Eco-friendly Filmmaking in the U.K.

Sustainability in the motion picture industry has gained tremendous momentum over the past few years.  I wanted to re-visit an article about the work that is going on in the United Kingdom (U.K.).  It is one of the best pieces I have found, covering the whole of this issue, being "frank" yet showing how progressive this initiative is in the U.K.  

It's great to see what is going on in other parts of the world and what we can learn and apply here in British Columbia. Take a look and let us know what you think!  

(re-posted from

The rise of eco-friendly filmmaking

For an industry that hands out Golden Globes as awards, the film and TV business has a troubled history when it comes to caring about the planet.

While no direct studies have been done of the UK industry’s total carbon footprint, in 2009 Film London and the London Mayor’s Office produced a report estimating the carbon output of the London film industry at 125,000 tonnes per year - equivalent to approximately 24,000 London homes.

This figure excludes emissions from international or employee travel and from the distribution, sales and exhibition of films. With international travel, in particular being a major source of carbon emissions we can expect that the figure for the UK industry as a whole would be significantly higher. By comparison a 2006 UCLA study estimated the total carbon emissions of the LA film industry to be as high as 8 million tonnes.

Eliminating wasteful practices on set

The problem is not just the size of the screen industry’s environmental impact. To an extent that’s to be expected from such a resource heavy global industry. The problem is also how much of this impact is unnecessary. From mountains of water bottles to trailers full of photocopiers wasteful practices are widespread.

While some filmmakers chose to counteract this through carbon offsetting, - producer and director Roland Emmerich reportedly took $200,000 out of his own pocket to offset his blockbuster disaster movie The Day after Tomorrow - not every production has that kind of money lying around.

The Day After  Tommorow - London if we don't reduce our carbon footprint

The Day After Tommorow- London if we don't reduce our carbon footprint

The flipside of these wasteful practices is that it means there is plenty of room to easily improve the film and TV industry’s environmental record without threatening either the budget, or creative vision. Going green doesn’t have to push a production into the red.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that can save people money to get going with before we tackle the deeper sustainability issues,” says Aaron Matthews who works on sustainable production initiatives for BAFTA and The BBC.

The financial benefits of going green

The really interesting case studies are in the growing body of productions that choose to embed environmental concerns into their working practices right from the very beginning; reducing waste and seeing financial benefits in the process

One feature film saved £18,000 simply by abandoning disposable plastic bottles in favour of water coolers said Anna Ringuet, environmental co-ordinator at Walt Disney.

“Simply using rechargeable batteries can save hundreds and hundreds of pounds over the life of a production,” says Nicholas Leslie, a sustainable production project manager at the BBC. “Low emission vehicles use 30% less fuel than normal petrol driven cars. So they all have a good financial benefit.”

Photo via  Brett Weinstein

Photo via Brett Weinstein

Need for an industry-wide strategy

In the past few years the industry has begun making strides towards a more sustainable future. The BAFTA supported website Media Greenhouse hosts a growing list of case studies from Johnny English to the BBC Breakfast show explaining how these productions have both saved money and reduced their environmental impact.

But while the example being set by these productions is encouraging, it will take more than independent companies working in isolation to overhaul the entire industry. Once the ‘low hanging fruit’ of waste production has been cleared, there is still a long way to go for the business to become truly sustainable.

“Having an industry wide strategy is critical,” Dan Simmons of Creative Skillset explained at the BFI’s Focus on Sustainability event, “we need to be making sure that we are working together so that our funding for skills and training can complement and advance people’s investment in production.”

Leading from the front

The leading industry bodies seem to agree. In 2011 the BFI successfully launched a British standard for sustainable filmmaking in BS 8909, and BAFTA has taken up Albert+ a free online tool developed by the BBC that enables filmmakers to measure and minimize their carbon footprint.

John Newbigin, Creative England; David Wright, Pinewood Studios; Derek Watts 3 Mills studios; David Neilson,  Filming Scotland; Melanie Dicks, Greenshoot; Aaron Matthews, sustainable production at the BBC and BAFTA and Dan Simmons, Creative Skillset at the BFI's Focus on Sustainability event. Photo via Jenny Greenwell, Eco-Age

John Newbigin, Creative England; David Wright, Pinewood Studios; Derek Watts 3 Mills studios; David Neilson,  Filming Scotland; Melanie Dicks, Greenshoot; Aaron Matthews, sustainable production at the BBC and BAFTA and Dan Simmons, Creative Skillset at the BFI's Focus on Sustainability event. Photo via Jenny Greenwell, Eco-Age

Having helped develop the BS 8909, in conjunction with sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, the BFI is now working on implementing the standard itself by putting a sustainability management system in place across the whole organisation.

