File photo of actor Alec Baldwin | Commons
File photo of actor Alec Baldwin | Commons
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New Delhi: Tragedy struck the Bonanza Creek Ranch film set outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, US Thursday as Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun that accidently killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza.

The incident occurred during the production of Rust, an independent Western film starring Baldwin.

While Santa Fe Police said that no arrests have been made or charges filed, the incident remains an “open and active” investigation and production of Rust has since been halted indefinitely, Variety reported.

Hutchins’ passing is not the first time an individual has suffered a fatal accident on a film set due to a prop gun. Actor Brandon Lee, son of legendary Hong Kong American martial artist Bruce Lee, was fatally shot by actor Michael Massee with a prop gun during the filming of The Crow in 1993.

Similarly, in 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum fatally shot himself with a blank discharged from a .44 Magnum pistol, while jokingly playing with the pistol on set amid repeated delays in the filming of the television series Cover Up.

Such prop guns are also used on film sets in India. “Over the years, the company has grown to manufacture hundreds of rifles, dozens of AK-47s and pistols of every type imaginable. But when a pistol proves too difficult to make, ‘we import them from foreign gun manufacturers who make dummies for training and exhibition purposes.’, The Hindu quotes ‘Gun’ Naveen Raj, a firearms supplier for South Indian films, as saying.

What is a prop gun?

Although prop guns can refer to fake firearms often sold as toys that do not discharge bullets, in the context of film production, it also refers to real guns that shoot blanks and are used as props on sets, journalist Ross A. Lincoln writes.

Lincoln cites a 2019 article by Canada-based professional firearms instructor Dave Brown for American Cinematographer magazine, which provides extensive detail on why real guns are often used as props, what constitutes a blank and the many steps that need to be taken to ensure safety on film production locations.

Realism and authenticity form the cornerstones under which such real guns with blanks are essential to filming, Brown argues, something which computer-generated imagery or other means cannot replicate.

“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,” Brown writes.

“A blank is a cartridge that’s fired from a real or blank-firing firearm. The blank contains no bullet — the actual projectile part of a cartridge — but is loaded with enough gunpowder to create a bright flash at the end of the barrel [known as muzzle flash], thereby convincing the audience that the gun has been fired,” he added.

Instead of the projectile, blanks contain either paper wadding or wax to keep the gunpowder loaded in order to create that muzzle flash, Lincoln writes, citing a handbook on firearms and ballistics.

Blanks remain dangerous in unsafe environments

As seen from Hexum’s passing, even these blanks containing wadding and gunpowder can be very dangerous from close range or if not all safety procedures are followed, which is where firearm experts like Brown come in as important figures on a film set.

Brown goes into significant detail on the intricacies involved not only in setting up a scene in order to capture the muzzle flash created by shooting a blank, but also in the different types of prop firearms in use.

More importantly, Brown lays out his own formula rule of thumb for assessing the gun safety of a particular scene, in which the “hazard” of a scene is “directly proportional to the power of the blank, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance away from the gunshot”.

“The single most important factor in the safety of your cast when firing a blank is sufficient distance. Distance is your friend,” he added.

While circumstances around Halyna Hutchins’ death remain unclear pending a complete investigation, Brandon Lee’s 1993 death was caused by not properly checking the prop gun, as a “metallic projectile” was discharged instead of the blank, The New York Times had reported.

Despite the possibility of such accidents, Brown discourages causing any kind of panic or alarm around the frequent use of prop guns on film sets.

“Safety is not about scaring people. It’s about treating firearms with respect, consistently checking every firearm on set, and working with the same quiet, calm professionalism as a good camera operator,” he writes.

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