Green thinking

Green thinking

By Michael Pickard
February 6, 2024


As television drama goes green on-screen and behind the camera, four executives reveal how they are helping to create sustainable productions and reduce their carbon footprint.

From series such as UK dramas After the Flood and The Rig to Norway’s Dome 16 and German series The Swarm (pictured above), viewers have been given a front-row seat to stories that imagine the effects of climate change – now and in the future.

Lachlan MacKinnon

But how is the television industry itself doing in the battle to reduce carbon emissions and the impact of making television on the planet?

“If you got your school report it would probably say, ‘Could try harder,’” said Lachlan MacKinnon, an executive producer at Bad Wolf. “There’s lots that we are doing and there’s a lot more that we could do.

“If you’re thinking about transport, energy, materials and waste, then at the waste part we’re good with single-use plastic and so on. But you really want to be moving up that chain and tackling things like travel. That’s where the real savings in terms of CO2 lie; that’s the space we need to be moving into.”

MacKinnon was speaking on a Content London panel about sustainable production, where the discussion focused on the lengths the industry has gone to to ensure a production’s carbon footprint is reduced as much as possible, and what it can still do.

“‘We could do better’ is exactly how the school report would look at this moment because we all acknowledge we have to do better, but it’s about bringing it up,” agreed Samantha McMillon, chief operating officer at Quay Street Productions. “We have a real conscious effort when we talk about where we are putting our productions and ensuring that we are going to local crew, not just for the purposes of, ‘We should be supporting our local community,’ but actually from that perspective. There are certain things that we are doing but there is a lot more that we need to do.”

Dome 16 is set in a dystopia where the privileged live in a luxurious dome

For Katy Tallon, global sustainability manager at international production and distribution giant Fremantle, the focus needs to shift to “areas of higher impact” such as travel and energy, and the emphasis on sustainable production needs to be addressed much earlier.

“A lot of the focus and burden has been put on production to make the shifts. But actually, the decisions that bake in carbon have been made pretty much at commissioning – the commissioners are commissioning carbon,” she said. “We need to work at the beginning of green light really, when we decide the location, where things are going to be shot, and what’s actually going to appear on the screen.”

Meanwhile, across Scandinavia, sustainable production has been gathering momentum over the last few years and is now at a point where it is becoming “more and more second nature,” said Tordenfilm’s Eric Vogel (Dome 16, Made in Oslo).

Samantha McMillon

“It’s something commissioners are expecting producers and everybody to have a grip on,” he said. “It’s also about discussing content. Other industries have also had green initiatives and their own sustainability efforts, like the travel industry and the construction. But we are storytellers. That’s really where the conversation is headed – it’s beyond the physical and the practical. We’re good at that now.”

Notably, commissioners in the Nordics are now asking for carbon budgets and examining a producer’s green credentials at the pitch stage, before backing a new series.

“It’s a total shift. No broadcasters in the UK are quite there yet,” said Tallon.

“One of the issues that I find quite a lot is culture. It feels a bit like turning a supertanker sometimes, because so many people have been so used to making drama in a certain way,” MacKinnon said. “The one thing you’re always trying to do is move that mindset on.”

One way to do that is with data. MacKinnon and Bad Wolf calculated on its recent ITV and MGM historical project The Winter King that meat-free days twice a week on set would save the equivalent of 80 tonnes of CO2 – or the same as 11,000 train journeys from London to Bristol, where the series was filmed.

“When you start to talk to people and say, ‘This is the impact that you guys can have,’ you then move the conversation on from when you’re being told, ‘Oh, but we need meat every day, we need protein.’ That’s a culture thing that has to move on.”

Part of driving cultural change is also establishing who is leading the charge towards more sustainable production.

The Winter King uses virtual set extensions created by VFX

“It’s everybody’s responsibility, because the minute you’ve got someone who is that person, everyone forgets what it is that they’re supposed to be doing and taking individual responsibilities,” MacKinnon said. “A lot of it is leadership and it’s coming from the execs at the top, it’s coming from the heads of production. It’s just that culture in everything we do.”

On Bad Wolf’s HBO series Industry, actor Freya Mavor took a particular interest in sustainability, leading many of the cast to share cars to set rather than arriving individually. And for Sky’s supernatural drama A Discovery of Witches, Bad Wolf gave vampire Matthew Clairmont an electric-powered Tesla to drive as, opposed to the Range Rover he uses in the books on which the series is based.

Katy Tallon

“Even in The Winter King, which is set in the fifth century, we were also thinking, ‘Well, actually people didn’t change clothes every day,’ so they were wearing the same clothes because that’s just what you did,” MacKinnon added. “You were on a battlefield; if someone had better clothes, you’d pinch them. So it’s okay for people to wear the same clothes on different story days instead of changing them all the time.”

