thumb.

I'd be willing to spring for two first-fucking-rules, in that case.
posted by bicyclefish at 8:34 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd rather fall 20 feet than hit a power line. So I'm going to make "Don't hit a power line" number one on my list, and "make sure you don't fall" number two.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:34 AM on April 8, 2010


Don't fall on power lines.
posted by swift at 8:36 AM on April 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


I understand the parents are grieving, but suing NYU? Basically because they did not require students to take a safety course?
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:36 AM on April 8, 2010


That Welin guy who physically made the connection to the power lines that caused the accident needs to get a lawyer, and that lawyer needs to tell him to stop talking to anyone about this.

From the article:

"I was left out to dry. No one ever followed up with me to see how I was doing," [Welin] says. "I know I am the least of their concerns. But at the same time, it doesn't sit well when you've got one guy killed, I was almost hurt, someone else was almost killed, and no one followed up with me."

This is one reason, he says, that he didn't mind talking about what happened, which included discussing the incident with an attorney working for the Lamensdorfs. "There was this poor family, who just wanted to know what had happened to their son."

Then, last month, he was served with formal notice that the Lamensdorfs had named him as a defendant in their lawsuit.

"That's great, that's just fucking great," Welin says.

posted by burnmp3s at 8:37 AM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


I hope Werner Herzog has good legal representation.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:37 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


someone needs to look up the meaning of the slang term "snuff film", 'cuz this fpp is very misleading....

That said, this is a sad story...
posted by HuronBob at 8:38 AM on April 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


"They looked it up online, and one of them held a two-by-four at the ready, to knock the other loose if he were to get electrocuted."

I went to film school back in the late 70s and kept on making low-low-budget movies afterward. We knew this trick and yup, always had that two-by-four at the ready. Never had to use it, thank God.

Problem is, when you're young, you take BIG chances and tend to resent any adult/authority types who get in the way. Hell, I can remember shooting Super-8 car chase films when I was still in high school. Stupid? Yes. But no one got hurt so, in retrospect, it, and many many more like it, are the kind of stories that get told for laughs.

But tragedy does have its way of striking. And sadly, sadly, sadly (inevitably) that's what happened in Georgia. Now, with lawsuits, finger-pointing, silence, cover-ups, various wagons getting circled, the thought that comes to mind is Loss Of Innocence ... from all kinds angles.

And that's sad too.
posted by philip-random at 8:39 AM on April 8, 2010


Most places do not let you get anywhere near a crane or lift without some training in how to operate it, since such machines are capable of doing a number of dangerous things, like falling over. And while the first element of such training is usually how not to tip the thing over, the second is always to know where power lines are.

They shot one of the scenes for Final Destination 4 in the building where I work, and the very first thing that happened before any of the actual film people showed up is that the power company came out and arranged to de-energize the power lines so that the lifts carrying cameras and shades could operate safely.
posted by localroger at 8:40 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Werner Herzog would have strung the lights, taken the shock, and dismissed it as insignificant.
posted by lukemeister at 8:40 AM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


No, number one should be "don't fall 20 feet onto a power line."
posted by brundlefly at 8:40 AM on April 8, 2010


Damn it, swift.
posted by brundlefly at 8:41 AM on April 8, 2010


Everything I know about snuff films, I learned from that Nic Cage movie, The Wicker Man.
posted by box at 8:41 AM on April 8, 2010


not blaming you, availablelight, the village voice needs the dictionary!
posted by HuronBob at 8:41 AM on April 8, 2010


That Welin guy who physically made the connection to the power lines that caused the accident needs to get a lawyer, and that lawyer needs to tell him to stop talking to anyone about this.

burnmp3s, I hear what you're saying and agree that it's wise, but man do I HATE IT. This being just one more of those situations where "lawyering up" will only peripherally resolve any of the crucial issues at hand (ie: getting to the heart of what really happened and making damned sure it never happens again) while it enforces the silence you recommend, turns all kinds of people against each other, and, of course, puts money in the pockets of lawyers.
posted by philip-random at 8:45 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I agree that the title of this FPP, taken from the Village Voice article, is misleading and exploitative. This wasn't a snuff film, it was an electrocution caused by poor safety standards, which was not filmed and people aren't purchasing the film for the sadistic thrill of watching somebody else's death. Stuff like this happens, even in Hollywood. Think about Brandon Lee. And at least he died making a memorable film. What about the people who died making Gone Fishin' or Vampire in Brooklyn.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:47 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everything I know about snuff films, I learned from that Nic Cage movie, The Wicker Man.

