For decades, it was common in Hollywood for art departments to build sets for films and television shows from scratch, then dismantle them at the end of production and haul the parts to the landfill.
“The trash cans are lining up at the end of the show,” veteran Hollywood art director Karen Steward said of many of the productions she has worked on, dating back to the 1988 high school comedy. Johnny be goodto the 2013 political action thriller Olympus has fallen. “And there’s no need to talk about it, because it’s time to leave the soundstage.”
Steward is part of a group of like-minded people Art Directors Guild members who have been campaigning for more sustainable practices for years, alongside other allies. At first, she said, it was difficult to get much traction. “We want to not waste time, hurry up and get it done, and time is money.”
But Steward said things are getting easier, as the industry gradually becomes aware of its impact on human-caused climate change. Steward helped found the Art Directors Guild Green Committee to share best practices and educate others on topics such as reducing waste and sourcing more sustainable set building materials.
“Finding a real circular solution, a real zero waste idea, that’s what we’re working on,” she said.
According to earth angelan agency that helps productions in the United States and around the world reduce their carbon footprint, the average TV show or movie in 2022 created approximately 240 tons of waste, with an estimated half coming from disposal accessories and decorations.
“There are certainly more innovative and efficient ways of working,” said Emellie O’Brien, founder and CEO of Earth Angel. “Oftentimes, we just don't give people the space and flexibility to discover these solutions.”
One of these solutions is to reuse old sets rather than always building new ones.
Beach services, owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, rents sets and props for reuse that were originally built for its own productions. Located in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, its warehouses are full of picturesque gems, like the helicopter from the 2001 war film. Black hawk down. It has since been converted into Terminator 4, Suicide squad And Team A, among other films and TV shows.
Art directors sometimes resist the idea of reusing old sets because they want to realize their own creative vision. But Sondra Garcia, Beachwood's director of stage operations, said the service allows them to modify what they rent to suit their needs.
“We tell people, 'You're going to put your own spin on it. You're going to paint it. You're going to reconfigure it. And then it's your design,'” Garcia said. “The most important thing to remember is to recycle things, because it creates less waste, and producers like it because it saves money.”
And when these sets become too old to rent to big-budget productions, they often end up in places like EcoSet.
Productions pay for the Los Angeles-based company to take away their unwanted sets, props and construction materials. Instead of going to landfills, these treasures are then given to anyone who wants them.
“I think this place is very friendly to students who don't have a lot of funding and support,” said film student Oyster Liao. She was pushing a metal shopping cart full of paint cans around the EcoSet warehouse. “And I like the fact that we don’t have to waste as much.”
Solutions have their limits
But these solutions to Hollywood's chronic waste problem have their limits.
Ecoset owners don't know what happens to all the free products distributed by the company, whether they are recycled or thrown away. Additionally, many area warehouses that kept old sets and props in circulation have downsized. Sony's Beachwood Services, which previously had five warehouses, now has two or has closed in the past two years, due to rising real estate costs. (“We managed to find new homes for almost everything,” said Garcia of Beachwood. “A lot of it was liquidated, so at least a lot of it didn't have to go in the trash.”)
“I don’t think anyone in our industry would shy away from really tough challenges, otherwise we wouldn’t be in our industry,” said Everything everywhere at the same time producer and sustainability champion Jonathan Wang. “But I think it’s tricky.”
Wang said that despite people's best intentions, many materials were still thrown out in a rush to meet tight production deadlines, including on his own sets.
“I think it’s important to recognize that we’re all figuring it out,” Wang said. “We’re trying to do better.”
Wang said producers should plan to reduce their environmental impact in the same way they handled the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when they allocated 4 or 5 percent of their budget to cover things like health and safety officers and testing.
“We adapted to the urgency that was needed on set. And we are currently in an emergency situation, burning through our resources faster than we replenish them,” Wang said. “We need to treat this as an emergency and set aside a percentage of our budgets for innovation towards sustainability.”
NPR would like to thank Amelia Brooke, co-chair of the Art Directors Guild Green Committee, for her assistance with this story.
Copyright 2024 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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