Halyna Hutchins: A Cinematographer’s Legacy

Looking back at a life ended by an on-set tragedy, and forward with an array of veteran motion-picture professionals who discuss workplace safety and how the film community can do better.

ASC Staff

Looking back at a life ended by an on-set tragedy, and forward with an array of veteran motion-picture professionals who discuss workplace safety and how the film community can do better.
At top, Halyna Hutchins in a photo provided by the cinematographer.

Editor’s Note: ASC President Stephen Lighthill’s accompanying essay on this subject can be found here.]

Learning that she had been chosen as one of American Cinematographer’s Rising Stars of 2019 and that she would be interviewed for a piece in the magazine, Halyna Hutchins — now an honorary ASC member — tried to assemble her thoughts. “I really hoped I could prepare for this interview,” the director of photography said during a conversation in November 2018, “but I just didn’t because I was constantly distracted by all the things I had to handle.” 

Those distractions included a feature she was then shooting and a couple of future projects to consider. “Hopefully you can write it up nicely, because English is my second language,” she said. “That’s my excuse.”

No excuses were needed. She spoke articulately and with palpable enthusiasm about her vocation, about the storytelling power of cinematography, and especially about the joys of collaboration with a simpatico director and crew. At the time, Hutchins had shot a number of short films and a couple of features. Her American Film Institute thesis film, Hidden, had screened at the AFI Fest and Camerimage, and she had been named to the inaugural class of the 21st Century Fox DP Lab. But she also clearly regarded herself as a professional work in progress. “I feel like I’m still training every single time I’m working,” Hutchins said. “It’s a step-by-step process, it’s all connected, and one collaboration leads to a new one.” 

While discussing the course of her career, she repeatedly used the phrase “taking it to the next level.” And she indulged in a bit of self-mocking humor while describing the winding personal path that had brought her to her current place: “I have a lot of life stories.”

Raised on a Russian Arctic military base, Hutchins found respite from the cold in the mostly Soviet-era movies offered there. “Half of them were propaganda movies and the other half were World War II movies — big, epic movies with personal stories. I loved all of them.” Her favorite film was and remained The Cranes Are Flying, the 1957 wartime love story directed by Mikhail Kalatozov and shot by Sergey Urusevsky.

Hutchins came to cinematography circuitously, at first to document her athletic endeavors. “I started using a camera because I was doing extreme sports, parachute jumping and cave ex-ploring,” she recalled. “It was more of a hobby.” 

After embarking on her first career as a journalist, she eventually found herself drawn to the storytelling possibilities of film, initially in the documentary realm. “Working as a journalist on British film productions in eastern Europe, I was traveling with crews to remote locations, and I saw how the cinematographer worked.”

Hutchins was hooked, but her interest veered towards narrative filmmaking. She moved to New York and got jobs as a PA and then grip electric on music projects and other indie productions; she even dabbled in fashion photography. “That led me into lighting and taking it to the next level,” she said. “The aesthetics of lighting was something that really fascinated me — how you create the mood, the feeling. But I still was always driven by characters and storytelling.”

Encouraged by Robert Primes, ASC, whom she met while working on a shoot as a grip, Hutchins applied and was accepted to the American Film Institute. “[Bob] was a big inspiration for me,” she said, “and when I studied at AFI, Stephen Lighthill, ASC really inspired and challenged me as well.” She described her time at AFI as “absolutely amazing, because it forced me to discover how to collaborate with creative people and how to find something that takes you to the next level. As a cinematographer, you need to develop your own vision, but the key to a successful film is communication with your director and your team.”

Heeding the example of the director-cinematographer relationship between Kalatozov and Urusevsky, as well as those of Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle and Darren Aronofsky and Matthew Libatique, ASC, Hutchins was on the lookout for “a collaborative effort between two people who elevated each other’s work.” She found it with director Olia Oparina on several in-tense shorts, including I Am Normal (shot on 35mm) and on her first feature, Snowbound. Other highlights included the short The Providers with Denise Harkavy, the feature Darlin’ with Pollyanna McIntosh, and the web series A Luv Tale.

