Green Filmmaking


In this first part of a series of articles on green filmmaking, Jonathan Victory introduces the concept, explains the need for it in the industry and discusses what measures have been taken so far.


This is the first in a series of articles about a new phenomenon in the film industry called “green filmmaking”. Productions across different continents and contexts have been exploring how to minimise their impact on the environment and maximise the efficient use of resources. This series will explore what has been done in this field so far, how its benefits can be practically reaped and how a specific crew role would be ideal for introducing the film industry to this concept.

There’s a need for every industry to minimise the destructive impact it’s having on the natural world. Living standards need to be improved, man-made global warming needs to be stopped and the environment we depend on for life needs to be protected. Only the most sheltered, irrational contrarian would contest this, yet one might wonder where specifically the film industry would fit into this.

For a start, the film and television industry likes to think of itself as ahead of the curve when it comes to pressing social issues and how we treat the environment this century is going to define civilisation itself. Secondly, environmentalism is gradually being considered less a luxury and more a necessity for sensible planning. The benefits of an industry infrastructure that adopted green filmmaking should become apparent as this series goes on.

It is also important to consider just how energy-intensive the audio-visual sector is because success for green filmmaking could have a positive knock-on effect by setting an example that other industries would have to follow. For example, large-scale screen productions employ hundreds if not thousands of people for many months, placing quite a significant demand on resources and making any achievement of sustainability a significant accomplishment. Sets and costumes are developed during the pre-production phase while locations are scouted, often remote outdoor locations that are ecologically sensitive. During the shoot itself there is a huge logistical challenge to provide transport and catering for the cast and crew (before disposing the waste they produce), to heat or cool sets as needed, to generate electricity for lighting and other equipment and to provide water to the set for consumption or in some cases for special effects’ purposes.

Focusing for now on this specific context of a film or television shoot should show industry practitioners a way forward in practically implementing green business practices. Given that post-production work is largely based in offices or post-houses it’s a more manageable context in which to source a sustainable energy provider. The introduction of digital to the shooting process itself not only makes the transfer of footage to post-production less cumbersome, it also reduces a shoot’s environmental impact as film-stock cameras require certain industrial chemicals in their manufacturing, usage and preparation for post-production.

On the other hand, there are aspects of filmmaking where high consumption of energy is currently considered unavoidable, most notably the use of lights and generators. Lighting equipment has historically been inefficient, often expending more of their energy on heat than light which can make film sets uncomfortably hot working environments with an occasional risk of fire hazards. Manufacturers of film lights such as ARRI and Kino-Flo have begun producing more energy-efficient lights and Warner Bros. have recently renovated their studio facilities to feature more energy-efficient house lights.

The film industry however is used to certain kinds of lights and energy-efficient models that give off softer light can create unusual colour temperatures a camera-crew would have to adjust for. If a transition is ever going to happen, service providers and rental houses in the Irish film industry need to make more of an effort to accommodate alternative forms of lighting.

While energy savings may potentially be made in the area of lighting, generators that are used to power film sets typically run on diesel fuels at a huge cost to the environment. The use of fossil fuels creates particulate emissions and smog formation that adversely impact not only the Earth’s atmosphere but the immediate working conditions of a film set. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an alternative available to the Irish market even with international developments in biodiesel, solar panels and battery storage. A possible solution might be to use synthetic recycled fuels that could run in conventional generators.

One such fuel comes from Cynar Plc who operate a plant in Portlaoise. They have a process for heating plastic waste, liquefying it and distilling it back into a substance that has virtually all the same combustible properties of crude oil. Substituting petrol with this synthetic fuel would reduce carbon emissions by more than a third by harnessing the carbon molecules already in plastic which would have otherwise been contributing to pollution in landfills. Another company in Spain, Biopetroleo, actually reduce global warming by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and developing a synthetic fuel through the chemical reactions between carbon molecules from CO2 pollution, algae and high levels of barometric pressure. This synthetic fuel not only has the same combustible properties of crude oil but actually goes beyond being carbon-neutral by reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Another large piece of the puzzle remains in making production facilities themselves sustainable. There has been investment in this area internationally and has been successful both in the construction of new facilities and the renovation of existing ones. Matrix directors the Wachowskis invested $6.8 million in Kinowerks, a facility housing their pre-production and post-production work in their home city of Chicago that is partially constructed out of recycled materials and powered by solar energy. It has very high standards of energy-efficiency that were recognised by the U.S. Green Building Council, arguably justifying the initial cost of investment.

Bavaria Film Studios in southern Germany also invested a substantial sum in renovating their studio facilities that have been in operation for over 100 years. Yet after investing $30 million in renovation, their buildings reduced their carbon emissions by a staggering 97% between 2011 and 2013. Such investments carry a high initial cost but the savings in waste and energy typically pay off in the long-term. Questions remain about introducing such measures to Ireland’s film industry but not from a technical standpoint; only in terms of how resources are prioritised.

Before such a large-scale investment could be made, the film industry must be familiarised with the practice of green filmmaking. Film crews work under high pressure with restrictive budgets and must be assured that a transition like this will improve the efficiency of work, not encumber it. A novel approach that has proven successful in a variety of production contexts from the large-scale to the micro-budget is to make green filmmaking the responsibility of a single crew member in a brand new role. This practical step will be discussed here next week.


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