Lights, cameras… sustainable set design

Emmy-winning ‘green’ set designer Garvin Eddy joins UBC’s Dept. of Theatre and Film

UBC’s newest film professor Garvin Eddy has worked in Hollywood long enough to learn more than a few  dirty secrets.

One of those, says the Emmy-winning set designer of such classic TV shows as The Cosby Show, Rosanne, and That 70’s Show, is that many of the sets are built of wood that is forested illegally from Asia.

Hoping to change that, Eddy has helped to develop a new environmentally friendly set construction product, which is being piloted in NBC’s new hit TV series, Grimm, which airs Fridays at 9 p.m.

“The entertainment industry employs a lot of people, but it also wastes an extraordinary amount of energy,” says Eddy. “We build sets using non-sustainable resources, hang thousands of hot, bright lights from the rafters, and then turn on the air conditioning to cool everything down.”

Hollywood has been trying to find a solution to these problems for years, but tight budgets and access to cheap materials make for slow progress. Eddy wasn’t about to give up. He obtained certification in green building practices with the aim of developing green guidelines for the entertainment industry.

In the U.S. alone, more than 20 million square feet of plywood is used per year in the entertainment industry, and current estimates indicate that 70 per cent of this wood is harvested illegally from endangered forests in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia. Called ‘luan,’ a staple on sets for the past 30 years, the wood product is made from tropical hardwoods.

Eddy has been instrumental in helping to develop a new product called “ScenicPly,” a sustainable plywood panel specifically designed for set construction.

“Through extensive research, we found a company in Eugene, Oregon called Ply Veneer that came to L.A., worked with us, and customized something that could meet our needs,” says Eddy. “It took nearly 18 months of trial and error to produce the prototype and now we’re working on a second generation of ScenicPly.”

Made in three Oregon plants, ScenicPly utilizes woods harvested from well-managed forests, is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified, and poised to make a significant impact on the ‘greening’ of set production.

“The job now is to convince the major studios that the extra cost is worth it, because obviously it costs more than blackmarket luan,” says Eddy, who will teach production design beginning in January.

Eddy says studios such as Warner Brothers are leading the pack.  They have a LEED certified sound stage and are using solar panels on some sets.

“It’s easier for large feature films to incorporate sustainable practices,” he says. “They usually have a much bigger budget than television.”

And he should know. For more than 30 years Garvin Eddy has been a professional scenic designer in television, film and theatre. He won an L.A. Drama Critic’s Circle award and 13 Emmy awards for his work on such TV shows as The Cosby Show, A Different World, Roseanne, 3rd Rock from the Sun, That 70’s Show, Grace Under Fire and Whoopi. His theatrical credits range from A Streetcar Named Desire to Tommy and Tobacco Road.

Eddy is happy to be in Vancouver, and thrilled to be at UBC, an institution with a large commitment to sustainability. “To my knowledge, no other university in the world is thinking about sustainability as deeply,” he says.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 10 | Oct. 4, 2012

New UBC Film Prof. Garvin Eddy is working to make Hollywood set design more sustainable. Martin Dee Photograph

New UBC Film Prof. Garvin Eddy is working to make Hollywood set design more sustainable. Martin Dee Photograph

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What has been your most notable set design experience?

“It has to be The Cosby Show, a major hit of the 1980’s. Up until that show, African-Americans had always been portrayed on television as members of a lower socioeconomic class. After spending a day with Bill Cosby discussing the concept, it was clear he had a very different approach to the setting of the show. While producers back in L.A were thinking of a lower middle class family, Bill was adamant that the lead characters be well-educated professionals.

“This was revolutionary. Just how revolutionary was brought home to me a few years ago when I went out for dinner with a fellow director from South Africa and his wife. She turned to me at one point in the conversation and asked, ‘Do you have any idea the effect the Cosby Show had on South Africa?’ I didn’t know what she was getting at. She said it changed the entire perception of blacks in South Africa. Up until that point, most white South Africans couldn’t conceive of an upper middle class black family. The beauty of the Cosby show was in the fact that it wasn’t about the ‘colour’ of the characters, it was simply about an American family experiencing universal middle class issues.”

What show do people always ask you about?

“That would be the show, Roseanne. Roseanne was not so much about what people aspired to, but what people actually were. I often speak about the use of visual cues in my classes; items on the set that people can identify with and relate to. On the set of Roseanne I put an old, crocheted afghan on the back of the sofa. It seemed like everyone in the world had the same type of afghan over their sofa. I’ve been asked about that afghan literally hundreds of times. It’s those kinds of small things that people can instantly identify with, and they immediately get it.”

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