Discourse on film realism and its importance to filmmakers

Ally Boyd, News Writer

There has been discourse over the past few months in the film community ever since news broke out that a prop gun caused the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured the director on the set of Rust. The gun was accidently discharged by popular actor Alec Baldwin which has led to several filmmakers beginning to question the necessity of real guns on set. Realism in film is important to many filmmakers, but to what extent?  

 “I think that realism is important as long as you are not taking risks that you do not need to take.” Iowa filmmaker Rob Merritt exclaimed. 

According to Merritt, there are several procedures that have been written and put in place for the safe handling of firearms on set. The biggest issue is that these productions are taking short cuts and not properly implementing these procedures to protect the workers on set. On the set of Rust, many of these established rules were ignored. 

“I think realism is extremely important. I pride myself in trying to create reality in unrealistic conditions.” Iowa filmmaker Carrsan T. Morrissey said. “However, I think there is a line to be drawn between realism from the point of view of the audience and realism from a production standpoint. I think film is about creating reality, but I do not think that necessitates creating steps that puts anybody in any real danger.”  

“It’s ridiculous that in an industry where imagination is key, that we can’t imagine ways or come up with alternatives that are safer.” Actress Mariah Noel said. 

According to Noel, the crew should be alert and be able to have an open dialogue between each other. There is always a huge time pressure on set and even though production is being rushed to get completed, precautions should still be taken.  

There were many crew members concerned about the safety of the Rust set. Hours before the shooting took place, there were members of the crew who walked off the set because they did not feel safe due to mistreatment of their time and labor. Days before the shooting occurred, there had been two accidental gun discharges on the set already. 

“I remember reading that the guns on the Rust set were just left sitting on a table, and anyone could have messed with them. In my experience it’s always been that you have an armorer who is in charge of any weapons on set, and they keep them locked away in a safe or other protectant place.” Merritt said. 

According to Merritt, the armorer should be the only one who is removing that weapon from that location. They are responsible for checking the gun and makes sure it is safe to use. Then the armorer takes it directly to the actor who is going to use it. The armorer must indicate whether this weapon has any blanks in it or not. As soon as the weapon in use is no longer needed, it is immediately given back to the armorer. 

Typically, actors should be trained if they are to be handling real weapons on set. One of the most important rules about handling a gun is to never point the weapon directly at another person. An argument for using guns on set is that actors may have a hard time faking the weight and recoil of a gun, so having a real gun helps them achieve that realistic look.  

“The excuse [for using guns on set] was that when you use a real weapon the actor response to the sound of it may make them jump a little bit and you wouldn’t get that with a real gun.” Morrissey said. “And it’s like, that’s what actors are for, if you want your actor to do that, just train them to do that without having to use a real gun.” 

According to Merritt, CGI can be used to add gunshots in post-production. There are several people who work in post-production who state they must add CGI even when actual weapons are used due to production complications such as the mussel flashes not properly visible on video or they disliked the audio they got from set. Therefore, CGI is added in anyway to make the gunshots look more realistic regardless of what weaponry was used on set. 

“I am a big proponent of not using CGI whenever possible. However, I think this is an area where very basic CGI combined with very good prop weapons can take you really really far. For instance, when we use pistols in some of my films, we’ve used airsoft pistols that are powered by CO2.” said Morrissey. 

There are many options available to productions where the use of real weaponry on set is unnecessary. Precautions need to be taken while on set. If these rules are not followed, there is no reason to be using weapons that can hurt individuals. 

“They prioritized the film itself over the people who were involved.” Noel said. 

Halyna Hutchins was born in the Ukraine and moved to Los Angeles. She graduated from the American Film Institute in 2015. She has been involved in many productions throughout her career. In 2019, she was named a rising star by the American Cinematographer Magazine. She was also a loving mother and wife. Hutchins will be missed both as an individual and as a creative voice.