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April 15
2024

ISSUE

Spring 2024

VFX AND SUSTAINABILITY: REDUCING CARBON FOOTPRINT, ITS IMPORTANCE AND MORE

By OLIVER WEBB

One of Dupe VFX’s most recognizable projects is Peaky Blinders. Jonathan Harris, CEO and VFX Supervisor at Dupe, set up the company with a focus on sustainable practice, environmentally and ethically, for staff well-being and diversity.(Image courtesy of BBC Studios and Tiger Aspect Productions)

One of Dupe VFX’s most recognizable projects is Peaky Blinders. Jonathan Harris, CEO and VFX Supervisor at Dupe, set up the company with a focus on sustainable practice, environmentally and ethically, for staff well-being and diversity.
(Image courtesy of BBC Studios and Tiger Aspect Productions)

The demand for visual effects has soared considerably in the last few years. While the VFX industry no doubt plays a role in contributing to the film industry’s large carbon footprint, little data exists surrounding the exact figures regarding VFX’s carbon footprint in comparison with other areas of the industry. A 2016 BAFTA report, however, found that the average animation production produced a staggering 5.5 tons of CO2 emissions per hour, with the majority of these emissions caused by production offices and post-production. Dupe VFX Chief Operations Officer Robin Chowdhury notes that it’s nearly impossible to find an exact statistic on what the industry average is, and he isn’t aware of any other VFX company that has at least two years of data to compare with.

Recent studies have indicated that Hollywood blockbuster films with budgets in the realm of $70 million produce on average 2,840 tons of CO2 per production, a devastating figure that is roughly equivalent to the amount absorbed by 3,700 acres of forest in just one year. Around 51% of those emissions were related to transport, with 30% impacted by air travel and 70% by land. Energy consumptions make up the rest of the figures with 34% of the average blockbuster’s CO2 emissions going on mains electricity and gas and around 15% on diesel generators. In many cases, carbon emissions and resource consumption aren’t even reported at all, with many productions failing to acknowledge the damaging impact. Reports have shown that London’s screen production industry is also staggeringly high, producing approximately 125,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, with 15% of the overall emissions being the direct cause of post-production.

Renowned for their commitment to tackling carbon footprint within the industry, Dupe VFX was founded in 2018 by Jonathan Harris, who also serves as CEO and VFX Supervisor. “We have grown organically into a mid-sized company offering high-quality visual effects services for episodic TV and film, where we do a lot of ‘invisible’ VFX. I would say that we punch above our weight in previs, on-set supervision and complex, technical comp,” Harris says. Dupe’s notable projects include leading VFX on Sex Education and Gangs of London, which established them as a serious studio. “More recently, our work on the political thriller Liaison showed our 3D hard asset capabilities. And we’re looking forward to the release of our first feature film Havoc for Netflix and the action-packed TV series Renegade Nell for Disney+.”

As well as having a passion for visual effects, Harris wanted to set up a company with a focus on sustainable practice, both environmentally and ethically, for staff well-being and diversity. “When we set up Dupe we discovered B Corp, an organization that promotes and supports business as a force for good, for the environment, people and communities. That felt right to me, and we pursued certification, spearheaded by our Chief Operations Officer Robin Chowdhury. Our mission statement is ‘excellence in visual effects while inspiring change,’ so this topic is as dear to our hearts as visual effects,” Harris explains. “We have been tracking and reporting our carbon usage since 2020 and became carbon neutral in 2021. We’re currently carbon neutral by offsetting, but the next stage is to reduce and aim for net zero. The pandemic and global strikes have slowed us down, diverting our focus on keeping the business alive, but the foundation and intention to move forward is very much part of our business model.”

Hello Tomorrow! was one of Brainstorm Digital’s 2023 projects. The company has gone fully remote since 2020, eliminating the need for a server room – and air conditioning, resulting in a massive reduction in energy usage.(Image courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

Hello Tomorrow! was one of Brainstorm Digital’s 2023 projects. The company has gone fully remote since 2020, eliminating the need for a server room – and air conditioning, resulting in a massive reduction in energy usage.
(Image courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

Framestore contributed to Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire. The multinational is carbon neutral in the U.K. and India and aims to be carbon neutral in its U.S. and Canada offices this year.(Photo: Clay Enos. Courtesy of Netflix)

Framestore contributed to Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire. The multinational is carbon neutral in the U.K. and India and aims to be carbon neutral in its U.S. and Canada offices this year. (Photo: Clay Enos. Courtesy of Netflix)

