Posted on 25th February 2022

Sustainable sets and props made out of…cardboard?

Manchester-based Vectar studios is taking the lead in encouraging the production industry to switch to cardboard sets and reduce its overall carbon footprint

The Vectar project (formerly Z film studios) is the first studio and post-production facility in the UK dedicated to completely carbon neutral film production.

The Vectar project began when Tom Henderson, who has been involved in commercial production over the years, was in the Caribbean during a project for a soap product, and after witnessing first hand the unspoilt landscape and the subsequent wasteful flooding needed for the shoot, Tom decided to dedicate himself to sustainable production and no longer work on commercials for unsustainable products.

The experience was a lightbulb moment for me, and that’s what began the Vectar project. A studio space with the aim of carbon neutral production. We began with the basics, such as switching to LED lighting, plant-based catering services, solar panels and so on. And now we’re moving into virtual production and sustainably built sets and props

— Tom Henderson, Managing Director - Vectar Project

This is where Chris Gilmour enters the story. Chris has been a cardboard sculptor for over 30 years, and has been working in commercials for the past 10. Tom and Chris met on a job where props were needed for a virtual filming space. These props needed to be light and easy to move in line with the perspective shifts of virtual sets. 

They worked together to make these props out of cardboard, which were 90% lighter than props which would have been made using wood and metal, effectively speeding up production (they were also easily recyclable!). The cardboard could be used to make hyper realistic structures, indistinguishable from wooden props.

And so the idea for Vectar board was born. Vectar board is manufactured in Sweden, by a company who have a sustainable forest heritage, whose forestry techniques go beyond those of the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). The trees aren’t cut down to make the cardboard,  branches and leaves are taken instead, leaving the tree intact.

The cardboard was put to the test during a shoot for Braun, in which it was used to construct a set with walls and a full ceiling. The crew were able to mount a 20kg mirror to the wall with little issue.

Vectar board is also fireproof, can be painted in the same way as wood, and has the same strength as MDF. Versions which are more flexible, more waterproof etc. can be developed by changing the glue, wood or leaf content of the board.

The savings made were astonishing. We saved studio time, and we didn’t need a massive studio to build the props. They could be built offsite and be moved into the studio later. And they had a 90% smaller carbon footprint. Our next thought was - can we build sets and props like this for commercial filming?

— Tom Henderson, Managing Director - Vectar Project

Production speed can also be improved by using Vectar board. ‘Legacy’ sets (sets built to remain in the studio) in Tom and Chris’s experience were usually  built over three weeks in various off-site locations and then assembled in the studio, where they remain indefinitely. These sets are light, easy to transport, and easier to assemble and disassemble.

Additionally, sets can be previewed digitally and machined to specification. The art director gets exactly what they see on screen and this gives the art department more control over their props. 

Smaller, more detailed props can also be made from Vectar board, such as rings. Chris was involved in a project where a ring was required urgently, and the prop was turned around in a day.

Tom and Chris are currently writing a syllabus with the National Theatre’s Scenic Technician Apprenticeship, and have recently showcased their work at industry events, which you can see in the images in this article!

Find out more about The Vectar Project here.