USC’s Joe Wallenstein Talks Safety on Set for Child Actors

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Joe Wallenstein takes his job very seriously. As Director of Physical Production at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Wallenstein supervises more than 900 undergraduate and graduate students in the production of more than 2000 films each year.

“We haven’t had any accidents in over 15,000 films,” says Wallenstein, adding that USC film students work under pretty onerous conditions when it comes to working with child actors. “We only have one [Permit to Employ Minors]. So I tell kids, ‘You don’t want to be the kid that got that permit pulled.’”

"In California, labor laws apply to student films so child performers are required to have work permits and students are required to abide by work hours and provide a studio teacher 24/7,” explains Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, a non-profit corporation providing education and support to parents and children engaged in the entertainment industry. A comprehensive list of California’s employment hours, rest and recreation breaks, and education requirements can be found on California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement’s website. “In New York, the current law provides an exemption for student films,” adds Henry.

Studio teachers in California are also welfare workers, who are responsible for the health, safety and morals of minors working in the entertainment industry. “The child welfare worker has the final say and you don’t argue with them,” Wallenstein tells students. “We reenforce that constantly.”

Wallenstein began teaching at USC nine years ago, after having worked in the film and television industry for more than 30 years as a producer, director and writer. His credits include start-up producer for “7th Heaven,” producer of 52 episodes of “Knots Landing,” and supervising producer for “Jake and the Fatman.” Shortly after graduating from New York University, where he majored in film and television production, Wallenstein worked on “The Godfather.”

“My overall advise [to students] is why do things the hard way?” he says of working with child performers. “Walk before you run.” Students who wish to work with minors must fill out a hazardous shooting form, that is signed by their professors and Wallenstein. After reviewing the minor’s work permit and studio teacher’s certificate, Wallenstein walks the filmmaker through the script to address safety concerns specific to child actors that may have been overlooked.

Wallenstein fondly recalls working with child actors throughout his career and credits parents with impressing upon their child the need to listen and follow direction while working, two critical components of safety. “The set is not a playground,” Wallenstein cautions children. “It’s a place of business and it’s a dangerous place…You don’t run around. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Finally, Wallenstein stresses to filmmakers the need to communicate with parents in order to create a secure nurturing environment. He encourages parents to understand the physical and psychological challenges of the script before signing onto the project and to monitor their child’s safety on set.

In his 2011 book, “Practical Moviemaking: A Handbook for the Real World,” Wallenstein frames safety in a way that young filmmakers can appreciate. “Safety is not about what you can’t do,” says Wallenstein, who is working on a book about safety in filmmaking. “Safety is the springboard to everything you want to do.”