Outpost VFX worked on Foundation Season 2. All of Outpost’s 2023 projects were delivered using AWS, having become entirely cloud-based through AWS in 2022. (Image courtesy of Outpost VFX and Apple TV +)

Outpost VFX worked on Foundation Season 2. All of Outpost’s 2023 projects were delivered using AWS, having become entirely cloud-based through AWS in 2022. (Image courtesy of Outpost VFX and Apple TV +)

Dupe VFX worked on Renegade Nell for Disney+. The company is well-known for its commitment to tackling carbon footprint within the industry. The company has been tracking and reporting its carbon usage since 2020 and became carbon neutral in 2021. (Image courtesy of Disney+)

Dupe VFX worked on Renegade Nell for Disney+. The company is well-known for its commitment to tackling carbon footprint within the industry. The company has been tracking and reporting its carbon usage since 2020 and became carbon neutral in 2021. (Image courtesy of Disney+)

Framestore has worked on a variety of features recently, including Barbie. Framestore has been introducing methods and policies to combat carbon emissions.(Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Framestore has worked on a variety of features recently, including Barbie. Framestore has been introducing methods and policies to combat carbon emissions.
(Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“One of the obstacles that companies in the VFX industry face about developing sustainable practice is finding ‘how to’ information,” Chowdhury adds. “And it’s complex, including things like taking waste into consideration, gas, AC, even working from home emissions. Some info is held behind paywalls, and there are consultancy firms that specialize in this area. We talked to five or six companies, but the consultancy fees were too expensive, so we found our own way through the process, and that journey took us a few years. We have had a third-party audit two years of data and look into our numbers and methods. We do want to go deeper into the visual effects process, and a lot of that is around hardware, power usage and the processing power that we have, especially rendering. Internally, we raise awareness of our B Corp commitment through onboarding, environmental policy, data transparency and many other ways big and small. We invite organizations like Greenpeace in to talk about impact, encourage conversation and collective decisions about impact and support community volunteering, [for] 1% for the Planet and Access VFX. Externally, we share our tracking and recording data, offer clients carbon emission reports for each project we work on, and do what we can to inspire and support others to do the same.”

Brainstorm is a leading visual effects company based in New York. Since 2020, Brainstorm has gone fully remote, which has eliminated their need for a server room – and the air conditioning to keep it cool. “The server room would normally reach 100 degrees, which meant that our A/C unit was constantly running day and night. This became a massive reduction in energy usage,” Brainstorm Co-Founder and VFX Supervisor Richard Friedlander says.

“The choice to continue to work remotely is one way. We also look for efficiencies in computing power. Our cloud server and virtual machines are upgraded periodically. The newer technology is more efficient, thus saving energy. Also, as I mentioned, by working remotely, the employees and owners of the company who needed to drive vehicles to get to work, no longer need to. Some of Brainstorm’s recent projects have included No Hard Feelings, Breathe and Love Me. There have been a number of green productions that Brainstorm has also worked on. “Some that come to mind are The Dilemma, The Lost City of Z and Armageddon Time. By ‘green’ production, that means that the film crew was required to carry their own re-fillable water bottles and coffee mugs, thus significantly reducing plastic waste.”

Framestore is an Academy Award-winning visual effects company based in London. Some of their recent projects include Barbie, The Little Mermaid, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire. Framestore has also been introducing methods and policies to combat carbon emissions. “Last year, we completed our baseline measurement of our carbon emissions in London, and we have completed the same for our other offices globally this year,” says Nicola Miller, Global Marketing Director, Film at Framestore. “We are carbon neutral in the U.K. and India [Scope 1 and 2], and we will be offsetting our Scope 1 and 2 emissions in the U.S. and Canada to become carbon neutral in those markets next year. We are currently evaluating a number of globally recognized organizations that might help us to address our Scope 3 emissions in all countries. We continue to work on reducing our emissions by working with our landlords to encourage take up of green energy suppliers and where feasible to install solar panels on roofs. We recycle 100% of our waste in the U.K. and India, and we are again working with landlords to see how recycling can be improved. We are in the process of appointing a Waste Champion in each site to encourage more and better recycling, both in the office and at home.”

