The Environmental Impact of Filmmaking

By Jannik Schümann

Two things you should know about me that at first glance might have noth­ing in com­mon: First, I love to watch movies and series – to dive into oth­er worlds, to escape from real­i­ty, and just to have a good time. For me, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than going to the movies or lying on the couch on a rainy Sun­day, watch­ing a good movie, or bing­ing a series. I even play a piv­otal role in their cre­ation as I work as an actor myself. Sec­ond, I con­scious­ly try to live sus­tain­ably because what we con­sume or do has a direct impact on the world’s ecosys­tems. I don’t eat meat, I don’t dri­ve a car; instead, I use my bike or pub­lic trans­port. And I pay atten­tion to labels to sup­port com­pa­nies ded­i­cat­ed to sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion and fair wages for laborers.

Pho­to cred­it: Dominic Wunderlich

Two years ago, when I first read about the envi­ron­men­tal impact of film­mak­ing in The Guardian, I was shocked. I hadn’t real­ized that my love for movies and for my job could seri­ous­ly con­flict with my ded­i­ca­tion to the envi­ron­ment. Because the truth is: Block­buster films with bud­gets of over $70 mil­lion pro­duce an aver­age of 2,840 tons of CO2 per pro­duc­tion. That is equiv­a­lent to 11 one-way trips from the earth to the moon!

How does the enor­mous car­bon foot­print occur? It’s not only due to the shoot­ing itself, but also to pre- and post-pro­duc­tion activ­i­ties. Since actors often have to trav­el for audi­tions, pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies book flights to save as much trav­el time as pos­si­ble. Dur­ing film pro­duc­tion, trans­port – 30% is air trav­el – is the main con­trib­u­tor to the car­bon foot­print. Actors are rarely present at the loca­tion for the entire shoot­ing peri­od but trav­el back and forth between their shoot­ing days. Huge con­voys of vehi­cles trans­port film sets and tech­ni­cal equip­ment, and pow­er gen­er­a­tors are indis­pens­able assets on any film set. In addi­tion, most cater­ers use throw-away plas­ticware. While shoot­ing the series Sisi in the Baltic coun­tries, I was part of a team of hun­dreds of peo­ple. Food was served in plas­tic dish­es, and between takes, hun­dreds of extras were sup­plied with water from plas­tic cups. As a result, vast amounts of plas­tic waste accumulated.

Even post-pro­duc­tion leaves a huge car­bon foot­print. Com­press­ing and stor­ing high-def­i­n­i­tion movies for stream­ers releas­es car­bon emis­sions into the atmos­phere – from the time we turn on our device to the time the files trav­el over fiber optics from data cen­ters to our device to deliv­er a film. Accord­ing to recent stud­ies, watch­ing an hour series on 4K res­o­lu­tion using a fixed net­work emits approx­i­mate­ly 30 gCO2e/hour.

Amazon’s orig­i­nal The Rings of Pow­er has recent­ly been heav­i­ly crit­i­cized because the film pro­duc­tion seems to have been any­thing but sus­tain­able. The first sea­son pro­duced five times as much car­bon diox­ide – about 14,387 tons – as an aver­age block­buster film. This rough­ly equals the elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion of 2,540 house­holds for one year. Crew mem­bers that were anony­mous­ly inter­viewed by The Guardian report­ed increased waste gen­er­a­tion, with one staffer col­lect­ing 11,433 cubic yards of waste dur­ing pro­duc­tion – rough­ly four and a half Olympic-size swim­ming pools. Anoth­er report­ed col­lect­ing 355.5 tons of land­fill waste – the weight of around 25 Lon­don dou­ble-deck­er buses.

In con­trast to the series adap­ta­tion of Lord of the Rings, block­buster direc­tor James Cameron recent­ly made a major con­tri­bu­tion to so-called green film­ing. For the shoot­ing of Avatar’s sequel, a 960-kilo­watt solar sys­tem was built for his pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny, gen­er­at­ing enough solar ener­gy to cov­er the entire elec­tric­i­ty require­ments of the com­put­ers and per­for­mance mea­sure­ment sys­tems. At the same time, it off­set over 1,034 tons of car­bon dioxide.

In recent years, I’ve observed that pro­duc­tions filmed in Ger­many are shot more and more sus­tain­ably. If cer­tain require­ments are com­plied with, pro­duc­tions get a green badge. Some film com­mis­sions, such as the one in Schleswig-Hol­stein, only sub­si­dize pro­duc­tions that receive the so-called green shoot­ing pass. This pass awards envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly and sus­tain­able alter­na­tives to cur­rent prac­tice on set – from organ­ic food and less paper dis­tri­b­u­tion to trans­porta­tion by train instead of planes. The younger gen­er­a­tion in par­tic­u­lar – both in front of and behind the cam­era – seems com­mit­ted to green shoot­ing and rais­es their voice to gen­er­ate atten­tion and dri­ve change.


It is still a long process to make the film indus­try com­plete­ly sus­tain­able, but through fur­ther ini­tia­tives such as the green shoot­ing pass and pio­neers like James Cameron, film pro­duc­tions world­wide will become more sus­tain­able and leave a much small­er car­bon foot­print than they cur­rent­ly do.

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Jan­nik Schue­mann, 30 years old, lives in Berlin and has been an actor for 20 years. Hav­ing grown up as part of the film busi­ness, he felt it nec­es­sary to address the issue of the industry’s prob­lem­at­ic side – its car­bon footprint.