USC suggests student filmmakers blurred school safety policies

The University of Southern California said Wednesday that students from its prestigious film school appeared to have blurred university safety policies and procedures in carrying out the Imperial County film shoot in which a young cinematographer from Chapman University died.

Peng Wang, a 29-year-old grad student volunteering on the production, died Friday when an off-road vehicle carrying him and three other student filmmakers rolled over on a large sand dune in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, a remote expanse of desert three hours and more than 230 miles from the USC campus.

USC said in a statement that under policies governing all student productions at its School of Cinematic Arts, “any shoot taking place more than 50 miles away from our campus, or involving the use of all-terrain vehicles, would have required very specific approvals from the school.”

“We are unaware of any such approvals having been requested or provided in this tragic matter,” the statement continued.

USC declined to answer additional questions, including whether the university was taking disciplinary action against any students, saying in its statement: “Due to student privacy laws, we cannot comment on any pending student conduct matters.”

The death of Wang, known to colleagues as Aaron, has sparked grievance and anger at Chapman. Originally from China, he was well-regarded among faculty and students. Stephen Galloway, dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, said earlier this week: “I cannot imagine anything worse than a terrifically talented, brilliant young cinematographer dying on a production, and I’m outraged that strict safety measures were not in place we say.”

The USC student director, Ting Su, and producer, Bingliang Li, of the project did not return messages seeking comment. Two law firms representing them said in a joint statement that the students “are deeply saddened by this tragic accident and are cooperating fully with the investigation by authorities, including the California Highway Patrol.”

Los Angeles attorneys Felix Woo, representing Li, and Jason Liang, representing Su, added, “We think, before anybody makes any statements, that they should let the investigation play out.”

The crash occurred on federal land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. A BLM spokeswoman said that while some film shoots on its land require permits, the student production did not because it was short-term and was not expected to cause “appreciable damage or disturbance.”

A California Highway Patrol spokesman said the agency is continuing to investigate how the accident occurred, though the probe is not criminal in nature. An autopsy to determine the cause of Wang’s death is expected in coming weeks.

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