Really? For serious? Man, I'm glad you said that. I thought all this time that I imagined that part where Edward Woodward walks onscreen and repeatedly stabs Cage to death with a #2 pencil.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:50 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Soon to be a major motion picture.
posted by mazola at 8:50 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is the first fucking rule of doing anything that gets you more than 5 feet off the ground?

Look where you're going.
posted by grubi at 8:51 AM on April 8, 2010


Everything I know about snuff films, I learned from that Nic Cage movie, The Wicker Man.

Not from 8MM?
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:52 AM on April 8, 2010


The first rule of MetaFilter: A thread that starts by blaming the victim usually ends well.
posted by DU at 8:55 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's a teaser for John Lamensdorf's short film Only Criminals which his friend Andrés Cardona completed. It premieres this Sunday at NYU's First Run Film Festival (as mentioned in the Village Voice article).

Other student film works by John Lamensdorf.
posted by ericb at 8:58 AM on April 8, 2010


That Welin guy who physically made the connection to the power lines that caused the accident needs to get a lawyer, and that lawyer needs to tell him to stop talking to anyone about this.

burnmp3s, I hear what you're saying and agree that it's wise, but man do I HATE IT.


I hate it it, too, but sooner or later you gotta learn the Three Ns: Never talk to Nobody about Nothin'.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:08 AM on April 8, 2010


They've named as defendants not just NYU ("to deter similar conduct in the future"), but NES Rentals (for renting an "aerial lift to inexperienced college students") and professor Sacks personally. (In the suit, the Lamensdorfs acknowledge that NYU's film school was once ranked the nation's best by U.S. News & World Report.) Also named: Welin, Pen Pals Productions, Simon and his father (for producing the film), and Lamensdorf's classmates Fung and White—and Cardona, who was covered in their dying son's blood as he tried to revive him.

By this logic, the parents should sue themselves, too. They had just as much responsibility for the safety of their son as most of these people did.
posted by amro at 9:08 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lloyd Kaufman's three rules of filmmaking:

1 Keep people safe.
2 Protect people's property.
3 Make a good movie.
posted by CarlRossi at 9:09 AM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


burnmp3s, I hear what you're saying and agree that it's wise, but man do I HATE IT. This being just one more of those situations where "lawyering up" will only peripherally resolve any of the crucial issues at hand (ie: getting to the heart of what really happened and making damned sure it never happens again) while it enforces the silence you recommend, turns all kinds of people against each other, and, of course, puts money in the pockets of lawyers.

The crucial issue for this kid is he's getting sued. People have already turned against him. Putting money in a lawyer's pocket is a good thing if that lawyer does his or her job in protecting you.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:13 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hope Werner Herzog has good legal representation.

While I greatly admire Herzog as a filmmaker, it's always disturbed me that he continued filming "Fitzcarraldo" after his engineer left the film because he thought a contraption for dragging a 340 ton boat up a mountain was too unstable and could kill people if something went wrong (as described in the documentary "Burden of Dreams").
posted by bobo123 at 9:14 AM on April 8, 2010


Lived in the Atlanta suburbs most of my life, never once been to Monticello. Hard to call Monticello a suburb of Atlanta. Still, it's not Apocalypse Now. Wikipedia says My Cousin Vinny was filmed there.

Monticello justice, 1915
posted by rahnefan at 9:24 AM on April 8, 2010


While I greatly admire Herzog as a filmmaker, it's always disturbed me that he continued filming "Fitzcarraldo" after his engineer left the film because he thought a contraption for dragging a 340 ton boat up a mountain was too unstable and could kill people if something went wrong (as described in the documentary "Burden of Dreams").
posted by bobo123


Plus, "Grizzly Man" only became a documentary AFTER Herzog's fictional star got eaten by a bear. Say what you will about the man, he can weave a convincing narrative.
posted by haveanicesummer at 9:25 AM on April 8, 2010


The crucial issue for this kid is he's getting sued. People have already turned against him. Putting money in a lawyer's pocket is a good thing if that lawyer does his or her job in protecting you.
posted by Solon and Thanks


All true except he was 37 when this happened, so not really a kid by most standards.
posted by haveanicesummer at 9:25 AM on April 8, 2010


Now, for a Village Voice article that actually is as described, see Naked Ladies Reading Tween Literature (NSFW).
posted by stinkycheese at 9:26 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lloyd Kaufman's three rules of filmmaking:

1 Keep people safe.
2 Protect people's property.
3 Make a good movie.


Alas, he never gets around to number three.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:41 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Suing everybody is sure to bring our kid back to life!
posted by killdevil at 9:47 AM on April 8, 2010


"Still, it's not Apocalypse Now. Wikipedia says My Cousin Vinny was filmed there."
It was a condemned house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wet mud with no cell service and the ambulance had no way of finding it and then when they DID find it they got stuck in the mud and then they had to wait for a helicopter. I'm sure the town is very nice but this was not in the town and sounds like a bad place.

