Karen Steward and Rocio Gimenez have co-written this article from different countries and different phases in their careers, in order to shine a light on current attitudes and practices regarding Green film-making Internationally. Both are passionate citizens concerned with the global environment in general and believe that there is room on all fronts to expand awareness - especially focused on the Film Industry component of the Environmental Matrix.
Karen Steward (Supervising Art Director on “Kidding” - Season 1, 2018) Rocio Gimenez (Designing her project ‘Cardboard Series’, 2013)
What is your background regarding Production Design and Sustainability?
KS: My film career began in Los Angeles in the early 90’s when most of the accessible film projects for me were non-union and low to mid budget. Los Angeles was still considered a non-union town, but right away I began working on projects in other states in the U.S.; mostly feature films in those days, and then all budget ranges from James Cameron’s large budget “The Abyss” to Keenan Wayans’ “I Mo Git U sucka” made entirely on credit cards.
While still studying Architecture at a State University in Texas, I was chosen for my very first project by a production designer who had come in from LA to work on a feature film in San Antonio called “Johnny Be Good”. Myself and one other part-time student were hired on as set designers and in July of that year I moved to California in earnest to pursue a career because I had absolutely found my calling. I was charged with wrapping out of that San Antonio warehouse after most of the production staff had left town, and I remember even then being entirely concerned about all of the set materials going into the dump, and though no one asked me to do it, I worked hard at age 26 to find second use situations for set materials purely out of instinct, as I did on all of my projects from there forward. In those early years the word “sustainability” was not easily found in local discourse, especially not within the film-world. After all, it had only been a few years since the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was enacted to close open dumps, and create standards for landfills, incinerators and the disposal of hazardous waste, so dumping was entirely a common solution for everything back then without question and no matter what U.S. state one was working in. The exemplary challenge of course, was to figure out what to do with that custom-made 3 part mechanical armadillo that was the size of a 4-door sedan pulling a trailer!
In 2013 I finally worked on my first feature film; “McFarland” for Disney, which employed an “environmental steward” (other than myself, pun intended) on the show. Together, the representative and I worked toward placing set materials at the end of the show, but one thing I quickly learned was that the assigned “stewards” are more versed in keeping the show in sustainable mode while shooting, but not yet very well versed in wrapping out an art department at the end of the show which begs the question - whose job is it to keep our scenery out of the landfill?
RG: My career as a production designer and art director started in 2012, when I designed my very first feature film, an ultra low budget movie called ‘Bag Boy Lover Boy’. This film was so small that I only had two assistants working with me, so we had to do all the sourcing, shopping, and, of course, wrapping the film and disposing of all the items by the end of the production. This was the first project I worked on after finishing Film School, so there was a lot I didn’t know back then. Luckily, the budget was so small that we didn’t have the luxury of buying too many things or building large sets, but I already got a glimpse of how much goes to waste during each single project. As I was starting out, this was a shock for me. But it generated some ideas, especially trying to find ways to design sets that already have a built-in plan for disposal, before even starting to build them. I developed a project just a year later called ‘The Cardboard Series’. In this project, that I created, designed and built, the idea was to be able to design a set that was completely sustainable, making all objects and decorations, even walls and floors, using only one recyclable material. It became a goal on its own, to see if this was possible - to create interiors out of a material that can be reused, recycled, or entirely donated afterwards, without sacrificing the desired look. But of course the look of the cardboard became a part of the project, and added a whole new aesthetic to it.
To continue my venturing into sustainability in the film industry, I was recently part of a panel about Green Filmmaking, as part of the 69th Berlin Film Festival. I got to discuss some of the issues that we are having in the film industry in the US, especially in low budget productions, in which there’s no time or budget dedicated to produce films in ‘greener ways’. It was incredibly inspiring to see what people are doing in other countries and to learn about the great initiatives and projects that are emerging all over the world. You can find some of those wonderful projects listed at the end of this article.
In Production Design and Art Department specifically, what is your personal ecological philosophy, and how do you practice it? How do you communicate it to others?
KS: Over the years, and it has been almost 30 now, starting with that first show and the inclination to do something positive with what seemed like tons of wasted material on every show, I have worked diligently at the beginning of each show to open the discussion of recycling or placing of set materials at the end of the show with construction coordinators and producers.
In the beginning it was a very very difficult dialogue to start or to have, since I was only set designing and art directing and felt that I had very little power to effect change within ranks, as it was that art directors in those days were not in charge of budgeting so much as they are today, and I would have only effected a conversation with a producer if I had the construction coordinator on my side, which was rarely the case back then, as they were mostly aligned with producers and had the power of budget manipulation; working over the heads of the art directors. Today, I think that people coming into the workforce automatically bring an environmental awareness that youth of my day did not have. This is very clear when looking around at all of the “Green Production” startups that are currently available for hire.
