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Programs Tue 5.21.2024

What it Takes to Go Green on Set (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not That Hard)

It’s no secret that we live in an increasingly environmentally conscious time, from plant-based diets to electric cars and paper straws. For anyone trying to fully commit to eco-friendly choices, navigating these options can be overwhelming—and filmmakers are no different. But don’t worry! Film Independent has put together just the right guide to start your eco-friendly filmmaking journey, regardless of budget level.

On April 30, Film Independent Education presented its latest “Green Set” session—a virtual panel of experts in sustainable film and television production. Panelists included: Stephanie Dawson, producer and founding member of Women Independent Producers (Down with the King, Maya & Her Lover); Michael Kaliski, CEO/founder of environmental consultant Good Planet Innovation (commercial-focused); Jon Michael Kondrath, producer and CEO/founder of ReKon Productions (The Jessica Cabin, The Hyperions); and Jennifer Sandoval, Director of Business Development at Earth Angel (The Iron Claw, The Whale). Attendees were treated to the insightful perspectives of these working professionals on what it means to have a “green set” and, of course, a crash course on how to build an eco-friendly set.  

Dawson, former co-chair of the Producers Guild of America Green Committee, acted as moderator. With the range of experience combined, attendees were guaranteed an edifying discussion. Watch the full session below and keep reading for highlights…

 As a seasoned producer and passionate environmentalist, Dawson eagerly observed how great it was to see more and more people with an interest in making sets eco-friendly. The two categories the panelists made-up—which also extends outside the panel—were thus: “Creators” and “Practitioners.” In relation to sustainability, Creators are more hands-on with the project and the implementation of sustainable practices, whereas Practitioners are more concerned with planning and facilitating said practices. So, what is the impact the film industry has on climate?

Sandoval explained how, in the last decade, the film industry has actively mobilized to look at the carbon footprint its sets and production create. Carbon assessments, for example, are an accessible tool for creators or practitioners to determine their carbon footprint. In 2021, Sustainable Production Alliance released a significant report on all the major studios and streamers in the U.S., collecting data over a three-year period.

Through this reporting, they were able to verify that the film industry indeed leaves a huge carbon footprint. The average tent-pole or big budget production showed an average carbon footprint of 3,370 metric tons—33 tons per shooting day on a feature film. Sandoval put that into perspective, “That’s almost the equivalent to driving eight cars in an entire year.” Kaliski adds that plastic waste, and by extension all material waste, is another big problem that is much more difficult to track. He stresses the elimination of single-use plastic, an example of “low hanging fruit,” e.g., an easy and impactful first step.

The biggest source of greenhouse gas emission is from fuel use, i.e., vehicles and air travel. Up to 50% or more of emissions come from fuel use. Solutions for this include the use of electric vehicles and generators. Since the availability of these tools is limited, it’s a good idea to plan as early as possible to acquire them for production. Plastics, which break down into microplastics, are as vast and complicated an issue as fossil fuels. It’s an issue that should be seen as its own singular problem and not necessarily diminished to “recycling.”

A veritable galaxy of reusable water bottles!

Kondrath, who primarily works on independent productions, highlighted that just because a production is smaller in scale does not mean its carbon footprint is less of a worry. Minimizing material usage, while helping to keep the planet green, can even be cost-friendly for producers and departments. Other examples of low-hanging fruit include replacing water bottles with refillable bottles—having water stations can save the production money!—and catering the right amount of food rather than over-buying. Also, minimizing paper usage by relying more on technology (which inarguably has come a long way) and the plethora of tools and apps that come with it. These are all actions that can be implemented on set. And then there’s eco-friendly storytelling! 

About six billion people consume film and television, and there is without a doubt much to consider about that level of influence. “There’s nothing else in the world that has that kind of reach,” said Kalisky. “It’s really important that we start having this conversation and normalizing this approach to our storytelling.” Climate storytelling, as it’s being known as, primarily pertains—but is not limited to—scripted content. It involves reflecting eco-friendly choices or activity within the narrative. It does not necessarily have to be a main point, turning the project into an all-out environmental endorsement as some may be thinking, but rather sustainable ideas sprinkled throughout either through the characters or in the background.

For example, why can’t there be more protagonists and antagonists who carry a reusable water bottle? “Everything is integrated—the way we treat people, animals and the environment,” Kalisky observed. “There is not a place where one is treated well and everything else is treated terribly, or vice versa.” And with more than half the people in the world who indulge on-screen content, and therefore influenced in varying degrees, it’s paramount to encourage eco-friendly characters or stories.

Not necessarily the type of “green set” we’re talking about here, but sure

The panelists acknowledge that some creatives may feel that their vision would be compromised by conforming to such standards. Which is fair. But Kalisky said that adding eco-friendliness into a project has the potential to prolong its relevance. Sandoval highlighted the normalization of bad behavior such as gun violence in media, so why not normalize good behavior related to sustainability? “I have a friend who did an independent film about a zero-waste serial killer,” she shared. “So there’s even an opportunity with horror there.” Kondrath added that it takes the efforts of the art department and costumes just as much as the writers and directors. Second-hand shopping and repurposing props and clothing doesn’t only mean an opportunity to save money, it can also spark further creativity and add something unique to the project. 

When bringing sustainability practices to a production set, it takes a top-down approach from department heads to the crew. Kondrath emphasizes the cruciality of first getting producers on board, who then assist in hiring the right practitioners. It’s important to keep in mind that green sets are still a growing practice, so truthfully it might take some people a little bit convincing. However, once that “green ball” gets rolling, it’s safe to bet that most people will feel good knowing their contribution prevented more junk into the world.

Building a green set can prove to be costly at times, but as a team, producers and creatives can find the best feasible option within budget. As Sandoval said, “It takes everybody to make a film, and it takes everybody to make it sustainable.”    


Key Takeaways

  • Reduce, Reuse, Upcycle 
  • Aluminum over plastic single-use items 
  • Shooting locations in proximity to the crew and cast 
  • Closely estimate the necessary catering 
  • Second-hand buy or rent costumes, materials, etc. 
  • Attend trainings/workshops


Upcoming Sustainability Events 


Special thanks to our panelists and Film Education—Paul Cowling and Will Holt. This event was available for Members and non-Members. Click here to learn more about upcoming events. 

For over 40 years, Film Independent has helped filmmakers get their projects made and seen. The nonprofit organization’s core mission is to champion creative independence in visual storytelling and support a community of artists who embody diversity, innovation and uniqueness of vision. 

Film Independent Members watch nominees and vote for the winners of the Spirit Awards. To support our mission with a donation, click here. 

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