Also I can't believe the parents are suing those poor kids and potentially ruining their lives (bad google history, costs, can't concentrate on moving forward with their careers and healing from the trauma). Taking their futures away isn't going to bring their son back.
posted by amethysts at 9:52 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why would you go all the way to rural Georgia to film something. There has to be plenty of abandoned buildings in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. (also lol at Georgia being "exotic" to a bunch of kids from new york)
posted by Cyclopsis Raptor at 9:59 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Something like this was inevitable.

My roommates and I were, as far as I know, basically the first people to start "tying in" at our film school. When you tie in you bypass all the circuits of the location you're shooting in except the main. You stand on a rubber mat and screw insulated clamps directly onto the lugs and neutral bar. This allows you to use much larger lights than if you were restricted by 20 amp breakers. You're supposed to disconnect the main before you start but since we were often shooting in apartment buildings, restaurants, etc, I never once threw the main. I probably tied in live 100 times. This with no electrical background other than what I had picked up on film sets by other film students.

After the second time I arc'ed I decided that, fuck that, I was never tying in live again. I'm not going to fucking electrocute myself over some student film about a drug deal gone wrong.

The unfortunate part was some younger students had watched us do it a few times and and it became pretty common. Suddenly everyone was doing it. People were doing it that, in my opinion, were absolutely unqualified (not that I ever was), had just seen enough to know that "the red one goes here, the black one goes here, the white one goes here, and you screw the green one to a water pipe".

There's a mentality of "doing whatever it takes" on a film set, especially in film school where there are no unions and people looking out for safety. You have kids who are trained basically by each other operating Condor lifts, screwing shit into circuit boxes and rigging stuff to cars.

Something like this was inevitable.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:05 AM on April 8, 2010 [15 favorites]


You know, I don't think a town in Georgia quite qualifies as "Apocalypse Now," but I guess for New Yorkers it does.

For pete's sake, the comparison wasn't between the town and Apocalypse Now, it was between the location of the dilapidated/condemned house in a relatively remote location with no address and muddy surroundings with the difficulty of shooting on the set of Apocalypse now. Is it a perfect comparison? No, but it seems like a stupid thing to nit-pick; he was just making the point that it was a really bad decision to film at that particular location.

On preview: what amethysts said.
posted by the other side at 10:06 AM on April 8, 2010


At my film school we received way more training on how to keep equipment safe than how to keep ourselves safe. This was one of the reasons Chapel Hill PD surrounded our shoot and had an officer with his weapon unholstered ready to cap our actor.

Hey student filmmakers! The number one safest thing you can do is let authorities know what you're doing! Take it from a DP who was nearly shot because his camera had a pistol grip!
posted by infinitewindow at 10:09 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lloyd Kaufman's three rules of filmmaking:

1 Keep people safe.


I remember working as location liaison on some big deal Hollywood film that was shooting in a crumbling ex-refinery. The location manager had secured access to various safe areas but, as is so often the case, once the crew showed up they suddenly needed to push the boundaries a bit (specifically to hang a light in a place that hadn't been secured as it would've saved them a bunch of time). Of course, they wanted me to just kind of nod along and say, "Go for it." But I didn't. I didn't say, "No" either as I didn't really have that authority (which is a huge deal on a mega-bucks production where even fifteen minutes of downtime can cost thousands of dollars of wastage).

Finally, the Director of Photography, Peter Watkin wandered into the discussion. The word venerable applies (DOP credits going back to 1956 including the likes of Goldfinger, Help, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Devils, Catch-22, Chariots of Fire, Memphis Belle, Out Of Africa for which he won the Oscar). He caught the gist of what was going and simply said to me, "Can you not assure me that it's absolutely safe to do this?"

I said, "No, I can't."

He immediately nixed the idea, said he'd made it this far in his career without getting any blood on his hands and he wasn't about to risk it to save a few thousand bucks on a multi-million dollar production. The crew did things the hard (safe) way and nobody got hurt ... except maybe some bean-counter back in La-La-Land.
posted by philip-random at 10:13 AM on April 8, 2010 [15 favorites]


You don't need a crane or lift to make a good film.

If you're a student film which is "a violent film about a group of kids", you might as well not make a film at all.
posted by niccolo at 10:22 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


About 3 years ago the Montana State University's film department had students shooting in Oregon over a weekend. One of the drivers fell asleep and died in the wreck. Now the restrictions are so high that there can be no travel for filming.