At the time of the interview, the director of photography was mulling over a new horror feature, a genre that Hutchins handled with great flair. She went on to shoot the offbeat superhero film Archenemy, the crime drama Blindfire, and the horror movie The Mad Hatter, building her reputation and relationships all along the way. 

“It’s past the point of just practicing the craft only,” Hutchins said of her career in 2018. “But if I really love the project and the director, and we can create something interesting together that I can be proud of in terms of content, I will take it. So hopefully, I’ll get more of those projects.” She added with a self-deprecating laugh, “Sounds easy, right?” — John Calhoun

Perspectives on Set Safety

ASC Future Practices Co-Chairs
Amelia Vincent, ASC and Erik Messerschmidt, ASC
In the wake of the tragic killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, the importance of stricter vigilance and adherence to existing safety protocols cannot be denied. This incident should encourage not just a renewed focus on our industry’s safety protocols and procedures as they exist, but also the improvement of those protocols where needed.

The ASC Future Practices Committee will be shifting its focus from pandemic-related safety issues to a more all-encompassing focus on safety across all areas of production.

“We need to exercise caution when calling for additional or unilateral regulations, while not also focusing attention on those who failed to act responsibly and against existing protocols.”

Safety training programs are essential for any workplace, and we continue to encourage the industry to make training programs accessible and mandatory for all members of our workforce, regardless of locality.

In the presence of incompetence, however, or non-compliance with protocols, everything on a movie set is a potential risk — if not a gun, then a misexecuted pyrotechnic, a bad car stunt, an improperly leveled condor, or even a poorly set C-stand. All of these risks are avoidable and easily managed with qualified and trained crew and a responsible production staff.

We need to exercise caution when calling for additional or unilateral regulations, while not also focusing attention on those who failed to act responsibly and against existing protocols.

There is no doubt that we can easily curtail or even completely eliminate the use of functioning weapons in the production environment. As an industry, we have protocols to practice our craft safely, and firearm accidents, however tragic, represent a fraction of on-set injuries, all of which are avoidable.

As cinematographers, we are in a position of leadership, both on set and in preproduction. Let us strive to set the highest bar to ensure the safety of each and every crew member in the workplace, as well as while traveling to and from the set. Proper budgeting, scheduling and preparation establish the foundation for safer sets.

We need to hold productions and producers accountable when safety issues are reported. Additionally, all crewmembers must be trained to not only recognize unsafe situations, but also to feel empowered to respond to those situations responsibly.

ASC Future Practices will continue to discuss and explore with our colleagues and collaborators in all 13 IATSE Locals, SAG and the DGA how we educate our crews to recognize unsafe behavior and how to react properly and confidently to protect themselves and each other.

Local 600 Leaders
John Lindley, ASC and Rebecca Rhine
There will eventually be a detailed explanation of what happened on the set of Rust the day Halyna Hutchins was shot and killed. But knowing how easily this tragedy could have been avoided will not provide comfort or closure. There are already myriad safety protocols in place for handling weapons on sets, stunts, special effects, aerial work, free driving, and many other potentially dangerous activities and products that arise daily on far-flung productions.

“Our employers are responsible for maintaining safe workplaces, but we are ultimately the judges of the environments we work in.”

So, what goes wrong? Scheduling pressures and inadequate communication are often to blame, but so is fear of retaliation. We work in a clearly defined hierarchal system with a chain of command that does not encourage questioning of an on-set practice. How do we ensure that safety concerns are never submerged by fear? There are many reasons to come together in a union — wage scales, health and pension benefits — but equally important is the strength we have together to protect each other when one of us speaks out if safety is being compromised while we do our jobs. Our employers are responsible for maintaining safe workplaces, but we are ultimately the judges of the environments we work in. Our Union has always and will always stand with our members and our crews to protect their right to insist on safe practices on sets. Both our contract language and the law offer protection to members who advocate for the safety of themselves or others. We have been called on to do that in the past, and it will undoubtedly be necessary again in the future, because there will always be a set somewhere with inadequate safety standards. In the end, “safety standards” are just words; it is our commitment to enforce them that gives them meaning.

