Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins died during the filming of “Rust” on Thursday after actor and producer Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the New Mexico set.
Authorities in New Mexico are investigating the incident, which also injured the movie’s director, Joel Souza. The International Cinematographers’ Guild, of which Hutchins was a member, called for “a full investigation into this tragic event.”
Hutchins was also a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the guild representing many movie and television crew members. On Friday, a representative for IATSE Local 44, which represents prop masters, told HuffPost that none of its members were involved in the incident. A representative for IATSE Local 480, which represents the film’s New Mexico crew members, declined to comment.
The Los Angeles Times reported that hours before the fatal incident on Thursday, some members of the camera crew — all of whom are part of IATSE — had walked off the set, protesting unsafe working conditions. Hutchins, who did not join them, had tried to advocate for better conditions, according to the report.
One source told the LA Times that production executives then replaced the staff with nonunion workers.
“Corners were being cut — and they brought in nonunion people so they could continue shooting,” the source said.
These kinds of tragedies are rare, because prop guns and other weapons in movies and television are subject to extensive safety procedures and trainings, developed and administered by experts. But the source told the LA Times that the prop gun had misfired multiple times in recent days and there were “a serious lack of safety meetings on this set.”
Dave Brown, a firearms safety specialist in Winnipeg, Canada, has developed safety trainings for film and TV projects for over 25 years, and has worked with actors like Keanu Reeves and Robin Williams. He said Friday that he did not want to speculate on the incident, as details are still emerging. But he emphasized the importance of safety and having an expert on set.
“From my perspective, my only comment would be that firearms are as safe as any other prop when used responsibly. But they require the undivided attention of an experienced expert at all times,” he told HuffPost in an email. “My heart goes out to the families, friends and colleagues of all involved. We worked with Halyna on a film here in Winnipeg and she was a lovely person. This is a great loss and the effect will be felt for years.”
In a 2019 article for American Cinematographer magazine, Brown wrote about how firearms specialists collaborate with a film’s director, actors, cinematographer and camera operators to ensure a safe environment when using real or fake guns. Among other duties, this involves advising on the safest angles and distances.
Prop guns use “blanks:” cartridges that contain no bullets but have gunpowder “to create a bright flash at the end of the barrel, thereby convincing the audience that the gun has been fired.” But blanks can be dangerous when fired too close, he wrote.
In 1984, Jon-Erik Hexum, star of the CBS show “Cover Up: Golden Opportunity,” died after firing a prop gun containing blanks directly at his head. The actor, annoyed at delays in filming, “held the gun to his head, reportedly joking, ‘Can you believe this crap?’ and pulled the trigger,” according to Entertainment Weekly.
Because the blank was so close to his head, “The impact from the blast fractured his skull, driving a bone fragment the size of a quarter into his brain and causing massive hemorrhaging.”
On Thursday, many people on social media recalled the 1993 death of actor Brandon Lee, son of legendary actor Bruce Lee. While filming the movie “The Crow,” Brandon Lee died after his co-star Michael Massee fired a gun that was supposed to have blanks, but actually had a bullet lodged in the barrel.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on ‘Rust,’” Lee’s sister Shannon tweeted early Friday. “No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set.”
Some productions digitally insert gunshots and gunfire in post-production, but it can depend on the project’s budget and how the visual effects look on screen. As Brown wrote in 2019, “CGI may be used for close-range gunshots that could not be safely achieved otherwise.” But there can be benefits to using guns with blanks, “even with all the advancements in visual effects and computer-generated imagery” — as long as it’s done safely.
“The reason is simple: We want the scene to look as real as possible. We want the story and characters to be believable,” he wrote. “Blanks help contribute to the authenticity of a scene in ways that cannot be achieved in any other manner. If the cinematographer is there to paint a story with light and framing, firearms experts are there to enhance a story with drama and excitement.”