I have a friend that is an adjunct professor. He was already sick of screening 100 films a semester that started with an alarm clock in a dorm room. Will someone think of the adjunct professors?
posted by agent of bad karma at 10:38 AM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I hate to admit it, but I doubt I would have been any more safe. It's not really reasonable to think that people are aware of all the ways in which they can be seriously injured and killed without safety training. Why isn't this already standard at film schools?
posted by stoneweaver at 10:40 AM on April 8, 2010


While I greatly admire Herzog as a filmmaker, it's always disturbed me that he continued filming "Fitzcarraldo" after his engineer left the film

The thing is, I think Herzog likes disturbing people.
posted by dhartung at 10:45 AM on April 8, 2010


Fuck all that noise. It took me three days of phone calls and faxes to secure permits and insurance to shoot a DAY scene inside a simple restaurant. I went to an indie film school that did not make a big deal about the logistics of shooting -- only the theory rawr rawr and oh yeah get the film done indie style you scrappy little producer. Fuck that. Insurance and permits, every time.

I never made Citizen Kane, but I never had a godamned fatality on a shoot either.

Litigation bullshit aside; what an awful accident.

There's a certain measure to be rewarded for for "being an artist", but at the end of the day a film shoot itself is a logistical cavalcade of potential nightmares. If you don't have a unit production manager (hello, student film!), congratulations, producer, you are now the UPM. Secure your set!
posted by cavalier at 11:01 AM on April 8, 2010


It's not really reasonable to think that people are aware of all the ways in which they can be seriously injured and killed without safety training. Why isn't this already standard at film schools?

My film school's equipment room consisted of cameras, c-stands, sandbags, flags and tiny little light kits. I think there was a doorway dolly or two. Nothing you could kill yourself with. I don't think my professors knew what a Condor lift was let alone how to rig as 12k to one and operate it.

However, we'd go to rental houses and get all kind of dangerous toys like camera cranes to set up off the edge of overpasses and Condor lifts and build out camera cars, and 18,000 watt lights and generators and tie in kits (marked "you must be a licensed electrician to use" but freely rented for $15 bucks to 18 yr old kids).

I don't know what Tisch's equipment situation is like but I can pretty much guarantee it doesn't include a Condor lift. Is it the faculty's responsibility to train you of the dangers of equipment that they aren't providing you?
posted by nathancaswell at 11:06 AM on April 8, 2010


How could they train you on equipment they don't know? That's rather nonsensical. Should they make you aware that there are dangers? Absolutely. If it's the case that every (or nearly every) film student is using that sort of equipment, the school should absolutely hire someone to teach the students how to use it appropriately. Otherwise, people are graduating with a serious hole in their education. If you don't know how to use industry standard equipment, you're not very employable.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:13 AM on April 8, 2010


If it's the case that every (or nearly every) film student is using that sort of equipment, the school should absolutely hire someone to teach the students how to use it appropriately. Otherwise, people are graduating with a serious hole in their education. If you don't know how to use industry standard equipment, you're not very employable.

Not every student film is going to use gear like this, but some do (the bigger, more expensive ones). Say you have a crew of 25. Of those 25 maybe 6-8 (the grips and the electricians) are actually using this kind of gear. The rest are dressing sets, dealing with wardrobe, loading magazines, etc. Not knowing how to operate a lift or build a platform that a camera crane can safely go on isn't going to affect your employability if you want to be a production designer, or makeup artist, or an assistant director, or editor.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:25 AM on April 8, 2010


What is the first fucking rule of doing anything that gets you more than 5 feet off the ground?

Safety First, Last, ALWAYS!
posted by mikelieman at 11:39 AM on April 8, 2010


"Of those 25 maybe 6-8 (the grips and the electricians) are actually using this kind of gear."
So then train those guys on all of the proper equipment and safety, along with all the other specialized stuff they're getting?
posted by amethysts at 11:47 AM on April 8, 2010


If you're a student film which is "a violent film about a group of kids", you might as well not make a film at all.

What?
posted by brundlefly at 11:49 AM on April 8, 2010


"Grizzly Man" only became a documentary AFTER Herzog's fictional star got eaten by a bear.

I'm pretty certain Timothy Treadwell was a real person.
posted by hippybear at 11:53 AM on April 8, 2010


If the school requires the kids to use equipment that requires training to safely use, they should absolutely have someone capable of giving such training and they should absolutely not allow students who haven't had said training to operate said equipment. Period.

I would wager that right now the rental company is waving a piece of paper in front of a judge with some kid's signature on it promising that only trained personnel will be allowed to operate the expensive dangerous machine they're about to take possession of and responsibility for. They will argue, and rightly, that it is impossible for them to police what's done with their wares when out of sight, and it would be impossible for them to do business if they had to.

