Wall-E (2008) and the Ecological Footprint of Animation Production
Animation leaves a substantial footprint in the ecological sand, with greenhouse gases and waste products produced from labyrinthine supply chains, at every stage of production. Using Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) as a case study, what follows is an examination of methodologies and considerations in assessing environmental impacts in the preproduction, production, postproduction and dissemination of animated films.
Environmental impacts during early development are challenging to quantify, given the protracted, opaque, and uncertain nature of preproduction; the concurrent development of multiple short and feature film projects; and the difficulty in delineating distinct phases in animation production. Any attempted assessment of the ecological footprint during this phase of production, moreover, has to account for: reams of paper for hundreds of script revisions, and thousands of hand-drawn sketches and concept art; raw and refined materials for hundreds of sculptures and maquettes; greenhouse gases produced during travel for research and development; energy and resources used in software and hardware development; and energy and resources consumed, and waste products emitted, by the studio facility and its equipment.
For Wall-E, development informally began thirteen years before its release, with Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter developing the film’s concept over two months in 1995, under the ironic working title of Trash Planet. Preproduction began in earnest in 2002, when Stanton resumed writing Wall-E, and with the first lighting tests taking place in early 2003. These involved the building of a life-sized three-dimensional replica of Wall-E, filming him with 70mm and Arriflex cameras, and then replicating those shots on computer. Throughout 2003, a team of six also developed a story reel of the first twenty minutes of the film.
In the old days we used to present storyboards pinned to a board, but more recently we’ve started doing them frame-by-frame on the computer as part of… a story reel.
Derek Thompson, Story Artist, July 2008
A labor- and resource-intensive 125,000 computer-generated storyboards would be made for the entire 98 minute film. (Pixar films previous to Wall-E had up to 75,000 storyboards).
Also part of their lengthy research and development process, Pixar staffers visited NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; attended robotic conferences; flew in robotics designers for meetings; invited police to the Emeryville Campus to demonstrate bomb-sniffing robots; visited recycling stations to study trash compactors; and took field trips to Las Vegas and aboard luxury Disney cruise ships. The carbon footprint of this travel would be inestimable but certainly substantial.
Inseparable in the discussion of environmental impacts of preproduction for Wall-E is the Pixar studio, a state-of-the-art campus in Emeryville, California. All Pixar preproduction work takes place in a three-story building called Brooklyn. The facility houses digital animation production, a 120-seat theater, screening rooms, editing suites, story rooms, art rooms and technical support spaces. The building earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification in 2011.
The 22-acre Emeryville campus is centred around the two-story Steve Jobs Building (designed by Jobs himself) that features 218,000 square feet of space for approximately 700 employees. The building contains a restaurant, with a burrito bar and a cereal bar; a physical fitness center with a heated olympic-sized swimming pool, beach volleyball court, basketball court, and yoga and Pilates studio; two viewing rooms and one theatre; and a speakeasy known as the Lucky 7 Lounge. As for film production facilities, the building features modeling workshops, storyboard rooms, a render farm, and orchestra and sound recording facilities.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a typical office building contributes 15 lbs of CO2 per square foot; thus, the Steve Jobs Building can be estimated to contribute upwards of 3.27 million lbs of CO2 into our atmosphere. To put that number into perspective, 3.27 million lbs of CO2 is the equivalent of:
Any discussion of the environmental impacts of animated filmmaking in the production phase must start by addressing the manufacture, operation and lifespan of desktop computers. According to a 2004 study by the United Nations, to manufacture one 24 kg personal computer with one monitor requires 240 kg (520 lbs) of fossil fuels; 1500 kg (3307 lbs) of water; and 22 kg (49 lbs) of chemicals. In other words, your desktop system has used up the weight of a sports utility vehicle in materials before it even leaves the factory. Or in other words, the energy burden of your desktop computer is 1.3 times that of your refrigerator.
The mining of materials for computer systems comes with its own environmental impacts. Lithium mining in South America, tin mining in Indonesia, cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the extraction of rare-earth elements in Asia, often take place in conditions that are ethically and environmentally dubious. Monitors contain significant quantities of heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, which pose potential health risks to production workers and environmental risks to water supplies.
Moreover, unlike your refrigerator, with a lifespan of 14-17 years, the typical lifespan of a desktop computer is three to five years, and obsolescence now generates more than 25 million tons of e-waste every year from Western nations alone. The disposal of e-waste, often in less environmentally regulated regions of the world, introduces contaminants such as lead, antimony, mercury, cadmium, nickel and PCBs. These chemicals are human toxins, linked to elevated rates of birth defects and cancer.
