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Case study

NFTS: life through a lens

From preventing mermaids from drowning to filming dynamic risk assessments, it is business as usual for the OSH head at the UK’s National Film and Television School. 

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“Thinking I had come here for a quiet job,” says Simon Mallin, “in one of the first scripts I read, the opening line was: “She runs across the Armageddon landscape, her wedding dress on fire.”

As head of health and safety at the UK’s National Film and Television School (NFTS), Mallin, Grad IOSH, has found his role is full of such challenges. It involves reducing the risks involved in the creative projects of more than 200 students learning to write, direct or produce feature films, documentaries and all variety of TV shows.

Or rather, he tries to help the students learn to reduce the risks themselves. “We do aim to support the students, but hands-off,” he says. “So when they are ready and trained to go out and make a film they are very much on their own. We will visit them occasionally on location but it’s down to them.”

Often, Mallin finds the creativity that goes into the work can also be redirected to make it safer.

Simon-Mallin-Grad-IOSH-head-of-health-and-safety-at-the-UK's-National-Film-and-Television-School-(NFTS) “We have just done a film with the first-year students set in a war zone,” he says. “The director wanted shots of sniper’s bullets peppering the ground around someone as they ran across a square. Normally that is done with remotely detonated charges in the ground. We couldn’t do that, so the students came to me and said ‘If we got a paintball gun and filled the paintball pellets with dust, could we fire them at the ground and see if it gives us the effect?’ I said we would try it, and it worked a treat.”

Another recent film production posed the problem of how to film an actress in a mermaid’s tail disappearing into the sea. “It was a restrictive costume,” he explains. “In the end, she didn’t wear it in the sea, only in the tank at Pinewood. The students found a lifeguard who was an extra strong swimmer who put the tail on and did disappearing shots into the water off the coast of Hastings, which will then be cut with the ones of the actress in the tank.”

Sometimes, Mallin himself provides the answer to problems. This is most satisfying, he says, when his background as a producer allows him to provide a safer solution that also simplifies the shoot. He recalls a student director who wanted to dig a 2 m deep “grave” to stand in and film from. Mallin suggested that digging to half the depth and having the camera operator kneel inside would give the same effect, be quicker and avoid the problems of a more substantial unshored excavation.

Passport please

The school occupies 0.8 hectares in Beaconsfield to the west of London. The site’s history as a film studio – the first British talking picture was filmed there – allows the NFTS to claim to be the only British film school with a permanent sound stage and the only one in the world with two. Its alumni include David Yeats, director of four Harry Potter films, animator Nick Park who created Wallace and Gromit, and auteur Terence Davies.

Wake-up calls

The film industry has received a couple of serious regulatory shocks in recent years. Two high-profile accidents on film sets have ended a sense among many producers that the creative industries were removed from liability.
The first was the death in 2014 of a camera operator’s assistant, Sarah Jones. She was run over by a train during unauthorised filming on rail lines in the US for Midnight Rider, a biopic of singer Gregg Allman, starring William Hurt. The director received a ten-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter (bit.ly/2jTJQGq).
“That message went very deep,” says Mallin.
The second case was the prosecution in the UK of Star Wars production company Foodles after Harrison Ford had his leg and ankle broken by a hydraulic door on set (bit.ly/2latzCc). The fine level, influenced by the new sentencing guidelines that take into account the turnover of the organisation and the potential as well as actual harm, opened the eyes of the executives in the many big international production companies that film in the UK.
“If it was £1.6m for a broken ankle, what would it have been for a death?” Mallin reflects.
The globalised nature of the industry has eroded differential standards between countries, he says: “Everyone used to go to eastern Europe to film dangerous horseriding sequences but that’s coming to an end now.”

The students plus around 100 teaching and administrative staff are spread through 14 departments,  including video games design, editing and animation, and are supplemented by a fluctuating cast of actors, freelance technicians and camera operators.

Mallin, who reports to the director of operations, has been head of health and safety – the first in that post – since 2010.

