Hollywood has the difficult task of making realistic weapons for movies that are safe for use. We all remember the beloved Brandon Lee, actor and son of the famous martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
While shooting The Crow in 1993, Brandon was killed on set when a projectile from a gun improvised to shoot blanks struck him in the abdomen and killed him. This begs the question: Does realism have to come at the cost of safety in Hollywood?
Hollywood Uses Real Firearms
Hollywood uses firearms to ramp up the action and help movie watchers feel the intensity of the scenario. They enhance anticipation and anxiety, even though we know these emotions are fictional.
But it may surprise you to know that movies often don’t use prop guns. They may use real guns whenever a film calls for a weapon to look and function realistically. These weapons are typically modified for the scenes and safety.
Safety Is Paramount
Safety on film sets is critical and, since Brandon Lee’s death, we’ve seen firearms treated with the utmost respect. If you haven’t seen it, The Crow had a lot of gunplay, so there were plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong.
Weapons used on set are modified to shoot blanks, but they are real, and the legal and safety concerns are the same as those in real life. To ensure safety, professional productions hire on-set armorers.
Professional armorers, such as those with the Independent Studio Service (ISS), play a vital role in the production of movies involving guns. These armorers work with the fire marshal, assistant director, stunt coordinator and the studio safety representative.
They assist the production crew and cast by guiding them on the safe use of weapons while working on set.
Armorers must comply with the city, state, and federal laws of the location where they are filming. When the weapons aren’t in use, they must be kept in an approved state/federal lockup facility.
Making real firearms safe can be tricky, and you need an expert such as an armorer who completely understands how different weapon systems operate. Each gun is unique and it takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days to transform a traditional weapon into one that is movie-ready.
Modifying Firearms to Shoot Blanks
There are instances where replica or rubber guns are okay to use on a movie set. For those other times, armorers modify real ones to shoot blanks. So, how do blanks work, exactly?
The primary difference between genuine ammunition and blanks is that blanks don’t have a projectile. They fire the same way as real ammo. A firing pin strikes a primer and ignites the powder. Using blanks still provides the illusion of gunfire for cinema magic.
Areas Where Movies Aren’t So Real
There are some aspects of movies that directors dramatize for cinematic effects. Here are some myths that the movie industry uses to ramp up those special effects.
Myth 1: “Bulletproof Vests Stop Everything”
Many movies use bulletproof vests to bolster a character’s hero-like or superhuman powers. They strengthen a character’s physical stamina and presence.
In reality, typical ballistic vests like those that police officers and deputies wear don’t protect from many rifle rounds because of their high velocity. Vests such as these come in various threat levels ranging from IIa-IV, with IIa stopping only .9mm rounds and IV stopping up to .30 armor-piercing rounds.
However, even the ceramic plates that the military and law enforcement use for special situations, such as barricade incidents, can’t completely protect you from all trauma.
Projectiles pack a tremendous punch because of the energy transfer that ripples through the human body even when a vest stops a round. You probably won’t die, but, at the very least, you’ll likely suffer some broken ribs, if not internal organ damage.
Myth 2: “Bullets Can Kill You Underwater”
Bullets don’t travel very far underwater. Think of it this way. The higher the height you jump from into the water, the harder the impact with the water.
Slower-moving rounds may travel eight feet in water, while rifle rounds can break up as soon as they hit the water. So, while it looks cool in the movies, it’s not very realistic. Next time you want to get away from bullets, just jump in the water!
Myth 3: “Silencers Make Guns Quiet”
Gunshots are extremely loud. How many times have you seen people in movies firing guns closely with no ear protection? Some actors have damaged their hearing as a result of shooting weapons while filming.
Hollywood uses suppressors for some films, often so villains can kill their targets without being discovered. However, silencers don’t make guns nearly as quiet as they appear in movies. Whenever someone fires a gun, you actually hear three sounds.
The gunpowder exploding, the action of the gun and the bullet breaking the sound barrier. The silencer may help with one of the sounds but not all of them.
To put it in perspective, a jet engine is 140 decibels, while a gun is about 160 decibels. A silencer only reduces the sound approximately 30 decibels.
Myth 4: “Cars Are Bulletproof”
Let’s just say that you’re better off jumping into water than seeking safety from a hail of bullets in a vehicle. The only part of a car that’s bulletproof is the engine block. The side panels on cars are built to be light, so a bullet can travel straight through a car and out the other side.
While movies make it look like people are safe from bullets when they hide in cars, in reality they would probably be dead. If you hide behind the engine block, as law enforcement training instructs, you may avoid bullets but you most likely won’t be driving away in that vehicle.
The Takeaway: Realistic, but Not Totally Real
Movie directors try to make scenes with guns as realistic as possible. However, there are some things that Hollywood uses to provide drama, suspense and action that aren’t accurate in the real world.
Movies are for entertainment, so it’s not necessarily important that they depict reality accurately. Focusing on safety is critical and working with professional armorers helps with safety compliance and weapon alterations for the best special effects.