Professor Fights to Green Films

Posted March 10, 2009 at 4:08pm

Going green is all the rage among celebrities — Nicollette Sheridan uses biodegradable housecleaning products, Leonardo DiCaprio is talking about “e-topias— and Julia Roberts even does her own food composting. But while it’s chic for Hollywood’s finest to talk about being ecofriendly, what about the carbon footprint that’s left after they’ve filmed their blockbuster movies and television shows?

A new code authored by American University professor and documentarist Larry Engel can help the movie industry figure that out. Engel worked closely with independent filmmaker Andrew Buchanan to create the “Code of Best Practices in Sustainable Filmmaking— as a guide to producing movies in as environmentally sound a way as possible.

“The pressure in production is to always be highly productive, and in some ways that demands activities that are not always environmentally friendly,— he said.

Using digital recording and tapeless production, cutting down on the number of vehicles used and switching from lithium to rechargeable batteries are among the practices Engel suggests.

The code is currently under consideration for adoption in all production courses at the film and media arts division of American’s School of Communication, and it is being promoted by the D.C. Environmental Film Festival.

Peter O’Brien, executive director of the festival, said he isn’t sure that the guidelines will become criteria for future film submissions, but he does think they will be useful to the industry as the conversation about environmental impact continues.

“I think it will be a really useful guide for people who are conscientious and trying to make films in a green way,— O’Brien said.

Engel’s idea for a best practices guide was born out of a class he was teaching at American. Fed up by students constantly leaving water bottles, soda cans and coffee cups behind after class, the ecoconscious professor instituted a new classroom rule: No one could bring any food or drink to class that was not in a reusable container. Though there was some initial grumbling, Engel said, the students complied and he was inspired to create a list of best practices for students in filmmaking. When colleagues Pat Aufderheide at the school’s Center for Social Media and Chris Palmer at the Center for Environmental Filmmaking caught wind of what Engel was doing, they insisted he publish it as a larger project.

It turned out that Buchanan, whom Engel had met when both were teaching workshops at a film festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo., was working on a similar project, and the two joined forces. They collaborated on all elements of the code, Engel said, although his primary focus was writing the principles, while Buchanan developed carbon tracker checklists that directors and producers can use to identify how much energy they are actually using.

While his green suggestions can be applicable to any movie set, Engel said documentary filmmakers bear a heavier burden than most.

“We need the world to make our films, so we need the world to be healthy,— he said. “We have a greater responsibility for making sure to reduce our carbon footprint.—