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Code of Best Practices for Sustainable Filmmaking

February 2009
Click here to view or download a PDF of this report.

Report by:

Larry Engel,
Filmmaker and Professor, School of Communication, American University

Andrew Buchanan,

Produced by:

Filmmakers for Conservation

The Center for Environmental Filmmaking,
American University

The Center for Meda & Social Impact,
American University

With funding from:

The Ford Foundation

Support from:


And additional funding from:

The Center for Environmental Filmmaking,
American University


Welcome to the Code of Best Practices in Sustainable Filmmaking. This site currently contains the Code’s Principles (see below) as well as its checklists, carbon trackers, and Web resources. These may be downloaded from the Code. We are working to create an independent website for this project, where we will provide comprehensive and interactive resources for those interested in sustainable filmmaking. Check back at sustainablefilmmaking.org for updates.




Best Practices

Tools for Sustainable Filmmaking

Carbon Trackers
Web Resources

Scientific Review Board



Filmmakers historically have played an important role in raising critical issues for society, including environmental threats from climate change and over-exploitation of resources. Increasingly, filmmakers have adopted pro-environmental practices in their own production. This code provides tools for filmmakers to measure whether their practices are as sustainable as they can be throughout the production process. Accompanying online checklists, trackers, and Web resources provide a summary of current approaches that implement that rationale.

We realize that this is only the beginning of doing business differently than the way we did it in the past. Currently most producers, broadcasters, and distributors do not acknowledge the true costs of environmental impact that arise from producing and distributing films. Nor is there yet an independent certification process, or board, for our profession as there are for other industries and professions. However, we believe that articulating current best practices and helping those in our field better estimate how our actions impact environment and climate are sound beginnings to a much larger discussion in, and beyond, our profession.

Inevitably, filmmakers create carbon debt with our work. However, as in other industry sectors, we can take action immediately to reduce consumption and waste in our profession; to educate peers, employees and interns; and to support policies that register the true environmental costs of production.

How This Code Was Created

This code is based on the results of a global survey of best practices in sustainable filmmaking, conducted by American University, involving more than 175 filmmakers and companies. The survey was aided by national and international filmmaking organizations, including Filmmakers for Conservation, the International Documentary Association, Real Screen, Women in Film and Video (D.C. Chapter), and the Producers Guild of America. In addition, author Larry Engel, assisted by faculty and students, conducted a number of interviews with leaders in the field and surveyed the Web. Finally, author Andrew Buchanan consulted a range of experts and also checked numerous Web sites covering sustainability and film and television production.

The code and associated materials were reviewed for scientific validity by experts in the field of climate change, carbon reduction, and sustainability (see Scientific Review Board). In addition, filmmakers from around the world reviewed it to ensure the information was both clear and relevant.

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The premise governing the Code of Best Practices in Sustainable Filmmaking is to minimize the amount of resources used and carbon created—the current critical measure for climate change—in producing our own work. Therefore, we honor that premise by limiting print production of this code and by using the Web to distribute it, provide additional information, update documents, and encourage interaction. Our goal is to reduce the load we place on the planet and reach carbon neutrality—that is, to add no new carbon into the environment—both by decreasing our energy and materials consumption and by offsetting that which cannot be eliminated—that is, by funding entities or projects that add no carbon into the atmosphere, or what is commonly called "carbon offsetting." To do this in part, we need to calculate our carbon footprint—a measure of how much carbon is produced throughout a project’s life or a company’s work.

In addition we should also work to calculate and reduce our ecological footprint—a broader measure of how our activities use and affect the planet’s environment and its resources. This footprint is a newer one than the carbon footprint and while gaining more attention in the scientific community, it is not yet fully established as a working tool. (We expect to include this measure online, when available and reviewed by our advisory board.)


ONE: Calculation

PRINCIPLE: Know how much energy we are actually using.

We can do this by calculating to the greatest extent feasible actual energy inputs, even when they are underpriced or not recognized in the market, throughout the production process.

Our best tool for long-term planning is good baseline information. We need to know how much carbon we are adding to the atmosphere to be able to measure success in reducing it. Therefore, good information on carbon costs, transparently shared with colleagues, employees, and trainees, is critical. Even if we cannot act immediately to reduce our carbon costs, we should identify them in developing our calculations and budgets.

LIMITATIONS: We often lack good tools to do these calculations. The science of calculating carbon costs is still emerging, and today’s carbon and environmental trackers are in a constant state of evolution and refinement. Further, much of our work is done under contract to companies or clients with budgeting guidelines that do not acknowledge real energy inputs. Even when we cannot observe this principle, we should do our best to educate our colleagues about the production and accounting practices we think are the most helpful and responsible. Finally, many of our suppliers are not ready for carbon calculations. They need to know that we regard this as a high priority, and that we will choose alternatives if available. (Download our document How to Use Carbon Trackers," and for a partial list of carbon calculators download our Web Resources document here.)