The ICG 600 Safety App has a reporting function and a toll-free phone number that are both constantly monitored. It also contains a complete list of the safety bulletins. All of that relies on crewmembers reporting. Whenever we receive a report, we will intervene to protect crewmembers on the set and to fight against retaliation. Our job is to help.

Please keep Halyna’s memory close. She was stolen from us way too soon.

John Lindley, ASC is president of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600. Rebecca Rhine is the ICG’s National Executive Director.

Larry Fessenden
I run a small production company out of New York called Glass Eye Pix. We have made dozens of movies, often with first-time filmmakers and often with the same crewmembers.

Our motto is: “Safety first, movie second, feelings third.” And by “feelings,” I mean ego. For me, this has philosophical weight. Safety of body and mind is the most important, and over the years the concept has expanded from car crashes and gunplay to include sex scenes, dietary restrictions and reasonable working hours. Let’s just say it up front: Good food, communication and a respectful schedule are essential to a creative team’s morale.

“If there’s a fear of speaking up on set, you’re already in trouble.”

Having said that, production safety is everyone’s responsibility. As a producer, my approach is to build a community of trust around the movie — the thing we are working together to achieve. I want collaborators who are enthusiastic and who bring a sense of pride to the project. I encourage camaraderie as well as personal responsibility among the ranks. If it’s just another gig, they’re not going to be fully engaged in creating the kind of environment where everyone can do their best work.

At every budget level there should be a pursuit and expectation of excellence and care. On the low-budget ($250,000-$3,000,000) films I’ve produced — which have included fire, guns, underwater sequences, icebreaking, plane crashes, car crashes, boats sinking and bad weather — everyone knows each other and has each other’s back. A crew with fewer people means that everyone takes on more responsibility, and this group mentality has the effect of focusing everyone’s attention.

This also goes for those in above-the-line production, who must be responsive to the needs of the crew. If there’s a fear of speaking up on set, you’re already in trouble, and those producers who are cutting corners and pushing crews past their limits are ruining the business for everyone else. Producers must listen and assess. If a complaint is well-founded, you adjust. A filmmaker who truly understands the power of film knows you don’t need to endanger people to create a sense of danger on the screen. As Hitchcock would say: “It’s only a movie.”

Even so, I consider filmmaking a robust activity, and I expect my team members to have some grit. I grew up loving the films of Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa and John Huston; these movies have an aspect of controlled danger to them. You just have to create an environment of trust where your crew feels like they’re always given a choice, and where saying no doesn’t feel like a rebellion — it might just be a reality check. — As told to Iain Marcks

Ed Zwick
Director Edward Zwick has blown up buildings, set fire to villages, crashed helicopters, and used weapons ranging from muskets to machine guns in large-scale action films that include Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, The Last Samurai and The Siege. He credits the fact that he’s never had an accident on one of his sets not only to the thoroughness of his assistant directors, stunt coordinators and effects technicians, but also to the care of the cinematographers with whom he’s worked. “[ASC members] John Toll and Roger Deakins were very strong in pushing to require an extraordinary amount of preparation,” Zwick recalls. “Roger began his career shooting documentary footage in a battle zone in Eritrea; nobody has been in greater circumstances of real danger, and yet his planning and insistence on a certain set of circumstances was really strong and remarkable.”

“Unless you are hiring people who are really skilled and really experienced, then you’re increasing the possibility of accidents.”

