Not-so green screens
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, what Nadia Bozak calls the ‘industrial residue’ of filmmaking (2012, p.88) persists. For, as Hunter Vaughan describes in his work on the environmental costs of Hollywood filmmaking, 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 countries including Kenya and China (2019, p.138-139). So what can this $100billion global industry (Motion Picture Association 2019, p.5) 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. BAFTA albert, an organisation that oversees carbon-neutral certification for UK-based productions, provides a toolkit that calculates carbon emissions. Grassroots organising by practitioners is also bringing about positive change.
The Environmental Impact of Filmmaking Project
Here at The OU, I’m leading a project that explores the environmental impacts of designing and building (or ‘fabricating’) props and costumes. Working with BAFTA albert, our team brings together expertise in film history and environmental sciences, and aims to assess both historic and contemporary methods so that we can identify good practice – and suggestions for improvement. 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 plastic props made in the UK for the Star Wars franchise.
What’s so special about Star Wars?
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. It’s also worth noting that Star Wars enables us to explore instances of good practice, including the reuse of scrap for props and costumes (Alinger 2014, p.35), and LED video wall technology (Epstein 2021, online) that aims to lower carbon emissions on the set of The Mandalorian (2019-).
Furthermore, 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 fibreglass in 1979 with a virtual version of the character that was 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.
Looking to the Future
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 Proyections 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.
This article is an opinion piece that was been written by Dr Rebecca Harrison, Lecturer in Film & Media and affiliated with History at The Open University, as a response to a call for articles from our OU colleagues, that relate to climate change from their own disciplinary or lived experience.
Dr Harrison's research explores how systems of power and oppression inform the design, use, and reception of media technologies from railway transport to film projectors, and from telephones to digital screen media. Her current work focuses on the Star Wars franchise.
The OU offers a six-week course, Film and the environment, exploring film’s fascinating relationship with the environment by introducing learners to cinema from nineteenth-century Britain to Senegal in the present day.
Further resources and reading
Alinger, B. (2014) Star Wars Costumes: the original trilogy. China: Titan Books.
BAFTA albert (2020) ‘A New Calculator and Certification Tool is Coming in 2021’, BAFTA albert [Online]. Available at: https://wearealbert.org/2020/10/30/a-new-calculator-and-certification-tool-is-coming-in-2021/ (Accessed 20 June 2022).
BFI (2020) ‘Sustainability Report Proposes Step-Change for UK Film Production’, BFI, 2 September [Online]. Available at: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news/screen-new-deal-sustainability-report (Accessed 20 June 2020).
Bozak, N. (2012) The Cinematic Footprint: lights, camera, natural resources. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Centre for Environmental Research and Education (2022). Centre for Environmental Research and Education [Online]. Available at: https://cere-india.org/ (Accessed 17 November 2022).
Chandramouli, K. (2020) ‘Can the Indian Film Industry Call Lights, Camera, Climate Action?’, The Wire, 2 January [Online]. Available at: https://thewire.in/environment/can-the-indian-film-industry-call-lights-camera-climate-action (accessed 17 November 2022).
Clwstwr (2022) ‘BFI and albert Announce Wales to Develop a ‘Screen New Deal’ Production Sustainability Plan’, Clwstwr [Online]. Available at: https://clwstwr.org.uk/bfi-and-albert-announce-wales-develop-screen-new-deal-production-sustainability-plan#:~:text=production%20sustainability%20plan-,BFI%20and%20albert%20announce%20Wales%20to%20develop%20a%20'Screen%20New,Screen%20New%20Deal%3A%20Transformation%20Plan (Accessed 20 June 2020).
Creative Carbon Scotland (2022) ‘Green Arts Initiative’, Creative Carbon Scotland [Online]. Available at: https://www.creativecarbonscotland.com/green-arts-initiative/ (Accessed 17 November 2022).
Epstein, A. (2021) ‘Hollywood Finally Has a Replacement for the Green Screen’, Quartz, 11 January [Online]. Available at: https://qz.com/1955408/the-mandalorians-virtual-display-technology-is-going-mainstream (Accessed 16 November 2022).
Green Proyections (2022) Green Proyections [Online]. Available at: https://greenproyections.com/ (Accessed 17 November 2022).
Green the Bid (2021) ‘Education and Training’, Green the Bid [Online]. Available at: https://greenthebid.earth/education-resources (Accessed 20 June 2022).
Harrison, R. (2022) ‘The Environmental Impact of Filmmaking: using Star Wars to Improve Sector Sustainability Practices,’ [Online]. Available at: https://fass.open.ac.uk/research/projects/EIF (Accessed 17 November 2022).
Motion Picture Association (2019). ‘Theme Report: a comprehensive analysis and survey of the theatrical and home/mobile entertainment market environment for 2019’ [Online]. Available at: https://www.motionpictures.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/MPA-THEME-2019.pdf (Accessed 16 November 2022).
My First Job in Film (2022). ‘Production Runner/PA’, My First Job in Film [Online]. Available at: https://myfirstjobinfilm.com/UK/resources/careers-guide/detail?page_id=1 (Accessed 24 June 2022).
Northern Ireland Screen (2022) ‘Sustainability’, Northern Ireland Screen [Online]. Available at: https://www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk/filming/sustainability/ (Accessed 20 June 2022).
Sustainable Film (2022) ‘About’, Sustainable Film [Online]. Available at: https://sustainablefilm.green/#About (Accessed 20 June 2022).
Vaughan, H. (2019) Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: the hidden environmental costs of the movies. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.