The film industry’s relationship with the environment hasn’t exactly been mutual. Gone are the good ol’ days where you could literally rip up whole sections of rainforest to make way for your production. With climate change now a major concern, what is the industry doing to reduce its (rather large) carbon footprint?
According to the ‘State of the Air’ report released early this year, Los Angeles was ranked the worst area in the nation for ozone pollution, a spot it’s held for 19 of the 20 years that the American Lung Association has been publishing the report. This is hardly surprising. When you look at any image of Los Angeles, the cityscape hosts a hue of smog that nestles just above the skyscrapers. But with production sets using industrial diesel-powered generators, a lot of LA’s pollution can be attributed to the film industry. Before advances in CGI, most effects (particularly on large-scale productions) were practical. The final battle in Spartacus was achieved with some masterful cinematography and around 8,000 extras. For Waterworld, a gigantic atoll set was built off the coast of Hawaii, and for The Matrix Reloaded, producers constructed a 1.5-mile freeway specifically for one of the films standout sequences. While onscreen these are genuine sights to behold, displaying true craftsmanship and attention to detail, the environmental costs really didn’t factor into the budgetary/time constraints of these productions. This kind of filmmaking is the stuff of legend – take Apocalypse Now for instance. It’s quite possibly one of the greatest films ever made, but again there’s an environmental caveat: the environmental impact it had would never have been taken into consideration. The spectacular napalm strike was executed with 1,200 gallons of gasoline in a ditch at the treeline.
This all sounds rather archaic but there are still productions that have the bottom line very much more in focus than the welfare of mother earth. Depending on the size of the production, there are implications for real-world environmental wellbeing. Flights for the crew, equipment and actors and power for production materials can typically produce the equivalent of around 4,000 metric tons of CO2 (the average family car in America emits around 7 metric tons of CO2 a year). Most recently, during production of Mad Max: Fury Road (despite later stating that they had no reservations) the Namibian Coast Conservation and Management group accused its producers of damaging parts of the Namib Desert, endangering a number of animal and plant species. Hardly a stretch when you see the onscreen carnage first hand – with 90% of its effects being practical. The action sequences are quite extraordinary in Fury Road (it’s no wonder it's considered an action masterpiece) and there is no denying that the results look spectacular – granting authenticity and grandeur that lingers long on the retinas – but it did raise serious questions about the environmental toll left in its wake.
Other productions such as The Beach and the Lord of the Rings trilogy have also received scrutiny from environmental agencies, mainly due to being set in natural environments with the production shooting on location. After a production has finished its materials are left behind and are more often than not (if unclaimed) destined for the nearest landfill. With climate change accelerating and all eyes now on the industry to set an example for sustainability, the days where convenience was the excuse are numbered. So, what is the film industry doing to tackle its carbon footprint?
Environmental activists look towards the industry to make more films that tackle the subject. Historically these films haven’t exactly been on point scientifically – in some cases they have been accused of being political propaganda by climate change denier – but the impact it’s had on the social consciousness to improve sustainability habits (even in the interim) has proved effective. The Day After Tomorrow took advantage of artistic license on environmental issues, depicting meteorological phenomena happening within a matter of hours as opposed to decades, but garnered praise from scientists for highlighting the human impact on climate change – even if the science behind the film is grossly exploited in the name of entertainment. As mentioned, CGI has become more convincing and photorealistic such that now, mass destruction can be realised without going outside. Of course, overtime at the power grid is needed to achieve this as it still requires an awful lot of processing power, but it removes the need to physically decimate a film set or location shoot.
According to an article written by Lauren Harper for Earth Institute, Sony pictures have prevented 90% of their production waste from reaching landfills by donating leftover food, furniture and clothing for those in need. It’s also the little details that all add up, on the set of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, they were able to reduce operation costs by eliminating all bottled water use. Some productions have also started to use solar panels on set at their respective headquarters, with a view to transition to location shoots. There is an argument to be had as traditional filmmaking techniques and production methods take a backseat. For example, I personally find practical effects far more effective then digital, but appreciate that it’s high time that the old ways amalgamate with the new. They have a lot they can learn from one another and when they do, the results are spectacular.
The film industry generates billions of dollars globally year upon year so it’s in a great position financially to make some significant advances towards sustainability. More importantly it’s a platform through which millions of people can be reached and influenced, paving the way for individuals and other industries to follow suit. It’s great to see production companies finally working more closely with environmental agencies on ways they can reduce their carbon footprint during all stages of the production, I just hope that it's not too late to repair the damage.