Mike McGowan is a longtime Steadicam operator and cameraman. He was the second unit DP of Burn Notice for 6 seasons (lots of harness work there!), and he also shot an Amazing Race season last year for Australia. Mike also was the chase sequence DP on Transporter 2 and Fast and the Furious 2, and has lots of aerials and water work along with the stunt camera stuff to his credit. Check him out on IMDB.
A few thoughts on Harnesses… by Mike McGowan
I started using rock climbing and other safety harnesses when I was a young kid while rock and mountain climbing. Putting one on was as natural as putting on a pair of shoes and I have always felt very comfortable with one on. I have also grown to really appreciate the safety and feeling of security wearing a harness and knowing how they help keep me safe.
I’ve been working in the motion picture industry for twenty years now and have been using harnesses and safety gear at work as well as play the whole time. I can safely say (pun intended) that the use of a harness has both saved my life and helped make my mortgage payment many times.
There are many different situations that a safety harness, lanyard, rock climbing harness and full body harness can and should be used. So may in fact that I can’t even begin to list them all. On that note, my first suggestion is that anybody working in the motion picture industry should at the very least spend some time rock climbing (either on a real rock or at an indoor facility). It is a great way to get hands on practice using a harness and learning how they work and gaining some level of comfort wearing one and hanging in one.
The next and related note is learning to take charge of your own safety. Balancing the ever present tick tock of the AD’s watch, the desire to get great shots and your personal safety should be easy, your personal safety comes first. With the hustle and bustle of the set it’s even more important to understand just how your safety device works, when and where it should work, how it attaches and what it attaches to. It’s also important to be able to quickly assess the level of knowledge and skill of the people helping to secure or in many cases securing you. This level of comfort with the rigging process can only come from experience and again, a great way to gain that experience (with out somebody asking “how much longer”) is to do some recreational climbing.
There are many types of harnesses but the two most common (and the two I recommend owning and carrying in your kit) are the lanyard (belt style harness) and the full body harness. The belt is great for insert car work and riding on things that move while you are holding or operating a camera. They are simple to use and almost unnoticeable to wear. When your hands and mind are busy operating a camera, it’s important to realize that a minor bump, break or turn could lead to a nasty fall that you would ordinarily be able to prevent if you were not holding a very heavy and expensive camera. I use a belt whenever I ride on anything and I also frequently where one when I am near anything exploding or moving fast as a handle for whoever is safetying me so they can quickly pull me out of harms way if needed.
The full body harness is typically used in situations where you are actively hanging on the harness. Where a belt may be worn ‘in case’ you fall, a full body harness is the tool to use when you know you are falling, descending or hanging. A good harness properly adjusted can also fit very comfortably, can support far more than your body weight and the weight of the camera. When you get comfortable using it, you are totally free to concentrate on getting great shots. I use a harness when rappelling, descending, hanging or when I’m shooting aerials out the side of a helicopter. They are also not that expensive (in the scheme of things) and can fit nicely in the bottom of your bag or back pack. I also carry two locking carabineers and two short pieces of webbing so I’m using my own gear to attach my harness to whatever anchor I’m using. It doesn’t do any good to have a great harness if the parts that are attaching the harness to your anchor fail.
A note on anchoring, two is one and one is none. Always use two pick points. One may fail so a back up is required. But more importantly one pick point doesn’t hold you in place (unless you are on a dead hang, hanging straight down with all of your body weight letting gravity do it’s thing). It’s possible to be anchored to one place and swing so hard you could literally knock your self out. Two pick points will help keep you in one spot. And if you are really going for a wild ride, three points are the only way to guarantee you stay put.
A final note on harnesses… An old F/X guy once told me while we were talking about gear, that he spends about a thousand dollars every year on small rigging (things like webbing, daisy chains, carabineers and the like. I asked him what he does with all of the old stuff and he told me he throws it away. “Like in the trash, away?” I asked. He said that he doesn’t have the time or desire (while he’s under the gun, on set and hanging an actor for a piece of truss) to worry about whether there had been too many falls or hard use on any of his equipment. “That’s one extra bit of anxiety I don’t need”. He also pointed out that it’s all a tax write off any way. While a good harness properly cared for can last many years there is no sense in having it if you are not sure about whether or not it will fall apart when you really need it.
Spend a little time researching harness and rigging gear, a little money buying it and a little time learning how to use it comfortably and safely. Not only will it make you a better operator, it may also save your life.