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Rethinking waste: Sustainable Set Design

Rethinking waste: Sustainable Set Design

photo: Set of Les Misérables (BBC, 2018) reclaimed by DRESD

Whether it’s a police station in 1980, a medieval alleyway or the inside of a space shuttle; a lot of time and material goes into making a fitting decor. Unfortunately, all this beautiful work is usually not very long-lived. Two years ago the conclusion of our workshop “Art Department, Costumes and Make-up” was that there is a great need for a shared set depot and prop house, a revival of the former NOB. Specifically because there is a desire from the industry to reclaim sets and to reuse them instead of throwing them away. And a lot can be gained in the art department in terms of reuse, recycling and upcycling.

Here in The Netherlands, Florian Legters of The Uncrowned King is trying to find a suitable location for such an endeavour and Green Film Making has also looked at an option in old silos in Amsterdam. But until now it is wishful thinking with the biggest stumbling block being: space. Because where do you store all those materials, especially when you want to keep complete set pieces for reuse? And we are not even talking about accessibility..

In the UK they are also facing this dilemma. How can you change a used set from waste to raw material? Our British counterpart albert, the sustainability program of BAFTA, organised a special meeting for art directors: Setting the Stage for Sustainability. And so Green Film Making took a train to the heart of London to look for inspiration that can be applied here at home.

The BAFTA offices are located near Piccadilly Circus. About 100 people from the industry gathered in the posh building to listen to four different speakers. Our countrywoman Emma Fromberg spoke with urgency about the measurements she had taken during her latest polar expedition. And Production Design teacher Norman Austick from The Northern School of Art shared how impressed he was with his students who built a completely sustainable set of their own accord, partly from old sets of Hospital People (Roughcut TV). They also built it in such a way that it can be easily taken apart again for reuse.

DRESD reclamation prop house in Wales

And then there was Lynn McFarlane from DRESD reclamation prop house in Wales. They do exactly what everyone is looking for, they dismantle sets for reuse and store parts and materials as well as props in their warehouse. Lynn emphasises that the biggest hurdle is that people still think it takes a lot of time, but with good planning it really doesn’t. And as with almost any sustainable approach, it also saves a lot of money. DRESD dismantles a set on location and brings the parts to their prop house in Wales. And not only parts, but also leftover materials such as wood, screws, grass and paint. 99% of the sets that they dismantle are reused! They have already cleared 50 productions in the last 5 years in this way. To illustrate, she had brought props from the popular series Poldark, which can be easily reused with a small cosmetic adjustment.

Finally, seasoned set designer and BAFTA winner Tom Bowyer shared his perspective from his 35 years of experience. What makes working sustainably often practically impossible are, according to him, are the small budgets and the very high bar in terms of production quality. This makes there is no room for compromise and the time pressure is enormous. He believes that the solution lies with the heads of broadcasting who should take the pressure off their employees. He would like to do much more than just use a water bottle, but needs more time and money. On the set of Harlots, a popular series in the UK, he was able to implement many sustainable applications through a special art department coordinator who could make the right connections and combine things. It was also a matter of good planning and good communication with the crew from different departments.

Set of Harlots – photo by: Liam Daniel/Hulu

How difficult it is in practice for productions to facilitate good communication between all departments was hilariously illustrated when an art direction team asked Lynn how their set could be reclaimed by DRESD and received the answer: “We already did yours! ” To be fair, it had been done through a co-producer in Wales. But the assembled professionals shared the same question as we do; there is no central location (DRESD is in Wales and its counterpart Scenery Salvage 1.5 hours outside of London) to bring your used sets or where you can find props and raw materials for reuse. A number of ideas that emerged from the discussion: perhaps this space can be offered by the large studios. In New York you have Materials for the Arts, a large reuse center where companies and individuals can donate items for use by non-profit organisations and schools. Half of this is paid for by waste processors and the other half by the government. Sidetrack from New York that wasn’t mentioned in London, but is relevant here: the well-known Earth Angels, the special brigade of sustainability managers on set, have recently started to collect props from overflowing warehouses for reuse under the title: Good Riddance. But back to London, there is a Facebook group with more than 11,000 members where sets and props are exchanged: Set Swap Cycle, just like our ADA group in the Netherlands.

It was an inspiring trip and GFM was very warmly welcomed by Head of Industry Sustainability Aaron Matthews and team. And it was encouraging to see that despite the fact that we cannot compete with this much larger industry in terms of numbers, we are working on solving the same dilemma’s in terms of sustainability.

That there is real movement also in the Netherlands on this front can be seen from a new initiative in the Municipality of Almere, which is now a model for a similar more ambitious plan in the Municipality of Amsterdam. Thomas Obrien-Coker is team manager of waste collection in the brand new Upcycle center in Almere. Thomas has promised Green Film Making that productions can collect or borrow everything that is handed in there free of charge. We will soon be doing a test with an upcoming production.

The new Upcycle center in Almere

And to conclude, of course we already have recycle DIY store Buurman in Rotterdam. And good news, they are about to open a second location in Utrecht as part of the Hof van Cartesius next to Zuilen train station. They will officially open at the end of the year, but you can already go if you wish. They already reclaim sets for the theater world and sometimes store larger pieces. But no requests have been made yet from our sector! Buurman would like to expand to Amsterdam, but are looking for a good partner who can help set it up. Anyone??

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