He explains that the production manager on a show or movie is the person charged by the producers to make sure the system of work is safe. But the production manager will not usually be present on a shoot. Instead, the first assistant director (AD) in film or the floor manager in a TV studio is the “responsible person”, in safety and health terms, who will call an ambulance on set and act as the eyes of the production manager, relaying information back to them about whether the work is going to plan.

Over the past eight years the industry has developed the Production Safety Passport scheme, modelled on the similar initiative in construction and recognised by employers, including the BBC, ITV and Sky. A day’s basic safety training is accredited by the sector skills body Creative Skillset and attendees receive a card and a number that any production company can check against a database.

The school recently decided to put all its students through the passport training, provided by industry specialist consultancy 1st Option, which Mallin also uses for advice on new hazards such as using drones in filming.

“You don’t know where people will end up in the creative industries, so we have decided everyone should know the basics to help get the culture across the sector right,” he says.

Mandating the training will increase the number of people entering the industry aware of the need to protect themselves and others. “We are lots of little tribes which come together to make something then go away and regroup,” Mallin adds. “It’s important the culture of health and safety travels from one production to another, because then you aren’t having to reinvent it.”

He supplements the passport training with sessions on each of the specialisations, developing students’ ability to complete risk assessments.

The safety culture among the technical grades in film and television, such as electricians and riggers, was stronger when they were trained and employed directly by big employers, the BBC among them, he says. Now that the big corporations use freelancers for such work or subcontract it via producers, he sees that culture fading. He hopes the school will develop more courses for the craft grades to help restore the balance.

He is now planning full three-day first aid at work training for all first ADs; production managers will go through the one-day emergency first aid course.

Faking it

“We cheat all the time,” says Mallin, returning to the theme of how what is most exciting or shocking on the screen is a lot less risky than it appears. “Very few people are punched in the face in productions. We cheat with body doubles or increasingly with digital effects.”

The latter has its limits, however: “There’s an illusion that everything can be done with CGI [computer-generated imagery] but a lot is still done in front of the camera, especially at the lower-budget end where we are. CGI is for extending the sets or changing the scenery.”

That scene with the burning wedding dress provides a good example of digital enhancement. “We found a fire training school in Oxfordshire where they train dogs to go into collapsed buildings after earthquakes and that had gas flame jets, so that became the background. They then found a stuntman who was training his daughter to be a stunt double as well and she agreed to do it.

“The biggest problem was finding the wedding dress, because all modern wedding dresses are highly flammable and burn too quickly. So the answer was an antique Victorian dress, which burned sufficiently slowly to be controlled. They amplified the fire on her dress digitally and the fire behind her.”

Stranger than fiction

“On a fiction script it is pretty predictable where you will be filming once you have chosen the locations,” he says. “I can go and visit them, especially if it’s a challenging location. But the script gives you a document that allows you to work out what to do. If it says there is a car crash, we have to think how the heck we manage that. But we can assess it.

The winner is…

IOSH has sponsored a health and safety award for National Film and Television School students since 2005. Awarded at the graduation ceremony in February, the award, Health and Safety Management in Film Production – best safety plan on a fiction shoot, and a £1,000 prize goes to the production with the strongest risk control plans.
NFTS head of health and safety Simon Mallin says the judging panel of four members of IOSH’s Thames Valley branch do not see the finished films when they judge, partly because it will still be at the editing stage, but also to prevent distraction from the documentation. “They see all the paperwork, the script, the production dossier, the risk assessments and so on,” he explains, “and they interview the students.”
The 2017 award went to producer Andrew Oldbury and production manager Aaron Hillier for their film sie, about a mother’s reflection on her life choices.
Chris Stops, CMIOSH, who was one of the judges, said sie won for the producers’ explanation of how safety enhanced creativity in making the film and for the producers “keen appreciation of how the 2015 CDM regulations impacted upon their industry.”

“The directors know that, once we have risk-assessed what they are doing for the day, unless something out of their control changes, they are very much locked into what they have planned.”

