Earlier in his life, Ted Wachs had his heart set on a career as a professional skier. Looking back on what he calls “an extreme time,” Wachs recalls working hard, but laments not working smarter.
“I broke a lot of bones and got a lot of stitches,” Wachs said recently. “To be honest, it was mostly because I didn’t have the proper training or the right coaches. I look back and think everything could’ve been solved by having the right training in place.”
Now, Wachs, a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is making sure the next generation of Guild members — camera assistants, camera operators and directors of photography — has the right training when it comes to on-set safety.
“It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it?” Wachs said with a chuckle.
Wachs knows a thing or two about set protocol in a variety of different environments. He has nearly four decades of professional experience under his belt shooting fashion and travel photography all over the world for top brands and heading second units on such projects as “Roger and Me,” “Veronica’s Closet” and “Friends.”
During his time at NYU, Wachs has made it his mission to arm student filmmakers with effective safety training. As far back as 2012, he provided multiple three hour safety workshops on soundstages and worked diligently on developing a course syllabus. He lobbied administrators to make his dreamed-up safety course a required prerequisite for all production classes.
“I realized there were crew members on films that had no formal safety training,” he said. “But using the soundstages more would take time away from other classes, so my proposal was met with denial.”
He pushed for his mandatory safety course for two years. Then, in 2014, the death of Camera Assistant Sarah Jones on the set of the film “Midnight Rider” garnered national attention, and Wachs realized that up-and-comers were missing something. Shortly thereafter, his proposal came to a vote again with faculty and academic affairs officials. Not only did it pass, the course became a degree requirement.
Wachs has been teaching his safety course ever since, both in a long-form format with weekly meetings, and as a short, two-week intensive course. Many of his alumni have gone on to join Local 600.
“It’s the basic stuff, the nuts and bolts,” he said of his class. “It’s using C-stands, sand bag, flags, going over electrical distribution. It’s not a creative class by any standards, but it’s necessary stuff when we’re talking about producing the next generation of crew members.”
Even though he concedes it’s not creative, Wachs feels that better-trained crews have translated into better student films.
“Obviously, the best result is that we’ve had good safety results, but I truly believe the films are getting better,” Wachs said. “The students are working more efficiently and safely and that’s giving directors more time to work with actors to get better performances.”