Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, April 2, 2018

Felled by the Falcon: Harrison Ford's 2014 accident at Pinewood Studios

Watching Blade Runner 2049 on DVD, with Harrison Ford's return to the Rick Deckard role, reminded me to check on the last word about the Millennium Falcon mishap at the “M” Stage at Pinewood Studios on June 12, 2014. That's the incident that injured Ford's hand and leg. It happened during a dress rehearsal for The Force Awakens, Episode VII.

It's worth a second look because the initial news accounts understated how serious (and avoidable) it was. The first days of news reports, citing a Disney spokesperson, said simply that something had gone wrong with the Falcon set and Ford sustained a broken ankle. In the following days the public learned more about the full extent of his injuries, but as to the chain of events, even after the 2016 publication of a court judgment that fined the company responsible – Foodles Production (UK) Ltd -- news reports didn't lay out what happened. 

Fortunately, investigative reports have been released from the United Kingdom's Health & Safety Executive (HSE). HSE had jurisdiction because the set was a workplace, and Foodles was responsible for making it safe. The following photos are from the HSE reports. A press release is here:

Q. What was the setting?

A. Unlike in the original Star Wars set, in which the Falcon's ramp door operated by a simple pulley arrangement with no power added, the curved door of the new Falcon was hydraulically powered, and moved much more quickly.

This set of pictures shows the door closing.  

 Q. What was the official outcome?

A. In the Aylesbury Crown Court, Foodles pled guilty to breaching its safety duties, and the court fined it about US $2 million. Ford also received a financial settlement. 

Q. How did the door on the newer Falcon operate?

A. The new Falcon's door was remotely controlled – opened or closed – by an operator at a workstation with a laptop, a control panel, and an emergency stop button. Here's the control setup:
From where he sat, outside the Falcon set, the operator didn't have a direct view of the door, so he had to rely on the feed from a video camera pointed at the door. Here's the view:

At the time of the mishap, the camera view was a narrow angle, showing little more than the upper part of the doorway and the prop button alongside the door frame that Ford would press in the scene. 

This prop button that Ford was to slap didn't control the door or anything else – it was strictly a dummy, to offer the operator a cue. The plan was that the operator would remotely control the door from his laptop when (via the video feed) he saw Ford hit the button, and after he heard a verbal okay from a supervisor. 

Q. Why did the safety agency conclude that the door was a workplace hazard?

A. Start with the safety mechanisms that are now standard in powered doors, such as, one familiar to many homeowners: the motorized, overhead garage door. The early generations of powered garage doors posed a risk of pinning people as they closed, so now they're sold with multiple built-in safety devices. 

I'll illustrate with the one we bought for our house three years ago. First precaution: the door comes down slowly enough that there's time to get out of the way without diving for cover. Second, there's an electric-eye beam just above floor level, spanning the doorway: if the beam is interrupted, a photoelectric sensor sends a signal to stop the door immediately. Third, the door stops when it hits something. Fourth, there's a red lanyard that another person can pull to disengage the door from the powered slide if, somehow, it pins a person despite the first three safeties. 

Q. Which of these safety measures were in place on the Falcon's door?

A. Basically, none of them. The door on the Falcon set was a single, steel-framed, curved panel that ran on curved tracks that were out of sight, above the set. It was powered by a hydraulic cylinder. It came down three times faster than UK regulations allow for powered doors. For safety it relied on two or three people equipped with emergency-stop buttons and who had a view (either direct, or via camera) of the doorway. The remote operator at his workstation had an e-stop button, as did a supervisor with a direct view of the door. 

Q  Why was it important to have any safety measure? Wasn't this just a prop?

A. Because this door had both power and speed. The investigators compared its force to that of a small car coming down. Unlike the manually-operated Falcon door in the original Star Wars series (Episodes 4-6), this one was hydraulically powered, and it moved faster, taking just one and a half seconds to cover the distance from ceiling to floor, which was about six feet eight inches. Since it had no switch to disable it upon hitting an obstruction, once activated, the hydraulics would attempt to force the door all the way to the deck unless somebody hit a control to stop it, or unless it stalled after hitting an obstruction it couldn't break through, like a solid concrete block. Testimony compared it to a “blunt guillotine.”

Q. What went wrong?

A. Harrison Ford was asked about the mishap on the Jonathan Ross TV talk show, and he said, perhaps jokingly, that somebody on the set was curious about the door-closing switch and decided to push it when Ford happened in the doorway. There's no support for this in the HSE files, but understandably he was angry, and talk shows aren't the place to explain a root-cause analysis anyway. 

According to the HSE reports, the cause of the mishap wasn't inadvertent activation of the door, rather a design that excluded key safety precautions, combined with a communication breakdown.

The chain of events was this. On the day of the mishap the cast was doing walk-throughs and then dress rehearsals of a scene in which the actors come up the ramp and into a passageway on the Falcon. Once inside, Ford would hit the dummy button and the door would close after them. 

In the run-throughs that day, the door wasn't used. 

Dress rehearsals of the scene followed. The court heard testimony that before these began, the crew and actors were told that the door would be “live,” meaning that when Ford hit the dummy door-closing button on the doorframe, and upon hearing a verbal signal, the operator on the remote control would activate the door to come down. 

But in the the first dress rehearsal, the door didn't come down after all, because the special effects crew “wasn't ready.” It may have been a control issue, because of the way the emergency-stop buttons worked: unless all of the e-stop buttons were in the open position (meaning not activated), the operator couldn't run the door up or down. Put another way, if any of the e-stop buttons were pressed, the operator couldn't move the door without resetting his system. Also, the operator had to have his foot on a dead-man pedal. 

The actors repositioned themselves on the ramp for the second dress rehearsal. As this was about to begin, Ford didn't know that the door was now live, and that the remote operator planned to close it after Ford hit the dummy button. 

As the second dress rehearsal came to a close, having hit the dummy button and entered the Falcon, Ford immediately turned around to go back through the doorway and down the ramp, in preparation for a third rehearsal. 

The problem: the door operator was primed to close the door. But he was able to see the doorway only with th video camera feed, which was now zoomed in on the dummy door button. He'd seen Ford hit the dummy button, but with the tighter camera angle, he couldn't see that Ford had turned to come back through the doorway on his way down the ramp.

The operator activated the door to close and things happened quickly. After it knocked Ford down and continued to close, one of the effects crew hit the emergency-stop button. The door finally stopped above his waist, about eight inches from full closure. It left Ford with a deeply gashed hand and it broke his left tibula and fibula bones. 

Q. What happened next?

A. The director, J.J. Abrams, rushed forward and tried to lift the door off Ford. He said later that this fractured his back. It was a nice gesture but the door wasn't going to move until it had either been unlatched from the hydraulic drive mechanism, or else after all the e-stop buttons released and the control panel reset. 

Q. Why didn't the main safety measure, the emergency-stop buttons, prevent the mishap?

A. An HSE investigator's report established that, even in ideal circumstances (an experimental setup to test reaction time, where someone knows exactly what's going to happen and what to do), nobody with an e-stop button could have reacted quickly enough to keep a mistakenly-activated, powerful, fast-moving Falcon door from hitting an actor in the head. As it was, the operators reacted pretty quickly under the shocking circumstances. 

Foodles was fined because Ford's injuries were foreseeable, and in fact the door could have killed him. In other words, it created an inherently hazardous situation. 

Q. What was the outcome as far as the movie goes?

A. The production ditched the hydraulic door and substituted a CGI door.