I would further wager that that signature belongs to the Welin kid, and that's why steam is starting to form above the water he's standing in.

The position of the school is a little more complicated. Not every film student needs to know how to use a crane, but every film student who is asked to use a crane as part of a school project damn well ought to know how to use it. I would imagine the school will try very hard not to be treated like Welin's employer, but they will probably fail because the main reason employers get culpability for the acts of employees is that they have so much power to threaten you if you refuse. Given that had Welin refused what he was asked to do he might have risked his GPA or even his degree, the school will probably be held at least partially responsible.
posted by localroger at 11:53 AM on April 8, 2010


also lol at Georgia being "exotic" to a bunch of kids from new york

Any place can be exotic if you aren't from there. I had a friend from South Africa who grew up on the beaches of Australia, and she was giddy with excitement at the idea of experiencing a Wisconsin winter.

People are just weird like that.
posted by quin at 11:55 AM on April 8, 2010


Keep in mind that Welin is not a student, he was hired off craigslist by one of the students for $350. I would be curious to know what his employment status will be figured to be, if anything. My guess is that he would be an employee of Pen Pal Productions, the company set up for the film by one of the dads of the students.
posted by amethysts at 12:10 PM on April 8, 2010


someone needs to look up the meaning of the slang term "snuff film", 'cuz this fpp is very misleading....

Got you to read it, though.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2010


So then train those guys on all of the proper equipment and safety, along with all the other specialized stuff they're getting?

This is the logical thing to do but it's really hard to explain why it doesn't happen to someone who hasn't been to film school.

The culture of film school is that motivated students essentially teach themselves and each other the technical aspects of film making. The faculty teaches theory, and basic film techniques. They might have a camera workshop one day where everyone loads a magazine once. They might have a lighting class where they teach you the absolute most basic, boring, 3 point lighting setup. And probably 85% of film students end up with just this knowledge, and are completely unemployable when they graduate. These people will never be in danger of being killed on a film set because they're using basic equipment and shooting in their dorm rooms all the while talking about how they're going to move to Hollywood and someone's going to give them some ridiculous 6 figure deal to make some movie that they never write. Why doesn't the school make more of an effort to teach them advanced skills? I don't know. But they don't, so those kids don't get exposed to dangerous equipment, so there is no reason to worry about their safety.

The other 15% are teaching themselves how to use more professional equipment. They're motivated and they're the ones who get jobs. The kids who are using this kind of specialized gear, they're going off and getting it on their own. They may be using it to shoot a school project but it's not something that the school is asking or expecting them to do. The school is providing them with 3 lights and a dolly and saying "go make a film" and these kids are going to a rental house, probably misrepresenting their experience level, and getting all this crazy equipment that nobody that hasn't been employed in the industry for years is qualified to use safely. Maybe one or two of them have used the equipment before, or seen it used, and they all go out and shoot their film and the kids who've used it before show them what they know. That's just how it's done... that's how you learn how to use the gear, you get someone to show you how on an actual set, not in a training session. I don't know, it's really hard to explain. And frankly I'm surprised there aren't more accidents then there are.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:19 PM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


The position of the school is a little more complicated. Not every film student needs to know how to use a crane, but every film student who is asked to use a crane as part of a school project damn well ought to know how to use it.

That's the thing, the school isn't asking you to use fancy gear at all. You want a crane because you watch movies that have crane shots in them.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:20 PM on April 8, 2010


When you put it that way it's not hard to explain or understand, nathan. What you wrote really puts it into perspective. All of my experience in trying to get educated is that they don't teach anything but the most basic boring shit to anyone.
posted by amethysts at 12:23 PM on April 8, 2010


nathancaswell: "The position of the school is a little more complicated. Not every film student needs to know how to use a crane, but every film student who is asked to use a crane as part of a school project damn well ought to know how to use it.

That's the thing, the school isn't asking you to use fancy gear at all. You want a crane because you watch movies that have crane shots in them.
"

A Condor lift isn't a camera crane. It's more like one of those truck-mounted bucket lifts they use to fix streetlights and whatnot. They're often used as described in the article, to mount a big HMI light so you can get a big, far away light source that's high enough up to illuminate a whole scene. They're sometimes used as a camera platform, but it's not what you'd use to accomplish a "crane shot".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:37 PM on April 8, 2010


A Condor lift isn't a camera crane.

Never said it was.

