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How Hollywood art directors are working to keep their sets out of the landfill

Props and sets are available to rent at EcoSet in Los Angeles. It's a resource for the creative industry that implements zero waste practices on productions and events.
Tracy Nguyen for NPR
Props and sets are available to rent at EcoSet in Los Angeles. It's a resource for the creative industry that implements zero waste practices on productions and events.

For decades, it was standard practice in Hollywood for art departments to build sets for movies and TV shows from scratch, and then break them down at the end of production and haul the pieces off to the landfill.

"The dumpsters just line up at the end of the show," said veteran Hollywood art director Karen Steward of many productions she worked on, from the 1988 high school comedy Johnny Be Good, to the 2013 political action thriller Olympus Has Fallen. "And there's no talking about it, because it's time to get off the soundstage."

Steward is part of a group of like-minded Art Directors Guild members who have been pushing for more sustainable practices for years, along with other allies. At first, she said, it was hard at first to get much traction. "We're all about not wasting time, and hurry up, and get it done, and time is money."

Karen Steward is a veteran art director and has worked to push sustainable practices in the industry. She and like minded Art Directors Guild members created a Green Committee to share best practices and educate others.
/ Tracy Nguyen for NPR
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Tracy Nguyen for NPR
Karen Steward is a veteran art director and has worked to push sustainable practices in the industry. She and like minded Art Directors Guild members created a Green Committee to share best practices and educate others.

But Steward said things are becoming easier, as the industry is gradually coming to grips with its impact on human caused climate change. Steward helped to found the Art Directors Guild's Green Committee to share best practices and educate others about topics such as reducing waste and sourcing more sustainable set construction materials.

"To find a true circular solution, a true zero waste idea, is what we're working toward," she said.

Circular solutions

According to Earth Angel, an agency that helps productions in the U.S. and around the globe reduce their carbon footprints, the average TV show or movie in 2022 created about 240 tons of waste, with an estimated half of that amount coming from the disposal of props and sets.

"There are definitely more innovative, efficient ways of working," said Earth Angel founder and CEO Emellie O'Brien. "We often just don't give people the space and the breathing room to uncover those solutions."

One such solution is to reuse old sets rather than always building new ones.

This helicopter at Beachwood Services, originally used in <em>Black Hawk Down,</em> has<em> </em>been repurposed in <em>Terminator 4</em>, <em>Suicide Squad </em>and <em>The A Team, </em>among other movies and TV shows.
/ Tracy Nguyen for NPR
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Tracy Nguyen for NPR
This helicopter at Beachwood Services, originally used in Black Hawk Down, has been repurposed in Terminator 4, Suicide Squad and The A Team, among other movies and TV shows.

Beachwood Services, owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, rents out sets and props for reuse that were originally built for its own productions. Located in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, its warehouses are packed with scenic gems, such as the chopper from the 2001 war movie Black Hawk Down. It has since been repurposed in Terminator 4, Suicide Squad and The A Team, among other movies and TV shows.

Art directors sometimes resist the idea of reusing old sets, because they want to realize their own creative vision. But Sondra Garcia, Beachwood's director of scenic operations, said the service allows them to alter what they rent to suit their needs.

"We tell people, 'You're going to put your own spin on it. You're going to paint it. You're going to reconfigure it. And then it is your design,'" said Garcia. "The most important thing to remember is to recycle stuff because it's less wasteful, and producers like it because it saves money."

Crew members move a set piece at Beachwood Services in Santa Clarita, Calif.
/ Tracy Nguyen for NPR
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Tracy Nguyen for NPR
Crew members move a set piece at Beachwood Services in Santa Clarita, Calif.

And when those sets get too old to rent out to big-budget productions, they often wind up at places like EcoSet.

Productions pay for the Los Angeles-based company to haul away their unwanted sets, props and construction materials. Instead of going to landfills, those treasures are then donated to whoever wants them.

"I think this place is very friendly for students who don't have so much funding and support," said film student Oyster Liao. She was pushing a metal shopping cart piled high with pots of paint around EcoSet's warehouse. "And I like that we don't have to waste so much."

Film student Oyster Liao shops for paint at EcoSet, which will be used in an upcoming film project.
/ Tracy Nguyen for NPR
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Tracy Nguyen for NPR
Film student Oyster Liao shops for paint at EcoSet, which will be used in an upcoming film project.

Solutions only go so far

But these solutions to Hollywood's chronic waste problem only go so far.

Ecoset's owners don't know what happens to all of the free stuff the business gives out — whether it's recycled again or thrown away. Also, many warehouses around the region that used to keep old sets and props in circulation have downsized — Sony's Beachwood Services formerly had five warehouses and now there are two — or have shuttered in the past couple of years, owing to rising real estate costs. ("We managed to find new homes for nearly everything," said Beachwood's Garcia. "A lot of it got liquidated, so not much of it had to go in the trash at least.")

Productions pay for EcoSet to haul away their unwanted sets, props and construction materials.
/ Tracy Nguyen for NPR
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Tracy Nguyen for NPR
Productions pay for EcoSet to haul away their unwanted sets, props and construction materials.

"I don't think anyone in our industry would shy away from really hard challenges or else we wouldn't be in our industry," said Everything Everywhere All at Once producer and sustainability champion Jonathan Wang. "But I do think it's tricky."

Wang said despite people's best intentions, a lot of materials still get thrown out in the rush to meet hectic production deadlines — including on his own sets.

"I think it's important to just acknowledge that we're all figuring it out," Wang said. "We're trying to do it better."

Liao shops for materials in EcoSet's aisles. When sets get too old to rent out to big-budget productions, they often wind up at places like the Los Angeles-based company.
/ Tracy Nguyen for NPR
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Tracy Nguyen for NPR
Liao shops for materials in EcoSet's aisles. When sets get too old to rent out to big-budget productions, they often wind up at places like the Los Angeles-based company.

Wang said producers should plan for reducing their environmental impact in the same way that they dealt with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic — when they allocated 4 or 5 % of their budget to cover things like health and safety officers and testing.

"We adapted to the emergency that was needed on set. And we are currently in an emergency, burning through resources faster than we renew them," Wang said. "We need to view this as an emergency and set aside a percentage of our budgets for innovation towards sustainability."

This story was produced for air by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, and edited by Jennifer Vanasco for digital and air. The photo editor was Emily Bogle.

NPR wishes to thank Art Directors Guild Green Committee co-chair Amelia Brooke for her help with this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.