“Often on a documentary, plans are more subject to change. You are due to shoot an interview in one place then discover the interviewee can’t meet there.

“A classic one that happened to us was a plan to interview someone on a beach and when they got there the interviewee said ‘That’s my boat’. The director said ‘Let’s do the interview in the boat’. That opened up all sorts of questions. Was the boat seaworthy? How many people could it carry safely? Were there lifejackets for everyone? It’s those spontaneous ‘wouldn’t that be great?’ ideas that allow things to go wrong.”

To accommodate some of this late adaptation, Mallin is training students to carry out dynamic risk assessments directly to camera in the field. The value of this process, he says, is not so much the record it produces as the fact that it makes the individual review and articulate the altered risks.

Documentary staffing also changes the hazard profile: “One of the real problem areas for us and for the industry is the use of one-person crews and lone working, what we call solo operators. It’s increasingly common for documentaries and news gathering. On the documentary course it’s a real challenge, especially sending out young people.”

The solution includes insisting students research thoroughly the places they are to visit, establish local emergency contacts and remain in regular contact by phone while they are shooting. (Though over-reliance on mobile phones is dangerous, he notes. “What if you lose your mobile, or the battery runs out or there is no signal? Then you are stuck.”)

“We have had students filming in the slums of Manila. We have had them in the refugee camp in Calais that has now been demolished. We have managed but it is an increasing area of concern. “We couldn’t send them anywhere really dangerous, anywhere that required kidnap and ransom insurance,” he adds. But the spread of terrorist threats into western countries and civil unrest in previously peaceable places, such as Istanbul, makes it increasingly hard to define which areas are the most hazardous, “where it used to be neat little areas of warfare”.

He says one counterbalancing positive development is that the shrinking of broadcast quality cameras renders the solo operators less conspicuous.

Another, more mundane hazard that affects any type of production is fatigue.

“We do have to keep an eye on them and check that after pre-production they aren’t still suffering from sleep deprivation when they start filming on a six-to-eight-day shoot,” he says. Part of the professional education the courses provide is the chance for students to discover their limits in such areas. “Because it’s a very demanding career and only they can judge it. When someone gives them a script and says ‘Can you make that in three weeks?’, they are going to have to make that decision before they think about other resources. Do they have the stamina?”

Doubling back

Mallin initially trained as an architect but, having “fallen in love with the cinema”, went to the NFTS for three years, then into TV as a producer, before a period as a script executive for Black Lion Films, the company that made The Long Good Friday. After returning to the NFTS he ran Ealing film studios for five years after the school bought it as a potential new home. A spell in the early 2000s as a property consultant for the creative industries ended in the post-2008 recession and he retrained as a co-ordinator for projects covered by the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.

“I was doing that when the film school phoned up and said ‘We need a health and safety person,’ so I reinvented myself again.”

He was appointed by the school on a contract to advise and then appointed permanently as head of health and safety in 2010.

The NFTS’s safety record has been creditable in the years since, with only one accident reportable to the authorities. Mallin worries about under-reporting of  near-misses.“I think people have a code where they don’t talk about them.

“Only once in my professional career have I seen a crew member stand up and switch a generator off saying ‘I’m sorry guv’nor we are going home; we are too tired’. Everybody on the crew wanted to cheer that electrician, but everybody knuckled down and just vowed they would never work with that director again. It’s such a freelance industry nobody wants to be a whistleblower so I think a lot of near-misses go unreported.”

He says it is impossible to generalise about the risk appetite of the current generation of students: “We have people from all over the world from different cultures. Some Scandinavian students are insulted to be taught safety that would restrict them when they have parachuted and swam through fjords and so on.

“Looking through a camera, there is an adrenaline rush but I tell students it’s in those moments when you are all excited about getting a good shot that you make a stupid decision and you step off the cliff backwards.

“I knew when I took this job, as a graduate of the school and having spent a while as a producer, that health and safety can be a turn-off to people trying to do something ambitious, so I had the challenge to convince people that safe didn’t mean boring. Safe might mean you live to make another film.”

 

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