As I have evolved, my personal and natural tendencies have always been to protect the environment both in and out of the film industry; though I have never studied environmental law, I have been steadfast in exerting my power as a citizen of the planet by selecting carefully my purchases and remaining true to the philosophy of “ZERO WASTE” meaning that we as consumers should not have to be constantly faced with buying, using, or selling things that are bad for the environment therefore bad for us all.This is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resources life cycles so that all products are reused. No trash is sent to landfills or incinerators. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature.
The definition adopted by the Zero Waste International Alliance(ZWIA) is: “Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”
And now that China is no longer accepting the worlds’ recycling, we really have some re-organizing to do in terms of responsibility.
Kurt Lewin wrote, “If you want to truly understand something, try to change it”. The way I try to communicate is to express what I have learned with enthusiasm, to effect change by example, and to constantly seek new knowledge with recognition to the best of my ability, of the coinciding consequences that come into play with change.
“Council of Dads” sound stages - Santa Clarita, CA. (This series was not picked up after we shot the pilot - most of this scenery went to a set leasing company called “Beachwood Scenery” for storage and rental.)This shows how quickly we can use up rainforest lumber like lauan.
RG: I am trying to bring attention to some of these topics in the films that I work on, from very early on. From promoting ways to show the producers (sometimes not green savvy) how to avoid certain materials, and showing them that being sustainable can help also save money.
As Karen mentions, the commitment to Zero Waste is crucial for preserving the environment from the footprint of film productions. Personally, I am trying to reduce the amount of paper used during production, by staying mainly digital. I try to have my art department on zero paper, which sometimes is hard, as blueprints need to be printed and revised, and re-printed. And we also do need a large amount of paper for graphic design. But when it is possible, avoiding to print or use paper when it’s not necessary, is the way I’d like to go. I also try to donate as many of the items bought as possible to prop houses or charity houses, and to organize set sales, so that the items can have new homes at the end of each production. This goes from tools, furniture and paper, all the way to entire pieces of scenery, such as flats, windows, doors and flooring. It is also a way of helping fellow colleagues to find items that they are looking for, allowing them to save money in their budgets.
Currently, I am in pre-production for a film called ‘Silent Notes’, that I am designing. Luckily for me, it’s a small enough film that I can control all aspects of the art department in terms of sustainability, and advise my team on which places to buy from, and what to discard at the end of the film. My current team is completely aware that for whatever we buy or build, we need to have a disposal plan for the end of the production. It can be hard at times, as this is a small film, but this can also be viewed as an advantage since it will be a small footprint that we are leaving behind.
A set filmed on location for a film I designed called ‘Nighthawks’. We had to turn a church into an interior garden. We were able to sell most of the items purchased, and return a large portion of the fake florals. The grass purchased was re-sold to the company that originally sold it to us. The walls installed were also sold, as they had a beautiful texture on.
What are your greatest hurdles within the Film Industry as a rule when it comes to practicing green film-making?
KS: At present, as a supervising art director and production designer, I think the greatest challenge is within the design process in and of itself.
As if designing a TV show or movie is not challenge enough to tell the visual story of the characters in a script, add on to that challenge a design process that asks a designer to be considerate of the environment as well as being budget conscious??
In a world where the script can and will change with rapid speed, location requirements shift, and actor availability can cause problems with scheduling; how do we come to the table with a process toward modular design, a greener materials database, a will and desire to educate department members away from the familiar chemical based paints and surface materials typically used by some Interior Designers, Architects, and Industry mentors all over the planet when there are smart alternatives (such as carpet companies who will reclaim the carpet, paint companies who recycle leftover material, and prop rental houses who will take back furniture and scenery, even scenery rental houses who will rent an entire living room, doctors office or storefront set) popping up everywhere these days. Some studio lots have “Red Book” vendors that they only allow you to use if you are working on the lot which can deter an independent choice for Art Directors and Designers when it comes to choosing glass, lumber, and other major construction materials which can prove to be frustrating if trying to change protocol there.
Take Lauan for example. This is an unsustainable over-deforested (and often illegally logged) rainforest material used widely by the Film Industry and the price is automatically factored into a construction budget because it is and has been the go-to building material due to its stability, ease of painting, staining and treating the surface, and for now, price point and availability.It only takes a few inventive coordinators collaborating with art directors and producers to start using alternative materials (like Bio-composites made from sunflower seed husks, and Cariboard which is like MDF made from agricultural waste fibers) before the trend will catch on, and until the lumber companies begin to make the alternatives available within a comparable price-range.
Every 5 years or so I look around for new alternatives and there are more and more each time I look. Strawboard, Ag-Res, Hardboard, Fiberboard, and Temperate Hardwood Plywood (nearly identical to lauan) are all out there, among other solutions like convincing your show to deconstruct, re-use and store set materials (which brings its own issues with production paying extra labor and storage fees - that is often a hard sell.) Rainforest Relief is a great resource for understanding rainforest woods.
