Film sector tackles going green for the silver screen

Sustainable Production Forum draws industry experts to offer insights

A film crew on location in downtown Vancouver | Photo: Chung Chow, BIV

Countless location visits have come with the territory over Steve Belford’s two-decade-long career in the Canadian film and TV industry, but one particular experience has always stood out to the actor-producer.

While many films and TV shows can rely on existing sets, other productions often swing over to locations to capture a scene for the cameras. A house tapped for a film shoot Belford witnessed had also turned into the hub for the hair and makeup departments, and was serving as the production office, too.

“We didn't recycle or compost — everything just went right to the garbage,” Belford recalled Monday while speak at this year’s virtual Sustainable Production Forum (SPF), facilitated by Vancouver-based consultancy Green Spark Group.

“I remember looking on the driveway and there's around 15 bags of garbage just for one day. And a lot of that stuff is water bottles, pop cans, all stuff that could be recycled.”

It was not the way he wanted to run any productions he’d be leading.

Chugging diesel generators, hours upon hours of time spent driving to far-off locations, and sets that have to be torn down and tossed out to make room for the next set — all common sights for many productions.

But Belford, who has appeared in Canadian shows such as Degrassi: The Next Generation and U.S. fare such as the Fargo TV series, took a different approach for the documentary he was producing, Becoming Tom Thomson.

And by pursuing sustainable practices on his film’s production, Belford estimates he and the other producers were able to save 6% on the budget.

“Regardless of the size of the production, you should always start sustainable best practices as early in production as possible,” said Belford’s co-panellist, Cindy Mkhwanazi, operations manager for South Africa-based film sustainability firm Greenset.

“Indies are always looking for opportunities to upcycle, recycle, in order to save on costs. And by making it a point to not acquire brand-new resources, by opting to reuse what already exists, the chances are you'll end up saving a few pennies here and there, which is great for the budget and the planet.”

Suntola Productions Inc. founder Colin Mercer, who also spoke with Belford and Mkhwanazi during the Monday panel, said emphasizing sustainable practices on his company’s film productions usually means the budget falls either 5% below or 5% above what was originally planned.

“Indie films, yes, they obviously have a lower footprint than a $120-million film. But filmmaking inherently has a large carbon footprint. And I think any steps that can be made in order to decrease that — even by 20%, 30% — really have an impact over many years,” said Mercer. 

From a practical perspective, he said his production company always strives to use renewable energy, limit high-energy-use gear, minimize the amount of equipment needed on set in order to reduce transportation needs, and cut back on material food waste.

Productions in Ontario, for example, can also make use of that province’s Powercents app to recharge power supplies in the evening when prices are cheaper and gas power plants on the grid give way to nuclear and hydropower. 

Belford said reducing overall kilometres needed for travel and using rechargeable batteries are also among the low-hanging fruit indie productions can employ in a bid to become more sustainable.

And practical tools, such as the Albert Carbon Calculator that measures how much a film or TV production affects the environment, have become more prolific in recent years.

“The biggest challenge right now is just making sure that the carbon footprint measuring and sustainability [play] isn't a pie in the sky or something that's not easy to grasp,” Mkhwanazi said.

The SPF continues throughout the week.