Friday, July 17, 2009

Sometimes It's Hard To Assign Blame.

There's a lot of shit floating around right now proclaiming that Michael Jackson's hair catching fire during the shoot for his 1984 Pepsi commercial is what led to his addiction to pain killers and, ultimately to his death. That may (or may not) be so. I have no idea and unless my little blog here is attracting a whole lot more exclusive readership than usual, neither do you. And that won't be the point of this post anyway.

There are also a bunch of people spouting off that they'll never drink Pepsi again because Pepsi killed Michael. That's incredibly moronic and more close to the point of this post. But first, a few disclaimers.

Disclaimer #1: I'm a Coke drinker. I just don't like Pepsi. I never have. If I order a Coke with a meal and the waitress asks, "Is Pepsi OK, honey?", I'll say, "How about an Iced Tea?" If they bring me a Pepsi without asking, I'll say, "This Coke tastes funny. Could I have an Iced Tea instead?" This disclaimer is basically to say, I have no allegiance to Pepsi and no motive to defend them.

Disclaimer #2: THIS POST IS ALMOST ENTIRELY PURE SPECULATION! It's speculation that is informed by more than 20 years involved in film production which has included Feature Films, TV Shows, TV Commercials, Music Videos, etc., but it's still speculation. If anybody reading this feels the need to point out that I'm speculating, kindly restrain yourself. I know that already.

Disclaimer #3: I don't think I've ever worked for Bob Giraldi (who directed the commercial), or any of his companies. I've certainly known who he was for ages, but I don't have any allegiance or bones to pick there. I don't think I know a single person who worked on the commercial or who was there. It's a small world, so it's entirely possible I do know somebody, but I'm not aware of it. No bones there either.

Let's start with what I do know. This was meant to be one of the first that was meant to have the audience going, "Holy shit, Michael is selling Pepsi". He was at the top of his popularity and this wasn't just going to be a celebrity was going to be an event. They shot it at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. and had an audience of about 3000 extras to simulate a concert.

Most people don't know a whole lot more than that. Pepsi settled out of court, so there's no testimony to look back at. (I'll come back to this, but Pepsi was at the top of the food chain of association and had the deepest pockets, so it's not surprising that they took the hit.) It being the nature of film shoots, I doubt that more than a few people who were there know more than the little portion of things they witnessed. They've all heard a lot more than I did, but on a set, there's a lot of people who don't actually watch what's being shot up close. Kathy Griffith is quoted as saying that she was an extra in the crowd and didn't know what had occurred until she got home and saw it on the news.

On any commercial, you've got a whole lot of people involved. First there's the Client -- That's Pepsi. They get to throw a lot of weight around since it's ultimately all their money paying for everything so they're the ones being catered to. Then there's the Agency. I don't know who the Ad Agency was for Pepsi at the time and I'm too lazy to go looking for the information. Doesn't really matter. The commercial was their idea and they've got a lot riding on it. Pepsi is no second-rate Client and the Agency would be doing everything in their power to please them. Then there's a Production Company. Again, I'm not sure if this was a company that Bob Giraldi was a partner in or if he was a hired gun, (he had directed some of Jackson's videos, so he would have been an obvious choice), but once again, doesn't matter. Even if the situation gives the Production Company more power than they might normally enjoy, they'll have wanted to please the Agency -- the guys who hired them. And in this particular case, let's add Michael Jackson. He would have been the 800-lb. gorilla in the room -- or more likely, the 800-ton gorilla.

So, we start off with a whole lot of Chiefs. There may have been a bazillion Indians there, but still, more per-capita Chiefs than usual.

Then, let's look at what they were doing and where they were doing it. In short, they were shooting a pyrotechnic extravaganza. And whenever you insert a person into the shot with the pyrotechnics, be it the star or a stunt-player -- make no mistake, what you're shooting constitutes a stunt. Michael Taylor ran an excellent post about how dangerous and unpredictable stunts can be -- you should read it. The long and the short of it is that stunts require people who know what the hell they're doing, both in front of and behind the camera. And even when everyone knows what they're doing -- shit happens.

Since this was a stunt, I'll presume there was a stunt coordinator on set. I don't know that, but I can't imagine having any actor I know of walk through a pyrotechnic explosion without a stunt-coordinator on hand. I'm absolutely certain there was an Effects Coordinator on hand -- one with all the proper licensing since this was not only being shot in L.A., but in an arena in L.A. They have lots of regulations about that sort of thing in L.A. And here's where it may get complicated. Who was the Effects Coordinator? It may have been someone chosen by Giraldi and the Production Company -- that would be the situation on any run-of-the-mill commercial. It may have been someone approved by the Shrine Auditorium -- a union house which would have a different union than the one representing the film crew and anyone Giraldi might have hired. In this case, it could be further complicated by Michael Jackson. He may have said, "We do this stuff in concert all over the world. I want my guy."

And guess what? If the Effects guy was Michael's guy, the Shrine would have said, "Fine, but we've got Union Contracts and we can't be in breach of those contracts. You can have Michael's guy work here, but you'll have to hire a matching crew (same number of bodies) for the Effects crew you bring in. And the Production Company would have said, "We've got Union Contracts too. We'll be bringing in a matching crew from the film union." It's impossible to speculate on how these (potentially) three full Effects crews worked (or didn't work) together. I've seen situations where it's all very cooperative and copacetic and they all acknowledge one Head-Guy and everybody works together just fine. I've seen situations where the "matching crews" show up and drink coffee and never lift a finger for their paychecks. It also could have been anything in between those two extremes. And whatever the situation was, it may or may have not contributed to the accident.

