Thursday, June 25, 2009

Code of Best Practices for Sustainable Filmmaking

Beckett Horowitz has been a huge supporter of Future Weather. She has worked with documentaries and television shows in an effort to raise awareness for a number of social and environmental causes, including sustainable production. Needless to say, we were glad when Beckett agreed to do a guest blog for us. She interviewed another leader in the movement for sustainable film production, Larry Engel. Associate director at the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University, Larry recently co-authored the Code of Best Practices in Sustainable Filmmaking, a collaboration between Filmmakers for Conservation and the American University School of Communication. The code is designed to help filmmakers reduce their impact on the environment during production and may be something that we use during production of Future Weather.

Many thanks to Larry for taking the time to speak with Beckett about the code. And thanks to Beckett for taking the time to conduct the interview!

1. When did was the code officially released?
It was released online (at early February 2009, and we printed a limited archival run of only 500 hard copies.

2. What was the inspiration behind the code?
Ah. There were many elements. One main one was that I got tired of cleaning up my classroom after class. Picking up students’ coffee cups and plastic bottles got me angry. I announced in class one day that I would no longer allow any kind of throw-away packaging in my class ever again. Jugs and mugs were the new thing. Plenty of students whined, but following [the announcement] I spent my time leaving the classroom talking with students rather than cleaning up their mess. I also wrote up a list of a dozen or so things students could do in production to be more sustainable.

Secondly, I attended the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 2007 and sat in on a session led by my now co-author Andrew Buchanan (a British producer) on green filmmaking and was impressed. I came back to American University and started talking about sustainability and my list. Professor Pat Aufderheide, who also is the director of the Center for Social Media [at American University], suggested that I publish a Code of Best Practices on the subject. I was also encouraged by the rest of my faculty in Film and Media Arts and by my colleague at AU Chris Palmer who, besides teaching, is also the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking.

I contacted Andrew to tell him the good news, and he told me that he was working a similar project with Tanya Petersen of Filmmakers for Conservation. We ended up deciding to collaborate.

3. What are the most wasteful parts of production?
Probably travel, especially airline. Second is likely meat consumption, strangely because meat production overall creates about 20% of greenhouse gases. Also, plastic bottles. But we’re mixing waste and greenhouse gases….

4. What makes this code more comprehensive/different from the other ones out there?
We think the key is that we have a set of principles that lead to checklists for action and trackers that are spreadsheets for monitoring the production’s energy use, and other elements that contribute to green house gas production and which can be used with carbon calculators and offsetters. The key is that we also had a scientific review board vet our work – this is really critical. Finally we don’t claim to certify anyone. We’d like to see an independent agency created for that.

5. Have any productions adopted the code yet?
Several around the world, but the most immediately exciting news is that the Independent Documentary Association and the University Film and Video Association have endorsed the code. Further the Southwest Screen (a regional board in the UK) is adopting the code.

6. What are your goals for the future of production?
Get as many people and companies – large and small – around the world to pay close attention to their practices in media production and distribution.

7. Is there anything else you'd like to share about the code?
It’s not that hard to adopt. And by reducing, reusing, and thinking about what you’re doing you actually end up saving money not spending it to go green.


Larry Engel is a professor at American University. He is also the associate director at the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University. Larry is a producer, writer, director, and cinematographer with nearly 30 years of documentary filmmaking experience spanning all seven continents. He's flown into hurricanes, been chased by tornadoes and dropped into ice caves. He's fled wildfires, gotten lost in jungles, stranded in Antarctica, and spent three years traveling the globe to come face-to-face with a lot of mummies.

Beckett Horowitz has dedicated her career to development, production and outreach for documentaries and television shows oriented toward social justice and environmental issues. Since graduating from Brandeis University with a degree in environmental science her credits include PBS’s science series CURIOUS, Sundance Channel’s BIG IDEAS FOR A SMALL PLANET, and the Food Network’s CHOPPED. Whenever she has a free moment, she likes to extol the virtues of vermicomposting and material recycling to anyone who will listen.

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