Posted on 8th March 2023

See Through Stories: A Story of Sustainability (Part 2)

In part two of our case study on a feature documentary titled, 'Abundance: The Story of Us', created by sustainable production company See Through Stories (formerly named The Abundance Film), we explore how the team put sustainability into practice during filming

In part one, we looked at the company’s pre-production sustainability considerations on Abundance: The Story of Us including how they used green memos for staff, and their use of a flight decision chart to reduce the number of flights taken by the staff and crew. In this part, we learn how the production team approached their travel logistics and reduced the carbon footprint of their shoot to the Philippines and Bhutan.

Minimising flights

One of the easiest wins in reducing a production’s carbon footprint is to minimise the flights required for both crew and equipment.

For these shoots, the See Through Stories team managed to hire the vast majority of their equipment locally which saved on flight emissions and a lot of sore shoulders for lugging heavy cases across the world. As the project has been privately funded, the team decided to use Netflix’s approved camera list to ensure they can deliver to broadcast standards. The majority of these cameras can be found globally but in this case the team were unable to find the required camera in Bhutan so had to fly one over.

Only two UK based crew Heather and Liane (Field Director and AP) flew to the shoot locations with everyone else able to work remotely from the UK. Heather and Liane found the local crew’s knowledge to be invaluable to the production. The fixers, Inky Nakpil and Girlie Linao, along with the DoP Eva Marie Paz, were able to share insights into local customs, cultural nuances and the geography which added to the accuracy of the documentary and made navigating locations much easier. Eva was experienced in working in temperamental Filipino weather conditions, and was extremely efficient in lighting the interviews accordingly working around unexpected weather turns. Her knowledge of filming in the Philippines allowed her to source the most suitable camera gear locally, which meant no extra kit from the UK was needed – a huge win for sustainability!

Working with local crews

The UK based team hired the local crew members by working with local fixers before flying out. The fixer for Bhutan recommended Jigme Tenzing, a DoP who had worked on ‘Lunana; A Yak in the Classroom’, Bhutan’s official entry on the 2022 Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature. Had the team not approached this production with a sustainable vision, they might not have had the chance to work with talent such as Jigme.

In the Philippines, the team worked with the previously mentioned DoP Eva Marie Paz, a rising star in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Check out her reel and work on Vimeo.

While the Philippines has a fairly large production industry, it’s geared more towards advertising, and the production team found that local crews had an appetite for getting some documentary experience under their belts. Bhutan however, does not currently have a large-scale production industry, and so there were difficulties in finding gimbal operators, rigs and other basic camera gear. This is still less carbon intensive than flying in the equipment and extra crew with you from the UK.

Collaborating with local production teams/talent can help build the industries in these countries, making it more likely other foreign productions will use and collaborate with crews and use the resources already available rather than bringing their own.

This approach also has the benefit of increasing the diversity of creative voices and visions in the screen industries and its output. Hollywood standards of what professional cinematography is can be seen as a form of gatekeeping and ultimately prohibitive to talent from underrepresented groups and/or those who live in countries where professional training and/or industry standard equipment may be hard to come by.

Preserving biodiversity

To minimise any impact to the flora and fauna in shooting locations, the local guides and fixers were given sustainability risk assessments aimed at protecting the local biodiversity. For example, risk assessments were done on the impact of various forms of travel to the filming locations. To mitigate against such damage, accommodations close to the filming locations were chosen so that crew could walk to most of the locations.

The team from the UK found their perspectives challenged in Bhutan; they learnt a lot about its culture and were moved by the locals’ relationship with the natural environment, for example paying respects to mountain deities. This inspired the crew to be even more mindful and appreciative of the landscapes being filmed, rituals were offered in each filming location, a reminder to always give back to nature. This added extra context for the documentary itself, which wouldn’t have happened had the team used a UK crew.

In the Philippines, the risk assessment was taken on as a challenge by the fixers and went to greater lengths than usual to reduce their impact while making it fun, for example sourcing local bamboo recycled cutlery. In Bhutan, sustainability is at the core of the culture. The country is one of the few carbon negative countries in the world. It has strong sustainability regulations, so the local team found it intuitive to reduce environmental impacts. Heather and Liane arrived on the holy month of Saga-Dawa, a month when eating meat is banned in Bhutan as a means to encourage vegetarianism, this made it very easy for the team to source vegetarian catering for the crew.

The Filipino crew found that the sustainability risk assessment embedded and inspired an awareness for the environment right from the beginning of shoots. This helped to streamline the sustainability process so much that they are sharing their risk assessments with other productions who have subsequently come to shoot in the Philippines.

In this case, the team was able to reduce their carbon footprint by bringing only essential crew and equipment. The team also learnt that working with local crews can bring many other benefits beyond the sustainability wins – a more editorially authentic programme, a boost to the local production economy and a way to showcase that local talent to a wider audience.

Stay tuned for part three, where we’ll look at post-production and beyond…