How to replace guns on movie sets

Blank-firing guns might allow for more realism than special effects, but does that outweigh safety concerns?

In the wake of an accidental fatal shooting on the set of the movie “Rust,” debate has ignited about workplace safety on films involving firearms. The prop gun fired by actor Alec Baldwin, which killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza, reportedly contained live ammunition, a mistake which movie armorers say should never have happened.

The conversation has grown to question whether firearms that are capable of firing live ammunition, even prop guns loaded with “blanks,” should be allowed on set at all. Some in the industry argue that postproduction visual effects are enough to replicate gunshots and should become the standard moving forward.

“There’s computers now,” Craig Zobel, a filmmaker who directed the HBO series “Mare of Easttown,” wrote on Twitter. “The gunshots [on my series] are all digital. You can probably tell, but who cares? It’s an unnecessary risk.”

But there are many elements to a gunshot that visual effects artists need to consider when recreating one. From muzzle flashes to cartridge ejections, we break it down below.

Muzzle flash

The muzzle flash — the light generated from the hot, high-pressure gasses exploding out of a firearm’s muzzle — usually only lasts for a fraction of a second, but is key for indicating a gunshot. Artists edit footage of these flashes into a scene, layering additional lighting and shadowing on the actors and environments to make the flash blend in naturally.

Sparks and smoke

After the initial muzzle flash, sparks and smoke linger on screen. The sparks can be taken from the same muzzle flash footage that is edited in, and the smoke can be recreated in a variety of ways. For example, Corridor Digital, a visual effects studio based in Los Angeles, makes their smoke effects by blowing flour out of an air compressor.

Cartridge ejection

Though not seen in this footage, which features a revolver similar to the prop gun used on “Rust,” some guns will automatically eject spent bullet cartridges. Blank-firing prop guns allow filmmakers to do this live on set.

But nowadays, high-end, non-lethal Airsoft guns, which fire pellets with air compressors, are visual replicas of real guns. Many are available with shell-ejecting capabilities.

Recoil and noise

Finally, there is the physical recoil of holding the gun and the loud bang that results. The recoil and flinching can be addressed with acting, and libraries of gunshot sounds are widely available to edit in. The only cost is some lost realism, with the benefit of much higher safety.

Besides safety gains, relying on visual effects could even help film productions save time. Ben Rock, a filmmaker and the production designer for “The Blair Witch Project,” tweeted arguing against blank-firing guns. “Every time you have to shoot a scene with blanks, you’re going to lose 30 minutes to safety meetings, passing out ear plugs to the entire crew, setting up plexiglass and plywood, on and on."

However, some filmmakers argue that relying entirely on visual effects means losing realism. They say that rules exist to prevent accidents and that those rules are largely effective — if followed. In Europe, stricter safety regulations require gun barrels to be “plugged,” preventing any bullets from escaping.

Visual effects artists are also frequently overworked and underpaid. They’re one of the few groups in Hollywood that lacks union representation despite often comprising the largest portion of the crew. “Deadpool,” for example, credited 572 VFX artists, according to the Fresno Bee. The next largest department, Camera and Electrical, had 97 credits in comparison.

With huge demand and massive competition, even VFX houses that work on box office blockbusters still struggle. In Feb. 2013, studio Rhythm & Hues won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for its work on “Life of Pi.” Yet just earlier that month, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off more than 200 employees without pay.

LEFT: A sign calls for workplace safety at a vigil for cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters) RIGHT: Halyna Hutchins appears as the director of photography on the set of "Archenemy" in 2019. Hutchins was fatally shot on the set of the film "Rust." (Jack Caswell/AP)

But regardless of the transition to CGI, injuries will continue on film sets, both firearms-related and not. The Associated Press, in an investigation of accidents on U.S. film and television sets in 2016, found that at least 43 people have died on set since 1990 and more than 150 have suffered life-altering injuries. Outside of the United States, at least 37 people died in filming accidents since 2000 and “many more” were seriously injured.

The AP explains that prosecutions are also rarely pursued, as “most workers are legally barred from suing, and those that do encounter the reluctance of witnesses to come forward for fear of being rendered unemployable in the ultracompetitive entertainment industry.”

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter and illustrator specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.