Rin Ehlers Sheldon demonstrating a prop position to her cast on set of MZed’s “Selling the Punch” course. Image credit: MZed
Why do the creators of this course want you to know about stunt safety?
Like many, when news broke that Halyna Hutchins had died from the firing of a live round out of a “prop gun,” I was rattled and deeply saddened. Texts poured into my phone from people I expected to share in the disturbance: actors and other filmmakers. After a few days, as the news became a national and even international headline, notifications flooded in from unexpected sources.
I heard from all manner of family and friends, who at relentless provocation from the media, felt the need to choose a side. How should they vote in the court of public opinion? Whose fault was this? What could I tell them about “how it usually works?”
I thought about writing an article then, but it didn’t feel right to me. I thought, “There are others more qualified. There are crew that were actually there and experts with long careers, who can weigh in.” Still at every little gig and every social gathering, Halyna’s death came up. I heard so many opinions based on political alignment and personal feelings regarding Hollywood. Depending on where one retrieves information, Alec Baldwin was either a victim of right-wing outrage mongers or an elitest villain, who has long had something like this coming.
The words “scandal” and “tragedy” were volleyed about in that eager way people converse when someone dies. Society divides into factions. People start vying for ownership of what they hope will be the prevailing argument. They bandy about high-stakes pontification, while somewhere a family grieves.
Behind-the-scenes shot from the set of “Selling the Punch” for MZed, directed by Rin Ehlers Sheldon. Image credit: MZed.
Amidst the dissonance of insatiable opining, I couldn’t stop imagining Halyna on the set of her first really big movie: nervous and excited to rise to the occasion. I thought about her waking up to face down that 12 (or 16) hour day. I didn’t know her, but I was proud of her, a fellow “lady cameraman” standing in her power as the Cinematographer—commanding her department, wielding her hard-won expertise of light and shadow, patiently listening to all kinds of people who don’t know anything about image making, while she captured that magical intersection of art and science in the crosshairs of her camera. I imagined her smiling as her face pressed into the eyepiece.
My muscle memory activated, and I thought about that feeling when you’re operating, and your whole body aches in that way that only happens when you’re in desperate need of a water break, but adrenaline has shown up in solidarity. I conjured the memory of those moments when the light is just right, the composition is singing, and the actor is so in the zone. Everything is working, and you are the one capturing all of it. The culmination of all these artists’ efforts comes through your lens and rests on your shoulders.
I hoped Halyna had some of that magic in the last job of her life cut short.
I thought about the stress she must have been under—the weight on department heads when things don’t go well. She must have spent so much time reassuring and supporting her team, listening to them complain about set conditions or the food or the production not making their days. I pictured her smoothing things over with them, assuring her department what they were doing was worth it: energizing herself and her team in what we now know was an extremely dangerous work environment.
My husband Graham and I reflected back to the first firearms workshop we took as theatre majors. It was one day, a few hours long.
Presenter America Young and moderator / DP / producer Graham Ehlers Sheldon on set of MZed’s Selling the Punch course. Image credit: MZed.
“If you have any doubts, you leave.”
The first lesson they taught us? “This is a real gun used for pretend.” They encouraged all of us to check the chamber whenever a gun was present, whether we were firing it or not—even if we had nothing to do with the scene, even if we were never going to be onstage with the weapon at the same time. My stage combat professor Adam Noble empowered me to know that my safety was my right, and that I never had to work in an unsafe environment. “If you have any doubts, you leave. If they’re not listening to your concerns, you leave.” He told us about Brandon Lee and passionately relayed that his death did not have to happen. He seemed determined that same fate would never befall any of his students. Our professor armored us with what was at stake when everyone does not own the safety of everyone else on stage or onset.
Yet, the idea that we all are responsible for each other’s safety is not universal.
In those conversations surrounding Halyna’s death, when Graham and I told fellow actors and filmmakers about our (now) long-held beliefs, eyebrows raised. A dear friend of mine who went through the same program but did not take that workshop or any stage combat said, “I would never have thought to check the gun. I would trust the armorer. I would trust the AD to do that.”
Every single one of our friends present agreed, and that scared me. From that point on in conversations around the killing of Ms. Hutchins, I didn’t just sit there, angry at the way humans still seek seats in the Colloseum of Others’ Tragedies. Instead, I spoke up about what I know is right and how we all have to handle ourselves and each other.
Turning fear for friends’ safeties into making an online course
When MZed asked Graham what course he would like to produce next on their platform, there was not one doubt in his mind what the most important information he could impart to an audience of filmmakers was. He enlisted me to write and direct the curriculum, and he asked director/stunt coordinator America Young to cohost and teach the course. We named it Selling the Punch, a phrase that means making a hit look real while the performers are safely nowhere near one another.
Right off the bat, we tell students they will not magically have the skills of Michelle Yeoh at the end of a 90 minute course. Selling the Punch does not offer any shortcuts for emboldening viewers to save money on their projects by not hiring the appropriate professionals. However, it does lay a solid foundation for working with stunts and fighting on set. America and Graham walk students through what it takes to bring a 5 page scene from script to screen. They cover pre-pro, rehearsals, camera angles, and even discuss post production a bit. They talk about what happened on the Rust set and also share cautionary tales from their own careers.
At the end of Selling the Punch, we show the scene they made together over one shoot day. There’s plenty of BTS, and we’ve packed as much nutrition into the class as we could, while still keeping it pretty fun (imho).
Graham and America assess the shot of Andi Norris and Cynthia Dallas on the set of MZED’s new course Selling the Punch. Image credit: MZed
Course made possible by Canon and their EOS R5 C
This course would not have happened without Canon. We thank them whole-heartedly for generously sponsoring Selling the Punch. We used the Canon EOS R5 C camera on set, which really helped our operator stay agile, while he was capturing those stunt demos, due to its compact form factor. Canon’s superior image quality has truly always been my favorite. (I would say that without them having sponsored us.) There is no pixel like the Canon pixel. I have been thrilled to watch the C line expand. The EOS R5C’s low light capability guaranteed we could really play in the shadows, without the image falling apart.
Special introductory price of $29 until strikes are resolved
We’ve listed the course at what Graham and I believe is a very accessible price for everyone, so that as many people have access to this information as possible. Until the strikes are over, MZED will graciously offer this course for only $29. The course is also part of the MZed Pro subscription, which gives access to MZed’s huge library of 50+ courses and 750 lessons, including lots of freebies and discounts.
Lowering the price during strike was important to us, because we know folks in our industry are hurting right now. For the price of an early movie rental or less than 2 tickets to go see a film in person (which…please still go and do!), someone who takes this course should walk away with the knowledge and confidence needed to not only work with a stunt coordinator, but how to hire stunt professionals, and most importantly how to run a safe set when stunts and fighting are involved. Of course, I am biased, but I believe this class can benefit every crew person. Every AC, cinematographer, craft services person, PA, actor, DIT, director, gaffer, producer, cam op, you name it — if you work on a set, I want you to have this information.
Graham and Rin Ehlers Sheldon with producer Shewan Edward on the set of MZED’s new course Selling the Punch.
If nothing else—even if all you do is read this article, I hope everyone knows that a safe work environment is a right, and that everyone can and should speak up or walk away when a set feels dangerous. You deserve to make kickass fights and exciting action. You also deserve to go home to your family at the end of your (criminally long) workday. Fight nice, everybody.