Beginning with Glory, his first film with elaborate stunts and pyrotechnics, Zwick sought out collaborators with as much experience as possible who, as he puts it, “knew much more than I did.” He mentions assistant director Skip Cosper, line producer Kevin de la Noy, and special-effects artist Paul J. Lombardi, who taught him about the precautions that need to be taken to minimize risk on set. The central lesson? “This is not rocket science, but neither is it child’s play. A set is an industrial workplace, so unless you are hiring people who are really skilled and really experienced, then you’re increasing the possibility of accidents.”

Given the need for experienced professionals to keep a set safe, Zwick fears that the increase in production from the proliferation of streaming services and peak TV could be leading to dangerous compromises. “If you remember what happened when the baseball leagues expanded to 12 teams rather than eight, the quality of the game suffered for a while,” he says. “I have to believe that there probably aren’t as many trained and experienced people in some of these capacities as there needs to be.”

Zwick says time is key when it comes to safety. “Whatever the stunt is, whether it involves firearms or cars or helicopters or pyro, it takes so much time to prepare it properly and to do it correctly. We all deal with the pressure of speed as it comes down from the studio, but that’s the place where you draw the line. That’s the place that you do not allow yourself to be pushed.” Zwick says that rehearsing stunts — running the action at “underwater” speed, then half-speed, and so on — is “excruciatingly slow, time-consuming and expensive,” but he argues that it can’t be done any other way. “It’s a really boring and maddening process if you do it properly, but that’s the way that you get it right. That’s the best chance you have of keeping it safe.”

Zwick concludes, “When you’re making a movie, you’re trying to be anti-entropic. You’re trying to control the universe. You’re trying to make the sun not come out at a particular moment. You’re trying to carve out this little bit of reality, and film it exactly as you want. But all of that suggests that you are not allowing for the vagaries and the eccentricities of accident. Therefore, you need to gird yourself against the many possibilities that can happen, even when you’re stepping out of your bathtub.”

There will always be disagreements on set, he concedes, but some things should be non-negotiable. “Time and money are always a battle, and it’s a legitimate battle to have on both sides — but not when it comes to safety.” — Jim Hemphill

Director of Photography
Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS
A member of the Order of Australia, Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS was born in Melbourne and started her career in film at a time when safety regulations in Australia were laxer than they are now. “When I first started shooting, I fell off the back of a camera car one day,” says Walker. “I was leaning off the back filming handheld and someone was only holding onto my belt, and I fell. I was not seriously hurt, but that was before we had safety officers on set. That wouldn’t happen there today.”

“[Having a safety officer on set] does work in other countries, so we should definitely look into it [in the U.S.]”

Australia is one of a handful of countries, that also includes New Zealand and the U.K., where a safety officer is standard on all sets. Now there are increasing calls for the film industry in the U.S. to look at adopting the practice.

According to the National Guidelines for Screen Safety, released in June 2021 in Australia by the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) and Screen Producers Australia (SPA), a safety officer “should be present during all stunt/hazardous action, special-effects action and where significant location hazards exist.” Their main function “is to ensure that cast and crew are not engaging in or are exposed to an activity or environment that will put at risk their health and safety.”

Walker says that the safety officer’s job starts right at the beginning: “Part of their job is to start by reading the script and identifying any concerns they might have, and then to go on a scout where they are flagging anything that might be an issue in advance. I think it’s good that they are brought on so early.”

Walker adds that in her experience, safety officers are required to write a report in preproduction that outlines any upfront preparations that need to be done for safety reasons. “Then they do a risk assessment after preproduction meetings and talk to each department about their plans for builds and how shooting will be executed — for example, grip rigs, tracking vehicles, drone shots, stunts, etc.”

This person is on set 100 percent of the time and will give a safety briefing with the first AD at the beginning of the day to let the crew know about any potentially hazardous setups and announce any possible dangerous activity or hazards that the crew should be aware of at the particular location. “They monitor and check with the first AD and the armorer each time before a gun or weapon comes on set, in order to comply with the workplace safety protocols.”

