The Human Element: Or How Accidents Happen

The Human Element: Or How Accidents Happen

You can think you're being safe, think you've done it all right, and then when you least expect it – and least want it to happen – the forces of nature will show you you're human. It's the human element that we have to fight against on set to make sure accidents don't happen.

Hollywood is filled with a common theme about machines: they’re here to kill us. If action and science fiction movies are any indication of future events, it definitely seems like the robots and the machines of the world are out to get us.

While you wait for the impending robopacalypse to descend upon us, you’ll find that machines are actually very useful in everyday life and in helping you on set.

And that the simplest machines — like light stands, quick release plates, and other tools — help to dispel the human element you bring to every job you do.

Rigging the China Ball

Nothing illustrates the human element to me more than the time I watched a Best Boy Electrician rig a china ball to the ceiling. The shoot, on this particular day, was taking place inside a suburban home outside of Washington D.C.

For the shot, the cinematographer supplemented the natural light and practicals of the house by having a large china ball suspended on the ceiling above a kitchen table where the actor and actress would sit and converse.

After a 5 – 10 minute delay, the Best Boy had managed to run the necessary wires up the wall along the ceiling and to the spot where the china ball needed to go. He secured all of the cords with heavy amounts of gaffer’s tape at the suggestion of the gaffer, who knowing the risks of lights suspended by tape, wanted to be extra safe.

The gaffer was smart in that regard.

This Best Boy wasn’t exactly the safest guy on set. He was a bit of a hot-head and when people rushed him to get things done fast, he sacrificed safety for speed. When people complained about that, he complained they had rushed him in the first place.

As an example of his brashness, a few of us camera guys watched stunned as the Best Boy, in the rain, moved an Arrisun HMI on a fully extended mambo combo stand with no help, without sticking down on it, and by simply throwing it over his shoulder.

It was enough of a risk that the Key Grip turned to the gaffer and said, “Dude, I know he’s your boy, but you need to do something about that.”

“Yeah, I don’t really like that either,” added the DP who was formerly an electrician himself.

And so, against his regular tendencies, the Best Boy was told to add triple the amount of gaffer’s tape necessary to hold up the wire for the china ball. He then wired it all together, added a safety line and deemed it OK for the actors to step into the scene.

Machines Have Practical Safety Devices

The key to all of this rigging is that it was done with human hands. Nowadays, machines are designed to help curb the damage that human error causes, such as cars that prevent an accident if you fall asleep at the wheel.

It seems almost every piece of gear, every tool, and every machine on set has some sort of safety device built in to stop us from making mistakes.

The quick release plate makes sure the camera doesn’t slide off the tripod and so do the locking mechanisms on the head in case you forget to keep a hand on the camera.

Dollys have locks on them too, to make sure an absent dolly grip doesn’t result in a runaway camera.

I know what you’re thinking — that all of these “safety” mechanisms are actually features of the equipment that make it usable and more practical. And you’re right, but they also act as a safety net for all those times on set when crew are forgetful, accidental, and human.

Whether or not you use them to make life easier or make life safer on set, they serve both purposes equally well.

It’s often the man-made, do-it-yourself, Macguveryed pieces of gear that fail most often and, at times, with disastrous consequences.

China Ball Falling from the Ceiling

When the Best Boy rigged the china ball, he did everything he could to make sure it was safe: copious amounts of gaffer’s tape, a safety line rigged to a chandelier, and he sat in the corner of the room staring at it in case things went awry.

But nobody was expecting what happened next:

“Scene 36-Baker Take 3 Marker!” said the 2nd AC as he slapped the sticks together and stepped out of the frame.

I got ready to wrangle the cable I was holding onto while the DP was getting situated with the handheld camera on his shoulder.

“Annnddd.. Action!”

Everyone went about their usual motions: the actors started their lines, the 1st AC focused intently on the barrel of the lens, and in the corner, the Best Boy watched the china ball.

About 2 minutes into the scene, everything was going fine until…CRASH!

Right onto the kitchen table, in between the two actors, the entire china ball rig had fallen with the spectacular noise of an exploding light bulb. Immediately the assistant director ran onto the set, cleared out the talent, and started naming names.

It was one of those moments where I was glad to be a camera guy — not responsible in any way for a light almost hitting an actor’s head.

When the Best Boy rushed to grab the china ball, his face said it all. He knew it was his fault, that he hadn’t rigged it properly, and that if he had been less lucky, an actor may have walked away with an injury.

The key grip just shook his head and looked at us camera guys. We were all stunned.

The actor came over, raised his eyebrows and stated, “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about lights hitting my head on this show.”

The Bad Side of the Human Element

It was a combination of electricity and the human element that dropped the china ball on the table. When the Best Boy rigged the safety line, he attached it not on the ball itself, but on the wire taped to the ceiling.

The problem was the two wires twisted together by the Best Boy between the china ball and the cord on the ceiling. The electricity made things hot, the wires burnt, split, and everything came crashing down.

When all was said and done, the damage was minimal, but the incident was enough to make me realize how susceptible to mistakes we all are.

You can think you’re being safe, think you’ve done it all right, and then when you least expect it — and least want it to happen — the forces of nature will show you you’re human. It’s the human element that we have to fight against on set to make sure accidents don’t happen. It’s the human element that makes us drop lenses and forget things right before we roll camera.

There is no safety net for that except for yourself. You have to be sharp and double check, sometimes triple check, the important work you do.

That’s the bad side of the human element, but there is a good side too.

Because until machines are designed to make movies, to creatively wander in narrative form, and find the subtleties of life worth shooting, the human element is going to be omnipresent on set — the good and the bad of it.

Please leave a comment and tell me what are some major mistakes you’ve seen on set that you think are at the fault of “the human element?” How do you help yourself not make those same mistakes?