At the peak of production on Wall-E, fifty animators were working at workstations with at least two large monitors each. Using the UN study estimates, the ecological footprint of manufacturing these fifty workstations could be estimated, at a minimum, as: 12,000 kg (26,000 lbs) of fossil fuels; 75,000 kg (165,350 lbs) of water; and 1100 kg (2450 lbs) of chemicals.
As an estimate of the environmental impacts of operating these computers during the entire production of Wall-E, a complete desktop (computer, monitor, printer and loudspeakers) on for eight hours a day has an annual energy consumption of 600 kWh, corresponding to CO2 emissions of about 175 kg (386 lbs) per year. Thus, for the four-year production of Wall-E, we could estimate emissions from fifty workstations at 35,000 kg (77,162 lbs) of CO2. Again, to put those numbers into perspective, 77,162 lbs of CO2 is the equivalent of:
As with preproduction, assessments of ecological impacts during animation post-production can be exasperating to measure precisely. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts attempts to do so, with their albert consortium, a carbon counter database for the UK industry. In their most recent report, from February 2016, the average animated production (pre to post) emitted approximately 5.5 tonnes of CO2 per broadcast hour, with the majority of emissions produced by the production office and in post-production.
The albert consortium data, however, is limited for two reasons. First, the data is generated from industry self-reporting, which can be affected by response bias and image management. Second, of the 2,000 productions in their database, only 10 are feature films, and none of them are animated films for the big screen. Production values and budgets, and by extension environmental footprints, will vary widely for animation. A blockbuster 3D animation from a major studio like Pixar will leave a comparatively larger print than television animation from an independent studio.
Wall-E was made on a budget of $180 million USD, admittedly with the bulk of the financial and human resources spent in preproduction. Production (animation and lighting) took just under eight months; post-production took an additional two months, as the film was edited during production. However, no effort and expense was spared in post-production, in spite of the environmental messaging of the finished product. For example, composer Thomas Newman flew to and from Los Angeles to London, to compose the end credits song "Down to Earth" with Peter Gabriel. This business class flight alone would have added $7500 USD to the budget and to 4.08 tonnes to the film’s carbon tally.
Marketing / Distribution
Smaller quantities of promotional merchandise were produced for Wall-E than its predecessor Cars. Canadian company Thinkway Toys produced an assortment of Wall-E action figures, plushies, mugs, hoodies, tshirts, mousepads, and so on. Among the bigger-ticket branded merchandise on offer: a Wall-E that danced when connected to a music player; a remote control Wall-E and EVE that had motion sensors to interact with players; and a collectible called the Ultimate Wall-E that retailed for nearly $200. One journalist at the press junket for Wall-E, however, lamented the “landfill-choking plastic” associated with the film:
What I was seeing was flat out hypocrisy…. Journalists were being given gift bags at the suite, including a large, programmable Wall-E robot toy and a copy of the Wall-E game… provided they completed a sales pitch about all the products… The room was stuffed with what seemed like a hundred or more tie-in products ranging from Wall-E branded plastic Crocs… to plastic Wall-E action figures to Wall-E branded clothing and bed sets and drapes.
When asked which of the items were made with post-consumer recycled material or were made of biodegradable material, the PRbot giving the pitch seemed flustered…. On some levels the marketing people were aware of what kind of movie they had on their hands – there will be no Happy Meal tie-ins for this film that decries lazy living and junk food eating. But that doesn’t change the fact that the film… will itself generate enough junky toys to build a couple of the trash skyscrapers that Wall-E himself constructs while vainly trying to clean up the planet…
The truth is that Wall-E feels like a really well-made stop smoking ad starring Joe Camel… It’s a marketing and licensing campaign that will help advance us... towards the environmental devastation shown in the film.
Devin Faraci (2008)
To further promote the film, Walt Disney Imagineering built 318 kg (700 lb) animatronic Wall-Es. These were flown around the world, accompanied by the film’s director, voice actors and public relations staff, to walk the red carpet at the film’s many premieres. Giant Wall-Es also made appearances at the Disneyland Resort; Franklin Institute in Philadelphia; Miami Science Museum; and Tokyo International Film Festival. (Due to safety concerns, those who wanted a photograph with the character had to make do with a cardboard cutout - hopefully made from post-consumer recycled material.)