Walker thinks that with all that has happened recently, it is time for the film industry in the U.S. to look into the use of safety officers. “It does work in other countries, so we should definitely look into it,” she says. In states like California, there is a requirement for fire marshals to be on set when there is a conceivable fire hazard, but their responsibilities do not extend to other safety issues.

“I always am aware to call out anything I see or report if others bring unsafe concerns on set. I will always do that, but I feel cinematographers or other department heads should not have to be the ones tasked with monitoring safety issues,” Walker says. “We are busy shooting the film, so we cannot also be responsible for everyone’s safety — it would be much better if someone else had the responsibility for maintaining a safe work environment.”

All crewmembers can report to the safety officer any issues that they see or hear, and the safety officer reports this to the producer. “That takes the onus off crew people who are not comfortable reporting things, and who might otherwise feel like they may be punished in some way for being a whistleblower.”

Walker recalls that as Covid struck, her fellow ASC member Steven Fierberg observed how quickly everyone in the industry moved to get Covid officers on set, which worked out very well — and so why, Fierberg asked, couldn’t the same thing be done with safety officers? “It is a conversation that we should at least be having,” says Walker. — Terry McCarthy

1st Assistant Director
David Webb
Safety is really a group effort — it involves the 1st AD, the production manager and the safety coordinator. Then there’s the gaffer, the key grip, the special-effects supervisor and the stunt coordinator. There are different variables and situations for every department. As a 1st AD, you really need to monitor every situation and listen to your gut. If your gut says something about what you’re doing, then you can question it, but nobody goes blindly into a situation. Nobody wants to put anybody’s life or livelihood at risk. If one of the key players in a given scenario is uncomfortable, then you have to deal with it, and resolve it. Films that get in trouble are the ones that push ahead despite legitimate misgivings.

“There are many different levels of production, and there will always be people who are starting out, but it’s imperative that production companies don’t cut back on safety.”

I’ve shot in countries all over the world, in all kinds of situations, from jungles to oceans to mountains, and my whole thing has always been to use my common sense and to rely on the experts.

When we set up a stunt with pyrotechnics, I’ll talk to the special-effects supervisor and the stunt coordinator, the DP, the key grip and the gaffer. I have a good understanding of how they operate, but I don’t have to know how long it takes to light something, and I don’t have to know 100 percent of everything involved in a pyro event because I’m surrounded by people who do and whose reputations precede them. I can trust their opinions because they’re experts in their fields.

I tend to work with a lot of the same directors, and there’s a group of DPs with whom I’ve crossed paths again and again. I know what they’ve done and what they’re capable of doing.

With the film I’m on now [Indiana Jones 5], I know that our armorer and stunt coordinator are veterans — completely trustworthy throughout their careers. If you rely on good judgment, scouting, due diligence and putting in the time for prep, then your set should be a safe environment.

I feel fortunate to work on the kinds of productions where we scout our locations ahead of time so we’re aware of any issues. For every single set, there’s an extensive risk assessment, which we’re all required to read. The risk assessment covers everything: flooding, water hazards, electrical, special effects, specific sets, etc. Every morning there’s a safety meeting where we touch upon all the hazards we might encounter, from the seemingly banal sort of stuff — like what shoes to wear, hydrating and sunscreen — to big effects or stunt work. The whole crew is there; otherwise, you don’t proceed with your day.

Of course, there are many different levels of production, and there will always be people who are starting out, but it’s imperative that production companies don’t cut back on safety. If anyone on your set demonstrates behavior that seems unsound, then don’t trust them. If any crew member sees something that they think is unsafe, I would hope they would come to the 1st AD — or, alternatively, to the head of their department, who would then discuss the issue with production. I think there is an increasing focus on safety, and I would hope that raising a safety issue would not result in any sort of retribution.

