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THE GIRL WITH THE GREEN HAND: New York-based Earth Angel Emellie O'Brien on her experiences as an Eco Supervisor

Posted By Birgit Heidsiek, Friday, June 05, 2015
Eco supervisor Emellie O’Brien shares a green high-five with a friendly neighborhood web-slinger.
"Making movies without making a mess” is the motto of eco supervisor Emellie O’Brien. The company she co-founded, New York-based Earth Angel Sustainable Production Services, made The Amazing Spider-Man 2 the most eco-friendly tentpole movie in the history of Sony Pictures. Besides greening theatrical feature film productions such as Noah by Darren Aronofsky and Gods Behaving Badly by Jon Turtletaub, Emellie also makes a sustainable impact on prime time TV shows shot in New York City.

How do you help productions become sustainable?

I always tell crew members that I am a resource—not an enforcer.  My approach is to make sustainability easy, engaging, and accessible. I do this through a variety of ways but mostly by being present. The crew responds more positively when they see that someone is actively monitoring the sustainability efforts and taking it seriously. I also offer incentives to crew members who go above and beyond to make the production more sustainable.

Do you suggest what is practicable for a specific production?

I read the script and I meet with department heads, and I assess all of the practical/logistical concerns. When it is 23º in New York City, we are not able to use biodiesel on the production. Cold weather is a major concern when it comes to biofuel. In situations like that, you count your losses and try to improve in other areas.

Are waste recycling and the re-use of props and wardrobe the easiest sustainable solutions because of their cost-effectiveness?

Waste reduction/recycling/reuse are definitely top priorities. They also happen to be cost-effective most of the time, but that doesn’t make them easy solutions. The crew decides whether or not sustainable solutions are easy. If crew members communicate with me and integrate sustainable solutions into their workflow, that’s what makes those solutions easy. But not everyone is willing to change their habits.

How easy is it to convince production managers to rent hybrid cars, LEDs, rechargeable batteries or to get compostable dishware?

It’s difficult to convince ordinary production managers to consider anything but the bottom line. Luckily, for the most part, if I am working on a production then it is likely that there is an environmentally conscious producer on that production. In which case the convincing is much easier.

Who wields the most influence to green a production, the director or the producer?

In my experience, it’s been the producer who is more likely to make sustainability a priority on set. However, all it takes is one person above-the-line to speak up in favor of running the production sustainably.

Is it easier for an independent or a studio production to produce sustainably?

Independent movies are naturally more sustainable than studio productions just because they have less resources, money and labor. As far as transitioning to a sustainable set, it’s easier for independent movies. However, in my experience studio productions are more willing to hire an eco supervisor and implement an official sustainability program. 

What other sustainable efforts were made during the production of The Amazing Spider-man 2?

Eliminating plastic water bottles was a huge feat for Spider-Man. We also incorporated sustainable products whenever possible—cleaners, detergents. We recycled batteries and film scraps and limited paper distribution.

Do you leave a lasting impact on productions?

Having an eco supervisor on set is crucial to running an effective sustainability campaign. Plus it pays for itself! My impact varies depending on the scale of the production. But on every show I’ve worked on, I’ve diverted at least 52% of the total waste from landfills and I saved production thousands of dollars.

Do crew members pass this know-how on to their next productions?

Absolutely. I’ve had many crew members tell me after working on a green set with me that working on other sets that do not recycle feels "wrong.” I also have many folks tell me that they started recycling at home because of our efforts on set, which is by far the most rewarding aspect of my work. 

How difficult is it, in general, to convince film and television crews to change their workflows in order to produce sustainably?

It is very difficult. Crews are often overworked and very frequently "running on empty.” Asking them to change their habits can be asking a lot—much more so than asking employees of other industries. I understand the unique demands of production, though, and I try to incentivize those crew members who are especially eco-conscious in order to encourage the crew to embrace our green efforts. It often takes the length of an entire shooting schedule to get the majority of the crew accustomed to the waste and water policies of a sustainable set. 

A prior version of this interview originally appeared in 
Green Film Shooting.

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