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Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Live Entertainment

Explainer: the rules for shooting on film sets

This week Gold Coast stuntman and actor Johann Ofner died after a prop gun “loaded with blanks” was fired during the making of a Bliss N Eso video in Brisbane’s CBD.

The tragedy, which police and workplace safety authorities are investigating, has thrown a spotlight on the issue of safety on Australian film sets. The use of firearms on a set should be very safe – as safe as operating a device designed to kill can reasonably be.

Generally speaking, the risk of an accident is mitigated by strict adherence to procedures based on industry guidelines, established practice and state legislation. These laws apply to the use of all firearms including replicas and prohibited weapons, regardless of the scale of the production.

Central to on set firearms safety is the employment of a suitably qualified, licensed and experienced theatrical armourer.

Whose responsibility is it?

Safety on set is the responsibility of the producer, the director and the first assistant director (First AD). The First AD is the producer’s voice on set: responsible for on set safety calls with input from the safety supervisor and armourer. He or she will have been briefed by the producer, who provides a risk assessment and an industry standard safety report.

The armourer is responsible for inducting anyone handling the firearm on set and safely keeping the weapons. Police and neighbors should be notified by the production office of the presence of firearms and intended blank firing to avoid distress and false alarm calls.

Each day, the First AD and the armourer should discuss the proposed schedule of use and the safe storage of the firearms between use. The First AD should be satisfied that the guns brought to set are safe and unloaded and that no live ammunition is on set.

The First AD must, if it hasn’t been possible in rehearsal, arrange for all cast who are scheduled to be handling the firearms on the day to be inducted in the safe handling of the firearm that they will be using.

The armourer (who holds the guns) will then be on standby to issue firearms as required by the script. This is where it all gets a little Full Metal Jacket.

Each time a gun is handed to a performer, the armourer must open the weapon’s breach and present it to the performer with verbal confirmation such as, “The weapon is clear”.

When the performer is satisfied that the gun is not loaded they should audibly confirm “Clear”.

When it is returned to the armourer following the take, the same clear verbal confirmation is required.

Police outside the Brooklyn Standard Bar, where actor Johann Ofner was killed while filming a music video in Brisbane this week. Glenn Hunt/AAP

Firing blanks

If blank firing is to occur, things ramp up pretty dramatically. The First AD, the safety supervisor and key crew discuss the protection of cast and crew. The director of photography joins the discussion as to the placement of the camera and camera crew. Everything that can be done to reduce the risk should be done, including ballistic shields for the crew if the gun is to be discharged toward them.

Non-essential crew and cast are removed from the potential line of fire. Hearing and eye protection is provided for cast and crew.

In the same way that a punch striking an actor can be filmed without any contact the firing of a gun at an actor can be accomplished by cheating the angle of the camera.

The firearm is loaded at the express instruction of the First AD. The armourer confirms “Guns loaded standing by”. The armourer remains as close as practicable to the cast to retrieve the guns at the end of the last take of the scene or in the event of a misfire.

After “cut” is called, the performer returns the gun to the armourer, who will open the breach and verbally confirm to the First AD that the gun is clear and safe.

Only blank or inert ammunition is brought to set and must be controlled at all times by the armourer.

To understand what a blank is we need to understand the four components of a “bullet”:

  • the cartridge – the cylindrical brass tube
  • the projectile, which is expelled from the barrel by the expanding gasses from the burning propellant
  • the propellant, usually gunpowder or cordite
  • the primer, a small brass cap inserted in the base of the cartridge that on impact from the firing pin ignites the propellant expelling the bullet.

Blanks use only the cartridge with primer and a reduced amount of propellant. There is no projectile. Sometimes a soft wad (of cardboard or plastic fibre) is put in the cartridge in the place of the projectile to retain the propellant. Only the escaping gasses and the wad leave the barrel.

Blanks use a greatly reduced amount of propellant as they only have to make a bang, produce a muzzle flash and cycle the bolt if the weapon is automatic or semi-automatic. Any recorded sound is a guide. It is invariably replaced during the sound design process.

But blanks can still be dangerous if discharged in close proximity to a person. The blast of the escaping gas can blind people or cause concussion and even kill.

Many armourers make their own blanks - buying their own cartridge and putting in a minimum amount of propellant required for the operation of the gun. This allows testing prior to production to reveal potential danger to cast and crew.

The safety guidelines suggest that a test blank is fired on set. This allows the First AD, safety supervisor and armourer to know what to expect during the rehearsals and take. It also familiarises the performer, who may have limited exposure to firearms, with the recoil and sound of the blank firing.

If the firearms are not required for the next shot the armourer should remove them from set and store where only the armourer has access.

Thanks to generations of experienced practitioners, an organically developed set of professional practices guided by legislation and accepted industry guidelines have earned the Australian screen industry an admirable safety record.

Bliss N Eso performing in 2010. Big Day Out/AAP

A statement from Bliss N Eso’s management has confirmed that a licensed armourer was on location at the time of the shooting to monitor the four firearms on site (one imitation, two handguns and one shotgun). Queensland Police Service Acting Detective Superintendent Mick O'Dowd has told the ABC the investigation still has a long way to go.

Regardless of its outcome, it is clear that the shape of Australia’s screen industry is shifting almost daily, with new pressures for screen content to feed the needs of content aggregators as well as traditional broadcasters and distributors.

Screen educators can play a key role by nurturing a culture of non-negotiable, safe production practice. But, of course, not all filmmakers receive formal training, on or off set, and there is thus a risk that tried and trusted production practices may be left behind.

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