In 2020, during a year of isolation and grave turmoil, Chloé Zhao released Nomadland, an adaptation of the book by the same name, which recounts stories from the growing number of nomads taking to RVs and camping, traveling across the United States and making homes on the road. The story is a slow burn, one held together by a quiet, eloquent intimacy shared between fellow travelers—virtual strangers—who have found themselves alone, together.
Large portions of the film are shot in the Badlands of South Dakota. Reds meet yellows and browns for miles and miles; the land dips and rises in succession, a grandiose, yet humble offering that serves as a backdrop throughout the film, almost as its own character. And as Fern (Frances McDormand) strolls through the park at dawn with a gas lamp to help light her way to the bathroom, surrounded by sprawling land and camp sites of fellow travelers, you’re struck by her solitude. You’re also struck by the RVs, the diesel in their tanks, and the juxtaposition of their existence against the natural backdrop.
Then, if you’re like me, you consider what’s on the other side of the camera, the diesel-run generators, trailers, and transportation vehicles, as well as the accumulation of waste left behind by film productions.
Indeed, more often than not filmmaking harms the very land it works so hard to encapsulate. From hundreds of thousands of miles in airline travel to different far-flung locations, to generators that keep equipment and trailers running for days on end, to food waste from feeding an entire cast and crew multiple meals a day, the requirements of keeping a film set running are taxing on the environment. And in particular, we ought to consider the fact that—in the case of Nomadland and other films like it—filmmaking in National Parks, while it has been cited by certain Indigenous people as beneficial to tourism and their local economies, is another aspect of colonization. Most often, non-Indigenous filmmakers attempt to tell stories with a landscape of stolen land. Of course, as the United States goes, this can be said of any film set, but there’s a particular responsibility when filming in National Parks, as they remain largely untouched by massive technological endeavors and human-made structures that so often hasten climate change. And we don’t have much untainted land left.
The requirements of keeping a film set running are taxing on the environment.
Assessing what the land is like previous to filming so that film crews and environmental teams can ensure it’s either preserved that way or restored post-production, hiring environmental engineers and consultants to assist with productions, as well as using solar or clean energy rather than diesel and minimizing waste throughout are all ways to help safeguard land. But such actions remain rare.
A Hungry Industry
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report from 2021 states that, “human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years” and that, “it is virtually certain that human-caused CO2 emissions are the main driver of current global acidification of the surface open ocean.” This is an unequivocal cause for concern, and the film industry plays a major role in worsening the crisis. The Sustainable Production Alliance put out a recent report citing their carbon footprints from each set: “Large films had a carbon footprint of 1,081 metric tons, and medium films had a carbon footprint of 769 metric tons.” To give perspective, an average car gives off 4.6 metric tons of CO2 a year, which is 235 times less than that of a large film production. Also, according to albert, the BAFTA-backed sustainability organization, each hour of television equals 9.2 metric tons of CO2. The positivity of that fact, however, is that number has gone down by 10 percent since 2017. It is clear that a 10 percent drop is not nearly enough.
It is true that many film productions and companies are employing sustainability groups, activists, and individuals in attempts to reduce or negate their carbon footprint. One such group is Earth Angel, a New York-based company aimed at making the film industry more sustainable and environmentally-focused.
“I was shocked by the sheer amount of waste on film sets,” says Emellie O’Brien, filmmaker and Founder of Earth Angel. “Film is also a circus-like industry. We come in, we set up camp, and then we leave. But it requires a ton of power, transportation, and diesel generators.” O’Brien is an NYU Tisch alumni, who went to film school with the intention of creating environmentally-focused work. But she was struck by the disparity between intent and execution of films focused on the environment and within the industry in general.
Film is a circus-like industry. We come in, we set up camp, and then we leave. But it requires a ton of power, transportation, and diesel generators.
While some nation’s film commissions have strict environmental rules for filmmakers and their crews, that isn’t the status quo across the board. “Sometimes film companies are too hungry,” O’Brien says. “A lot of sustainability gets lost in capitalism.” It often seems that capitalism is one of our largest obstructions against climate justice. And as capital is an integral part of the entertainment industry, the idea of notable sustainability in filmmaking can leave many people—in the industry and not—feeling defeated.
Producing a Spectacle
Films have a certain expectation placed upon them to be entertaining, visually satisfying, exciting, and awe-inspiring. Sometimes, this expectation can cause big-budget projects, whose success is partly contingent on the scale of the visuals and set designs, to cut corners when it comes to environmentalism. This is evident in the aftermath of many films. One of the greatest modern ironies in filmmaking was Mad Max: Fury Road, a depiction of a future ransacked by climate change, whose production caused damage to Namibia’s ecosystem. Due to the lack of a proper environmental assessment prior to filming, the production was inept at properly protecting the ancient land they temporarily inhabited. As a result, they left behind miles of tire tracks on previously minimally-touched land, in addition to harming rare cacti and lizard habitats.
Another example is The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which had a multi-year long pre-production and production that included thousands of miles in air travel for their massive crew, and Pirates of the Caribbean (2015), a film that allegedly dumped toxic waste off the coast of Queensland, Australia, harming oceanic life and the inhabitants of neighboring towns and cities.
We ought to drastically and dramatically reframe our systems, both in film and beyond.
Yet the awe-inspiring effects can be achieved, without directly causing long-term environmental harm. Earth Angel was hired to work on the film, Noah, which depicts the story of Noah’s Ark. They filmed the flood scene at Planting Fields Arboretum, a State Historic Park in New York. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we ‘flood’ this land without flooding this land?’” O’Brien says. “So we hired an environmental engineer who created huge water rigs for a special run-off system.” In addition to safeguarding the land, the team also put together a restoration plan, with a focus on “leaving the area better than [they] found it.”
Sustainability in film is clearly possible. But while Netflix, HBO, Hulu, NBC, CBS, and other major networks and streaming companies have sustainability teams, the industry at large is still without a regulatory system in place to hold those teams, companies, and networks accountable. It’s the hope that other companies and organizations like Earth Angel and albert continue to form, and that the film industry’s actions are challenged, changed, and then upheld.
Earth Angel appropriately quotes Grace Hopper, American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral, on their website: “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘we have always done it this way.’” We ought to drastically and dramatically reframe our systems, both in film and beyond, in order to prevent, halt, and reverse climate damage. If not, we’re ensuring that our access to areas of natural beauty is reduced to curated screen grabs and directorial rigor.