This is not limited to solely addressing the BFI’s environmental impact, explains Juhi Shareef of Eco-Age. The holistic nature of sustainability includes taking into account social and economic considerations also, for example paying staff a living wage.

But while this may be a mammoth task for an organisation the size of the BFI, implementing BS 8909 doesn’t have to be difficult. ”The great thing about management systems is that they can be applied to any size or type of organization,” explains Shareef, “from a one-man-band to a huge studio facility or production company.”

Alongside the BFI: Ealing Studios; film distributor Dogwoof and sustainability consultants Greenshoot have also trialed incorporating sustainability management in accordance with the standard.

“What’s good about BS8909, is that it is a strategic document, it’s for top level management,” says the BBC’s Leslie, “Albert+ and Albert are practical guides to actually what to physically do and I think you need both.”

Or, as John Newbigin of Creative England puts it “BS8909 is like a road map, and Albert is the horse that gets you across it.”

"You can only manage what you measure"

Where Albert began as an online carbon calculator to help TV productions measure their footprint, Albert+ builds on this, helping productions plan how they will take account of environmental considerations right from the beginning and to track their achievements throughout.

"If Albert the carbon calculator is the weighing scales, then Albert+ is the diet plan," says Richard Smith, a sustainable production manager at BBC who first developed Albert.

Programmes that can demonstrate successful compliance with the Albert+ checklist are awarded Albert+ rating of up to three stars. The childrens program All At Sea, was the first to go through the new Albert+  system, recieving a two star ranking.

"The mantra is that you can only manage what you measure,” says Matthews who works with the BAFTA Albert consortium, “so you need to take a really proactive approach to looking at your impact, finding out what it is and taking action on it. It’s quite simple really”

The ability to get hard numbers, on how a production is doing environmentally is particularly appealing to Amanda Nevill, chief executive of the BFI. “Sustainability for a CEO is actually quite a difficult thing,” she explained at a recent event, “we are hard-wired to see strong results, I almost need to be able to go out there and see skips full of carbon.”

Nevill’s support for sustainability initiatives is echoed by top-level executives across the industry. The membership of the BAFTA Albert consortium makes for an impressive list including 12 of the biggest TV companies in the UK.

"It's absolutely not just a BBC thing, its a Sky thing, it's a Kudos thing it's an Endemol thing" says Smith. "The great thing about sustainability, for any industry, is that the more people collaborate the better things happen."

Gaining support of cast and crew

The next step is engaging support for sustainable practices from those working on the ground. While people tend not to have a problem with small things like the introduction of recycled paper, significant changes to equipment can meet with more resistance.

"I know we like to think of ourselves as quite innovative and at the cutting edge of things but we are quite conservative in the way we make programs,” says Leslie.

Yet among cast and crew, support for environmental practices is also growing. "Attitudes have changed immeasurably, and very much for the better," Smith says, We’ve gone from having a handful of productions working with us on these issues, to have having hundreds on our books”

In Film production it is a similar story. Sustainability consultant Anna Ringuet who has worked for some of the biggest studios in the industry, describes how when she first went on set no one had seen a sustainability consultant before and she constantly had to justify her presence. Now hostility is being replaced with open curiosity about how sustainable practices work, and why they should be adopted.

New technologies and equipment

Advancements in technology, and education about the new equipment available are all making it easier to introduce environmentally friendly substitutions.

The BBC’s move to its new studios provided the perfect opportunity to implement new low energy lighting technology in the studios, explains Charles Simmonds who helped develop sustainable productions policy at the BBC “The lights are there, they’ll be there for years, decades probably, and there’s a huge saving there. No-one really notices the difference and the product is the same, that’s the ideal scenario.” But not every change will be so easy.

Major challenges for the industry

While it’s less of a concern for TV studios like the BBC, fuel is by far the biggest contributor to film’s carbon footprint - particularly when it comes to shooting on location and it is one of the biggest challenges for the industry to reduce.

Steps can be taken by reducing idling times for production vehicles, consolidating locations to minimise travel and carbon offsetting flights, but biofuel generators and production vehicles are not always easy to come by. Film and TV productions are part of a vast supply chain, and the industry is dependent on the rise of sustainable suppliers to meet demand for environmentally friendly equipment and materials.

Yet Creative England’s John Newbigin is optimistic about the power of the screen industry to influence wider change, “It’s a sexy industry, people will look at it and think, if they can do it in the movie business, we should be doing it in our widget manufacturing business.”

A long way to go

If Britain is to keep its international commitment of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to 156 million tonnes CO2 equivalent by 2050 - a 70% reduction from 2010 levels- then every single industry and individual will have to make a great deal of change to the way they do things.

The TV and film sector has already established impressive commitments to improving its environmental record, but there is still a long road ahead.