It’s easy being green

Posted on Mar 25, 2022 by Alex Fice

Experts reveal tips for sustainable filmmaking practices

Interview Chelsea Fearnley

For an industry full of progressive storytellers concerned with protecting the planet from climate destruction, we make one hell of a mess. The lofty perceptions of the business don’t reflect the reality of what goes on behind the scenes, with a tremendous amount of air miles, energy use and material waste attached to all programming. The average tentpole film generates 2840 tonnes of CO2e per production, and one-hour TV dramas roughly 4.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions per episode. What can be done to reduce this – and is it even possible, with the amount of content being produced today? We ask the experts.

Climate change is one of the most important issues the world is facing today – and behind every film & TV production there is environmental wreckage. What are the direct and indirect causes?

Fiona Ball: The majority of direct emissions from the film and TV industry come from power use, especially generators. Emissions also mount up when moving large crews and sets between locations. Productions should be mindful of ways to source renewable energy and limit other energy use –through more efficient transportation, as well as limiting the use of timber sets.

Genevieve Margrett: When you consider the set-up and crew involved in an HETV show or film, it’s no wonder they have such a big carbon footprint. Over the past ten years, we have helped productions measure their impact through our carbon calculator and the biggest contributions nearly always come from energy and travel. Materials are also likely to have a significant impact on larger-scale productions – it’s important to be thinking up front about the life cycle of all the props and products. What can be reused, donated or broken down to constituent parts? Scope 3 emissions (indirect emissions from your supply chain) can, on average, be four times those of a company’s direct operations, so it’s crucial we tackle these, too. We encourage productions to ensure sustainable procurement principles are applied throughout the process, adopt a procurement policy that sets out the environmental standards expected of suppliers, and set climate-related
targets as key supplier criteria.

Sally McEnallay: To an extent this is baked into the nature of the industry – a lot of people who might not know each other well, come together under intense time and financial pressure to deliver a creative project to audiences and investors, for whom sustainability is not yet a priority. This makes it hard to create a culture where sustainability is a shared goal. Individual enthusiasm for this type of practice is hard to communicate in these circumstances.

What can productions do to cut down or offset these emissions, and whose responsibility is it to ensure that these actions come into effect? Are there challenges that could be addressed by working together internationally? 

Ball: Industry collaboration is the way forward. In the UK, we’ve been working with Bafta’s Albert Consortium for ten years. Convening bodies such as Albert are important because they offer a central point from which to share, learn and set a common minimum standard. This is vital for our sector, which is often ephemeral in its working structures. At Sky, we fed extensively into Arup and Albert’s Screen New Deal report. We’re implementing many of its recommendations at Sky Studios Elstree, our new production site set to be completed later this year.

Margrett: Firstly, it’s important to reduce as much as possible before offsetting any residual emissions that can’t be eliminated. It can feel overwhelming knowing where to begin – but given we’ve identified that energy and travel are nearly always the biggest part of a production’s footprint, tackling these first can have a big impact. Switch to renewable energy in your production office and speak to your studio to find out what type of tariff they’re on, or cut consumption by switching to LED lights, for example. Eliminate short-haul and first-class flights and reduce other air travel as much as possible. Consider the climate early and at all stages of a production – every department can, and should, be tasked with finding ways to reduce their footprint. Finally – don’t be afraid to ask for things. Our industry accounts for $500bn spent on content production – it gives us a huge amount of purchase power and can help to shift markets and supply chains to offer alternative, sustainable products and services. Just asking the question sends a signal to suppliers that the demand for a product is there, even if it’s still relatively scarce or high cost. Every individual on a production has a responsibility to consider ways of reducing their impact, but culture change ultimately comes from the top of an organisation. It’s hugely important that those in leadership positions are driving this shift. 

McEnallay: Offsetting – in any industry – is only a short-term solution. It doesn’t promote behaviour change and the offset market is controversial, as it can be about just paying to shift responsibility. Everyone should be responsible, but not everyone on a production has authority to make these changes. Maybe sustainability champions are useful in the short term, until sustainable choices become more mainstream, as a way of prioritising this area. However, they need to be brought on board at the planning stage to have any impact. Nearly all the challenges could be improved by better international collaboration, but that’s not an issue specific to film. 

Making the commitment to going green is often challenged by cost, but what is the reality of this measure?

Ball: We know these efforts are essential and costs will come down as green approaches become the norm. However, ‘green’ is not always more expensive. We’ve seen big reductions in emissions from ensuring journeys are planned, reducing mileage, pre-ordering meals, cutting food waste and, of course, reusing materials is cheaper than buying new every time. It’s also important to get accounts on board with sustainability, to track costs and savings and fully understand the net impact.

Margrett: Often in free-market economies, early adopters can be hit by up-front costs, but in many cases the reduced long-term running costs help to pay these back. For example, studies show that the lifetime cost of an electric-powered car is cheaper than a comparable petrol model. We have a number of case studies on our website which show how productions can save money by ‘going green’ and making some changes to the way they do things. The biggest cost savings can be made by productions reducing their international travel, working with local crews and hiring equipment locally, too. Similarly, switching to house power and reducing the reliance on generators in a studio can cut down on fuel costs. 

McEnallay: It all depends how you define cost. For example, LED lights can be more expensive to hire than traditional lights, but if you don’t need a generator, or an enormous Luton van, or multiple makeup and costume changes to allow for hot film lights, you are making savings. If you don’t require plastic gels because the light has RGB capacity, or polyboard because you are using a folding Manfrotto Skylite rapid reflector instead, then you reduce transport costs and waste. 

How do we ensure that everyone working on productions is on the same page? I understand that there are green runners or sustainability coordinators, but many have spoken about how their authority is often undermined when they are on tremendous sets with a large cast and crew. Does there need to be more awareness? And, if so, how can this be achieved?

Ball: Increasing internal resources, awareness and expertise are essential steps, but equally important are the messages coming from the top. At Sky, our leadership has maintained sustainability as a top priority, central to our business. We have made our own sustainable production guidelines available, unbranded, through Creative UK for anybody to take and adapt for their own production needs.

Margrett: At Albert, we advocate for guidance for all levels – we offer free training, which can be done by everyone, from a runner to a CEO. It’s a great way for all staff to kick off their sustainable journey, to understand the challenges and opportunities. We also ask for a green memo to be sent out before production has started, clearly illustrating their intentions for that production – making sure there’s buy-in from all cast and crew. This memo should come from someone high up in the organisation to really signal senior-level support for embedding sustainability. In our production toolkit, although a coordinator or manager will be filling out the details on the system, it is mandatory that there is a senior person accountable for implementing agreed sustainable goals. The person filling out the Albert carbon action plan will also need to refer to heads of departments throughout the production, to gather data and ensure sustainability commitments are being met across the board. At COP26 last year, we launched a Climate Content Pledge which was signed by CEOs from across the major broadcasters and streamers in the UK and Ireland, so we know there’s now buy in from the top.  

McEnallay: It’s a process, and senior staff need to buy into sustainability as a priority in order for a sustainability coordinator to be effective – otherwise it’s a waste of time and frustrating for everyone. It will get easier, as sustainable options become more mainstream. So now that LED lights are the right tool for the job, the lighting department will be more sustainable by default. 

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