A “door dock” commonly found on sound stages for tv shows, where we try to reuse the set doors throughout a season.
One other challenge is to find green-minded directors to work with who will help guide the production into greener pastures, and to get all departments working together onboard with this mindset. Each project comes with its own challenges; is it mostly about locations or are we building a lot of sets? Are we working on a studio lot, or renting remote offices? Are we shooting in multiple states, is it a road-trip movie, or are we shooting on “standing sets” (which in some cities are warehouses with scenery already built and standing and all we have to do is walk in there, light it, paint it, dress it, shoot it, and move on). Are there a lot of stunts, Visual Effects, or Special Effects in the script? If we blow it up, we need to build it twice or 3 times. Is it a TV show where there might be a second or third season (in which case storage is an issue- what to store, what to rebuild if we come back for another season.) Is it a show that shot principal photography overseas and wants to do inserts and re-shoots in another country, what to ship back, and what to rebuild is the question, factoring in shipping and crating and carbon footprint, of course. Even mostly CGI (computer generated imaging) shows always have to build at least parts of a set and there-in the design challenge is to work closely with a VFX coordinator who will help a designer storyboard what part is CG and what part is a built environment, as it is that the labor involved in CG work budgetarily can far outweigh what it might cost to build a physical set.
It is also a challenge (where possible) to give a character in the script a backstory of environmental responsibility by dressing their driveways with recycling bins (for instance), or finding other ways to present this as a non-verbal lifestyle choice with product placement in the fridge, for instance, or the type of car they drive. Product placement is typically a great way to promote green companies with producer, writer and director’s approval of course.
Speaking of recycle bins; recently while working at Sony Studios, I finally saw this for the first time in my career on any studio lot: (I think we are running a little behind the curve here, this pic taken just last year.)
RG: I think the biggest challenge I face are the producers and team members who are not environmentally conscious. I mainly work in small films, with budgets ranging from 1 to 15 million USD. In these small productions, it seems like the future of the planet is very low in the list of priorities, which is an attitude that’s very hard to digest. As an example, in a film I art directed this year, I tried to convince our line producer to not have plastic bottles on set at all, by changing them to individual crew bottles and water dispensers. It’s a very common practice, that’s been used in most large films, but it seems that in smaller movies, this is something that’s considered a luxury, and a cost that we cannot afford. We took it on ourselves in our art department to minimize plastic water bottles, but still, if the entire production would have followed our initiative, we would have been much more successful as a team in our sustainable solution against plastic on set.
Another challenge that I face is with construction coordinators - unfortunately, it’s very common to dump all the flats and scenery at the end of a film. These flats could be repurposed multiple times, but it’s just standard practice to throw everything away. When possible, me and my team try to post on ‘reusing’ forums ahead of time, in order to try to find homes for these sets, before it’s time to throw them in a dumpster.
The small budgets on these independent films is another limitation. Having environmentally friendly materials for set construction can be very expensive, and often limits what we can and cannot do.
How do you plan at the beginning, middle and end of a shoot for recycling, reusing or repurposing set materials?
KS: The carbon footprint of a medium budget film shoot can equal that of a town of 30,000 people. As I traverse these shows throughout the years my approach varies with the project itself, however more and more I tend to make it my mission; my own challenge to find new materials and responsible companies to share with my fellow industry people, and to keep a connection with the urban environment and current building standards so that i come equipped with at least some amount of knowledge and information. In 2016 I started a Facebook site called “Film Industry Materials Exchange” so that I could help my community and expand my own vendor list by sharing the materials, companies, nonprofits and donation opportunities that I discover, as it is very difficult to explore during prep and AFTER a job has started at warp speed - it is then that one tends to fall back on the old familiar vendors who might not be very good at implementing green practices, as there is always a risk in using a new vendor when under the stress of severe deadlines. This site is still in its infancy and though it is Los Angeles based, I try to find Industry friendly green companies and charities that will prove useful in all international cities with a Film Commission. I hope that industry folks around the world will start posting their own resources there, and share it as a productive tool. By using this tool I was also able to help other shows place their materials with one or more of my resources from the page.
Here, for instance is a rentable elevator set from stock scenery, which we can modify without having to build one from the ground up
RG: Depending on the type of shoot, I find that the process is always a little bit different. But it’s always great to start planning early on, and as we shop and build, to have already plans for the pieces produced. I try to always communicate with other production designers, art directors and line producers, to see which productions are happening immediately after ours, so we can offer the scenery, invite them to our set sales, or separate pieces for other projects from the beginning of production. This generates camaraderie between us fellow colleagues, it helps us save budget, and we are repurposing without always having to buy and build new.
