Is the Oscar really worth the environmental impact?
THE RED CARPET HAS ROLLED OUT, the award-worthy stage is set, the floor is buzzing with ground staff putting in last minute touches, members of the media take their places for photographs and flash interviews, and scores of A-list celebrities begin to arrive in shiny stretch limousines for the biggest night in film.
Unmistakably, it must be the Oscars.
The annual ceremony awards the best of the best: from actors to directors to format and screenplay, to cinematography and production design, and even a special mention for sound mixing. Every aspect that makes a film great is put under a microscope and almost nothing gets left behind.
This year’s nominees for production design were Blade Runner 2049, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Mudbound, and The Shape of Water but the award ultimately went to The Shape of Water.
And the Oscar goes to… pic.twitter.com/YtbAxcMmEP
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) March 5, 2018
An otherworldly story set against the backdrop of Cold War-era in Baltimore, America circa 1963, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water was filmed largely in Canadian cities Hamilton and Toronto. Notably, production for most parts took place at the Cinespace Studios, a series of film studio facilities in Canada.
Hence, no wildlife or habitats were harmed in the making.
But not all visually powerful films can say the same.
While a popular, Oscar-winning film can help increase tourism to the shooting location and therefore significantly influence inbound tourism, it can also have adverse effects.
In 2016, George Miller’s action-packed Mad Max: Fury Road swept six golden statuettes, surpassing any other film and effectively shut out the then much-talked about Star Wars: The Force Awakens from receiving any of the Oscars that it was nominated for.
The clean sweep was mindboggling, to say the least, considering the flak that the post-apocalyptic film’s production was getting years before the nominees were even announced.
Initially, filming was to take place at the barren Broken Hill in outback New South Wales, Australia. However, it was moved to Namibia in Africa after unexpected heavy rains caused wildflowers to grow at Broken Hill. Alas, the production reportedly left a trail of destruction in its wake.
The Namib Desert, the world’s oldest at between 50 to 80 million years old, stretches from northern South Africa to Angola. It receives less than half an inch of rain a year and as such, plant and animal life are dependent on the fog that rolls in from the ocean.
Shortly after filming wrapped, Namibian environmental groups and tourism companies expressed their disappointment at how the Mad Max: Fury Road crew destroyed the desert’s dusty dunes.
“They added tracks in untouched areas. What is worse is that film crew tried to remove the marks they left themselves by dragging nets over them, ripping plants out,” AFP quoted tour operator Tommy Collard as saying. Due to the lack of rainfall, tire tracks on the desert’s gravel plains can take decades or more to disappear.
According to Collard, smaller animals such as lizards, geckos, and chameleons suffered, as well as the rare lithops cactus.
Nambian Coast Conservation and Management (NACOMA) commissioned ecological scientist Joh Henschel to compile a report on the environmental damage.
“NACOMA contacted me as a consultant about the tracks left by the Mad Max film crew and yes – some areas in the Namib Desert were also destroyed. In one area, a plowing device was used,” he said.
And Mad Max: Fury Road is not the only one.
Films that utilized real-life sets such as The Beach (Maya Bay, Thailand), the Lord of the Rings trilogy (New Zealand), The Hobbit trilogy (New Zealand), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Gold Coast, Australia) have all come under scrutiny before.
The Lord of the Rings production team was confirmed to be traveling to New Zealand from the get-go. The films were critically acclaimed and heavily awarded, and of course, contributed greatly to New Zealand’s inbound tourism.
Forbes quoted Tourism New Zealand Western long-haul markets general manager Gregg Anderson as saying, “We’ve seen a 50 percent increase in arrivals to New Zealand since Lord of the Rings.”
Equally excited, New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs issued a specially designed “Welcome to Middle Earth” stamp in the passports of 70,000 international travelers during the premiere week for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2012.
However, production for both trilogies was not without concern over the environmental impact on the filming locations. For example, some parts of Tongariro National Park, including one known locally as “Orc Road”, had to be restored by contractors after production for Lord of the Rings wrapped up.
The Beach, on the other hand, made headlines and not for its success.
Filmmakers 20th Century Fox was accused of bulldozing and landscaping the natural beach setting on the island to give the beach a more tropical feel. This included altering sand dunes and clearing coconut trees and grass to widen the beach. Although Fox set aside a fund to reconstruct and return the beach to its natural state, the project ended up in a long-running lawsuit.
The Supreme Court of Thailand ultimately upheld an appeal court ruling that said the filming had harmed the environment, and ordered damage assessments to be made.
While film studios, CGI, effects and masterful post-editing work can help alleviate the need for location shooting, there’s also the concern that increased visitation to the popular film locations from locals and tourists alike may affect the natural environment in a long term.
So, is the Oscar really worth the environmental impact?