The person I was responding to said "asked to use a crane as part of a school project". No class would ever require that you use a Condor lift. It is feasible that that you would be asked to incorporate a crane shot (though unlikely). The same issues apply if you have a bunch of relatively unexperienced kids building a camera crane.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:52 PM on April 8, 2010


I was using the word "crane" in its generic sense, as the safety instructor would use it, to mean any machine with an angled boom that is used for lifting things overhead. There were three Condor lifts in use at the fd4 shoot at our building, mainly to hold up big screens to shade or soften the natural lighting. The article I read did not specify exactly what kind of "aerial lift" was in use, but I figured that's what it was.

You should never, ever go near one of those things unless someone has showed you how to avoid tipping it over and how to control its motion so you don't hit things with it by accident, after some practice where the things you hit by accident don't kill you. I can guarantee that the rental company demanded a promise that this would be done, but they don't expect to meet this operator; many of their customers will send a young inexperienced person out to collect rental equipment because the trained guy's time is too valuable.

With the extra information (that Welin was hired by the students, not a student himself, and the shoot was under the aegis of a production company formed by one of the dads) REALLY complicates things and explains why the dead kids' parents have hauled everybody and their dog into court. I would guess the Dad who formed the production company is going to be next in line after Welin, but they will probably all point fingers at the school too on the theory that any reasonable person could probably figure out a lot of unsafe things were going on and they were in a position to stop it by writing appropriate guidelines.
posted by localroger at 1:12 PM on April 8, 2010


I never used a crane or condor lift personally while I was at NYU (or ever, for that matter - simply not the style of the shoots I directed or otherwise worked on, even the big-budget ones) but they definitely had one in the 12th Floor Studios while I was there, based on some of the other films I saw that were shot there. Probably a lift, as the students weren't skilled enough to properly operate a remote crane. Still, that was in a controlled environment with trained techies assisting with all of the equipment. Field shoots are a very, very different animal.

Welin indeed needs to get a lawyer, and fast. He's already said enough to doom him, but hopefully some lawyer can help limit the damage to him.

By all rights NYU should be the least liable party here, but they've got the deepest pockets and certainly the Lamensdorf's are going to want to go after them because of the huge financial and emotional investment they placed in an institution to which they paid a shitload of money to entrust their child to for the first time out of the nest.

Here's the thing about Film School safety training, though - the students are typically of the age that sees themselves as most invincible, films are very expensive to make and at the student level you have to cut every corner imaginable, and a lot of times risks pay off, especially in an "economy" of kids working not for money, but for accolades and reputations and war stories.

What I'm saying is that safety training doesn't do a hell of a lot when common sense is short-circuited, for one. "Don't touch powerlines" is elementary, like "don't jump off of great heights" and "don't set yourself on fire." But shoots are extremely stressful places where you need to get a shot now while it's still magic hour and ten other problems about past and future takes are lodged in your subconscious while you try to get this one thing done. Something was either overlooked here, or else they decided to risk it anyway. But it's not a fault of NYU not telling their students not to touch powerlines.

The second thing is that film kids are incredibly creative and versatile in the ways they find to put themselves in dangerous situations. There's no way to build a comprehensive training course around it.

I recall one dorm-room shoot from a member of my "Sight & Sound: Film" team that required a fast dolly-move in on a lead actress's face. I was assigned to DP this one. Problem was, we didn't have a dolly. So we undercranked the ARRI-flex and stood me on top of a skateboard in a dark apartment and had someone else push me towards the actress from across the living room.

I fell backwards almost instantly, and cracked my head on the floor. I was only out for a moment, but when I came to, it was clear that instead of catching myself, I had chosen to protect the camera (which was worth more than my life anyway) with my body. By film school logic, this was the right decision.

The only time I pulled the plug on something was when I was AD on a shoot-from-hell. It was the final night of location shooting in the Hamptons, and I was already ready to murder all but maybe 3 people involved in the whole production. There were no PAs, and the director and producer spent all the time they could find to slip away and do ecstasy. I had been brought in a last-minute replacement for a friend, and so I had been to zero production meetings, and the crew - a group of generally talented outside hires of about our same age, were rightly running roughshod over me because I was asking for small favors which were outside of their job description, the first time I'd run into this. Our schedule was entirely nocturnal, I'd gone to the Hamptons in march without packing any socks to wear with my sandals, it was rainy the whole time, and I was the last person to arrive at the main location house, so I was the only person there without a bed - I got a thin blanket and slept under a pool table for a week.

On top of all this, I had never acted as an AD before, and this was a more involved shoot than I was used to by any standard anyway. The Key Grip, a guy named Mike Prisco, was being a dick to me the entire time, which finally culminated in a near-fight on the penultimate night, when I'd finally picked up a six-pack for when the day was done. As soon as we wrapped for the night (by which I mean morning was breaking) G&E all grabbed my beers and Prisco came out to thank me for buying them. And I lost it.