The environmental impacts of the supply chains and transportation emissions associated with this vast merchandising and promotional effort would be invisible to most filmgoers and consumers, but remain an inescapable consequence of the animation industry.
Naturally, the reception context of an animated film carries its own environmental consequences. Just over nine million DVD units of Wall-E were sold, each creating approximately 1 lb of CO2 in the manufacturing and distribution process. For viewing Wall-E on home-based entertainment systems, your television would use about 0.36 kwh, and streaming the movie from a wireless router would use 0.07 kwh, which translates to just more than half a pound of CO2 released into the atmosphere just from watching the film.
For theatre-viewing, the combined digital projector and sound system account for 12.4 kwh, or 16 lbs of CO2. (The precise amount can vary by projection bulb, how brightly the cinema chooses to screen the film, and the age of the theatre’s sound system. The energy requirements for heating and cooling the theatre will also vary with the efficiency of the HVAC and insulation, and the number of people in the cinema.) However, driving just 3 km (5 mi) to see Wall-E on the big screen would emit an additional 4.6 lbs of carbon dioxide, more than nine times as much CO2 as your home system.
Reducing the Footprint
For large production studios like Pixar and independent filmmakers alike, the Green Practices Handbook 2009 Guide, published by the defunct Green Screen Toronto, outlines a number of strategies for reducing the environmental impacts of film and television production. Among their suggestions, applicable to animated filmmaking:
- Prioritize sustainable paper sourcing, use and disposal
Adopt a responsible paper usage policy for scripts, storyboards, art design and marketing materials. Consider using only chlorine-free Forest Stewardship Council certified paper with high post-consumer waste content. A 20% reduction in paper usage, for example, could save up to 72 trees and 63 tonnes of CO2 over the course of a feature film production.
- Minimize your office electricity, natural gas, and water consumption
Adopt an energy and water conservation policy for your offices and studios. Power off and unplug computers and equipment when not in use and at end of day. Use energy-efficient lighting, and install lighting and heating controls such as timers and occupancy sensors. A 1°C reduction in ambient air temperature, for example, could save up to 1.8 tonnes of CO2.
- Minimize the amount of waste generated
Replace computers and equipment only when necessary; upgrade and buy used equipment where possible. Put in place recycling protocols for DVDs, ink cartridges, batteries, monitors, printers, etc. Finally, adopt a policy that prioritizes reduced fuel use, in particular air travel, for research and development, voice over acting, marketing and promotion. Telecommuting and teleconferencing can greatly reduce emissions in animated production.
Looking to the Future
The production of an animated film feature like Wall-E has significant implications for the use of natural and nonrenewable resources, and the release of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, best practices in environmental stewardship for animation have been challenging to assess, due to the limited publicly available information on environmental performance; lack of consistent industry standards and third-party verification mechanisms; and the unstable supply chains and “stop and go” production processes of filmmaking.
If we don’t act in accordance with the stories we tell, the experiences we offer,
and the images we project, we lose our authenticity. You can’t entertain a family on the one hand
and then totally disregard the world and circumstances in which they live.
Jay Rasulo, CFO, Disney Corporation
Disney’s Environmental Stewardship Goals and Targets, 2013
Nevertheless, if animation companies like Pixar wish their environmental messages to be taken seriously as a powerful tool for public awareness, policies to mitigate environmental impacts within the industry must be implemented in a more systematic and transparent way.
BAFTA albert Consortium: Year Four Report
British Academy of Film and Television Arts, February 2016.
Devin’s Advocate: Is Wall-E Environmental or Hypocritical?
Devin Faraci, Cinematic Happenings Under Development, June 23, 2008.
Dirty parts of the computing world, the
Nathan Ensmenger, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 11, 2016.
Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator
US Environmental Protection Agency, May 2016
Green Practices Handbook 2009 Guide
Green Screen Toronto, October 2009.
Inside Steve Jobs’ Mind-Blowing Pixar Campus
Adam B. Vary, Buzzfeed, June 25, 2013.
Is it more earth-friendly to see movies in a theater or on DVD?
Brian Palmer, Slate, June 14, 2011.
Southern California Environmental Report Card: Film & TV
Charles J. Corbett and Richard P. Turco,
UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, 2006.
Wall-E Production Notes
Disney Corporation, June 2008.
**This paper was originally presented at The Cosmos of Animation: 28th Annual Conference of the Society for Animation Studies, in Singapore in 2016.