In our digital age of movie and television consumption, the language we use to talk about engaging with moving images has transformed. We ‘stream’ shows. Images are projected onto ‘green’ screens. Many of us who use computers – filmmakers, broadcasters, and audiences alike – store files on the ‘cloud.’ With digital’s organically coded vocabulary evoking water and air, the harmful mass production of analogue technologies, such as plastic film strips and DVDS, might seem like a relic from the past.
However, the environmental costs of Hollywood filmmaking are still very real and not all digital infrastructures are eco-friendly. Digital screen media rely on extracting precious metals, sweatshop labour, ‘high energy demand’ and e-waste that’s dumped in the Global South. So, what can this $100 billion global industry do to change?
It’s a question that many industry figures and academics are determined to answer. New roles such as ‘green runners’ have emerged on film sets, alongside companies like Sustainable Film, which help productions to source greener materials and recycle assets. Carbon-neutral certification for UK-based productions and toolkits to calculate carbon emissions are being used and grassroots practitioners are organising themselves to bring about positive change.
The Environmental Impact of Filmmaking Project is an Open Societal Challenge project at The Open University, led by Dr Rebecca Harrison. The project supports the UK screen industries in adopting more sustainable practices across a range of activities – focusing first on prop and costume making. It does so by exploring good practice and areas for improvement via archival research, interviews, a focus group, and collaboration with industry partners. Beyond its main aim to lower the environmental impact of filmmaking, the project has three other goals. First is to respond to skills and knowledge gaps in the screen sector and the burgeoning interest among filmmakers in sustainability. Second is to discuss global inequalities brought about by the extraction and export of raw materials, fossil fuel use, and labour practices. And third is to create an archive of interviews with Star Wars and other industry practitioners so that researchers can learn more about both life on set and changing attitudes toward sustainability.
Working with BAFTA albert, the project team brings together expertise in film history and environmental sciences. We’ll be sharing the resources we create with filmmakers; the hope is that our work to uncover the practices of the past will underpin more sustainable ways of working in future. In the first stage of the project, we’ll be examining the lifecycles of droids, dresses, and props made for the Star Wars franchise.
From the desert of Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker worked on his family’s moisture farm in A New Hope (1977), to the brutal cold of Hoth (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980), the first Star Wars movies were interested in extreme environmental conditions. Then, in The Last Jedi (2017), Resistance fighter Rose described the negative impact that colonial forces’ mining activities have on her community. And in 2019, The Rise of Skywalker featured war debris that had altered tidal patterns and coastal landscapes. It’s a franchise, then, that has always engaged with environmental concerns and the politics of sustainability onscreen.
The saga’s impact on planet Earth warrants closer attention though, as its success relies on the very activities that its storylines tend to critique. Digital equipment relies on extracting silicon from sand to make computer chips; sets need fossil fuel energy for lighting; oil-derived plastics are used to make costumes. That’s not to suggest that the franchise is environmentally worse than other screen media – rather, it’s fairly typical of big-budget productions.
The longevity of Star Wars is significant because its production encompasses pre- and post-digital techniques. It therefore allows us to make comparisons that will help filmmakers understand whether digital props and costumes are greener than analogue. For example, we can contrast an Artoo Detoo costume made from aluminium in 1976 with a virtual version of the character created with software for Attack of the Clones (2002). By assessing each of the materials used, and accounting for manufacturing at different points in time, we can support practitioners in deciding which approach best suits their sustainability goals.
The Environmental Impact of Filmmaking project is one of many UK initiatives working toward greener screen industries. There are many more around the world, too, including projects run by Green Projections in Colombia and the Centre for Environmental Research & Education in India. With no single fix for the problem of climate change, it’s vital that resources are not only shared by wealthy filmmaking nations, but also that solutions address the needs and specific cultural contexts of users. Moreover, with representations of environmental crisis increasing onscreen (for instance, in recent episodes of Googlebox and EastEnders), it’s imperative that the film and television industries play their part in sustaining the liveability of the planet – and audiences’ hope that things can and will change for the better.
Rebecca Harrisson: I'm Rebecca Harrison and I'm a Lecturer in Film and Media Studies.
So we are looking at the environmental impact of filmmaking and we're specificallylooking at props and costumes.
So we're thinking about how they're made, what techniques get used to make them, what materials people are using.
And then we trying to reverse engineer some of the ones that were made for the Star Wars franchise.
So we're taking things that people are really familiar with.
So looking at like R2-D2 and one of the costumes that was made for Kenny Baker, we're looking at Lightsabers, Padmé Amidala, big kind of red throne room dress.
So all kind of iconic designs and then trying to get people to think about them in a slightly different way, what the environmental impact would be.
So thinking about carbon emissions attached to those making processes.
Syu: My name is Syu, a Research Associate.
So my focus is on measuring the carbon emissions from the props and costumes of the film making especially for the Star Wars movies.
Rebecca Harrisson: So we're working with industry partners.
Our main one is BAFTA Albert, who are BAFTA’s big sustainability consultancy, and they do all the accreditation that you see at the end of UK film and TV productions to help get productions to be net zero.
So we're working with them on a bunch of different resources So we're hoping to create workshops for emerging filmmakers to get people thinking about this stuff right at the start of their career, and that will really embed this thinking in their practice.
We're also launching a website in the next couple of months where we're going to be hosting all of our case studies and findings.
And one of the things we're going to be offering is a very early stage calculator tool so that people can go on and they can make comparisons between different kinds of material to work out which would be the most sustainable for their asset.
One of the things that we're really keen to do with that is get people thinking about the differences between physically making something.
So whether you making out of plastic wood or metal or whether you're doing it CGI, because one of the really big myths about digital is that it's greener.
And I think it's because you're not seeing the process and people aren't really thinking about all of the material stuff that goes into making a computer.
The energy it uses, the serviers that are behind the scenes storing the information.
So yeah, that's going to be one of the things that we factor in and people will be able to compare and say, okay, well, if I make this out of metal, it might actually be more sustainable than the amount of energy that it would need to be done on a computer.
Syu: So that's some challenge, which is like every LCA analyst got.
Which is like the data collection is like the crucial part.
And then like because this one is more to historical physical props as well.
So it's hard to get the data access and we need to dig it from the archives, interview the peoplethat are involved in this filmmaking.
So then that's the most challenge that we facing at the moment.
And then also like we need to access like the data, which is like, some of them it's not documented.
So then we need to make like a lot of assumptions, which is normal for the LCA people.
But then, yeah, we need to make sure that we clarify in the future.
Rebecca Harrisson: So yeah, we're hoping to just get people sort of in a different mindset with this.