Tech Tussle: Aerial stunt pros stand up for safety

At this year’s Super Bowl, the Black Eyed Peas were flown onto the stage from a height of more than 100 feet as part of a halftime show staged to dazzle the crowd in Texas and viewers watching on TV.

 Strapped into harnesses and carefully guided by human operators and specially designed mechanical systems, the Peas were able to give what looked like an effortless performance while flying through the air at heights that would make a lot of people queasy.

 Things were far from effortless behind the scenes. Flying by Foy, the company hired to stage the aerial stunts, ran a mad race to test the equipment, prep the rockers for their flight in just a matter of hours, and somehow keep them safe the whole time.

 It’s the kind of battle that happens every day in the flying game.

 “It’s like this for us and a lot of people who work in entertainment,” said Joe McGeough of Flying by Foy. “You’re constantly under pressure and on deadline and trying to keep performers safe at the same time.”

 Flying by Foy and Fisher Technical Services are two of the best-known companies in the field of flying effects, and they often compete against each other for work.

 Flying effects developer Peter Foy started Flying by Foy in 1957. The pioneer developed a floating pulley system to fly actors in low-height situations in 1958. Fisher Technical — founded by Scott Fisher — came on the scene in 1996, and the next year began building equipment used to create flying effects.

Test and re-test

For the Super Bowl, the NFL and the Peas needed things to happen fast, but Foy’s McGeough was only going to let the flying effects go forward if he thought they were safe. McGeough rehearsed the flying stunts with counterweights in place of the Peas to test the system. He then used stunt people to test it again. By the time the band had arrived, he had done several run-throughs of the effect.

The performers — and anyone helping them in the process of flying — still must get familiar with the equipment, though. It’s a crucial step in preparing to fly, and if it’s not done right, the results can be disastrous.

On March 4, the Occupational Safety and Health Commission issued three serious workplace safety violations to 8 Legged Prods., the production company behind the Broadway stage production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Based on an investigation of incidents that happened last year on Sept. 25, Oct. 19, Nov. 28 and Dec. 20, OSHA alleged employees of the production were placed in danger because of improperly adjusted or unsecured safety harnesses and unguarded open-side floors that lacked fall protection.

OSHA issues serious citations only when there is a “substantial probability that death or serious harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known,” according to the agency’s news release on the citations.

By email, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, stated the agency has conducted 106 inspections of theatrical productions between October 2008 and February 2011 but would not discuss its plans going forward with the production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

“If the agency receives any complaints or referrals, observes unsafe working conditions, and/or is notified of a worker death or injury, then we would respond, as we did here. In general, however, OSHA does not reveal in advance the specific workplaces we plan to inspect,” Michaels wrote.

Other notable artists also had problems related to improper harness use.

Last summer, the rock singer Pink wasn’t properly secured and clipped into a harness before attempting a flying effect during one of her concerts in Germany.

The rocker had barely begun her flight when she fell. It probably wasn’t more than a 10-foot drop, but it left Pink injured enough to cut short the performance, go to hospital and cancel a concert.

“Human error is something you always worry about, because if a performer doesn’t know how to get themselves into the harness and the person helping them get into the harness doesn’t know what they’re doing, you can have a big problem,” McGeough said.

Time crunches aren’t just a problem with live events like the Super Bowl. Movies, TV shows and plays can just as easily fall behind in schedule and then be forced to either cut scenes or work very fast in order to make their days.

On top of scheduling demands, not all producers and directors fully understand what it takes to stage a flying effect. When less-informed filmmakers hit a time crunch, conflicts happen.

“It’s very frustrating for directors who think you can just make something happen right there,” said McGeough. “You have to rehearse the people and the equipment used in flying because it’s simply too big a risk if you don’t.”

Rude awakening

Fisher has seen the same conflicts. He has worked on Broadway productions including “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and films like “Crank” creating flying effects.

He says pre-visualization software — now a common pre-production tool — often sets up unreasonable expectations.

“I’ve had people come to me with something they threw together in previs and then I’ve taken the data into our system and had to tell them that if they flew someone at that acceleration, they’d turn him into Jell-O,” said Fisher.

Fisher then gives the production team the data for what’s possible, and they decide whether to do an entirely CG-animated scene, shoot flying effects or create a hybrid that incorporates both.

