‘Rust’ cinematographer dies after prop gun shooting

The film world was devasted last week by the shocking death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Hutchins was fatally injured on the set of the western movie “Rust” in New Mexico. The tragedy occurred when lead actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun after being reportedly told it didn’t contain a live round. The movie’s director, Joel Souza, was also wounded in the incident but has since been discharged from the hospital.

Hutchins was named a “rising star” by American Cinematographer in 2019. Her previous films include Archenemy, Blindfire, The Mad Hatter and Darlin’. She is survived by her husband and her eight-year-old son.

Where the investigation stands

The circumstances around the shooting are still unclear and are subject to an ongoing police investigation. Court records reveal that Assistant Director Dave Halls handed Baldwin the gun and shouted “cold gun” when Baldwin took the gun. On set, when a gun is cold, it means that the firearm isn’t loaded. However, in this case, the gun contained a live round.

As the investigation stands currently, the authorities are still investigating the incident. According to Mary Carmack-Altwies, the Santa Fe County district attorney, that could take weeks, if not months, to complete. At this time, she isn’t ruling out criminal charges.

“We haven’t ruled out anything,” Carmack-Altwies, said in a telephone interview.

Carmack-Altwies takes issue with the terminology of “prop gun” for this incident, clarifying that the gun used on set was “an antique-era appropriate gun” and “a legit gun.” The focus of the investigation right now is to find out what kind of round was in the antique gun and who put it in. According to Carmack-Altwies, there were “enormous amounts of bullets on the set.” So, it might take some time to find what type of bullet was in the gun.

Live round defined

There has also been some confusion around the term “live round” by the media when using it to report the incident. It is important to note that this term may also apply to a blank. A blank is a gun cartridge that contains gunpowder but doesn’t have a bullet. Blanks often contain much more gunpowder than a shell with a bullet to create a flash when firing. As a result, blanks can expel debris and hot gases, which can cause injury at close range. This is why a cold gun should be completely empty on a film set, even without a blank.

Gun safety on set

The death of Hutchins has highlighted the reignited industry discussions regarding prop gun safety on film sets. Set guns have sadly caused several deaths in the past. These include Jon-Erik Hexum in 1983, Brandon Lee in 1993 and Johann Ofner in 2017. 

This incident has resulted in cries to productions to reevaluate how they handle gun safety on set and to have stricter regulation on those loading the guns to ensure only qualified people are handling the gun before actors use them.

With the advances in visual effects and CGI, there have even been calls to discontinue the use of blanks in the film world. Following the death of Hutchins, ABC’s TV cop show “The Rookie” has banned the firing of real guns. Showrunner Alexi Hawley said they will only use replica toy guns with computer-generated muzzle flashes added in postproduction.

If this practice becomes more widespread, then hopefully, tragedies like the death of Halyna Hutchins will not happen again.

Pete Tomkies
Pete Tomkies
Pete Tomkies is a freelance cinematographer and camera operator from Manchester, UK. He also produces and directs short films as Duck66 Films. Pete's latest short Once Bitten... won 15 awards and was selected for 105 film festivals around the world.

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