Visual effects have taken over so much. [Explosive] squibs started getting phased out years ago, just because they looked bad. We’re using fewer blanks on set. All the weapons are airsoft models. Muzzle flashes, squibs and ricochets are added later in postproduction. Still, every time we have a gun on set, the armorer shows me the weapon. If it’s a real gun, we check the chamber and check the mag. Everybody wants to know it’s empty. Trust, but verify, especially with guns. — As told to Iain Marcks

Camera Operator
Aiken Weiss
There are no stunt stand-ins for camera operators. Yet they are frequently expected to brave some of the most dangerous conditions on set, whether it’s a driving shot or capturing an elaborate action sequence. The job requires an understanding of the dangers faced not only by the operator themselves, but also their immediate crew and the entire unit.

Aiken Weiss is a camera and Steadicam operator and a member of the Society of Camera Operators (SOC). Weiss got his first lesson in set safety early on while covering a javelin competition in his native Munich. “I got a great angle from out in a field in the grass, low with a long lens. I looked up and the javelin was sliding past me maybe two feet away, and I saw my assistant’s face, and she was just pale.” Not long afterward, Weiss was leaning from a gondola in the Alps while shooting when he suddenly took a tree branch in the face. “I didn’t drop the camera, and nothing happened — other than my eye really hurt for a few days,” he recalls. Still, it became clear to him that there was more to surviving the job than capturing the perfect shot.

“Safety boils down to applying sensible, professional protocols on sets or locations, and being proactive if something seems amiss.”

Later in his career, he was shooting a stunt scene on a Hollywood set involving a car crashing at high speed through a gate he’d been told was made of lightweight balsa wood — only it wasn’t balsa wood. “My dolly grip picked up a two-by-four [of hard wood] shaped like a sword that had broken off and flown past us at about 60 miles per hour!” Weiss recalls. “I took it and walked over to the DP and said, ‘You guys are bloody crazy!’ By that point in his career, he was enough of a production veteran to know that in such a situation he could threaten to walk there and then. Producers coaxed him back with promises to be more rigorous about safety for the remainder of the production.

Weiss stresses that in his career, safety has been the rule, not the exception. “I’ve been around guns on set quite a lot doing cop shows and action movies, and I’ve always felt safe,” he says, noting that the only exception involved a particularly volatile action star, whose antics had terrified many who witnessed them. Generally, he says, armorers check and re-check weapons on set, and everyone takes them seriously. “With all the scenes [I’ve shot] over many years where guns were involved, I’ve never witnessed anyone getting hurt as a result,” he says.

Weiss looks specifically to ADs to oversee safety procedures and to take the concerns of cast and crew seriously. But as an operator, he also relies on the experience of his grips. “The grips you surround yourself with have a very good sense about [potential danger] because they build whatever platform the camera might be on. I just had an example where the dolly grip didn’t feel comfortable using a dolly on an old porch. We ended up going on sticks.”

Weiss applauds IATSE and the SOC for the work they have done on safety but suggests the addition of optional training over and above IATSE’s mandatory Safety Pass system. “Let’s say I’m going to work on a Western,” he says, “and I want to learn more about how to behave around horses, or I want to know more about guns or about working in water or about tying knots — it would be nice if there were a way to have additional [safety] training available for people who want it.”

Overall, Weiss says, safety boils down to applying sensible, professional protocols on sets or locations, and being proactive if something seems amiss. Don’t let an actor who doesn’t have a drivers’ license drive. Don’t walk backwards on a set unless you’ve studied the terrain; you’re likely to trip over something. Be extremely careful about agreeing to “free drive” — operating from a car’s passenger seat as an actor drives. If there’s any kind of accident where the airbag deploys, the camera is between the operator’s head and the airbag, “and that camera’s going to hammer you with immense force.”

If people take precautions — such as deploying a remote head or uncrewed camera, or finding a different way to get a particularly treacherous shot — then, he estimates, “You should be able to do this job for 30 or 40 years, have a good time, and be safe doing it.” — Jon Silberg

AC thanks all of the participants in this story willing to share their insight. Set safety will be a continuing subject in our reporting.

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