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Surviving Paradise with a low carbon budget

Updated: 20 hours ago

Making any natural history film is only possible so long as areas of wilderness exist. Today, these increasingly isolated corners of our planet are under countless threats, from climate change to plastic pollution, habitat loss, and deforestation. While it is the responsibility of the industry to shed light on these issues, it is also its responsibility to mitigate its impacts as much as possible while doing so. At the core of Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale is the message that climate change threatens the fragile balance that allows life to flourish in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, so how hypocritical would it then have been for us to have been drastically polluting this pristine environment while doing so?!

Just a small part of the Okavango, as seen from above.


The goal of all of our productions is to have as large as possible net-positive impact on the environment, which outweighs any negative impact it might have. Research (McCormack, Martin, and Williams, 2021) has shown that wildlife films and documentaries play a critical role in getting people to care about the environment and thus foster more environmentally friendly practices in their day-to-day life. What is also apparent to us is the role that our documentaries play in encouraging tourists from all over the world to visit the 'jewel of Botswana'. Of course, tourism in itself has many detrimental consequences (not least international flights!). However, it is our opinion that revenue brought in from tourism is the main reason that the Okavango is still around today, and the justification to keep it around for generations to come.


Tourists travel across the world to see the cast of movies such as Surviving Paradise. In doing so, they contribute to its protection.


For the making of Surviving Paradise, we partnered up with Bristol-based Freeborne Media and Wildspace Productions. The value of working with local companies who are based on location, have all their own gear, and who know the area better than anyone else is quickly being recognised as not just a cost-effective strategy, but one that is beneficial for the environment as well. From the outset, the collaborating teams set down their "green memos" and shared them with one another. Luckily, our sustainable goals are closely aligned, with all companies prioritising keeping waste to a minimum, recycling responsibly, and encouraging good workplace habits such as reducing electricity consumption and encouraging eating less meat. Despite all the filming being done by us here in Botswana, the editing could be done remotely in the UK, and we are proud to say that, with all meetings held over Zoom, not a single international flight took place during the entire production!

Keeping a low environmental footprint across an entire production requires teamwork!


Here in Botswana, during the making of Surviving Paradise, our film crew were all based in the field, for the most part living amongst the wild protagonists of the film. This meant that filming was, to a large extent, localised to small and highly familiar islands within the Okavango Delta, which meant that fuel emissions from ferrying crews to and from location or from searching for their filming subjects were extremely reduced. We were also proud to provide crews with bulk-made pre-cooked frozen meals in reusable Tupperwares that hugely reduce food, plastic, and cooking gas. All of this food was consumed with reusable cutlery, and any waste was composted. And, on top of all of that, this food was kept fresh by additional alternators powered by the vehicle's batteries that run the crew's fridges and power outlets!

Seetsele Nthomiwa in his modified NHFU film truck.


Together, we (the collaborating teams) used the Albert carbon calculator (part of the Albert Sustainable Production Certificate) to actively monitor, record, and adapt our activities to reduce our carbon emissions across the entire project. We remained in constant dialogue within and between the teams while doing so, so that wherever possible changes could be made to reduce the production's footprint. The final carbon-outcome of the film was 61.72 total tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. 5.79 tonnes of this was from materials, 16.4 from non-filming spaces, 1.6 from accommodation, and the remaining 46.7 tonnes from travel and transport. The total offset cost was £555.49 which was sponsored by Netflix (as part of their 'Net Zero + Nature' commitment) and went towards impactful carbon finance projects, such as reforestation schemes. By far, the largest environmental cost went towards travel and transport. Despite avoiding all international travel and having film-crews living on location for extended periods of time, the use of helicopter aerials did bump up our emissions. You'll be pleased to know then these emissions are not wasted - any shots not used in Surviving Paradise will go into an archive to be used for future films, thus avoiding the need for additional aerial cinematography in the future.

Sometimes, a view of the Okavango is one best appreciated from above.


We couldn’t be prouder of the efforts made from start to finish on Surviving Paradise, and we will take the lessons learned into future productions to always ensure our value to the environment outweighs its cost. While speaking of costs, it was great to see that most of the environmentally friendly measures taken (such as using a local film company, reducing transport times, backing up media to LTO tapes, using bulk cooked meals, and providing reusable water bottles, etc.) actually had huge financial benefits as well. We hope this inspires other productions to follow suit. From Botswana to Bristol, Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale was a truly remote production and, we hope, its message rings loud and clear - climate change threatens the fragile balance that allows life to flourish in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. So, what are you going to do about it?


Blog and photography by Hannah Gormley.


References: McCormack, Martin, Williams, 2021, 'The full story: Understanding how films affect environmental change through the lens of narrative persuasion’, People and Nature. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10259.