WHILE the trial of ``Twilight Zone'' film director John Landis and four others unfolds here, the klieg lights of public scrutiny are being turned on the issue of safety on movie sets. Mr. Landis and the others are charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 1982 deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children. The trial, which opened here Sept. 3 , marks the first time criminal charges have been brought against a Hollywood director for his actions in shooting a film. Charged with Landis are George Folsey Jr. (associate producer), Dan Allingham (unit production manager), Dorcey A. Wingo (helicopter pilot), and Paul Stewart (special-effects coordinator).
Mr. Morrow and the two children died during the shooting of a battle sequence, when a special-effects ``fireball'' exploded too close to a helicopter, causing it to crash.
One immediate effect of the trial has been to generate titillating newspaper columns stressing gory details and cries of negligence -- more than this city has seen in years. It has also served to highlight how much has been learned since the incident.
``Hollywood became painfully aware that people can be killed in the things we do,'' says Harry Evans, assistant executive secretary of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and the person in charge of its safety committee. ``That was not a conscious thought five years ago.''
Significant strides have been made in the years since that tragedy, say observers both inside and outside the industry, though some feel more needs to be done.
One of the major changes has been a series of self-policing industry directives that are reviewed and updated periodically and require producers and directors to walk a straighter line.
Only two months after the tragedy, the DGA formed its safety committee. Using ideas from member directors, producers, stunt personnel, cameramen, and technicians, the committee issued a series of safety bulletins recommending precautions for a number of hazardous set situations, including staged shootings, parachuting, explosives, use of animals, chase scenes, and underwater work. According to Mr. Evans, they were the first safety guidelines ever formally issued in Hollywood.
``Guidelines had existed vaguely before under the heading `past practice,' but they were . . . unwritten,'' says Mark Locher of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). ``Now they have been codified and distributed in writing industrywide, so that everyone understands the same set of rules.''
One of the most important recommendations, say industry watchers, is the following: ``In the interests of the highest possible standards of safety on the set, any report of unsafe elements shall be welcomed as a sign of conscientiousness and professional competence.''
``That's an important message for those people who, in the past, may have been reluctant to stand up and say, `Hey, that's too dangerous,' '' says Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).
SAG's Mr. Locher adds, ``Everyone in this business wants to please the people who employ him. No one wants to be labeled . . . an uncooperative type. This provision goes so far as to call someone more professional and conscientious when he stands up for safety. It's had a great effect at all levels of production.''
Locher adds that, since ``The Twilight Zone'' tragedy, SAG has encouraged its members to use the right of refusal guaranteed in SAG contracts to actors who believe a scene is unsafe.
SAG has also instituted a 24-hour answering service and safety team for its members. In case of emergencies, accidents on the set, or director-producer disputes, the safety team is available for on-site investigation and arbitration.
As a result of these guidelines and added emphasis on adhering to their standards, says Locher, SAG's recent two-year accident report -- filed by directors and producers of all productions using SAG actors -- has shown a ``significant decrease'' in accidents during filming. (Locher says SAG is legally prevented from releasing specific figures because of contract agreements with those using SAG services.)
SAG's Steve Waddell applauds the new guidelines, but he also defends Hollywood's safety record before the ``Twilight Zone'' accident.
Waddell and others cite the ``low hazard'' rating given the motion picture industry by the California office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. ``We don't like to highlight the tragedy as the beginning of concern about safety in Hollywood,'' he says.
If silence is any indication, however, the industry is concerned about the possible outcome of the trial, expected to last about four months.
Spokesmen for five of the major studios here -- Columbia, Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, MGM Entertainment, and Universal -- would not comment on any aspect of the trial. ``So many things will be decided by this trial that it's just too sensitive to jeopardize any aspect by comment while it is going on,'' said one studio spokesperson.
Issues to be decided by the trial go beyond the alleged guilt or innocence of Landis and associates to lines of communication and use of children on movie sets, and the degree of responsibility -- perhaps even liability -- of producers, directors, production crews, and special-effects personnel.