Since we're in L.A. (with some of the most stringent regulations for pyrotechnics you'll run into anywhere), there's also a Fire Captain on the set. He would have decided what, if any, additional Fire Department personnel or equipment would have been present. Here's an article claiming that the Fire Captain overheard Giraldi telling Jackson to wait a little longer before making his entrance. Giraldi denies this. And once again, it makes little difference to my premise.

Here. Take a brief look at this article from Rolling Stone. It includes the video that's got everyone up in arms. (Note: The article and I, are both crediting Us Magazine for the video. I'm not sure credit is really the appropriate word since it's about as exploitative as you can get, but...) In the second paragraph of the story, there's this:

"Jackson, unaware that he’s on fire, continues to perform until he is rushed by dozens of stagehands who quickly help douse the flames. After the fire extinguishers are emptied and the chaos has died down..."

Maybe I missed something, but what I see is maybe a half dozen people rush Jackson (after about 10 seconds) and pat out the flames. I don't see any fire extinguishers in use at all. They may be referring to this shot, but that seemed to show Jackson spinning and producing a cloud of smoke...not anyone using a fire extinguisher.

So, where the hell were all of the fire extinguishers? Here's another picture. This is a screenshot from the opening of the video. It's a fairly wide angle (not a telephoto lens), so there shouldn't have been a great distance between Jackson and the camera at this point. Lots of room for someone to be standing nearby with a fire extinguisher without being in the frame.

And if you think, "Oh, there must have been a bunch of cameras. Maybe there was no place that was close but out of all the cameras' frames." Guess what? There's a camera with at least three people (probably more), directly behind Jackson getting this angle. Adding one more guy next to the camera wouldn't have been an issue. Or maybe there wasn't any place for a safety guy to be out of all the shots. Doesn't matter. Think of it this way -- If one angle is going to be blown for part of the shot because someone cuing an effect has to be in that camera's frame, they'll know that part of the one camera's footage won't be usable -- and the guy will scramble out of frame when his part in the action is done. There's no reason not to have a safety guy considered as indispensable as the guy setting off the effect.

Here's my point. This, like most accidents on a set, this was a perfect storm of things coming together -- not one person's fault.

The Fire Captain says he heard Giraldi tell Jackson to wait longer before clearing the effect. He could have stepped in.

Maybe the effects guy didn't hear about Giraldi telling Jackson to wait a couple more beats. Doesn't matter. He should have had a line of sight to both Jackson and the effect and could have held back from triggering it with Jackson still in the line of fire.

Maybe there were too many Chiefs and sets of Indians in the Effects Crew. I honestly have no answer for why Jackson wasn't hit by two or more fire extinguishers before he made it halfway down the stairs to the stage.

Pepsi took the hit because, ultimately, everyone was working for them and they had the deepest pockets. If there had been civil suits, there would have been a lot of defendants, and after all of the insurance companies finished suing each other, Pepsi still would have been left holding the bag.

Jackson took the money and donated it to what is now a prestigious burn center in L.A. If I'm not mistaken, this incident didn't cause Jackson to sever his relationship with Pepsi. I'm pretty sure there were more commercials after this.

When I execute a Location Agreement with someone, there's a lot of language about liability involved. They always include some verbiage that says each party is liable to the extent that their negligence or misconduct contributes to whatever bad stuff everyone's trying to protect themselves from.

You'll never see a brilliant shot in a movie that is the sole product of some one person's work and genius. A lot of people contributed to that shot. Accidents are the same -- lot's of people contribute.


Janiece said...

Thanks, Nathan. That was an interesting inside look, even though I don't really care much about how or why or if Michael Jackson was addicted to pain killers.

ntsc said...

I've done any number of special shoots, remotes and similar for a major broadcast net.

Can't speak for LA, but in NYC no matter who the 800 ton gorrila was, one specific person was responsible for safety with named deputies from one or more of several unions.

A member of the corporate saftey committee was always available to get to a studio during the broadcast day. This committee was a joint managment-union-insurance company endevor with only safety at issue. You actually had things like union members representing managment teams, I was one of 5 union members in the engineering dept and represented that department.

Personally I far perfer Pepsi to Coke, although I don't think I ever saw Jackson perform.

Jim Wright said...

I amazes me that anything gets put onto film, ever.

Jesus, Nathan, I've been in major military operations that had less crap behind them (of course, that's probably why they worked ;)

Nathan said...


If I ever had to do anything else, it would definitely involve logistics. My favorite part is organizing a mish-mash of crap.

Nathan said...


That's a lot closer to how things work on a Feature -- especially a studio production. On commercials and/or videos, things are a little more ad-hoc.

And I assure you, having done tons of pyro permits in NYC, they're strict here, but they're even more strict in L.A. In the Pepsi Commercial example, something definitely got badly bent.

MWT said...

I guess that explains why there are suddenly multiple highly-viewed videos on Youtube about his hair catching on fire.

I didn't see any fire extinguishers either.

Did go on to watch an actual Pepsi commercial with him in it, though. It was more entertaining than the hair-on-fire footage.

Nathan said...


I suppose it depends on what you find entertaining, but I'd hope so. :)