Slates for Sarah

So apparently we need to talk about how railroad tracks can be very, very dangerous. As many people in the film world have heard, Sarah Jones, a crew member on the movie Midnight Rider, was struck and killed by a train last week. I hate to jump into the fray when the investigation is still ongoing, but several news sources are indicating that the production didn't have permission to be on the tracks. I'm glad to see that this accident has touched a nerve in the film community. Several I've seen several moving, heartfelt pieces from Sarah's colleagues, and a group, Slates for Sarah, is on Facebook.

An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.

Newton's First Law of Motion tells you all you need to know about why a film crew (or anyone) needs be careful around train tracks. This should go without saying, but a freight train is not a sports car that can stop on a dime. It's not even a tractor trailer. It is thousands of tons of metal moving at high speed and requires several miles to come to a complete stop safely. If an engineer barrels through an obstruction on the tracks, it's not because they don't want to stop, it's because they can't.

It seems as though the producers, having been denied a permit by the railroad, CSX, gained access to the tracks through private property. I don't know what their reasons were. Maybe it would've been too much money to get the permit. Maybe their schedule was really tight. When we're on a shoot, it's often easy to get wrapped up in the work and go to extreme lengths to get a shot.

We're making movies. Something most people will stare at in a dark room for two hours, or maybe have on as background noise while making dinner. Nothing worth compromising safety for. We aren't, say, dashing into burning buildings. In fact, when you see someone in a movie dash into a burning building, it likely isn't a real building and it isn't really on fire.

We're good at faking stuff like that.

What scares me is that I was on a shoot at a train station once. I was even part of the camera department, just like Sarah. We are close to the same age- I never had the chance to meet her, but I wish I had. When I was at the station, we were asked to get shots from the edge of the platform. [ref]Which wasn't really a platform- it was flush with the ground.[/ref] Right on the yellow line they tell you to stand behind. Trains went by every fifteen or twenty minutes. Most of them didn't stop. They would fly through at about 80 miles an hour, and inches away from a tripod and camera operator. Inches.

I never asked if we had permission to be there. I was more concerned with doing my job- making sure the right lens was on the camera, getting the video monitor hooked up, or  handling the slate. I knew this was a dangerous situation to be in, but I kept my mouth shut. Everyone did. But someone should have spoken up. D from the blog Dollygrippery:

As a forty something Dolly Grip who's been around the block a few times, I would have said, Hell no to being on that trestle on a live track without a rep or permission. As a twenty-something young grip with something to prove and trying to make an impression on "The Adults," however, you can bet your ass I would have moved the camera up there myself and stood by it to yank it out of the way if a train came. It's up to us not to let the creative minds override common sense just to get a cool shot. It's up to us to look out for each other and for those who haven't been around as long. To say "No" for them. Because often they don't know they can.

I'd like to think that now I'd be able to say "No." I hope I won't be in a situation where I'd have to. As it turns out, we were lucky. No one got hit by one of the speeding trains. And someone did speak up, in the end. A conductor or engineer on a train saw what we were doing and called the police. Who told us to leave. The producers didn't have a permit either.

It's worth remembering that several other people besides Sarah were injured in the accident. I haven't heard how severe the injuries are, and I wish them all a speedy recovery.

Things like this don't just happen out of the blue. They are the result of decisions that take place sometimes months in advance. Getting only enough money to make the movie as quickly and cheaply as possible. Cram as many shots into each day as you can. Cut corners. Save time. Save money. Don't worry about getting it done right, just get it done.

Doing things like this won't always bite you in the ass, but it will eventually. Once the circumstances have been set in motion, it's only a matter of time.  The only way to prevent accidents like this from happening is with an outside force: someone brave enough to stand up and say "No."