Cinematographer dies in sand dune accident involving Chapman and USC film students

Off–road enthusiasts race across the Imperial Sand Dunes at sunset.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A 29-year-old student cinematographer was killed Friday when an off-road vehicle carrying a group of young filmmakers rolled over in Imperial Valley, authorities said.

The group, which included the Chapman University cinematographer and three USC film students, was taking pictures on a large sand dune in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, a California Highway Patrol spokesman said Monday.

Officer Arturo Platero said the students’ off-road vehicle had climbed the dune to the crest when it either rolled back or went over the crest and rolled over.


“All of those on board were wearing their safety harness apart from the deceased,” Platero said. “The individual suffered fatal injuries in the rollover.”

The deceased student, a Walnut resident, had been serving as a cinematographer on a production with USC School of Cinematic Arts students, Elizabeth Daley, dean of the school, said in a statement Monday.

Daley did not provide more details about what the students were doing on the sand dunes.

“Our deepest sympathy is with the family members of the deceased student on this tragic loss,” Daley said. “We also send condolences to the Chapman University community.”

The Chapman student, Peng Wang, was a third-year graduate student from China commonly known by his colleagues as Aaron, said Stephen Galloway, dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University.

Wang participated in several film shorts that were recognized by film festivals and worked on the Los Angeles Film Awards best drama short “Daemon.”

“We have extraordinarily strict safety protocols, but in this case, we had a student who volunteered on an independent project and we have no control over those,” Galloway said. “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 on this.”

In a later statement Monday night, Daley said the USC film school has “very strict safety policies that all students are trained in and expected to follow at all times,” and that “the school does not tolerate violations of safety protocols. We are still gathering information about how this tragic accident occurred.”

The Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles has been in contact with Wang’s family “to offer our deepest condolences for their loss,” said spokesman Gao Fei.
“The Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles will provide all necessary assistance to the family in the handling of the aftermath.”


Bureau of Land Management public affairs officer Kate Miyamoto said the incident occurred near the Osborne Overlook, an area of dunes popular with off-roaders.

She said BLM officials went to the scene to assist. BLM issues film permits, but it was unclear whether the students were shooting at the time of the death or whether they had permits.

Although it is unclear what the group had been doing and whether the excursion was part of a film production, the death raises questions about whether safety protocols were breached.

The fatality comes six months after the high-profile killing of another cinematographer on the set of a low-budget western in New Mexico.

The move comes as the DGA and other Hollywood unions face pressure to do more to improve safety on sets.

April 6, 2022

Halyna Hutchins, a 42-year-old graduate of the American Film Institute, was killed when actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun during rehearsals for the movie “Rust.” The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an investigation into how a live round ended up in the chamber.

The “Rust” shooting roiled Hollywood and heightened concerns about safety lapses on film sets. The Hutchins family has since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the producers of the movie. The shooting also injured director Joel Souza.


The industry has been dogged by a series of fatal injuries in recent years.

A Los Angeles Times review of U.S. government data and published reports shows that at least 19 fatal injuries took place on film sets nationwide from 2010 to 2019, the last year for which data were available.