Spark
Credit: Haley Lorraine Photography

Harris is making film industry practices more sustainable

Zena Harris and Green Spark Group are helping to build a healthier motion picture business, one production at a time

If you ask Zena Harris why she launched Green Spark Group—a Vancouver-based consultancy, focused on sustainability in the film and television sector—you won’t hear phrases like “reducing our carbon footprint,” “greening our industry” or “saving the world.” What you will hear a lot about is efficiency.

In the early 2000s, Harris was working in Los Angeles in human resources, doing integrations and acquisitions for engineering firm Parsons Corp. “HR was not my life’s calling, but what I realized integrating new employees into the parent company, and training them, and all these kinds of things on systems, was that [these systems] were often inefficient or broken,” recalls the Victoria, Texas, native. “I knew there had to be a better way.”

Living in L.A., she was particularly perplexed by the sort of waste described by friends in Hollywood—the mountains of plastic water bottles or landfill-bound sets from each big-budget shoot. “Entertainment, as a sector, has always lagged behind in incorporating sustainability,” she notes. “And I wondered why, especially since the sector was so influential on culture.”

In 2008, Harris decided to go back to school, pursuing a master’s degree in sustainability and environmental management at Harvard, and focusing on the motion picture industry.

When she graduated in 2012, her life partner—also completing his post-doc at Harvard—was looking for work, and accepted a job teaching at Quest University in Squamish. Harris knew nothing about B.C. at the time: “I did not know that Vancouver was such a big film hub until I moved here and started looking around. And then I was like: this is amazing. I lucked out.”

Green Spark Group got its start in 2014, after Harris had met with people at the B.C. Film Commission and discovered that “nobody was focused on film and TV, specifically related to sustainability.” She reached out to some of the big studio executives she’d met while at Harvard. “I told them: Hey, I now live in Vancouver; what do you have going on there? And the studios—one in particular, 20th Century Fox —said, Yeah, we’ve got a show starting up right now—we could use some help with it. They gave me my first big job.”

Green Spark’s core activity is on-site consulting, with Harris and her team of seven working with producers and helping them to integrate sustainable practices into their shoots. Big inefficiencies, she explains, are the amount of fuel consumed on-set—particularly from production trucks and generators—and wasted set materials. To that end, Green Spark works with producers to establish and meet sustainability goals—including coming up with a plan for how set materials can be effectively designed for deconstruction and reused in other productions. On average, Green Spark claims to save producers it works with some $73,000.

Green Spark has evolved over the past five years—beyond sets, and beyond B.C. It now manages the Reel Green program on behalf of provincial agency Creative BC (within which the B.C. Film Commission operates), as well as a similar resource program of best practices for the Producers Guild of America called the Green Production Guide.

Green Spark has also developed a curriculum of training material to help industry leaders ensure sustainable productions, and has opened offices in Tennessee and New York to expand its reach. “We are noticing that people are hungry out there, and there’s not really material that we feel is scalable,” Harris says. “So we are creating it ourselves.”

Compared to 15 years ago, when she was living in L.A., Harris thinks the industry is taking sustainability issues much more seriously now. “They want to do more,” she says. “We may not get hired in every location, but other people will—and that’s the point. The point is to raise the industry up—to transform the culture.”

The X-Files Goes Green

The timing was right for Zena Harris when she made her call to 20th Century Fox in 2015. The Hollywood studio was about to reboot its 1990s TV classic, The X-Files, and wanted to demonstrate its environmental bonafides with the new production, filmed in 40 locations across B.C. With the help of Harris and Green Spark Group, Fox diverted more than 81 percent of its total waste from landfills. Some of the other impressive stats from the production:

100% of the aluminum and steel used in set construction was recycled

33 tonnes of CO2 emissions were avoided

45,740 plastic bottles and nearly US$35,000 were saved by using gallon jugs of water instead of single-use bottles

US$41,000 in overall cost savings were achieved