"Green Filmmaking" Making Film Production More Environmentally Sustainable

As a kid in Wisconsin, I made little clay-mation stop-motion movies with my brother and continued to make short films with friends as I went through high school and college. Some were good, some not so good--but no matter the content, we were scrappy filmmakers, using whatever we could find to make into a movie. After grad school at CalArts, I freelanced in the film industry in visual effects and editorial. I noticed that the bigger the movies, the more wasteful they seemed to be. I recall one big Hollywood franchise film where the company I worked for built these amazing sets and props, and after weeks of careful work creating and shooting, it all had to be dismantled, shipped, or thrown away in one wrap day. The production didn’t want to spend any more money than it had to on stage rental or storage after the shooting was done. Around the same time, I started teaching and I’d try to save used lighting expendables, props, and gear that was going in the trash to take to my film students.  That’s when I began to think about how to incorporate green principles like reduce, reuse, recycle into the filmmaking process.

My research is in making film production more environmentally sustainable, starting at the student level.

Filmmaking can be a very wasteful process. The practice of reducing the carbon footprint of the filmmaking process is called sustainable production or green filmmaking. According to a study put together by the Sustainable Producers Alliance, Hollywood blockbusters have an average carbon footprint of about 3,300 metric tons. That’s the same as the mass of about 300 school buses.

People who care about the environment in the entertainment industry have steadily come together to form a coalition  called the Sustainable Producers Alliance (SPA). As a teacher, I have found a like-minded group of film production teachers, and together, with mentorship from SPA, we started the Green Films School Alliance (GFSA) in 2021. Founding members include AFI (American Film Institute), CSULB, NYU, UCLA, USC and CalArts to name a few.

“The GFSA's membership now hails from seven US states and four countries across three continents. Nine member schools are on the Hollywood Reporter’s Top 25 Film Schools list for 2022, with eight of them ranked in the top 10. These committed schools join the effort to combat wasteful film production practices. By expanding the alliance's commitment to teaching sustainable production to a wider group of schools, they are one step closer to making ‘green production‘ a standard practice for all filmmakers.”  (from the Green Film School Alliance press release on 11/1/2022).

One of the chief tools that we use to minimize the carbon footprint of a student film is called the Production Environmental Actions Checklist for young filmmakers (PEACHy).  The PEACHy is a checklist tool that we adapted from the industry standard PEACH, modifying it for the methods of production that students use. From energy-efficient LED lights to reusable water bottles, from ride sharing to shooting locally, the checklist has many suggestions for reducing the carbon footprint of a film. PEACHy has been used by many student productions since we launched it, with around two dozen films garnering enough points on the checklist to earn an Environmental Media Association (EMA) Green Seal for Students.

In addition to the work on the GFSA, I have a book proposal submitted to Routledge/Focal Press on the subject of sustainability in student film productions. (Excerpt attached)

This month I’ve been working with a designer in the Sustainability Office to create a CSULB Green Seal for student films.

I’ve also presented talks on sustainability in student films for the University Film and Video Association, The Hollywood Climate Summit, and The Green Film School Alliance, and I recently had a proposal accepted to speak at a sustainability conference in Italy.

Creating the GFSA has been an exciting way to build a coalition for change and to build open-source best practices for sustainability in filmmaking. Writing a book and presenting at conferences has been great for sharing these ideas too. But it’s more than just getting the word out there.

The real work is in the daily practices during pre-production, production, and post-production. This year I am personally working with select student crews to track their films’ footprints. Participating productions designate a Sustainability Coordinator and check in with each department (camera, wardrobe, food service, set construction, etc.) before and after shooting, tracking progress with PEACHy. If they score high enough, they earn a green seal for their credits. By standardizing the production workflow to include sustainability as a normal part of filmmaking, we’ve created change in all the future films these students will work on too.

I tell my students that it IS easy being green in filmmaking, you just have to put a bit of work into it. It’s all about making film production more efficient, less costly, and better for everyone. Movies have the power to influence and change-- in content, and in the whole process of production. Our film students have the potential to change the world, one movie at a time.

Excerpt from proposed book “Sustainability in Student Film Production” Routledge/Focal Press

“Pre-Production: The Plan”

“I love it when a plan comes together!” Hannibal Smith, The A-Team

Pre-production is where we make our brilliant, cunning, and sneaky plan, like Wiley Coyote at the drawing board or Dr. Olivia Octavius in the Spider-verse. Whether it’s an improvised slingshot or a multi-dimensional supercollider, the plan is critical. That’s where we begin to think about our footprint.

Making the plan

Pre-production planning is hands-down the most important stage of production, and it’s always the area that filmmakers wish they had spent more time on. Find your collaborators, assemble the team, establish regular production meetings, and make a sustainability plan part of your prep. In the same way that you make a financial plan to pay for the movie, and do a visual plan or look book for the cinematography of your project, you need to establish your sustainability strategy. Will you go for a Guinness World Record in sustainability? How much can you realistically tackle? Can you achieve a “green seal” for your credits? Which one? Is it going to be a huge battle just to get the team to recycle their aluminium cans and turn off the lights at night? The one thing that is certain is that you have the ability to make a difference; how much of a difference is what we plan for in pre-production. One proven strategy is to bring someone onto your team as a sustainability coordinator.

Bringing on a Sustainability Coordinator

The person who does the legwork on your green filmmaking plan is your Sustainability Coordinator. On a big studio project for Disney or Warner Brothers, for example, the studio might have several people on the case: a Director of Sustainability, a Sustainability Coordinator, and/or an Eco PA. A Director of Sustainability-typerole oversees the sustainability efforts across their slate, on the multitude of projects (TV shows, movies, etc) that a studio might be working on simultaneously at any given time. Further, they might supervise an in-house department and dedicated Sustainability Coordinators on each show. A larger project might also have additional Sustainability PA’s; the company may havea Sustainability Internship. The staff and titles of people working on sustainability will be different for each project depending on the company, size, budget, resources, and environmental mission but all the major content producers, specifically members of the Sustainable Production Alliance, address sustainable production on their shows in one way or another.

For a student production – and for our purposes here - you might call this person a Sustainability Coordinator, but you can call them whatever you want to… Green Film Coordinator, Eco Czar, Sustainability Overlord, Benevolent Eco-Princess, whatever makes sense for you and your team. Not every production has a sustainability person, of course, but it’s a good idea to have a dedicated person to follow up on all the ways that the whole crew can participate in making the film “green.” If you don't have the space or the budget to feed this extra mouth, consider upgrading a PA role to Sustainability Coordinator. They can still help with general PA tasks while also managing the set's sustainability practices - and may be more likely to work for free when receiving a better credit for their resume.     Identify yoursustainability person and get them involved early.

Read more Research @ the Beach articles from fall 2022 on the CSULB research website.