Sustainability and Production Design in Film and Television

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.