At the moment, though, amid all the bad publicity over the injuries and accidents on the Julie Taymor-helmed “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” producers and directors are not likely to insist on on-the-spot flying effects or something just pulled together in a previs program.

“There’s sensitivity right now because of what happened on ‘Spider-Man,’ but you have to realize that the equipment didn’t fail in any way,” said Fisher. “What we’re talking about is human error, about someone not using the equipment in the way they’re supposed to use it.”

Recently, McGeough has seen an increased presence by organizations like OSHA at events such as the Super Bowl. There’s more interest in making sure all the procedures are followed and all the safety checks are done and then done again.

“I welcome that because the more oversight we have, the better it is for everyone,” said McGeough. “Some people might think this slows things down, but there’s no substitute for carefully checking everything.”

Fisher also encourages the inspections, and would like to see certification programs started for operators of flying effects equipment. He thinks staging errors like the ones on “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” could be avoided with specific training programs in place.

“‘Spider-Man’ was the hardest show we’ve ever worked on because it was so complex,” said Fisher. “You can’t train too much when the moves they’re doing are that elaborate.”

Union label

Performers unions also play a role in checking any kind of stunts or flying effects for safety. Each has its own procedures for handling complaints or problems.

The Screen Actors Guild has a hotline that can be used by its members to anonymously report concerns or potential problems on a set. If an issue were reported, SAG would immediately dispatch representatives to a set to check that appropriate procedures were being followed and attempt to resolve the situation.

Though AFTRA doesn’t have this kind of hotline, the union does routinely come to sets to observe that the safety procedures in its contracts are being followed and that union performers are being treated appropriately.

The union also relies on the expertise of the flying companies and the stunt coordinators on a set to perform the appropriate checks for stunt safety.

“They’re really the experts in this area, and they are the ones who are most knowledgeable about how to make sure something is done safely,” said Joan Halpern Weise, AFTRA assistant national executive director for entertainment programming.

Weise also said AFTRA members want and need rest time between stunt performances. Since stunts can be exhausting and difficult to do, the union is very involved in making certain that performers are given the proper time to recover, Weise said.

In legit, Actors Equity has specific language in its contracts designed to ensure performer safety. The union also reads scripts before production and consults with producers on areas that could place actors at risk.

Equity also relies on a system of anonymity to encourage performers to come forward and report safety issues they might see on a production, according to spokesperson Maria Somma.

All reports are kept confidential and the organization does its own investigation to confirm or dismiss a claim.

Not surprisingly, it won’t comment about the multitude of incidents that happened last year on “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” or about the ensuing OSHA citations.

Despite these citations, LeConte “Count” Moore, a managing director with the insurance brokerage firm and risk management firm DeWitt Stern that works extensively with stage-production clients, doesn’t believe “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” will see its insurance rates increase.

DeWitt Stern represents 8 Legged Prods. as an insurance broker, though Moore doesn’t personally handle the account.

“Broadway shows are very good risks because there’s rehearsal time and you’re in a controlled environment,” Moore said. “The other part of this is that insurance companies go in with their eyes wide open, because they hire people to come in and investigate stunts that are proposed before they’ll insure them.”

John A. Smith, president of Media Safety Services, owns a company that specializes in advising insurance companies on the safety of stunts done on the stage, in television shows and films. Smith pays careful attention to the background of the stunt coordinator on any production and wants to look over a written breakdown of any proposed stunts before signing off on them.

“When you see it all spelled out, you can tell whether safety has been made part of the plans for the stunts they’re doing,” Smith said. “You’ll know everything from the type of harnesses they’re planning to use to any backup systems they have if something goes wrong.”

Long time stunt coordinator Conrad Palmisano believes that the incidents on the stage production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” will improve safety on flying stunts going forward, just as the death of Jon-Erik Hexum in a shooting accident on the “Cover Up” set in 1984 improved firearm safety, and the 1982 death of Vic Morrow on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” after a pyrotechnic stunt on a helicopter went wrong, led to stricter fire safety standards.

Even with checks and inspections done by OSHA and the unions, it still comes down to having enough time to test the equipment, train the operators and rehearse the talent. And there will always be deadline pressure when productions struggle to stay on schedule and on budget.

“When a situation like that comes together and you know there’s no way something can be done safely with the time frame they’re giving you, there’s only one choice,” McGeough said. “You have to use the word ‘no.’?”

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