A Chinese graduate student and cinematographer from Chapman University died in a vehicle accident on a sand dune while working on a University of Southern California student film.
The 29-year-old cinematographer, Peng Wang, more commonly known as Aaron, was volunteering to help with an “authorized student project” for a directing course at USC.
Wang was in a Can-Am Maverick UTV along with three USC film students at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area just southeast of Los Angeles. A California Highway Patrol spokesperson, officer Arturo Platero Jr., said the students were at the crest of the dune on April 15 when their vehicle rolled over.
“All of those on board were wearing their safety harness apart from the deceased,” Platero told Los Angeles Times. “The individual suffered fatal injuries in the rollover.”
The third-year graduate student was reportedly only wearing a helmet.
Wang had previously participated in short films that were recognized by film festivals, including “Daemon,” which won the Los Angeles Film Awards best drama short. The last film he worked on is titled “Finale,” which follows a man “who journeys to his death in the desert.”
“He is a type of guy that is humble and traditional,” Oliver Li, Wang’s roommate, said. The cinematographer was remembered by Li as a devout Christian who believed in helping independent Chinese filmmakers.
The dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Stephen Galloway, said that Wang had completed most of his requirements and will be posthumously awarded with a master of fine arts degree.
“This was the first and only serious incident involving any of our students in any of our memory,” Galloway said. “There’s a lot of work if you’re a student, and filming is psychologically and physically taxing and that’s why you have to put very strict measures in place so that they are taught to keep themselves safe.”
“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 added. “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.”
USC said in a statement: “Under our policies, 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 accident occurred near the Osborne Overlook, which is supervised by the Bureau of Land Management. A spokesperson for the Bureau said the student production had not needed a permit because their shooting period was short-term and not expected to cause “appreciable damage or disturbance.”
Friends and family of Wang have set up a memorial fund website, which includes a letter from Wang’s family and donation venues for people to help Wang’s parents travel to the U.S. to bring their son back home to China.
“Our son died pursuing what he loved,” Wang’s parents, from Chengdu Sichuan, wrote in a letter. “Aside from helping with Peng’s education, we are also financially burdened by Peng’s grandmother who is suffering from cancer and his uncle who is receiving treatment for mental illness. Peng knew the hardships we were under and always wanted to work hard so he could support his family later in life. Peng was only a month away from graduating; his mother and I were looking forward to seeing him and congratulating him for his accomplishments.”
“But now this will never happen,” they added. “Our only wish now is to go to the United States and see our son one last time so we can offer our final goodbyes. Please help us travel to the United States to return our son back to his roots.”