A minute later, Prisco joined me outside to apologize, saying that he'd thought the beers were bought by "production" and not me personally, and to apologize for everything else. G&E invited me to come out with them so they could buy me breakfast, which I would've taken them up on if I didn't need sleep so damned badly.

So I was edgy anyway.

The final night was "Fight Night" where we were in a different, nearby, secluded location for the violent youths scene involving gunplay and knifeplay. Prisco was on the verge of firing his Best Boy, who was also one of his closest friends, for being constantly stoned, but for now was just checking after his work tying in before anyone else was allowed near anything. We were outdoors for a night shoot, and setting up lighting took hours. Hours in which the actors were in an improvised green room. Once we were ready for them to stand in, I went to retrieve them, to find that they had broken into the "green rooms" liquor cabinet and were passing the time getting drunk. They asked me if I wanted any. Jesus.

After screaming at the actors to put it away, I found the director and let her know what was up. This was her nightmare, of course, because this scene was kind of central to the movie and we couldn't have them go out there drunk with guns and knives. So, thankfully, she gave the actors a stern lecture and reworked the scene so that it could be shot (more) safely, and on the Jitney ride back the actors were bitching to me about how the DIrector accused them of drinking, when they so totally weren't. Even, "dude, I saw you, and you offered some to me as well" couldn't dissuade them from their decided-upon lie.

Other directors would have let it go, and shot the scene as it was designed. Personally, I think it was the one good decision this particular director made.

I later worked a few other times with Prisco, who turned out to be a good guy with good reasons for distrusting Production. On one of my favorite shoots his best boy - who was writing a textbook on the mathematics of electricity for Bests - had to leave because his protegee had just fried herself nearly to death tying in on another shoot.

Shoots are dangerous as hell, even if you know what you're doing and take every precaution. Add low budgets and kids in the 18-22 range into the mix, and shits only going to get worse.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:56 PM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


nathancaswell's thoughts are spot on as far as my film school experience went. We, the eager ambitious ones, took chances. And, often as not, there were not school faculty or staff around to keep an eye on us. Like any students doing assignments, it was assumed we would be self-directed. Fortunately, nothing horrible happened but there was all manner of close-calls.
posted by philip-random at 2:59 PM on April 8, 2010


I fell backwards almost instantly, and cracked my head on the floor. I was only out for a moment, but when I came to, it was clear that instead of catching myself, I had chosen to protect the camera (which was worth more than my life anyway) with my body.

I know of an incident where a young camera assistant was killed doing this. It was a pro-shoot with full insurance and safety precautions etc, but still accidents happen. As I heard it, they were moving the camera to a different location a mile or two away and rather than break it down, box it, etc for a two minute drive, they just put it in the guy's lap. There was a minor accident (it was a rutted back road) and the camera fractured the poor guy's skull.

Needless to say, it happened at the end of a long day (is there any other kind in film making?) when everyone was tired and under the gun.
posted by philip-random at 3:10 PM on April 8, 2010


The final night was "Fight Night" where we were in a different, nearby, secluded location for the violent youths scene involving gunplay and knifeplay. Prisco was on the verge of firing his Best Boy, who was also one of his closest friends, for being constantly stoned, but for now was just checking after his work tying in before anyone else was allowed near anything. We were outdoors for a night shoot, and setting up lighting took hours. Hours in which the actors were in an improvised green room. Once we were ready for them to stand in, I went to retrieve them, to find that they had broken into the "green rooms" liquor cabinet and were passing the time getting drunk. They asked me if I wanted any. Jesus.

Here is a strange tangent I can comment on...

I went to NYU - not film, though, but theater. And one thing I never, ever, EVER understood is why there was not more collaboration/co-mingling between the departments at all. A lot of film students posted ads in Craigslist (well, BACKSTAGE, there was no Craigslist then) in search of actors, but all around them there were scores of acting students who would have been perfectly fine in any or all of their projects. I'm sure it happened one way or another, but the school didn't provide any means to facilitate that - in fact, freshman drama students were DISCOURAGED from being in ANYTHING our first year. Anything AT ALL. Even NYU student theater productions.

The reason why you reminded me of that is -- one of the things that the drama students can take is a course on stage combat, and one thing the professors in the stage combat class made ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY CERTAIN of in that class was that we understood EXACTLY AND PRECISELY how dangerous what we were doing was, and EXACTLY AND PRECISELY why it was so important that we be on our game during any fight scenes. Our first day in the stage combat class, the professor told us a series of horror stories about all of the many ways that badly executed combat could fuck you up.

