You know how I know I’m on a pro set? I mean the real deal where there’s gaffer who knows his stuff and an AD who’s got an eye on every detail? It’s not the big lights—anyone can rent those. It’s not cool props. It’s not even name actors…okay maybe name actors. But frankly, I’ve seen some great actors sign on to less-than-worthy productions. No, the way I know that I’m on a pro set is, I see safety cables on every light.
Safety that sucker!
A safety cable is one of the simplest bits of equipment on a set. It’s a 3-foot-ish length of 1/8″ braided steel cable with a reinforced eyelet on one end and a caribiner on the other. They’re used to secure any (and every!) light hung overhead to some hard point so that if the primary attachment point fails that the light (or other gear) doesn’t fall on someone’s head and kill or injure them.
Safety cables aren’t necessary when lights are on light stands—the sandbag typically does that job. Unless, that is, the stand itself is on something up high. And then, you need a cable. Maybe two.
Safety cables are most commonly used on truss systems or overhead lighting grids. But it’s also common to use one when a light is secured with a clamp or putty knife. Safety clamps run about five bucks a pop at Filmtools and while that feels like a lot for a piece of steel cable when you’re buying them (and I recommend that you have at least 1 per light you own plus 3-5 spares), once you need them, you’ll be glad you spent the money.
Using a safety cable
These things are not rocket science. Pick a point on your light (or whatever you’re securing overhead) that won’t slip off the cable. Then pick a point on the lighting grid, etc. where the cable can’t slip off. Now, loop the cable through both points and attach the cable’s caribiner to it’s own eyelet to make a loop. Boom! you have a secure safety backup that will keep your light from falling to the ground. You’re almost done.
The fine points
For the full score, you want to think about what happens if your light’s primary connection point fails and the light falls. A safety cable keeps it from falling all the way to the ground and smashing, but your real concern should be that the light falls and hits someone in the head. Because that could kill them. Or worse, make your shoot run behind!
Safety cables are often at the very frustrating length of 30 inches because it means that nothing can fall more than about 15 inches—a short enough distance to build up lethal momentum in most cases—unless you loop two cables together. So don’t. If you can avoid it and still reach a secure point.
When I say I like to see two safety cables on a light it means two different cables. This is more about the second fine point—guiding a falling light away from people. The rule of thumb is to make sure that a light is secured so that it will fall away from the set. I’m not entirely sure of the rationale here, because people can be hurt on or off the shooting part of the set. The most cynical way to look at this is that it keeps lights from smacking your actors who you can’t shoot without and who might cringe at the kind of facial scarring that any good grip would accept as a badge of honor. But less cynical is the view that crew members not acting in a scene are better able to devote attention to things like falling lights. And when you secure your overhead lights with two cables (linked to different points, of course) you really minimize the swing and therefore the momentum of the smoking hot metal light.
And when I walk onto your set, I will know that you’re a pro.
Douglas Horn is a feature film writer-director and a creator of independent series. Douglas and Dan Southworth founded the web media company Popular Uprising. The company’s action/sci-fi series DIVERGENCE is currently online. More information at: DouglasHorn.com and WhatIsDivergence.com