“The only way that you can move the dial on culture is when it flows top down. If it’s not there, then you’ve got a misstep,” McMillon noted. “To move the needle and have the conversation, it needs to come from the top down. It’s wrong that it should, but it’s the most impactful way.”

Tallon has stood at the intersection of sustainability and the creative industries for the past decade, and before that she was a documentary producer. “I’ve been around and I remember the days when plastic water bottles were everywhere on sets, and then we had the whole taking away crew’s bacon sandwiches on a Monday or whatever, and that was an upheaval,” she said. “Now transport’s the hot topic and Covid saw us all realise we could cut down on our travel.”

Studios also play a big part. Fremantle’s Italian production company Lux Vide recently opened its own studio complex on the outskirts of Rome, with 40% of its energy requirements set to be generated through solar power and the use of electric vehicles across the 5,000 sq m lot.

Similarly, Bad Wolf operates from Bad Wolf Studios in Wales, which boasts a huge 19,000 sq m of shooting space. Minibuses bring cast and crew from the centre of Cardiff to the base, removing the need for cars, while renewable energy also plays an important part.

The environmental message is central to ITV’s After the Flood

“We’ve actually got a fairly small carbon footprint as an industry, but it’s tricky because we rely on flying,” Tallon says. “We’re never going to get away from flying to make a production, not in the near term anyway. That’s going to be hard to shift, but we have got influence through working with our global supply chain.”

An increased number of coproductions could be the answer to reduced travel, but not necessarily just working with neighbouring countries. Other more creative solutions are available.

“As producers we try to finance our shows any way we can and there’s some mixed messages – ‘Yes, we do want coproduction but please also be very sustainable’ – and then it becomes tricky,” Vogel admitted. “But our last show was actually an international coproduction that didn’t travel. We were able to do a coproduction between Norway and the Netherlands and we argued very strongly for the [tax] incentive there to see our idea of not actually putting boots on the ground in the Netherlands but working with Dutch crews on post-production. We didn’t fly a single time from greenlight to delivery.”

Advancing visual effects, such as virtual production, could also offer a way to film ‘on location’ without leaving a local studio. On The Winter King, as well as building a set, “we used set extensions within VFX, and that cuts travel,” MacKinnon said. “Virtual production is still quite expensive, but you can see once prices for that start coming down it’s going to make a lot more aspects of production affordable.”

Eric Vogel

The other side of sustainable production is what viewers see on screen, sending out a green message without hitting them over the head with it. Tallon revealed one Fremantle company, Dublin’s Element Pictures (Normal People, Conversations with Friends), has started doing ‘green passes’ of its scripts to ensure high-carbon behaviour is not glamorised or seen as aspirational.

“It’s thinking about what characters think about climate change, and whether there’s any dialogue or props that could look at the solutions or even just reflect society as it is,” she said. “We’ve done it with smoking in the past, where smoking used to be really sexy on screen and now it’s very rare that you see a modern character smoking on TV in a glamorised way.”

Those messages can also be central to a whole series. ITV’s After the Flood “aimed to put this agenda at the centre of a conversation so that, hopefully, the audience will start to discuss it more,” McMillon said. “We feel a real responsibility that we’re able to do that. In storytelling, we have that power.”

Meanwhile, Dome 16 is a love story set in a future dystopia where privileged people live in a climate-controlled dome with everything they could ever want, while most people exist in poverty outside.

“If you do live outside the dome, your life expectancy is lower. The air quality is bad and all these services are not really there anymore,” Vogel says. “But all these things are just world building and a backdrop to a story with these young characters. There’s a balance there, we hope.”

Prime Video’s The Rig depicts mysterious environmental forces in the North Sea

The execs were asked if they could wave a magic wand to improve sustainability in television what ‘blue sky’ ideas they would implement immediately.

“The first step is to stop glamorising high-carbon behaviour, and step two is up to the creatives,” Tallon said.

Vogel continued: “We always try to say that everybody can do something, and that’s where we started, with a small step. Then you build a little bit on the experience of that last project and you improve your systems or your routines or your plans. Just get on with it and you can do it.”

“Editorially, it’s about baking sustainability into the ideas that we’re developing and growing, reflecting the world back at the audience and doing it in a way that it’s not an issue thing – it’s just day-to-day life,” MacKinnon said.

“Then, practically, the one thing I get really emotional about is going to unit base and seeing this generator powering away all day and night. It’s thinking about how we move away from the diesel generators to battery-powered generators because it makes such a big difference to the carbon footprint.”

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