Safety on Set: Why Are There so Many Accidents in K-Dramas?
Yeom Hye Sun, screenwriter for JTBC’s drama “Maids,” tragically lost her life in a horrific fire that destroyed the set last December.
I understand that accidents do happen, on set and especially while shooting complex fight scenes – but this seems to happen a little too often to be considered isolated incidents. Are productions not paying attention to safety precautions? You might recall the buzz about “The Technicians” production neglecting injured actors.
So maybe they’re uncommon, unfortunate mishaps.
Lee Seung Gi damaged his cornea during “You’re All Surrounded.” Actress Moon Geun Young was struck in the face from falling camera equipment on the set of “Goddess Of Fire, Jung-Yi.” It’s not just dramas, either. Kim Woo Bin injured his knee while shooting the soon-to-be-released feature “Twenty.” T.O.P. (aka Choi Seung Hyun) underwent surgery after hurting his hand during an action scene on the set of “Alumni.”
It seems a little too commonplace, don’t you think?
Those brutal production hours can take its toll on your health, too. Ha Ji Won reportedly slipped herself an IV drip in between takes of “Secret Garden.” Park Hae Jin was hospitalized after shooting “Bad Guys” for six days straight.
These misadventures come to mind offhand, and I don’t even work in K-Drama production: what’s up with the industry out there?
I’ve never worked with production in South Korea, but I have worked in that other little entertainment capital, Hollywood, aka Los Angeles.
The film and television production life is wrought with grueling work and ridiculously long hours (16+hour days). I remember one night I was so exhausted after a day of shooting that I fell asleep at the wheel while driving. (Sidenote: never, ever drive while tired; arrive home alive.)
Media makes its usual rounds with the injuries and illnesses affecting actors – names that beeline for the press on the regs, but I trust that there are exponentially more maladies suffered by the massive production crews that work behind-the-scenes. Even during my first few days of working on an indie film, I noticed that the crew members were the first ones to arrive on set and the last ones to leave.
Ok, so it’s a rough line of work. But all is not lost – there are industry safeguards in place. (For the purposes of discussion, I am drawing upon the entertainment industry in the United States below.)
In the United States, there’s SAG/AFTRA, the actors’ union which protects performers by providing specific work conditions. (For example, actors must be given a meal break within the first six hours of their call time – call time being the time at which a cast or crew member must report for work.) There are unions for everyone in the biz – directors, producers, writers, costume designers, etc. (South Korea has the Korean Broadcasting, Film, and Performing Arts Labor Union.)
There are film permits, local authorities, and sometimes security detail assigned to a shooting location. There are pyrotechnics experts on set when shooting a scene with explosives. Professional stunt doubles and fight choreographers. Breakaway glass and furniture and foam props so that no one gets hurt. (And presumably which, all professional, fully-funded productions use.) In some cases there’s a safety manager onsite who makes sure everything is up to par.
And even if you’re not working on a union project, many industry standards are followed, and often expected – it’s likely that most of the cast and crew are experienced and already know the drill.
If a crew member still gets injured somehow, there might be a first aid kit on set. If its an emergency and they need to be hospitalized? The nearest hospital and corresponding contact information is listed on the call sheet, which is provided to every single actor and crew member working that day – so everyone will know exactly where to take their co-worker.
Despite all this, not everything is perfect in Hollywood. People get overworked, underpaid, or neglected; it happens. Subsequent reports are often conducted, hearings get underway, and penalties get doled out. But it’s not so rampant that they’re burning headlines every week. The only major story that comes to mind is that of camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was killed during the production of “Midnight Rider” last year. (And maybe that’s another problem: cast and crew could be worried about losing their jobs for speaking up about safety concerns.)
Also, not everyone in South Korea ignores safety.
Many dramas, like Ji Chang Wook‘s action-packed “Healer,” have a team of stuntmen (although co-star Park Min Young pressed on with a minor injury, which was so slight she barely vocalized it). “The Thieves” film producers went to great lengths to ensure safety and work with local authorities.
But then there’s that fuss over realism that’s popped up on the sets of different productions, in which actors, in scenes portraying characters getting hurt, are actually getting hurt. It’s not just me – even Hollywood is noticing the endangering situations on South Korea’s sets.