I'm not going to go so far as to say that "NYU drama students would absolutely never have gotten drunk before filming a fight scene," but...no, actually, yeah, I am saying that. Which is why it boggles my mind to this day that NYU doesn't encourage film students to work with acting students, and vice versa.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:52 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Navelgazer, that really sucks, hope she was ok.

The first time I tied in hot I arced the box. Gaffer was like "you wanna tie in?" and I said "sure." Bravado. There was a little tab between the lugs which I assumed was insulated. The lugs themselves were pretty small and I only had large Tricos so when I attached the first one it cut the clearance down considerably. Apparently enough for the current to jump the tab when I went in with the second one, blowing it clear off the box. I stumbled out of the smoking closet, told the gaffer what'd happened and he was like "oh yeah, when it's like that you gotta cut up a little piece of rubber mat and add some insulation between the lugs." Inexperience is the first way you get bit on the ass.

If it hadn't been my first time I probably would have come to my sense right then and there but as it was I just figured my cherry had been popped hard.

Second time was years later... Low budget job and the DP loved 5Ks. I'd tied in and out hot several times a day all summer long on the job so it'd become routine... the second way you get bit on the ass. Hots went on easy. Then I went for the neutral bar and I guess there was a flaw in the insulation on one of the wires coming out of a breaker because it blew out, jumped to the Trico and then jumped to the neutral bar. Not as bad as the first one cause it was only 120v, but more surprising because in my mind I'd already passed the dangerous part.

For more tie in discussion check out this this email thread on cinematography.net. They basically come to the conclusion that it's not worth the danger and probably illegal. But if you're a student and you can't afford a generator and your DP wants big lights and you think that the night exterior is going to make your short film get into Sundance, and that seems like the biggest deal in the world to you and you think you're invincible... that's when you get tempted and do something stupid and hopefully nobody dies.
posted by nathancaswell at 4:58 PM on April 8, 2010


[Just coming back to this for the first time since posting-- thanks to everyone for all the great reading in this thread.]
posted by availablelight at 6:16 PM on April 8, 2010


You know, I don't think a town in Georgia quite qualifies as "Apocalypse Now," but I guess for New Yorkers it does.

What amethysts and the other side said. Shooting Apocalypse Now was a disaster - there was even a documentary made about it.
posted by mlis at 8:01 PM on April 8, 2010


EmpressCallipygos: For whatever it's worth, with rare exception I cast exclusively out of Tisch's Meisner Studio, and ended up consistently getting the strongest performances out of my actors of any of my peers. Meisner kids were brilliant and dedicated and professional as hell. So were the students from other studios, of course (even including a few Kap21 kids!) but my style just jived best with Meisner.

By my second year, other film kids were asking me to cast their films for them - you're right, there simply wasn't a system designed for interplay between Film and Theater there, even with Stone Street.

I'll add another hidden benefit of casting the students - you probably know them better. My first rule for casting anything was that the personality of the actor had to take priority over their talent. Cast talented performers, of course, but only after you've made damn sure that they're not assholes. Nothing kills a shoot faster than a "brilliant" actor that nobody can work with. Just ask anyone who's worked on a shoot with James Spader.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:29 PM on April 8, 2010


Hmm. Things may have changed already, then -- there was no Meisner Studio in my day. NYU may have already turned around some.

Which is good. (I have my own dissent about actors and the Meisner method, but they are largely influenced by my having only encountered Meisner actors when I seemed to be at my most grumpy as a stage manager, so I may not be the best judge of character.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:46 PM on April 8, 2010


Navelgazer: "I was assigned to DP this one. Problem was, we didn't have a dolly. So we undercranked the ARRI-flex and stood me on top of a skateboard in a dark apartment and had someone else push me towards the actress from across the living room."

Typical n00b mistake. Skateboards make horrible makeshift dollies, even if you don't care about the horrible accidents just waiting to happen. Wheelchairs are where its at. Wheelchairs are also really practical for filming in places where you don't have permission, because a guy in a wheelchair with a bundle/bag in his lap looks pretty natural.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:16 PM on April 8, 2010


My low-budget shoot safety scary story ended well, but I remember shouting like crazy at the director to get the fuck out of there when he walked under the wreck of a car dangling from a scrapyard crane (the ones with the grabby claw on them) about 20 feet up to remove some debris that was disturbing his shot. That could have ended so, so badly.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:18 PM on April 8, 2010


As someone who has never actually worked on a movie and only watches them: I had no idea it was so fucking dangerous.
posted by GilloD at 9:23 PM on April 8, 2010


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