Posting in art department forums, like Artcube, or facebook groups such as “Art Department - Film & TV Industry” and the great page that Karen just shared, are all very good ways to start. It also generates awareness for other people to do the same. On larger shows, we are dependent on a construction coordinator and a shop that builds scenery as needed, so I find that it’s a bit harder to control, in terms of already deciding where the built pieces of scenery will go after. But it’s always great to start the conversation with construction coordinators, to find ways to repurpose the built pieces as we have to keep producing sets.
For a film I designed called ‘A shot through the wall’, we built a small interrogation room and a house bathroom. We created the brick panels and then donated all the walls to a production that needed to build a similar set. They were able to save in their budget, and we were able to get the scenery off the landfills. We were also able to do the same with the tiled walls of the bathroom. The construction coordinator kept the all walls and re used the materials on a later production.
Another example was for the film ‘Lost Girls’, which I art directed, in which we built this set in an exterior, and locals from the neighborhood kept all the materials and the built booth after we finished filming.
What would be your view of technology and the future of built sets in film and tv? With 6G and augmented reality will we need to build scenery in the future?
KS:When I was first starting out, the low budget productions and student films would use “short ends” from film stock houses like Roger Dean at Warner Hollywood. These were strips of film that were cut off from the ends of full length movie reels in the editing process and resold. This was one way of keeping chemical laden movie film out of the landfill, and an affordable way for students to get a film project made, but I am certain it was about money and not conservation in those days. We also used to drive to a screening house after a 14 hour day of work to watch “Dailies” for a few hours, of course now there are streaming companies like “PIX” and “DAX” which post unedited dailies on their websites for the crew to view at their convenience.
Today, 3D technology in terms of viewing a movie or a show will be available on our devices and in the theaters without the use of 3D glasses, Immersive experience in the media is at the cutting edge, virtual reality and augmented reality will become game changers in the next few years; the question really is, how will it all effect physical sets and set dressing in the development phase of a project. With the development of new concept hardware and 3D printing I imagine less and less physical scenery will be necessary, but it could go the other way - with 3D printing capabilities penetrating the mainstream, we might also be in peril of having the ease of 3D printing full scale ships, tanks and helicopters for example in half the time it would take to build them traditionally, which if not created with biodegradable material in the first place, might just exacerbate the landfill problem. There is always a danger that the excitement of new technology prefaces a “birth to death” green minded exploration into possible repercussions for the environment. There could also be a case where every project crowdsources its ending, therefore now shooting 3 or more endings instead of only one. There used to be a thing called a “Director’s Cut” which would be re-edited from the original edit and presented as a coveted second version, but now, there could be hundreds of versions of the same project available for consumers which could ultimately add more studio set builds to an Art Department schedule.
This film “Dr. Strange” was considered a CGI film project only a few years ago, however, just for a re-shoot we built out an entire backlot, and rented 120 neon signs (some of which were flown in from London where principal photography happened) and each sign was held up by a custom steel bracket built locally by our construction department.
RG: I think the industry is rapidly replacing common and practical operations with more technological ones, and this is deeply affecting the art department, in an array of ways. Right now it is way easier and accessible to have large and out of this world sets in a film, without having to build every bit of it, when only 20 years ago everything had to be built. Thinking of the films ‘The Pianist’ or ‘Schindler’s list’, both designed by Allan Starski, where absolutely everything had to be planned and built. Now it is possible to have those same WWII streets designed and on the screen, without having to generate as much waste of scenery, or leaving such a footprint behind. In some way, it is sad to see how the art department is quickly changing, because there’s an immediate satisfaction of seeing constructed sets and the actors in it, thereby actually creating a world. And not to mention the amount of people that work in the art department, and how many jobs are rapidly being lost, as the technologies advance. But it’s also very sad to see an entire set, just a few weeks after it was built, completely useless for the next productions, and going to a landfill.Even with CGI and augmented reality, the need to build sets will always exist, as some elements of the set need to be practical for the actors, and for filming. However, the amount of sets being built is already not as large as it was only 20 years ago.I also think that besides being a matter of where the technologies are going, or what the budgets dictate, it is ultimately an artistic decision to decide whether to build entire sets practically or in post production. There are still stop animation films being produced every year, and art departments making miniatures, instead of doing set extensions in post production, like it is in most Wes Anderson’s films.
Name a few Sustainability Organizations that have influenced you.
(Both Karen and Rocio use many of the same resources, as we have discovered through the process of co-writing this article.)
4) Earth Angel
6) Reel Green
*KS: (This Urban Planning based non- profit was founded by my father, W. Cecil Steward, and I have learned so much and have consulted with him on these and many topics over the years. Together we are working toward a possible expansion of this non-profit to include the film-making landscape.)