The goal of movies and TV series is to make scenes look realistic. When it comes to prop guns, they don’t just look dangerous.
Such was the case in the death Thursday of Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie “Rust” in New Mexico. The 42-year-old director of photography died after actor Alec Baldwin discharged a prop gun, according to investigators.
The film’s director Joel Souza, 48, was also injured during the incident.
Prop master Joseph Fisher told CNN on Friday that extreme safety measures are taken when it comes to weapons on set.
“Typically we will do a safety brief with the cast and crew,” he said. “We’ll let them examine it, we’ll explain safety precautions that go with each type of prop weapon. In this case [the “Rust” incident], it was a blank firing weapon and with that there are inherent risks.”
Fisher mentioned the case of actor Brandon Lee who died in 1993 after a prop gun accident in which a fragment of a .44 bullet accidentally ended up lodged in the gun, which resulted Lee being wounded in the abdomen.
The prop master said even when there is no “bullet” in a prop gun, there are still projectiles, including gun powder and gas which can be dangerous within a certain range.
Ben Simmons of Bare Arms, a company in the UK that works with firearms on sets, told CNN a variety of “prop guns” can be used in TV and film productions.
They range, he said, from “a completely fake firearm that’s been constructed” from materials such as rubber or wood to an actual working gun or a formerly working gun that has been rendered inoperable.
Simmons explained that the type of gun used depends on the production, but often guns that fire blanks are used on sets.
In a regular gun, a charge fires the projectile which is a bullet. “Blanks” refer to a blank cartridge which usually consists of a shell or casing, gunpowder, but no bullet. Instead there is a tip that has has been “crimped” by wadding or wax, according to the “Handbook of Firearms and Ballistics.”
“It doesn’t mean the blank rounds are safe because if you were to get in the way of that or get too close to it, lots of dirt and debris can get thrown out the end of the gun, and that can cause harm,” Simmons said. “It’s extremely rare for it to happen and it’s even rarer for it to cause death.”
Dave Brown, a professional firearms instructor and a firearms safety coordinator, wrote a piece for American Cinematographer magazine in 2019 in which he explained that “CGI [computer generated imagery] may be used for close-range gunshots that could not be safely achieved otherwise, but yes, even with all the advancements in visual effects and computer-generated imagery, we still fire guns with blanks.”
“The reason is simple: We want the scene to look as real as possible. We want the story and characters to be believable,” Brown wrote. “Blanks help contribute to the authenticity of a scene in ways that cannot be achieved in any other manner. If the cinematographer is there to paint a story with light and framing, firearms experts are there to enhance a story with drama and excitement.”
The more gunpowder that is used, the bigger the flash and blast from a prop gun. Brown’s piece reiterated that using blanks still requires someone on set who is experienced with firearms.
“Blanks expel gunpowder and hot gases out of the front of the barrel in a cone shape,” he wrote. “This is harmless at longer ranges, but the explosion can seriously injure someone if it’s too close.”
Daniel Oates, former police chief for Miami Beach, Florida, and Aurora, Colorado, told CNN that in policing “you treat every gun as if it’s dangerous and it’s loaded all the time.”
And while prop guns on sets generally use blanks instead of live ammunition, Oates explained that they all use powder as a charge agent and wadding to create the noise and visual of an actual gun shot.
“Even at close range these weapons can be very, very dangerous,” he said.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office said the investigation into what happened on the set of “Rust” is “open and active” and no charges have been filed.