Andrew Paul Howell
Safety 3rd? Stunts & Lessons Learned.
I recently shot a title sequence in which we track 2 young girls as they ride on one bike, one on the seat and the other sitting on a newspaper rack over the back. It was a real struggle to get these shots.
Months before, when I was in pre-pro, I was tagging the script (yes, me, I was tagging it because that’s what you do when your making Indy film). I tagged it as a stunt when I was sitting in the comfort of my home and completely of sound mind, not sleep deprived or pressured by the constraints of a production schedule. (If you don't know what tagging is, I'll cover it in another blog but it's basically a way to organize elements of your script before you import it into a scheduling and/or budgeting software.)
In the days following, I dreamed up how we (well ok, I) were going to weld up some amazing contraption that these 2 girls could safely ride this bike and then I could get my shots. It was going to be amazing! Problem was I was directing, DP-ing, writing contracts and a bunch of other important things you have to do to make a legit POC.
So naturally we (I) ran short on time. Because of the lack of budget, I was struggling to find a solid Key Grip to pass this off to. (I eventually found a great Key for the project but it was days before the shoot so none of this is on him.) I gradually convinced myself day by day that this would be easy, 2 little girls could do this no problem, after all this is what happened historically so it shouldn’t be an issue, right? Knowing deep in my heart, full well, this was going to bite me!
Well prep being what it is, (never enough) the day came to shoot our "stunt" and I was no more prepared than the day I tagged the script. I had asked the talent and their parents if they could do this and were they up for the challenge? Of course they said yes, they were fine, it’s just riding a bike, right? How hard can that be? So, the moment came to ride the bike. Things had got backed up on set and I decided to have a 2nd unit pick this shot up so I could keep moving and we could stay on track to make our day. I was in full production mode, running a million miles an hour, focused on checking off shots for the day and I get word back from 2nd unit that the girls can’t ride the bike. Instantly my mind rewinds all the way back to the day I tagged the script. I’m like "duh" I knew this was going to happen. What was I thinking?
To save the scene and the day, we were able to cheat the bike riding with a little help from our crew. You can see the before and after in the video below below. I had to choose to move on with our day and scrap the riding shots. Some of our principal talent was due to leave that night and we we still had the arrest scene to shoot, lots of moving parts. We sent a runner to Walmart to bring back some training wheels, just in case we had time that evening. We ended up bringing the girls back for a few hours the next morning to shoot the bulk of the riding shots after welding the training wheels onto the bike. Threw the power of movie magic and several pain staking days in After Effects, we were able to save the scene. Here is the before and after.
I want to be clear, this was in no way a failure on the talent's part! The terrain was rough, the bike was the wrong size, in addition to being old and the gearing not right. Without training wheels, this was indeed a stunt. With training wheels, it became more manageable but it was still difficult. We needed lots of assistance to get them up to speed and then stop them safely. The girls and their parents worked hard to make it work. I walked away from this experience feeling guilt that I had not listen to myself and a huge sense of gratitude towards the talent and their parents who stayed long the next morning to help me get this scene. This was a huge lesson for me. I have an alarm that goes off inside my head when I see a failure starting to happen. This alarm sounded months in advance and time made the sound grow faint as more and more things drowned it out. The fact remains it was still there waiting for me right where I left it. It's important to know, at no time were the girls ever not safe. Although it could have been, this was not a safety issue. My 2nd unit DP and AD team did an amazing job of keeping the talent safe despite my lack of presence, after a quick safety test they pulled the plug on the stunt and for this I am thankful. When we get the funding for the full feature, we will have the chance to do it again, hopefully soon, so I’m looking for ways to pull it off in a more controlled environment. With all these lessons learned, how could we make it safer? I posed these questions on my facebook recently and got some great feedback. I will try and dig up that info and post a problem solving blog soon.
Set safety is so important. Have you been in a situation that was unsafe on set? Share your learning experiences here. (Please be respectful) Tell us what you learned from the experience and what you will do differently?