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How do I produce a low-budget film in a sustainable way?

How do I produce a low-budget film in a sustainable way?

“We need a completely new way of filmmaking” 

Are you a filmmaker on a budget who wants to make their way of filmmaking more sustainable? It’s a huge challenge, we get it. To help you, we asked the advice from Noortje Post, project manager for Film For Future, who created a database with the best tips to make your film set greener. 

A lot of film professionals already recycle, use reusable water bottles and travel by public transportation. However, when it comes to life on the film set, there often aren’t enough resources available to implement similar sustainable choices. Why is that? And how do we change that, not only for high-end productions but also for low-budget filmmakers?  

As a brand new collective, Film For Future took the Dutch film industry by storm. By tying many well-known Dutch actors to their brand and winning the CFAP-Award, the industry couldn’t go around them anymore. Founded by film producers Iris Otten and Laurette Schilling, this collective’s main mission is to give filmmakers and producers the right tools and information to make film sets more sustainable. Motivated by their worries about the climate crisis, they believe that in every aspect of filmmaking, from production to suppliers and from digital apps to behavioral changes, there are many ways to make films in a more sustainable way.  

Noortje Post, project manager of Film For Future, set up a database where filmmakers can easily access tips for making their films greener. Want her advice, specifically aimed at low-budget filmmakers? Then keep reading. 

The basics 

Let’s first get the obvious things you can do immediately out of the way: use the least amount of disposable waste as possible, don’t make crewmembers travel unnecessary and make sure you process your waste green. “But to fully be able to implement these measures, you’ll need to go further than just ambitions. You have to make it tangible,” says Noortje. 

Well begun is half done: create sustainability goals before shooting 

When it comes to sustainable film production, a lot can be done in the preparation phase. “In many (film) productions, the framework in which we operate is a little out of date.” So, how can you build on a more modern, more sustainable framework for your production? “You can start by creating goals for yourself and your crew before shooting. Setting up these goals gives you a stable, new framework in which you can operate. And try to go the extra mile. For example: involve suppliers as well and see if you can help each other out to achieve your goals.” 

New goals like this don’t have to be expensive. Just make sure they are realistic and easy. And remember to have fun! If you can process your waste in a sustainable way and recycle, which, for instance, compensates for the emissions for 5 hours of shooting, you can add a sign to the collective trash bin that reads ‘one full bin contains 5 hours of shooting.’ These sorts of playful incentives can motivate your crew to actually achieve these goals. 

One really good example of a goal? “Agree upon compensating for your carbon footprint beforehand. This way, you’ll not only compensate for your emissions – which is great – but also create a financial incentive to keep the costs down.”  

Let’s get into this a little further. It’s quite sensible to include this measure into your framework, because it impacts every action afterwards. The bigger your footprint, the higher the cost of your production is going to be. This also stimulates your entire crew to be more sensible in trying to avoid certain actions that will impact your emissions. After all, it’s a team effort and it’s important that you involve your entire crew into meeting your goals. Because if Mark drives his SUV to set, you may have to cut on lighting or a hard drive or two, simply because there’s not enough money. If your team has agreed to compensate for your carbon footprint, crew members may advise Mark to travel by train, to keep the costs down. Because let’s face it: money talks, especially when you’re making a low-budget film. 

Achieve your goals? Appoint an eco-manager 

Creating goals is great, but how do you uphold these good intentions? Noortje knows just how to make sure the expectations are met: “Hire an eco-manager or appoint this role to one of your crew members. This is someone who tracks the progress of the goals you made in the beginning. With someone like that on board, there’s always a crewmember who can correct you or call you out on it if the crew is not meeting the sustainability goals. This works best if the eco-manager is involved from the very beginning, so that this crewmember can help set up the goals with you.” 

“But also, make sustainability one of the main topics during your crew meetings. Talk about each role inside the crew and how each specific role could contribute to a greener production.” 

A writer’s impact  

Something that can also help your preparation phase is by writing stories that are more sustainable to film. “Don’t use seven or eight different locations, but instead use two or three. This way, your crew and actors don’t have to travel so much, which helps one of the most basic ways to cut emissions of your productions.” 

That’s a very pragmatic thing you can do as a writer, but you can also make another impact in the content of your script. Noortje: “Dystopian films about climate change can be really good in addressing an important issue, but it can also be demotivating and draining to watch for an audience. Instead, try to write hopeful stories about how we can still turn this around.” 

Writers or art directors can also choose to be more subtle and use subliminal messaging. That means you would rather show sustainable actions being done by characters in the film instead of having characters openly speak about it. “Write about characters who ride the train, who are eating a vegetarian meal or who recycle. A good example where this worked was in the HBO hit series Succession. Here, the supporting role of uncle Ewan Roy says he’s planning on donating all of his inheritance to Greenpeace. According to a case study of Albert, this inspired many viewers to search on the internet how they can do the same.” 

Go Digital 

Paper is one of the biggest pollutants on sets. People write their scripts and productional instructions on pieces of paper all the time. A waste, because there are many (free) digital apps that can help you with this. But there are also other clever tricks that can help you. 

Signing a document? Don’t print, scan and print again, but use a digital signature.” Here, you can attach your autograph easily to a document. For productivity and establishing a clear workflow, use Google Keep, Asana, Trello or Evernote, all apps with a free-access option. Notability and iAnnotate (not free) are apps that were made for drawing on a touch screen. You can use them for your floor plans or storyboards. For writers: consider installing Scriptation on your phone or tablet, an app that gives a clear overview to all crewmembers for the latest adaptations and changes that were made in the script. This app is quite costly, however, for its pricing is $12.99 each month. And last but not least: for camera reports, you can use Zoelog, an app that makes it easy to quickly send reports to your data handler, editor or production assistants. 

And even though software can make an impact, reusing certain hardware can absolutely help you too. Especially the way we handle hard drives. On a lot of productions, these are often used only once, resulting in emissions waste and using precious materials. Reusing hard drives can be a gamechanger! However, make sure to ensure insurance coverage and establish an organization-wide policy for handling them, including regular cleaning of the ventilation system to prevent wasting energy. Lastly, do not forget that using a digital cloud for the storage of files also takes up physical space and results in emissions. Minimize what you store on the cloud and set a shorter expiration time for downloadable files. 

Evaluate: celebrate your successes! 

It is vital for the industry that production teams meet after completing a production and talk about the production process. Noortje: “Ask yourselves: How did we do it? Did we achieve the sustainability goals? If yes, great, let’s celebrate and share our successes with the world! Not to brag, but to inspire and educate other film professionals. If not, then why? How can we improve next time? What should we have been more aware of?” 

So, these are just the first steps towards a greener future in filmmaking. This is only the tip of the iceberg. But still, this information can already help you as a (low-budget) filmmaker to move ahead and make your film set a little greener and eco-conscious than before. And if we all do that and make conscious choices and decisions, the entire industry will be elevated. Visit the Film For Future database for more tips & tricks. 

And what will 2024 have in store for Film For Future?

Noortje: “Currently, we are making preparations on giving workshops and trying to gather filmmakers to come and talk about sustainable filmmaking. We want to pass on information, but we also want to learn from more people in the field. And even though we’re still mainly focused on the Dutch film industry, we’re definitely not ruling out any international partnerships in the future.” 

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