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Safety First: Common Mistakes Made In The Field

Importance of the Lowly Sandbag, by  Patty Mooney

Sand bags.  I admit, they are not a very glamorous piece of equipment, but they are crucial to any production.   Sand bags can be that one element standing between a safe production or one that leads to injury and expense. 

For nearly 30 years, my video task master/ mentor has been my husband, Mark, a Director of Photography since 1981.  “Safety first!” he reminds me before I set up a boom pole or light on a C-stand.  That sand bag draped over the C-stand leg is Point A in gaffing any shoot, and lends a feeling of security throughout the entire production.  Once it’s placed, nothing is going to fall on anyone’s head, right?   

There were two shoots within a month of each other on which I played sound tech.  Both times I brought my own C-stand and sand bag for my boom pole.  On neither shoot was there any evidence of sand bags other than mine.  

On one of the shoots, the talent was Mike Sager, a writer for Esquire.  When I mentioned sand bagging the Kino Flo that hovered directly over Mike’s head, the DP said, “Sand bags are a luxury, not a necessity.” 

I have repeated this story to other production people who have been involved with production for decades, like me.  They are all as appalled as I was.  “What about insurance?  Is that a luxury, too?”  quipped my husband. 

An adage even older than me is “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Ben Franklin was right about a lot of things and especially about his point of view on safety.  If you could do everything possible to prevent any scenario that could result in loss of time, limb or life, why wouldn’t you do it? 

At one point on the shoot, I held my breath as Mike kicked his foot into the C-stand and the light above his head swayed.  It could have turned into a disaster.   A cracked skull, raised insurance rates or refusal of insurance company to cover your production business.  As soon as Mike Sager penned a  dark tale about an inept DP, that guy might never operate a camera in this town again! 

Cable Management 

Another common mistake in the field is the lack of cable management.  I once lived aboard a sloop in a local marina where every seaman in the area took pride in keeping their shore lines (ropes) shipshape.  And why?  Because events occur very rapidly aboard a boat.  You have to be sure that your lines aren’t a mishmash or you could sail past your dock, run into another boat, or even sink your boat.   

The same is true in video production.  You do not want a snake’s nest of XLR, BNC and power cables anywhere people can trip over them and cause major havoc.  Imagine your talent striding in, catching her stiletto heel on a power cable that is not gaffed down, and that person gets hurt and/or all your power goes out.  You’ve just lost time that maybe you didn’t have to power back up, and smooth down both the cables and the talent. 

News crews at least have a good reason for running and gunning.  They have to rush in, grab the story, and rush out to the next piece of breaking news.  But an EFP crew should take the time to practice good cable management, making sure all cables are untangled, laid out of the way and or properly tapped down. 

Lock Down the Camera 

Back in our early years, we had to learn this lesson the hard way.  This was back when cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars and repairs were astronomical.  We had set the ¾” camera up on the tripod but it was not yet balanced nor locked down.  So when we walked away, bam, it hit the floor.  It happened not once, but twice.  All footage captured after that had a light green tinge.  It was a lesson that has stuck with us for three decades.  And I hope you will never have to learn it the hard way. 

Don’t Push Your Equipment Beyond its Capability 

Mark was gripping and gaffing on a shoot which had gone exceedingly well all that day.  It was during the final shot, of a beautiful home lit up during dusk, that things went south.   

Mark had set up every light he brought (2K’s to 1K’s) with him, including a Lowell Tota 750W with a safety screen in front of the open face light.  The DP on that shoot said “The shot looks great.  Can we get it just a little bit brighter?”  So Mark removed the protective screen cover from the Tota and went outside to join the crew.  Just as the camera started rolling, there was a pop as the bulb exploded  from inside the bedroom where the light was set up.  Mark rushed in to see that sparks and hot bulb glass had flown out of the Tota and like molten lava, landed past the bed and its exotic silken bedspread (thankfully) to hit the carpet where several dark holes now gaped and smoked. This was the first time in over 30 years that we had a bulb blow in any of our lights and the first time we had ever made an insurance claim.   

The afternoon quickly descended into nightmare as the carpet wasn’t just in the bedroom but covered the entire top floor of the mansion.  It would be months before the insurance claim was finally settled and our involvement ended. 

If only he had not removed the protective cover from the light, Mark’s shoot would have been a complete success.  So once again, the lesson is “Safety First.”

In Conclusion 

The measure of a good Producer or DP is to prepare for all potentialities on a shoot.  Keep the safety of your crew and talent at the top of your list.  

Use sand bags on your C-stands. 

Manage your cables impeccably. 

Make sure your camera is properly balanced and locked down. 

See that your equipment is all in good working order, well maintained, and not pushed past what it is made to do. 

Get good insurance coverage for your business. 

Other items that are useful on a shoot would be: a first aid kit, call sheet with everyone’s role and contact information on it, and perhaps a video log sheet so the Producer or PA can jot down time codes of best shots, to make life easier for the editor. 

Once you are confident all is good to go, then go ahead and make some beautiful moving pictures.  And have some fun!  You’re involved in the greatest business in the world. 

Patty Mooney is VP, Video Producer, Editor, Teleprompter Operator and Script Writer at award-winning video production company Crystal Pyramid Productions since 1981.