Being a mostly digital form of media, one would assume that film/video wouldn't have many effects on the planet these days. The truth is it's a little more complicated than that, because there's a lot of different factors that have to come together in order for you to be able to hit play, switch on your TV or sit down at a movie theatre to watch the latest blockbuster. The processes used by the producers of film/video content can have many lasting effects on the environment.
Kia ora! Welcome to this blog post detailing the adverse effects film & video production can have on the environment. I've been working in the New Zealand film industry for a few years now, and most of my experience is in commercials, but I've also worked in broadcast and drama, so I have a good understanding of the differences between each field. Since the basic production process for each field is quite similar, I think the biggest difference in most cases is the scale. A feature film might have 100 times the environmental impact of a high-end TV commercial, but each production has similar options when it comes to reducing their impact.
While this industry could be considered an environmental angel compared to some others, there's always room for improvement and there are some clear areas where changes could be made to improve sustainability. This company - Champion Media - is on a mission to improve the sustainability of video production from the ground up.
Let's start from the beginning.
Pre-Production and Planning
Pre-prod is the part that comes before the shoot. Conceptualisation, development and solidification of the idea, along with the planning and scheduling of the shoot, post production and delivery. So what effects does this part have?
This one probably seems obvious, but let's consider it for a moment. Use of computers, cameras, printers, lighting and more could add up to a significant amount of energy during the pre-prod phase of a production.
Location recces, casting, meetings; there are a number of trips made by crew and talent in the lead up to a shoot that normally result in increased carbon emissions. Also, many shoots require gear, props or set pieces to be shipped from overseas or transported from different cities. Cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, electric scooters... You name it, it's probably been involved in planning a film shoot at some point, and every one runs on some form of energy.
If you've ever worked in pre-prod, you'll know that there is traditionally a huge volume of printed material involved. After all, every piece of documentation - scripts, shot lists, storyboards, casting sheets, schedules, call sheets and more usually have to go through several draft stages before they're finalised, and many people have to review this material at each stage. Paper is widely recycled in developed countries but the production and recycling processes consume considerable amounts of energy.
Now that pre-prod is all signed off, let's shoot. This is where things get real.
Just like pre-prod, each shoot day involves a lot of kilometres or miles travelled, primarily at this point by internal combustion engine. Every member of the crew (this could be hundreds) needs to make their way from where they live to a location, and at least in New Zealand, this mostly means driving a personal vehicle that runs on fossil fuel. Additionally we have lighting trucks, grip trucks, art department trucks, generator trucks, unit, catering, data wranglers and other essential vehicles that generally emit more than the small vehicles driven by individual crew. It's quite obvious that all of this would add up, especially if a shoot is weeks or months in duration and shot across multiple locations.
Plastic Waste and Food Waste
It's common practice to feed crew in the film industry, because you're often in remote or foreign locations and the most time-effective solution for the production is just to sit everyone down and get some food in them, instead of having everyone head off in separate directions come break time. I've seen some very creative caterers and unit teams in my few years in the industry, but each shoot day still seems to end with bags and bags filled with plastic cups, paper coffee cups, plastic food packaging/cutlery and other general waste as a result of crew needing to fulfil their basic nutritional needs on location.
This one might be a surprise, but it's very real in some cases. Shooting can involve huge amounts of gaffer tape, electrical tape and other consumables that are usually made of nylon and PVC plastic with harsh chemical adhesives, along with single use batteries commonly used in wireless microphones and other devices that ultimately end up in landfills contributing to various environmental issues.
Direct Impact on Locations
This has to be the most direct and obvious environmental impact of shooting - the very locations that are selected and used by crew to shoot a production. Because it's so obvious, most productions are very aware and conscious of the impact they're having on their locations, and any production that does something irresponsible can spark outrage from the public and communities who care for the locations being exploited. Large crews and the volume of vehicles mentioned above can have devastating physical effects depending on where the shoot is and what time of year it is. For example, shooting in an untouched forest during the rainy season with 100 crew trudging around and 15 heavy vehicles ripping up the area wouldn't exactly be the best idea.
It's quite common (at least in New Zealand) to be shooting in locations that aren't exactly on the electrical grid, because they're usually much more beautiful than places that are. This poses challenges for every department from catering to data wrangling, but the biggest energy consumer on set would traditionally be lighting. Things are beginning to change here as more productions switch to efficient and flexible LED solutions; but these solutions are generally more expensive than their conventional counterparts and there is still a need in many circumstances for the brightness of a 12kW fresnel or similar fixture as a fill-in for what the sun isn't doing so well. The obvious solution to this off-grid problem: generate all your electricity by burning diesel on location, to the point where shoots require several trucks dedicated to generating electricity as quietly as possible, ensuring everyone can plug in without the shoot's audio being adversely affected. Not exactly eco-friendly. And before you say the grid's energy is made using fossil fuels too, in New Zealand approximately 80% of our grid's electricity comes from renewable sources , so using the grid is generally a much cleaner option than using generators, at least in Aotearoa.
The edit suite is where the magic happens - just look at Champion Media's work. As we're learning though, every process has a footprint of some kind.
As with pre-prod, the process of editing video footage relies heavily on overclocked computers, coffee machines and late lights in edit suites with the lights on. Over time this energy use through electricity would add up, so it is again something that should be considered.
Again relating to pre-prod, after the shoot and during the edit there are many meetings to be held in different buildings that various people need to attend, as well as things that need to be dropped off, picked up or shipped back to where they belong. These trips could be across town and burn a little petrol each time, or they could be on another continent and contribute to quite a large amount of carbon emissions. Either way, the effects can become significant over time.
Disposal of Set and Costume
Something inevitable after the shoot has wrapped - various set pieces and props need to go somewhere. Traditionally, if they're likely to be used again they'll be stored, or if they're rented they'll of course go back to the rental company. However if they're low value or large items that will be uneconomical to keep, they'll either be donated to crew or charity, or end up in landfills. The latter is not a great look. Another thing worth noting is costume and clothing - the fashion industry accounts for 10% of carbon emissions globally , and at least in my experience, costume managers are often forced to source brand new clothes for each production because the requirements are different and appropriate rental options aren't available. These also need to be bought in various sizes and styles to ensure the perfect option is available when fitting talent. Of course, some of these clothes will ultimately end up in the hands of crew or be on-sold by charities to support their causes, but depending on where the clothes were bought, this practice fuels the monster that is 'fast fashion' and the unsustainable practices that make the fashion industry so damaging.
Production Company Admin
Let's not forget that productions are the work of production companies - and like any company, a production company faces day-to-day challenges with sustainability.
We live in a world where things are evolving extremely quickly, and businesses in the film industry have to work extra hard to keep up with the latest technology developments. If we're shooting on the latest cameras, we need to be using the latest computers and software to be able to handle the footage coming from them, and although we know this 'next-gen tech' will likely be obsolete in less than a decade, we spend huge amounts of money to ensure we're keeping up with the standards of the industry. The most alarming part about this is that perfectly usable equipment that cost thousands of dollars years earlier becomes practically zero value, and there are limited options out there when it comes time to dispose of it. E-waste really is the only option in a lot of cases these days, and even with this option, a lot of the old components will ultimately end up in the world's landfills.
So there you have it, in case you were wondering - a handful of things the film and video industry could be doing better from a sustainability perspective. If you think there's something that should be added or you have some feedback, please do Contact us.
Champion Creative is (in part) a young film production company that plans to address the issues mentioned above. Learn more