Years before the “Rust” tragedy would cause urgent conversations about guns on set, Hollywood had a safe and realistic alternative that it ignored.
The proprietary technology was shown to industry leaders and movie stars in the corners of conventions and trade shows, in the sleek offices of venture capital firms, and in dazzling proof-of-concept footage posted to YouTube.
It’s called Violette, a device with science-fair simplicity, which combined propane and oxygen to create a flash, bang and physical recoil — all the sensory elements of firing a weapon that we expect to see in movies and on TV. The device lives inside a dummy gun, but isn’t a firearm.
These faux weapons or “host units,” as founders Søren Haraldsted and Daniel Karpantschof of Copenhagen Industries call them, are hollowed-out props modeled after the real thing. They can safely be held as close as two inches from their intended targets, the inventors said.
“With Violette, we removed all the restrictions of using real firearms and replaced that with a creative ability for the cast, crew, director and DP. CGI has gotten better, it’s true, but having the actual effect on set produces a better result in the camera,” Karpantschof told Variety.
Armed with their demo gun and a sizzle reel, Haraldsted and Karpantschof set out in the fall of 2015 to raise $5 million for Violette, hoping the tool would become industry standard and replace real firearms for good. Over four years, they engaged with the likes of Disney Accelerator (an incubator that develops tech for the media giant), Netflix, the Smith Family Circle (Will and Jada’s holdings company) and Avi Lerner’s Millennium Films. They heard the same response again and again, said Karpantschof: “We want the product, we don’t want to fund it.”
At a 2019 after-party in Los Angeles for the speaker series Summit, Karpantschof held court with actor Harrison Ford and John Plunkett, a founding creative director of Wired magazine who is worshiped in nerdish enclaves of the business.
“I told Mr. Ford that I had been working for years to create a firearm that is 100% safe for cast and crew. He said, ‘Listen, what you’re describing can’t be done. Other people have tried and it’s not possible,’” Karpantschof recalls. “I got to show him some of our videos. He looked at it and said, ‘What you’re showing me isn’t possibly real. It’s either CGI or blanks.’”
But it was real and it was harmless, Karpantschof said. Though Variety was not able to observe Violette up close, the footage is convincing. Variety sent the Violette demo to a top physical production executive from a major studio, who shared their thoughts on the condition of anonymity. They praised the flash the unit produces, but counted misfires based on the number of rounds coming from the dummy gun. Violette would be ideal, they said, for night shoots with large groups of background performers — in military scenarios, for example. Karpantschof said the model still needs funds for further development, but welcomed the feedback.
The technology is also relatively inexpensive, with price-per-unit coming in around $3,500, the inventors estimated. Prop houses and studios could amortize this cost by leasing the equipment out to other productions.
The “founder moment” for Copenhagen Industries and its potentially game-changing product came after Haraldsted, a veteran special effects technician and weapons master, wrapped the 2008 Mads Mikkelsen film “Flame & Citron.”
For the story of Danish resistance fighters in WWII, Haraldsted was responsible for transporting historic weapons from Copenhagen to a location shoot in the Czech Republic. During production, some cast members had been hit with shrapnel from blank ammunition (no injuries were recorded, Karpantschof said). Further complicating the matter was that two years later, Haraldsted was visited at his home by two uniformed police officers holding a warrant from Interpol for arms trafficking. It turned out that a border agent at customs had not sent in the appropriate clearance forms saying that the weapons had left the country for a film.
“He got to thinking, ‘How can we do this in a smarter way?’” Karpantschof said of his partner.
No one could have predicted the catastrophic recent incident that left cinematographer Halyna Hutchins dead and “Rust” director, Joel Souza, injured. But aside from the obvious safety benefits, the men from Copenhagen wanted to appeal to filmmakers’ collective hatred of red tape — the same kind that saw Haraldsted hauled into a police station over some missing forms.
“Weapons are going the way of the dodo, and it’s accelerated now. Look over the past two years, with increasing antiterror legislation and compliance over firearms. This is not going to be a sustainable way of producing films,” Karpantschof said.
Safety and compliance issues amount to uncertainty when it comes to making movies and TV, he says, “which is a nightmare to deal with. Our technology means you can start looking at firearms as a creative tool instead of a restrictive tool.” But best practices did not lead to funding. The men were getting desperate and scaled down their ambitions to a $1 million raise that would allow them to continue development on Violette.
At the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, Karpantschof had a particularly frustrating chat with an executive for a prominent indie film label (which is owned by a major studio). He shared with the executive that there was “something I’m not getting. We’ve been getting rejections from angel investors, VCs. Everyone wants the product, no one wants to fund it.”
The executive, standing outside in the dead of the German winter, told him: “Two things. First, you are a physical product, but you’re not retail. You’re a business, but you’re not an enterprise. You’re B2B, but you’re not corporate. You’re production, but you’re not a production platform. So many things here don’t fit the bill.”
The second and final thing the executive imparted: “You’re asking for too little money. Who wants 3-5 times return on $1 million?”
That December, Karpantschof and Haraldsted shuttered Copenhagen Industries. Flash forward to Oct. 21, when reports began trickling out that two people had been shot on the set of Alec Baldwin’s indie Western.
“The incident happened at night here in Copenhagen, and my friends from the U.S. started texting me links to articles. I thought, ‘This used to be related to me, but it’s not anymore. I’ve moved on,’” Karpantschof said. About seven hours later, he had incoming emails from prospective investors and knew “there’s no way I’m going to be able to ignore this.”
A week ago, Karpantschof appeared during a press conference with Bandar Albuliwi, the filmmaker and creator of a Change.org petition to permanently ban the use of firearms on film sets. Karpantschof said he’s already received $1 million from a private European family to resume work on Violette and hopes to close the remaining $4 million in the coming weeks. From there, he anticipates a six-to-nine-month production timeline to get these safe alternatives to guns in the hands of filmmakers.
Karpantschof notes with irony that he’s “never been a fan of guns, I’ve never cared about them. What I do care about is great storytelling.”
He speaks eloquently, however, about their role in content.
“Weapons have always been integral to the spirt of storytelling, whether it’s the Spear of Destiny or Thor’s Hammer. They are a representation of conflict. But because it’s been so prohibitively expensive and cumbersome and dangerous — the product we’re left with is not all that great,” he says. “If we make it a little easier and much safer to work with weapons, we’re going to get a lot more faceted stories from all perspectives, not just the ones that have the most money.”