TWO: Consumption

PRINCIPLE: Lower overall carbon debt and environmental impact by using less.

We can reduce consumption throughout the production process, from using re-useable water containers to buying in bulk to choosing minimalist packaging. We can build conservation into every production decision we make. We can involve our teams more firmly by incorporating their own best suggestions for minimizing waste, re-using and recycling material, and producing with sustainability as a core objective. (See Checklists)

LIMITATIONS:We are in a high-tech profession with fast obsolescence. Sometimes we need to invest in technology that is carbon-expensive in order to do the best work possible or work that our clients demand.

It can be difficult to identify the most responsible conservation practices and to balance priorities. For instance, to minimize recycling it may be wisest to use shared food containers; from a health perspective, it may be wisest to have individual containers. (And sometimes we can find new solutions, for instance requiring our staff to carry re-useable water bottles and dishes marked with their own names.)

To be effective, sometimes our work requires carbon-expensive choices such as glossy posters or eye-catching press kits. We need to understand those choices as carbon-expensive ones, while also understanding the requirements of our businesses.


THREE: Travel

PRINCIPLE: Reduce the carbon debt created through travel.

We can minimize and consolidate travel at every step in the production process, from trips to the supplies store to carpooling on the shoot to Internet conferencing in lieu of appearances at nonessential festivals. We can make travel costs a central feature of carbon-planning throughout our work process—for instance in deciding to hire locally, seek alternatives to jet travel, carpool or use mass transportation. (See Checklists.)

LIMITATIONS: The terms of our work often require face-to-face interactions, and we are (with luck) sometimes faced with a carbon-expensive choice, such as a transcontinental trip to pick up an award. We need to see these choices as the choices they are and to ensure that we make them only when we see them as critical to the health of our work.


FOUR: Compensation

PRINCIPLE: Since we cannot completely eliminate our footprint, we should compensate for it through organizations that offer a carbon reduction equal to our carbon production.

We can use carbon offsets (the chance to pay for an action by someone else that reduces the world’s carbon footprint) as a last resort, after minimizing inputs everywhere possible. Carbon offsets are an important feature of becoming carbon neutral, since we inevitably produce a carbon footprint, however small.

LIMITATIONS: Many companies offer carbon offsets without proof of their reliability in delivering the reductions your money is supposed to buy. We should use reliable (Gold Standard) offsets that rely on acknowledged renewable-energy technologies, such as wind and solar. (For a partial list of carbon calculators and offsetters, download our Web Resources here.

These four principles do not exhaust the range of ways that filmmakers can reduce their carbon footprints, the ways in which we can let our example serve as a model, or the ways in which we can touch others with our concern. They reflect the most common areas in which filmmakers today are reducing their carbon footprint and taking the initiative to behave responsibly in the face of the environmental challenge. Filmmakers are discovering daily new ways to make contributions to meeting that challenge. 

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This part of the code presents three sets of tools that help filmmakers put the code’s principles into action:

•   Checklists provide actions needed to create a sustainability plan.

•   Carbon trackers allow individuals to track production activities that use energy and produce carbon emission and are meant to be used in conjunction with Internet carbon calculators.

•   Web resources include environmental and sustainability-related URLs, carbon calculator sites, and suggested carbon offsetters, including Gold Standard ones that are recommended by WWF–UK.

We have provided instructions on how to use checklists and trackers, along with some sample checklists. Through comments and feedback, we look to regularly revising and improving them. Further, a FAQ section will compliment the code on our website.

The checklists and trackers may be downloaded as Excel documents or PDFs and used offline on local computers. Web Resources may be downloaded as a PDF.



The idea behind the checklists is simple—to make it easier for you to assess and minimize your production’s impact on climate change.

Complete the Principles and Practices Checklist first.

The Principles and Practices Checklist contains sets of actions needed to create a comprehensive overall plan to cut emissions and resource use. Download the entire checklist as a PDF or an Excel Document here.

Then choose one of two tracks: either the Basic Track or the Advanced Track.

•   The Basic Checklist is meant for individual filmmakers and small production companies that are generally pressed for time.

•   The Advanced Track is meant for those who have become comfortable working with the basic tools and for larger organizations where different people manage different parts of the process.


Choose either:

The Basic Track

The Basic Checklist is a simple ‘one- stop’ set of actions to cut emissions and resource use. It combines elements of the 3 more detailed checklists in the Advanced Track.

Download the Basic Checklist as a PDF or an Excel Document.


