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Why are real guns still used on film sets? In wake of 'Rust' shooting, their future is in question

 "Any risk is too much risk," one TV producer said.
Props expert Guillaume Delouche at Independent Studio Services holds a prop gun in Los Angeles on Oct. 22, 2021.
Props expert Guillaume Delouche of Independent Studio Services holds a prop gun in Los Angeles on Friday.David McNew / AFP - Getty Images

Hollywood’s technical maestros use computers to create eye-popping visual effects: the giant sandworms of “Dune,” the alien invaders of “A Quiet Place,” the majestic dragons of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi.”

So why are guns still used on movie sets when computer-generated images, or CGI, might substitute for the look, sound and visceral shock of the real thing?

That’s one of the questions many in the film industry are asking after the death of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, on the set of the Western drama “Rust.” The tragedy is prompting calls for a wholesale re-evaluation of the way Hollywood uses guns.

In the wake of Hutchins’ death, some film and television professionals are pleading with their peers to ban real guns on sets — an online petition to do just that had amassed nearly 25,000 signatures by Monday morning. 

A California state senator said he plans to introduce legislation that would outlaw firearms capable of firing live ammunition on productions in the state to “prevent this type of senseless violence and loss of life.”

“With firearms, you only get one mistake and somebody’s dead. There’s just no reason to take that risk,” Dave Cortese, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We understand [the industry] has protocols in place ... but that’s not been codified in state law.”

The standard protocols dictate that weapons must be overseen by licensed “armorers” and that performers should be trained in gun safety, among other rules. The real guns on sets are often filled with blanks, but the “Rust” gun somehow contained a lethal amount of live ammunition.

Cortese said he plans to organize fact-finding hearings as his office pushes forward on the text of the legislation.

The demands for change

Craig Zobel, the director of the Emmy-winning HBO miniseries “Mare of Easttown,” drew one of the first lines in the sand after “Rust” actor and producer Alec Baldwin fired the gun that killed Hutchins. 

“There’s no reason to have guns loaded with blanks or anything on set anymore. Should just be fully outlawed,” Zobel tweeted early Friday while the country absorbed the news.

“There’s computers now. The gunshots on ‘Mare of Easttown’ are all digital,” he added. “You can probably tell, but who cares? It’s an unnecessary risk.”

He was soon joined by other producers and directors. Alexi Hawley, the showrunner of the ABC police procedural “The Rookie,” said in a memo to cast and crew members that there would be “no more ‘live’ weapons on the show.”

In the future, all gunfire on “The Rookie” will come from airsoft guns — replica toys that use pellets instead of bullets — with CGI muzzle flashes added in post-production, Hawley wrote in the memo, first reported by The Hollywood Reporter and confirmed by NBC News.

“Any risk is too much risk,” he wrote.

Eric Kripke, the showrunner for Amazon’s dark comedy “The Boys,” made a similar pledge:

Bandar Albuliwi, a filmmaker who graduated from the American Film Institute conservatory five years before Hutchins, created a Change.org petition that had drawn nearly 25,000 signatures at the time of publication. The actor and director Olivia Wilde shared the link on Twitter.

“Real guns are no longer needed on film production sets,” the petition says. “Change needs to happen before additional talented lives are lost.”

Baldwin, for his part, should use his “power and influence” in Hollywood to promote legislation called “Halyna’s Law,” the petition says.

It was not clear Monday what kind of gun Baldwin fired. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating, said it would hold a news conference Wednesday to discuss the investigation.

Is it feasible?

Some industry professionals say there are a few reasons banning the use of guns on sets might not be practical for all productions, especially independent projects working with small budgets or tiny crews.

In general, CGI adds costs to a production’s budget, and adding visual effects to shots can take months.

“It’s oftentimes easier and more economical to actually discharge your weapon on set using a blank than it is to add a gun in CGI in post-production,” said Anna Halberg, a film producer who has worked on large-scale sci-fi and action projects.

Walt Disney Pictures has the financial resources and the lead time to add special effects to Marvel epics, for example, but small-scale movies — or even television shows operating on tighter turnaround schedules — are usually not so fortunate.

The Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., on Saturday.Jae C. Hong / AP

“You’ve got a very short delivery window in the TV industry, and so depending on how gun-heavy the project is, it definitely adds a lot of time in post-production,” said Halberg, who produced the coming space drama “Distant,” starring Anthony Ramos. (NBC News and Universal Pictures, the distributor of “Distant,” are both part of NBCUniversal.)

In addition, some Hollywood technicians and craftspeople prefer the verisimilitude that comes with using real guns loaded with blanks. The director might be able to draw a more authentic performance out of an actor using an actual weapon, or so the thinking goes.

“I know a lot of actors really prefer to use blanks on set because they feel more real, instead of reacting to something that’s going to be added in post-production. They can feel the recoil of firing a bullet, so they feel like they get a better reaction from themselves,” Halberg said.

In a 2019 article for American Cinematographer, firearms instructor Dave 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,” he added.