Outpost VFX contributed to Foundation Season 2. Becoming cloud-based has given Outpost access to more efficient servers and data centers powered almost entirely by renewable energy, helping to significantly reduce its carbon footprint.(Image courtesy of Outpost VFX and Apple TV+)

Outpost VFX contributed to Foundation Season 2. Becoming cloud-based has given Outpost access to more efficient servers and data centers powered almost entirely by renewable energy, helping to significantly reduce its carbon footprint.
(Image courtesy of Outpost VFX and Apple TV+)

Outpost VFX worked on The Wheel of Time Season 2. Outpost is in the process of calculating its global carbon footprint to identify areas for improvement.(Image courtesy of Outpost VFX and Amazon Prime Studios)

Outpost VFX worked on The Wheel of Time Season 2. Outpost is in the process of calculating its global carbon footprint to identify areas for improvement.
(Image courtesy of Outpost VFX and Amazon Prime Studios)

Dupe VFX joined forces with major vendors to help deliver the opening sequence to the Netflix show The School for Good and Evil. (Image courtesy of Dupe VFX and Netflix)

Dupe VFX joined forces with major vendors to help deliver the opening sequence to the Netflix show The School for Good and Evil. (Image courtesy of Dupe VFX and Netflix)

With the increase in productions relying on virtual production technologies, there has been a significant impact in reducing the need for extensive post-production. The use of virtual production has been beneficial in reducing carbon emissions, notably by eliminating the need to travel to remote filming locations. Another positive aspect of virtual production is that background characters can be more easily created within the game engine, allowing productions to cut back on the need for numerous background extras. Physical props and sets have previously had a damaging impact on the environment and the advancement of new technologies means that these props and sets can be digitally substituted.

Cloud computing and virtual computers have also contributed to reducing the need for extensive post-production and rendering work. “Of course, ‘virtual’ computers are stationed in large banks of computer processors, but there are efficiencies built into that,” Friedlander details. “For example, we now rely on these machines on an ‘as-needed’ basis as opposed to computers spinning all day long whether they’re used or not. Real-time rendering also saves energy – rendering computers such as Unreal Engine simply take less time and energy. What might have taken hours to render can now take minutes thus saving power needed to run those computers. AI technology can also contribute to saving energy by helping visual effects artists be more efficient.”

Outpost VFX is a global visual effects company founded in 2013. All of Outpost’s 2023 projects were delivered using AWS, having become entirely cloud-based through AWS in 2022. They have worked on numerous projects, including The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, Napoleon, Wonka, The Creator, Foundation Season 2, The Wheel of Time and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. “This has given us access to more efficient servers and data centers powered almost entirely by renewable energy. This has helped us to significantly reduce our carbon footprint,” Outpost Marketing Lead Eloise Lacey says. “It was important that we went with a provider that was committed to continually improving their sustainability year on year, too, with AWS committing to using 100% renewable energy in 2025. We are also in the process of calculating our global carbon footprint so we can identify the areas where we can improve and continue to reduce our impact on the planet.”

Last year, Outpost started on a long-term project to roll out several initiatives to make a positive impact on the environment around them. “In the U.K., we’ve partnered with GreenTheUK on a number of ongoing environmental initiatives, including protecting kelp forests along the Dorset coast, an act that is imperative for storing carbon, improving water quality and helping the local sea life thrive; protecting native oysters and their habitat in the Solent, which sequesters carbon and provides a home for hundreds of other species; planting wildflower meadows to conserve native pollinators and a wide range of other wildlife, and others. Looking forward, we have plans to adopt similar initiatives in our other sites to have a positive impact on both our teams’ immediate environment and to fight the effects of climate change on a wider scale. Outside of this, in the rare case that our team has to use air travel for work, we offset our carbon emissions through an environmental travel agency to limit our impact when flying is unavoidable,” Lacey says.

A number of major companies have also introduced policies and targets to help tackle the ongoing climate crisis. Netflix, whose carbon footprint in 2021 was roughly 1.5 million metric tons, has recently set a target to cut its emissions in half by 2030. Amazon Studios, HBO Green and Sony Pictures are three major studios also aiming to prioritize sustainable practices on productions by limiting waste, transitioning to clean energy batteries, planting trees and through other methods. While little data exists surrounding the exact figures of the carbon footprint in VFX, there are signs that companies are striving towards going green and adopting more sustainable methods. Furthermore, organizations such as the Environmental Media Association and Green Screen promote green production and were formed to help reduce the carbon emissions and environmental impacts of the film, TV and advertising industry.

Harris acknowledges that sustainability and being green is more topical than it was three years ago. “It’s a big, complex topic, ultimately about the sustainability of the industry, how we work, the pricing modeling, how you treat your staff and the impact you have on your community. We were the first visual effects company to get a B Corp certification, and with the work we’ve done to develop methods to track and report, I want Dupe to be leading on this topic. We find a lot of interest from clients and have shared our approach and methods with Amazon AWS and Netflix and this year spoke to our peers at FMX. But there is more that we can do, and we’re working on ambitious plans to support other VFX companies who want to adopt more sustainable, carbon-neutral practices,” Harris concludes.



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