When Hitachi’s ad agency, Mamapool, pitched the idea of producing their latest ad in a way that emitted no carbon dioxide, neither Hitachi nor the agency knew if it would be possible.


Hitachi liked the idea. “We thought that as long as we were honest about how the ad was made, it would be a great learning experience, no matter what we ended up achieving,” says Hans Daems, COP26 director for Hitachi Europe. The company makes a range of electric- and battery-powered trains and trams, electrics cars, and other mobility solutions, as well as the infrastructure and digital technology to support them. The company has pledged to be carbon neutral in its operations by fiscal 2030 and across its entire value chain by fiscal 2050.


The two-minute film opens with a voice-over by Sam Mendes, the director of the movie '1917', which is the first carbon-neutral film made in the UK. “Films always try to make a big impact,” he says, “this one made none at all.” It then shows a woman walking on the beach in near-total darkness. She mounts a bicycle and starts pedaling. Gradually, the set lights up, showing two more cyclists pedaling faster and faster. Then, an image of a Hitachi electric train is projected onto a white cliff face behind the cyclists. As the cyclists slow down, the projector turns off. As they stop, all the lights shut down, leaving everything in the dark again. The ad ends with the statement: “This film was powered by zero carbon emissions.”

“Hitachi is one of only a few companies where an environmental focus is more than lip service. So we thought their ad shouldn’t just talk about being carbon-free, it should actually be carbon-free.” 

Jay Mendes, co-founder of Mamapool, the creative agency that pitched the idea.

< Watch the ad here

Before getting started, Mamapool's Jay gave the AdGreen team a call. The carbon calculator wasn't yet ready, but Jo demonstrated how the albert tool could be used in the meantime, to get a sense of where the big pieces of the footprint might be. They also discussed some easy sustainable production techniques - using electric vehicles, reducing power needs - and the scope of measurement. It was important to decide what would be included and what would be excluded, so that any claims made later would be credible. As per the existing advice for users of the carbon calculator, Jo suggested working to what was included in the budget, and excluding anything which wasn't a line item. Next up, AdGreen recommended the production teams attended the AdGreen training to arm them with some sustainable production methodology. Finally, Mamapool were put in touch with Natural Capital Partners, who ended up working with an independent assessor (RSK) to audit the project and certify that it had reached the required standard to be considered a 'CarbonNeutral Production'.


Sustainability was built into the job right from the start, and each production company who were pitching was asked how they would approach the 1 day shoot from this point of view. This was the foundation of each treatment, and informed the budget. Here, Ivan Bird (director and DOP) and Alice Windeler (production manager) from Rattling Stick, the production company awarded the job, take us through how they addressed each production aspect to ensure the low carbon shoot could be executed just as beautifully as any other.


The team realised that for a film like this, production companies often leave the UK or fly to Spain or Eastern Europe in pursuit of lower production costs. Many production teams don’t think twice about stepping on a plane, however being one of the biggest contributors to most shoot footprints, air travel was a definite no.

“We considered a studio”, says Ivan.  “It would have made our lives considerably easier, but we thought it was important for the message that we were in the environment we were trying to protect. We also wanted to have a very natural surface to project the image on. We could have gone to a forest, but we would have had to have erected a screen, which again would have been more carbon. I don’t think you can get anywhere as natural as a coastline, and it just felt to me that the beach was a good showcase as to what we’re trying to protect.”


“Authenticity was really important in this film” states Ivan, “So many people talk about carbon neutrality and pay lip service.” Rattling Stick used a kinetic engineer to figure out how much power would be required to power everything required to pull off the shoot. Reducing overall needs first, by selecting low energy lighting options and eliminating other power hungry elements such as trailers and mobile catering also made a big difference. Keeping crew numbers low also helped - less cups of tea means less hot water from that urn!

Then, over five weeks of R&D and testing, the engineer determined that most of the power required – for the lights and the projector – could be generated by seven people cycling (with a few breaks) from dusk till dawn. Each cyclist produced about 60 watts, for a total of 420 watts of power. This was supplemented by 5 kilowatts from a VOLTstack solar-powered generator that had collected and stored energy during daylight.


The next challenge was the carbon-free transport of 30 people - along with required equipment - to the set on the southeastern shores of England. Most of the people drove 100% EV cars and a few rode their bicycles. Others came by Hitachi electric train.

“We were very careful about the vehicles we used,” says Ivan, “We used public transport whenever we could, we did zoom calls instead of meeting face to face, so all of those elements were considered too. “Yes”, Alice agrees: “Although we had booked an electric Vauxhall Vivaro-e L2 Panel Van, we weren't able to secure the 2nd one we required, so ended up using a petrol van. For me, the biggest thing that came out of this shoot was how unequipped the production industry is for moving forward into a carbon neutral future - and how much there actually is still to do, to facilitate shooting with reduced carbon impact. When I’m carbon calculating a production, the biggest emitter is usually transportation because you’re talking about huge trucks, Lutons that travel for miles often, and they just guzzle petrol and diesel. I think there’s a real desire to move forward into an electric future but the infrastructure and vehicles aren't yet available at the scale we need. For me that would really unlock a big piece of the puzzle.”


In their efforts to keep the production carbon free and reduce waste as far as possible, everyone brought their own reusable container for water, and the attendees ate a meal of local sustainable fish rather than meat.


Following the shoot, the team made sure the post-production spaces were powered with 100% renewable energy.


However, some things were beyond the team's control. The medical staff required to be on set did not use electric vehicles. “The infrastructure is not yet reliable enough,” says Mendes. “Imagine if we had an emergency and they couldn’t charge up their cars.” Another requirement – hand sanitizer – was not manufactured carbon free. And although great effort was made to find local crew, those who needed to come from London and had 3am call, stayed at the local Travelodge. Whilst they do have a green programme in place, the hotel wasn't powered with renewable energy.

“We generated every single watt of power on set from the sun and from pedals! This was key to the integrity of the film. However, it wasn’t easy dealing with very low levels of power. And as the projector had 7 cyclists (3 on camera, 4 off) generating the majority, it couldn’t be Leicester Square levels of luminance!”

Ivan Bird, director and DOP at Rattling Stick, the production company awarded the job.

Watch the behind the scenes here >

The production of the ad, including pre- and post-production work, emitted 0.75 tonnes of carbon (750 kg). Not insignificant, but relatively small when compared with the 33 tonnes emitted during an average daily movie shoot*. The amount that was generated was due to some of the infrastructure pieces not being available yet, as Alice and Ivan described above. The amount of learning gathered by the client, agency and production company is also invaluable.


In the end, Natural Capital Partners deemed that Hitachi could honestly claim that the energy that powered the set and the actual filming was 100% carbon free. The remaining 0.75 tonnes of logistics related emissions that couldn't be eliminated were offset through their Renewable Energy portfolio project. “It is really extraordinary that we could have 30 people on a beach, working the entire night, and emit next to no carbon,” says Daems. “The experience taught us about the possibilities and the limits of going 100% carbon free, lessons we are sharing with the world”, he continues. Ivan concludes: “It’s not easy doing something that’s carbon neutral, but we did it and it’s interesting that you can.”


Both Mamapool and Rattling stick have signed up to use the AdGreen Carbon Calculator for upcoming productions and we’ll look forward to hearing more about their calculating journey as it unfolds!


*Variety April 2021. A reduction of 97.5% vs an average day’s filming including post production.