Published on Friday January 25, 2008
Hollywood’s just becoming aware of its carbon footprint. Chris Alden checks the rushes for some action.
One March morning a while back, an internal memo appeared on the desks of executives at Warner Bros studios in Burbank, California – and it came all the way from the top.
“There should be an immediate, complete checkup on lights being turned off… when they are not necessary,” it began. The previous night, the memo-writer had seen lights on in an empty canteen – and was shocked at the waste of money and power. “It is not necessary for us to be spending money for lights and power when they are not being used,” he wrote. “You know what I mean – I have been telling you this for 20 years.”
The author of the memo? Jack Warner, one of the founders of Warner Bros. The year? 1955.
On one level it’s amusing to think of Warner, a powerful movie mogul, wandering around his studio one balmy night half a century ago, fretting about his electricity bill and composing a suitably stern missive as he walked. On another, it raises an uncomfortable question. If even the autocratic Warner spent decades trying to persuade producers to minimise energy use, what chance do studio bosses have today?
Skip forward half a century, and the film industry is waking up to some inconvenient truths about global warming. Al Gore’s documentary, of course, proved film’s ability to take a message to the masses. Actors such as Sienna Miller, who fronts the Global Cool campaign, have banged the environmental drum. And there’s no shortage of stars prepared to don recycled shoes for a shimmy down the red – or, as at the Bollywood ‘Boscars’, green – carpet.
But beneath the glitzy surface, film-makers are acknowledging that they need to change their practices – and fast – if they are to live up to the hype.
“I’m a pretty harsh critic of everything we need to do,” says Shelley Billik, vice-president of environmental initiatives at Warner Bros. Her company has taken a lead by creating green production handbooks, and high-profile initiatives like installing solar power at a studio – but she recognises there is a way to go.
In December 2006, a study by the Institute of the Environment at the University of California Los Angeles lit the green touchpaper under the issue. Focusing on energy consumption, greenhouse gas and other pollutants and hazardous waste, it compared the film and TV sector with other major industries in LA – with mixed results.
Based on emissions per dollar, film comes out as one of the best performing. But in LA itself, its overall emissions dwarfed many other industries. Hardly surprising, given the number of studios in the city, perhaps. But all the same, the media had a field day – with one report characterising the movie industry’s carbon footprint as “Godzilla-sized”.
The UCLA study says that one big consumer of energy is lighting – there are few low-energy alternatives, for example, to a 10,000W lamp. Getting your entire crew to a location, meanwhile, can be “comparable to moving an army”. But it acknowledges that emissions and energy use levels are in fact very hard to quantify, because of the sheer number of freelancers, independent producers and third-party suppliers who make Hollywood tick. “The industry here is based on ‘call 130 people and reinvent everything from scratch’,” says study co-author Charles Corbett.
“It’s difficult to keep on top of it all,” admits Billik, “primarily because production is functioning quite independently, especially when they’re on location.” Command-and-control is not an option, she says. Instead, “you have to meet the people on the ground – the production managers, the producers, the construction coordinators – and over the years I’ve developed relationships with them, and provided resources [to help them tackle the issues].”
Rachel Webber, director of energy initiatives at News Corporation, has a similar message. The Murdoch-controlled media empire includes 20th Century Fox, and is committed to being ‘carbon neutral’ by 2010. “We’re in and out of places very quickly,” she says. “So it has to start with asking ourselves a lot of questions. What do we own versus what do we lease? Where are we sourcing power from – the grid or our generators? How are we sourcing our transportation; our food? When do we send clothes to be dry-cleaned? How are we constructing sets – are they sustainable, are they recycled, are they recyclable?”
Trying to reduce the energy consumption of a film from its concept to screen, all in partnership with a myriad of third parties, is a vast undertaking. Most productions, says Billik, have “no idea what their greenhouse gas emissions are or where the greatest environmental impact is”. So the best way forward, she says, is to work out what emissions you can measure, and do everything you can to reduce those.
Then there’s the offset option, chosen by the makers of Syriana (Warner), Evan Almighty (Universal), The Day After Tomorrow (Fox) and, yes, An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount). Fine if you’ve first cut your energy use, says Arlo Brady, a special adviser to Freud Communications, but offsetting on its own “looks like greenwash… There’s this joke that goes around that it’s like taking the morning after pill – the month after.”
And the trend would seem to be towards net reductions, says Billik. While the producers of Syriana (made in 2005) bought carbon credits to cover their 2,040 tonnes, the makers of 11th Hour (2007) focused on reducing energy as far as they could, cutting their carbon footprint to around 500 tonnes.
In Britain, of course, the film industry is not nearly so big or powerful – but sustainability consultant Emma Gardner, of Faber Maunsell, has just submitted a report to the UK Film Council recommending that it take a lead on the issue. She calls for film schools to include green training, and for public funding to support green film-making. She points to the example of the Greening the Screen project in New Zealand, which provides a comprehensive environmental toolkit for film-makers. It includes advice on everything from the double-sided printing of film scripts (yes, it’s that basic), to selecting the right make-up brands, recycling sets and clothing, using fuel-efficient vehicles and making sure that environmental standards logos are used in the film credits.
On one thing everyone is agreed: after learning lessons on energy use, the film industry is perfectly placed to communicate to a wider audience. “It’s not that we know it all,” says Billik, “it’s just that we [in Hollywood] have such a high profile. It’s a great place from which to create cultural change.”
Film negatives, film solutions
Negative: Using gas-guzzling generators to power high-wattage lights on location.
Positive: Investigating local power sources; recording lighting use so effective statistics are available; using dimmers to rest lights between scenes.
Negative: Throwing away sets at end of filming.
Positive: Recycling sets and materials: Oceans 13 reused lumber from Nancy Drew – then it went on to be used in Get Smart.
Negative: Transporting crew to/from location and publicity events.
Positive: Using alternative fuels and more fuel-efficient vehicles; reducing unnecessary travel; driving fuel-efficiently.
Negative: Destroying the environment when filming on location
Positive: Conducting impact assessments and including environmental protection control measures in daily call sheets.
Negative: Lack of awareness of green issues in film-making.
Positive: Integrating ‘green film-making’ into training at film schools.
Sources: www.mpaa.org; www.greeningthescreen.co.nz
Will going digital make the film industry greener? It’s a bold hope. These days, films can be shot with cheaper digital cameras (meaning there’s no waste of film), generated with computer imagery (no need to go on location) and even downloaded by subscribers on-demand (no need to make and distribute DVDs). No wonder the Greening the Screen toolkit recommends digital shoots “where quality allows”.
But in the film industry, old habits die hard. Most features are still shot on film – thought to have that grainy, high-end quality. Digital is largely confined to productions wanting an amateurish or documentary feel – like The Blair Witch Project.
But studios do recycle film stock, and film-makers increasingly use digital methods to view unedited “dailies” (known in Britain as “rushes”).
CGI (computer-generated imagery) can work wonders. When Oliver Reed died during the filming of Gladiator, he was ‘recreated’ using computer technology; and CGI is extensively used for crowd scenes, reducing the need to transport hundreds of extras to and from a shoot. It can also create far-flung locations, without the need to step outside the studio.
But beyond the worlds of animation and special effects, film-makers overwhelmingly prefer to use physical locations if they can get them. For example, even though the makers of Casino Royale didn’t travel to Africa to film a Ugandan warlord’s camp, they didn’t use CGI either – they filmed the scene in woodland near Pinewood studios, shipping in red sand and tropical plants.
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