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A crew member has filed the first lawsuit alleging negligence on the set of the film "Rust" where a cinematographer was accidentally shot and killed last month. The whole thing has generated debate about whether real guns have any place on movie sets. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, and a heads-up, this story contains sounds of gunshots.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The ABC series "The Rookie" has the kind of gunfire scenes typical of a TV cop drama set in Los Angeles.
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DEL BARCO: After the tragedy on the "Rust" set, "The Rookie's" executive producer, Alexi Hawley, announced his production will no longer use live weapons on its set, just airsoft guns with plastic pellets enhanced with computer-generated visual effects in post-production. In honor of her friend and colleague Halyna Hutchins, cinematographer Autumn Eakin co-wrote an open letter vowing not to work on sets with functioning firearms. Hundreds of other directors of photography have signed on.
AUTUMN EAKIN: Why are we fighting so hard to keep guns in a workplace that is - literally, our job is to make reality out of fake surroundings, out of fake situations. We have actors act like they are getting punched all the time. We have them act like they're sad and crying. And, you know, we have them act like they're in love.
DEL BARCO: So she suggests actors just need to be good at firing fake guns, and filmmakers can simply use weighted, realistic-looking guns with no firing power. Online, there are countless libraries of firearms sounds and footage for film and video productions. There are recordings of everything from Wild West rifles...
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DEL BARCO: ...To AK-47s.
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DEL BARCO: Visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun says he's both recorded this footage and added computer-generated effects to it. He began in the film industry in the 1970s and teaches actors how to pretend to react when they shoot a phony gun.
JEFF OKUN: Most actors can fake it rather quickly, and the biggest problem is getting them to not say bang. But once we get it in visual effects, we add the muzzle flash. We add the smoke to the shot. We add interactive lighting on the actor.
DEL BARCO: Okun says that rubber and plastic guns are best for camera angles from far away.
OKUN: Certain kinds of semi-automatics, there are some really good fake-looking ones out there. Revolvers, you know, which is what most of the Old West guns are, I haven't really seen a good fake one of those.
DEL BARCO: As an armorer, Bryan Carpenter handles weapons on TV and film sets. He also manufactures guns for rent for productions through his business, Dark Thirty Services. He says modified real firearms always look better than using computer-generated visual effects.
BRYAN CARPENTER: You take movies like "Heat" or "Saving Private Ryan" and all of these very gritty, visceral movies that invest the audience into action and you feel like you're there, it's done because they're shooting blanks on set that looks real. Can VFX maybe eventually catch up to that? Maybe so. And if it does, then I'll be the first one to say, hey, anything that you can do safer that looks just as good, by all means, let's do it.
DEL BARCO: Carpenter says calling for a ban of firearms on sets is a knee-jerk reaction. Armorer Clay Van Sickle agrees.
CLAY VAN SICKLE: The idea that we can just use toy guns for everything is a little pie-in-the-sky thinking because those replicas don't exist. There's nothing that an actor will respond to more than a real gun firing a blank in their hand as opposed to a plastic gun.
DEL BARCO: Van Sickle says there's no need to outlaw real guns on set as long as everyone follows long-established safety protocols. That includes letting everyone on set ask to inspect weapons. He says, based on what's been reported, those well-established protocols didn't seem to have been followed on the "Rust" set.
VAN SICKLE: You can't just outlaw stupidity, unfortunately, but if we can ensure as an industry that we all stick to the rules that we have all agreed to when we attend that safety meeting right after call time, if we can all follow those rules, which we have been for decades, everybody goes home safe.
DEL BARCO: Van Sickle says gun deaths on film or TV productions have been rare. He also says there are no licenses or certifications required for handling guns on sets.
VAN SICKLE: There is no school, per se, for armorers. Ninety percent of what we learn is through an apprenticeship program. You have to work with someone who has been doing this longer than you have.
DEL BARCO: That's another reason why he says following the protocols is so important. As long as there are real guns around, prop master John D. Bert says productions might start with writing uniform safety standards into their contracts, and he suggests other changes.
JOHN D BERT: There could be a whole industry or business cropped up that creates a bunch of these airsoft, realistic-looking things that really don't do anything, but they look great and you can pull the trigger and this thing turns and a hammer comes back but there's no firing pin. You don't put blanks in them and you just leave it all to visual effects.
DEL BARCO: Bert says custom-made fake firearms and visual effects could be expensive, especially for lower budget productions. For his part, actor Dwayne Johnson - "The Rock" - told Variety his film and TV production company will use rubber guns from now on.
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DWAYNE JOHNSON: We won't use real guns at all. We're going to take care of it in post. We're not going to worry about the dollars. We won't worry about what it costs.
DEL BARCO: It would be well worth it, he said, to save lives. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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