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Alec Baldwin’s deadly taking pictures with props raises questions on working situations

While prop fire injuries or fatalities are extremely rare, the accidental killing of Halyna Hutchins on a Sante-Fe film set Thursday sparked inquiries about working conditions for Hollywood crew members.

“I’ve been in the industry for 21 years,” said Kevin Williams, director of props at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “I’ve never heard of circumstances like this before. Well, that’s definitely one of those things and it sounds like a cliché, but it really does sound like a wicked accident.”

The circumstances of the shooting are being investigated. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office confirmed that on the set of Rust, a western filmed at Bonanza Creek Ranch, actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun, killing the film’s cameraman and director Joel Souza was injured.

Security guards and a compliance officer at Bonanza Creek Ranch in New Mexico on October 22, 2021, the film set where actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded a director while firing a prop gun.

Adria Malcolm | Reuters

Souza has since been released from the hospital. No charges were brought. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

While it is unclear at this point what exactly happened on Thursday, many in the industry have started inquiring about working conditions on the set. These questions come as the International Theater Workers Alliance works to sign a new three-year contract with the Film and TV Producers Alliance to meet the union’s demands for better working hours, safer working conditions and improved social benefits.

“There were times when I would work 18 to 20 hours on projects and then be asked to return in six years,” Williams said.

Occupation protested against working conditions

The IATSE issued a statement Friday addressing Hutchins’ death and encouraging members to call the union’s safety line if they feel unsafe on the set.

“Our entire alliance mourns this unspeakable loss with Halyna’s family, friends and the ‘Rust’ crew,” the statement said. “Creating a culture of safety requires tireless vigilance from each of us, day in and day out. When you see something, please say something.”

The union declined to comment.

A person familiar with the matter told NBC News that just hours before filming, half a dozen cameramen left the Rust set in protest of working conditions. Her concerns included multiple propeller gun misfires.

The previous Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing three unnamed people involved in the production, that the crew was frustrated with the long hours of production. It was also alleged that there were two previous prop rifle misfires on the set, one the previous week and one on Saturday.

“The safety of our cast and crew is a top priority for Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company,” Rust Movie Productions said in a statement to CNBC. “While we have not received any official complaints regarding gun or prop safety on set, we will conduct an internal review of our procedures during the production downtime.”

Rust Productions is cooperating with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation.

A “potential flaw in the system”

Hollywood productions usually adhere to strict stunt work safety precautions, especially when it comes to gun and prop safety. The industry health and safety committee has written and distributed best practice safety bulletins for television and film production.

“Blanks can kill,” says the first bulletin. “Treat all firearms as if they were loaded. ‘Live ammunition’ must never be used or brought onto studio premises or stages. “

These guidelines are recommendations and may not apply to reality shows such as “Mythbusters” or “Top Shot” that use live rounds to test scientific theories or for marksmanship competitions.

“I can clearly say that a blank round is really easy to spot when compared to a live round in the hands of a skilled armourer or prop master,” said Williams. “I can’t imagine anyone saying ‘whoops’ and just sticking that into it.”

He also noted that safety screenings are being performed with all cast members and crew members involved in firearms stunts who are instructed never to point prop guns at any other actor or crew member. Ballistic shields are used in cases where a director wants to film a gun pointed at the camera and fired, he said.

“There are a lot of security measures in place,” he said. “If a live round turns out to have been loaded into a vintage gun and it turns out that is what happened, we need to find out why.”

That was a “potential flaw in the system,” said Williams.

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