A disturbing story that has come to my attention recently is that of 27-year-old Sarah Jones, a second assistant camera operator who was struck and killed by a train on February 20 while working on the set of Midnight Rider in Savannah, Georgia. Some other crew members were injured as well. In her brief career, Jones had worked on some short films, TV movies and one episode of the popular TV series “The Vampire Diaries.”
According to that Los Angeles Times article, the filmmakers and crew had permission to be near the tracks but not to actually be on them. So why were Jones and her peers in harm’s way? Whose decision was that and who should be held accountable?
A point that has been brought up in both of my semesters of film production classes is that safety should be the #1 priority on set. During each semester, my professor has mentioned the death of NYU student John Hunt Lamensdorf, who was electrocuted by power lines while working on a student film production. (I did not realize until today, however, that that had happened in Georgia, just like what happened to Sarah Jones.) Accidents can happen and it’s terrible when they do, but on the other hand, no shot is worth getting injured or killed, whether it’s you or someone else. That sounds so obvious, but it’s worth being told again and again, as long as it takes until the meaning sinks in. The director, the producers – actually, all the people on the set – need to be apprised of actions being taken at any given time. There should be no errors in communication between the crew members, let alone anything less than meticulous location scouting and understanding of potential dangers like power lines or train schedules both prior to and while shooting the film.
I’m not only asking who is responsible. I’m also stressing to all those who work in the industry, including undergraduate film students, that safety should be the ultimate goal. Common sense needs to prevail. Not only should you not put yourself at risk, you also need to keep your co-workers safe. As I said earlier, accidents can happen, but sometimes they can be avoided too.