The Advanced Track

The Office and Preproduction Checklist -- download it as a PDF or an Excel Document

The Location Checklist -- download it as a PDF or an Excel Document

The Postproduction Checklist -- download it as a PDF or an Excel Document

These three more detailed checklists consist of actions to cut emissions and resource use in the areas indicated by their names. They demand more time, but they allow more thorough and accurate information to be collected.


If you first choose the basic track, you may then decide for your next production to use the advanced checklists for your climate impact accounting.

Each item in the checklists has a "Yes" tick-box and a space for you to record what remedial actions you and your team are going to or did take.

Best practice is to do everything on the lists—but in the real world that’s a very big task. Don’t give up. Just do as much as you can, and try to do more on your next production.

Currently there’s no certification scheme for sustainable production. However, best practice is to have your efforts become "sustainable monitored," so the checklists have an optional box for a reviewer to sign.

We are including all of the Principles and Practices Checklist below as an example of what the online checklists look like.

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How to Use the Carbon Trackers

If you’re planning to assess and/or offset a production’s carbon emissions, it’s important that you know what they are. The carbon trackers provide a way to keep track of your activities that create CO2.

We’ve provided two versions of the tracker. The first is a basic one for use by small productions or those short of time. The second is more advanced, and therefore more suitable for use by line producers and production managers on larger productions.

Once you have completed production, the figures collected in the tracker can be entered into an independent online calculator or one used by your chosen Gold Standard offset supplier. Alternatively, some offset providers might use your completed tracker as a basis from which they would do the calculations offline.

Best practice is to calculate the amount of emissions a planned production is likely to create; the tracker can help you do this. Then, when steps have been taken to reduce the emissions to the minimum, the tracker can again be used to assess the actual reduction of energy and resources used during the production’s lifecycle.

At the moment, different offsetters have different online calculators. Many may not include all the elements included in the code’s trackers, and all will have slightly different formats for inputting data. But whatever their format, an accurately completed code tracker should contain all the information you need to calculate your production’s carbon footprint to an acceptable level of accuracy.

One important note: These spreadsheets only help you keep track of energy and carbon-related activities; they don’t calculate your production’s CO2 emission activities. This calculation must be done via online carbon calculators (download our list of Web Resources here). However, we are working to develop an online calculator specifically for television and film production.

Remember that doing even a few things to cut carbon emissions and resource use is better than doing nothing at all.

The Basic Carbon Tracker is a spreadsheet for recording energy and resource use by small productions. A small sample is below.

Download the Carbon Tracker as a PDF or as an Excel Document.

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The Advanced Carbon Tracker is a spreadsheet for more accurate recording of energy and resource use, suitable for larger or more complex productions. Download it as a PDF or as an Excel Document.


Web Resources, Including Carbon Calculators and Offsetters 

The list of Web sites provided on our Web site is not all-inclusive. Inclusion or exclusion does not mean that the Center for Social Media, the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, or Filmmakers for Conservation is endorsing or not endorsing a particular company or organization. Download our list of Web Resources as a PDF here.



Download the code and all of the related documents here:

•   The Code of Best Practices in Sustainable Filmmaking

•   How to Use Carbon Trackers as a PDF

•   Principles and Practices Checklist as a PDF or an Excel Document

•   Basic Checklist as a PDF or Excel Document

•   Office and Preproduction Checklist as a PDF or Excel Document

•   Location Checklist as a PDF or Excel Document

•   Postproduction Checklist as a PDF or Excel Document

•   Basic Carbon Tracker as a PDF or Excel Document

•   Advanced Carbon Tracker as a PDF or Excel Document

•   Web Resources as a PDF

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Paul Barton
Director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability
Monash University 
Melbourne, Australia

Jack Cunningham, MSc
Head of Corporate Responsibility and Environment
London, England

Kiho Kim, PhD
Chair, Department of Environmental Science
American University, Washington D.C.

Krystal Rypien, PhD 
Scripps Institution of Oceanography 
Marine Biology Research Division 
La Jolla, California

Jessica Santangelo, PhD 
Director, Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center 
Cumberland Ranger District U.S. Forest Service 
Stanton, Kentucky

Jennifer Witherspoon and Andy Wunder 
Environmental Defense Fund New York, New York

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Feel free to reproduce this document in its entirety. To excerpt, employ fair use.

Throughout the writing of this code, we worked to minimize the energy and resources used. The writing and research were done almost exclusively without paper, and travel was almost eliminated through use of VOIP telephones, e-mail and file-sharing. Since print copies have been held to a minimum, we hope that you will circulate this code electronically.

The CO2 emissions created in the research, writing, and production of this code have been offset to Gold Standard.

Endorsed by



The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, formerly the Center for Social Media, is an innovation lab and research center that studies, designs, and showcases media for social impact. The center is a project of the School of Communication, led by Jeffrey Rutenbeck, at American University in Washington, D.C.