At least the Korean Film Council has stepped up to share costs of having a medical team and ambulance onsite with film production companies. There’s the Producers Guild of Korea, which has vocalized the need for increased safety measures. But it still feels like things are moving slowly, and in very small steps.
So what’s with all these mishaps in K-Drama productions?
South Korea’s drama world, and entertainment, for that matter, have been cultivated for many years. There’s been growing talent crossover internationally. Bolstered by a nation’s economic development and a growing market for content distribution, dramas are selling like hotcakes (or hotteok, if you will) on a global scale these days. They’re not newfound fads; they’ve developed, grown up, and gotten sophisticated. K-Dramas have a distinct format and production schedule. Certain storytelling tools have become standard with every series. Episode orders get longer with an increase in popularity.
Ah, that K-Drama production schedule. There’s two episodes a week compared to one (for most shows in the US, aside from news, talk shows, and the dying breed of daytime soaps). There are those questionable ethics of the live shoot system. It’s already a harried existence to begin with, living and dying with network pressure and ratings.
With more buyers and a growing international audience (thank you, subtitles), there’s more money to be had. And, I suppose, that much more pressure.
So who’s responsible for safety on set?
A great deal of responsibility falls upon the production company. They’re the ones working on set and creating the drama, which broadcast networks then air. Arguably, safety is everyone’s responsibility. Experienced producers and crew members know the ropes. But maybe there’s inconsistent, vague, or nonexistent rigmarole enforcing proper safety measures. (And maybe simple acceptance of negligence puts everyone at fault. Or are people too scared to say anything, lest they get fired?)
If you’re a K-Drama producer, chances are, you’re not eating right, you’re not sleeping, you never see your family, and you’re hell-bent on cranking out those two episodes every week. Life’s not easy when you’re producing a hit.
But maybe you’re a producer who’s concerned about safety, too.
Say you decide to put in all the safety measures you should have been doing all along. That would mean new, added costs to an already expensive business.
What if the industry took a nod to single episodes broadcast each week instead of two? Would that make a difference?
If it takes twice as long to shoot the same amount of content, presumably, it would amount to double the cost. Which eats into your profits.
But it’s safety we’re talking about. People’s health, people’s lives being put at risk. That would be bad publicity. Which also hurts revenue. Then again, when work is not as rushed, quality tends to improve. And a higher quality series could lead to even stronger distribution sales.
Life could be different. Maybe you’d wrap a shooting location in the afternoon instead of at 4 a.m. and make it home in time to eat dinner with your family. Get a little sleep. Maybe even fit in some cardio.
Would it be that impossible to get used to single episodes?
People can get used to anything. Especially when it’s healthier and safer for all parties involved. An industry developed itself and got used to producing two episodes a week. I bet it can get used to producing one. (Hey, I got used to watching love triangles, PG romances, and K-Pop star-turned-actors.)
Safety precautions shouldn’t be considered an additional cost, but a necessary and required one.
I can’t help but think of cases of neglect being a culprit in other areas of Korean entertainment – resulting in illness or death. Working people to the bone, nixing security staff, and endangering lives just to make some more dough. I actually find it disgusting. (A vent collapse during a 4MINUTE concert claimed 16 lives. An overworked Hyeri passed out during a taping of MCountdown.) And I haven’t even gotten into the national disasters tied in with negligence that have lit up news alerts worldwide (And, knowing from personal experience, there’s that other question: is a careless attitude toward safety ingrained in Korean culture?)
What’s most disconcerting may not be the potential messages conveyed about K-Drama productions, but the bigger and awful picture of what might be construed about a nation, a culture, and a people: greed has taken over and money is everything, so everything else (including safety, health, and life) just doesn’t matter.
I hate to say it.
Is anyone else paying attention? Why aren’t we hearing news about Korean productions’ improvements and enforcement in safety regulations? Why are there no headlines on transitioning into a more viable shooting schedule? Why are there so many injuries, accidents, and deaths?
I love a good drama. I love beautifully crafted action scenes, sweeping romances, genius comedic timing, and sharp dialogue. I have user accounts on at least three different drama websites and new episode alerts set up; trust me, I love – and want – my K-Dramas. But not at the cost of putting someone in harm’s way.