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Animals and ecosystems were harmed in the making

Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012

Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013 13:05

Andres

The Prospector

HBO series’ production values are typically spot on in depicting its subjects and eras with the finesse attention to detail that is so often overlooked in television. But sometimes, authenticity comes with a price, in this case, the death of three horses and one ecosystem, to be exact.

On March 25, HBO aired its final episode of “Luck” after its abrupt cancellation was announced four days before. The horse racetrack drama came under scrutiny for the deaths of two horses last year and one earlier this month.

The cancellation of “Luck” sits on one extreme of what fatalities connected to television and film productions can bring about. Still, “Luck” is an uncommon case; most studios continue with production after the death of cast members (animals included) or after the killing (accidental or not) of set environments. It raises the critical question: to what extent do we sacrifice safety for the sake of authenticity?

Backed by an experienced creative team, executive producers, David Milch (“Deadwood”) and Michael Mann (“The Aviator,” “Collateral”), and an all-star cast including Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, the expectations for “Luck” to be a success were imminent. And although critics held it in high regard, the show failed to capture the Soprano-like audience the studio clearly marketed towards.

After low ratings and a series of outbursts by the animal rights groups, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the American Humane Association, HBO opted to pull the plug.

PETA and the AHA argued that conditions on set weren’t acceptable for horses and that licensed humane officers should have been present on the set to prevent the deaths. Before cancelling the show, HBO responded by largely brushing the issue aside. It supplied a statement by Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the California Horse Racing Board saying, “We see  several of those injuries in the stable area every year. They are more common than people realize.”

HBO also stated, “While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future.”

Likewise, Fire and Blood Productions of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” brushed aside a similar incident last year involving the killing of an entire ecosystem while filming a scene on a beach in Malta. Environmental management expert Alfred E. Baldacchino said in the Times of Malta, that HBO committed an environmental crime, obliterating “the micro habitat of all the species in that area” with heavy machinery and by spreading sand-like powdered stone over the land.

The production company apologized and blamed a subcontractor for failing to carry out the appropriate clean-up process.

Other recent incidents include the freak accident on the set of CBS’ NCIS in which a security guard was struck by a van last year and the deaths of two crew members during the production of “The Dark Knight” in 2007 and “The Dark Knight Rises” late last year.

Although this is not a new trend — think of the deaths of more than 100 horses while filming “Ben Hur” (1925) or the iconic opening of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) where a blazing fire devours a jungle — tragedies on set should not be overlooked for the sake of the end product, be it a movie or a television show.

Sure, “Luck” and “Game of Thrones” are prime examples of quality entertainment, but all that passionate TV viewing clears up real quick when the thought that horses died or entire ecosystems were harmed in the making of the shows comes to mind.

Besides now, other alternatives, like the use of computer-generated graphics, can help prevent these types of accidents. CG is allowing us now to film under safer conditions, like say a green screen and not at the top of a skyscraper. Yes, that might jeopardize the authenticity of the end product, but I’d welcome that any day over a guilty conscious.

Andres Rodriguez may be reached at prospector@utep.edu.

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