Quick tips for more sustainable screen production

'Setting the Scene for Greener Screens' is a new resource available on Documentary Australia Foundation's website. It's full of practical ideas and conversation-starters for filmmakers.

Have you ever considered that changing your search engine could change your environmental impact? Surprisingly, this is one of the first suggestions offered by film and TV sustainability expert Tanzy Owen. She advocates using Ecosia, a browser that takes profits from your searches to plant trees where they’re needed most. Speaking at the recent Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), Owen emphasised the way such small changes could have big impacts. She also gave the example of the screen industry in Vancouver, which successfully lobbied hire companies to offer hybrid vehicles.

Owen is the author of Setting the Scene for Greener Screens, a new downloadable resource for filmmakers available as a PDF on the Documentary Australian Foundation (DAF) website. Simple and succinct, and laid out in checklist form, there are five pages of ideas and conversation starters that begins from the assertion that talking about sustainability with your cast and crew, and everyone you’re working with, is one of the most powerful tools for change.

The Australian screen industry lags behind many countries in its uptake of sustainability practices and measures. Notable International efforts include the work of We are Albert in the UK, Green Production Guide in the US and Green Spark Group in Canada. But here there’s a growing hunger for change too.

Owen has worked on major productions in Australia and New York, and as the Sustainability Manager for Endemol Shine Australia, creating and implementing environmental measures on large format programs like Masterchef, Survivor, Married At First Sight and Lego Masters. (You can watch her talk about her work on Masterchef here.) With a Bachelor of Environments and as an alumni of the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, she is one of the co-founders (alongside Anna Kaplan, Sarah Tosone and Jennifer McAuliffe) of a working group called Sustainable Screens Australia, which also runs an active Facebook group of passionate arts creatives working towards greener production methods.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion on the entire checklist is to consider whether you should film at all.

Some of the suggestions offered in Setting the Scenes for Greener Screens are remarkably easy, while others look dauntingly difficult, especially for those wanting to film on the other side of the globe.

As producer and Sustainable Screens activist Anna Kaplan told the AIDC panel, while she was working on hybrid documentary 2040, trying to make Australia’s most high profile environmental film with the lightest footprint, she was horrified at the end of production to realise that even such a low budget and highly conscious film had amassed a hefty footprint of over 1000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions: ‘enough to power 115 US homes for a whole year’. Offsetting these emissions with tree planting became a major focus for Kaplan, and the whole experience inspired and fuelled her 2020 Natalie Miller Fellowship project.

Read: Anna Kaplan: ‘You have to live and breathe your message’

Perhaps the most radical suggestion on the entire checklist is to consider whether you should film at all. Does your film or TV show really need to be made? And if so, can you license existing footage? Can you contract local crew for filming and avoid travel?

Providing your burning urge to film persists, here are some of the key tips and switches from the guide to help reduce the impact.

Actions for All

  • Avoid single-use items and bring your own water bottle, cup, cutlery, etc.
  • Look for opportunities to incorporate environmental themes or sustainable behaviours on screen, and never show plastic water bottles, plastic bags, or disposable coffee cups.
  • Ask suppliers if they have sustainability policies or green alternatives. Every conversation matters. Supply is influenced by demand.
  • Hire whenever possible. When buying new, consider what things are made of, how they’re made and where they come from. Buying local, recycled or natural products creates lower carbon emissions.

Communication

  • Set clear sustainability goals and brief all crew and cast. 
  • Planning in pre-production can set the tone for the whole production.
  • Track the measures you are taking so you can share the good news! Film and television has the power to inspire and influence ideas.
  • Use your platform to show positive behaviour and actions on screen.

Energy and Lighting

  • The biggest part of a production’s carbon footprint is energy use. First seek to lower energy use with efficient technologies, by powering down and streamlining equipment.
  • Ask suppliers for energy efficient options which can be more cost effective in the long run.
  • Contract renewable energy providers, and ask facilities and locations if they do the same.
  • Reduce the use of space heaters.
  • Preference LED lighting for filming and in offices to lower energy demand.
  • Reduce energy load and tie into mains power to avoid the need for generators.
  • Track and offset the carbon emissions of your productions.

Transport and Travel

  • Ask yourself first if you need to travel.
  • Turn off vehicles while waiting to lower localised pollution. Idling for 10 seconds creates more carbon emissions than restarting your engine.
  • Hire local crew whenever you can and consider the number of crew travelling to reduce air travel.
  • Encourage carpooling if COVID safe. Hire vans to transport everyone together and minimise the number of individual trips during shoots.
  • Hire small cars unless needed, and request hybrids where available. SUV’s and large vehicles use significantly more fuel.
  • Establish unit bases and accommodation close to filming locations. Consider hiring community centres or church halls to support the local community.

Waste & Single Use Items

  • All crew should use their own water bottle and coffee cup. Phase disposable options out completely.
  • Use bulk products to refill individual containers, e.g. sanitiser and hand wash.
  • Minimise the use of disposable items including lighting gels, blackwrap and tape. Never buy polystyrene.
  • Invest in rechargeable batteries which pay themselves off after ~6 uses.
  • If disposable masks are required, cut ear loops prior to disposal so they are not a risk to wildlife if they make it into the environment. Recycle them in a pre-paid PPE recycling box from TerraCycle.

Paper and Timber and Printing

  • Choose Australian made, post-consumer waste recycled products.
  • Purchase 100% recycled copy paper, see the Ethical Paper Guide for suggestions.
  • Choose paper products that are native forest free, 100% recycled and/or FSC certified, including toilet paper, tissues and paper towels.
  • If using timber, ensure it has FSC certification and is from a verified source. Preference plantation or recycled wood.
  • Only print on request and have an ‘opt in’ policy for hard copies.

Catering/Unit

  • Reduce meals that contain red meat as it has the highest carbon footprint. Consider Meatless Mondays.
  • Use washable serviceware, plates and cutlery, and ask caterers to accommodate this request.
  • If disposable items are required, compostable products made from natural fibres should be used.
  • Consider who is supplying catering. Support small businesses, social enterprises and Indigenous owned businesses.
  • Donate leftover food to community centres, charities or local groups.

Summarised from the Setting the Scene for Greener Screens guide, created by Tanzy Owen for Sustainable Screens Australia and made possible with support from Documentary Australia Foundation and the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.

Join the Sustainable Screens Australia Facebook Group to connect, share information and stay up to date on developments in this space.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram