The sustainability mogul talks about her work as the Founder & President of Earth Angel, life of a green goddess on set and how we all can help make a difference.
For the last 6 years, New York City-based Emellie O’Brien has been tirelessly leading the charge to raise awareness about the importance of sustainability on film and television productions across the country through her company, Earth Angel. She is now the industry’s go-to in her field having positively impacted a diverse roster of sets while working with top level studios including Paramount, Sony, HBO, CBS Television, Disney and Amazon Studios. Not only does Emellie take time to share her voice on panels across the globe, but she even agreed to spend the afternoon with me to chat about what it’s like to be the epitome of a boss. I usually play a game with all of my interviewees, but since Emellie and I are on opposite coasts, we played a little game called, “How many times will we lose connection during this FaceTime session?”
Let’s hope for the best on our FaceTime connection, okay!?
Emellie O’Brien: Yes! I’m excited to see what happens.
You are one of the most impressive young women that I've ever met. And I mean that, not just because your floating head is on my iPad. Tell me about how Earth Angel came to be.
EOB: Well, now I'm blushing even beyond my Irish glow, so thank you for that. Like most disruptive movements, Earth Angel started grassroots. After I graduated from NYU's film program, I worked at Focus Features and was tasked with managing the "Focus on Green" initiative. That’s when I started researching the cross-section of sustainability and filmmaking. I was thrilled when I learned that a cross-section actually existed. I felt compelled to use my environmental activism and knowledge of production to help advance it. I took my first job as an Environmental Steward on a Big Beach movie back in 2011, where I spent approximately 16 hours per day digging through set trash. It was on that job that I earned the nickname Earth Angel but also learned the true potential for what a standardized approach to sustainability might mean for an industry as influential as entertainment. The Big Beach movie helped land me back-to-back studio blockbusters, “Noah” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, which were really the impetus for turning Earth Angel from a nickname into a full-fledged consulting company.
Wow, incredible. You make digging through trash actually sound pretty fun. What’s an average day on set like for your team?
EOB: As Eco Supervisors on set, we have to be everywhere that trash is. On a New York City set, that can span 10+ city blocks sometimes. From sorting food waste on the catering truck to instructing actors on proper recycling procedures to making refillable water stations readily available at video village, our day is mainly about making the Earth Angel system easy, convenient and consistent for all cast and crew to adjust to. A lot of the day is spent talking with cast and crew about the importance of running a sustainable set and answering those random composting questions. New Yorkers are not exactly the easiest section of the industry to persuade, but one thing they certainly appreciate is hard work. Being in the trenches alongside them before call time, and even after the cameras are off, is the way that we've earned our industry's respect.
Check out Earth Angel’s new promo video below!
As a young, female entrepreneur, what has been your biggest obstacle? I'm sure there are a lot to choose from.
EOB: Oh boy, how much time do we have? Let's start by taking the young and female part away for a moment. I started a business for a previously non-existent service. That in itself is our biggest obstacle. The fact that this is uncharted territory and that most production budgets do not even include line items for sustainability means that I often have to fight just to be able to do my job. Then there's the reality that entertainment is an exploitative industry and navigating that as a young woman, who is essentially trying to change the culture of that industry...let's just say I'm not always welcomed with open arms. I've been threatened, I've been cheated and taken advantage of, and while those experiences might have set me back at the time, they only strengthened me in the long run.
You’re so badass. Speaking of BADASS, can we talk about how you were in the January Issue of VOGUE?! Tell me everything.
EOB: It's so crazy. I still can't really believe it! I was like, "Me? The girl who digs through trash all day? You want to put in Vogue magazine?" But yes, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Tory Burch Foundation's 2016 inaugural fellowship for empowering female entrepreneurs. Vogue was doing a piece on visionaries pushing the culture and country forward and wanted to feature Tory for the work of her foundation, alongside 3 of the fellows. The actual photo shoot was such a strange experience for me because I'm used to being on sets all the time, but not the one "in the chair" or in front of the camera. But to have that type of exposure as a social entrepreneur is simply incredible and I am so grateful for the opportunity.
That truly gives me the chills. Your “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” featurette is also pretty incredible. How does it feel to have the support of so many key players in the industry?
EOB: Spider-Man was the hardest job I've ever done. I even gave myself tendinitis from lifting garbage day in and day out. But it proved the success of the model of having a designated sustainability representative on the production to make these achievements possible. Not only did it become "the most eco-friendly blockbuster in Sony Pictures' history," but it also saved an estimated $400,000 from its sustainability efforts.
Check out “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” Sustainability Featurette!
You had a really successful 2016 with so many incredible projects. What are you excited about for 2017?
EOB: We're looking to make some very big moves in 2017. I'm really excited about the NYC Mayor's Office of Media & Entertainment's NYC Film Green program. Working with the Mayor's office has been our first foray into the public sector and we're really thrilled to now have support of sustainable production on the local government level. Beyond that, we're just really excited for our expansion strategy in general. We want to keep building our army of angels so that every set has a green glove-touting Eco PA and can call themselves an Earth Angel green production!
Earth Angel throws an annual event in support of the global Earth Hour movement. What does that entail?
EOB: EARTH (angel) HOUR is our cornerstone event and is basically a big party for the planet. Inspired by the World Wildlife Fund's global, grassroots lights-off movement, we bring entertainment and environmental industry leaders together to turn off the lights and celebrate achievements in sustainable production, while promoting local conservation efforts. This year is our 3rd annual event and takes place on March 25th at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in West Chelsea. It's poised to be our biggest and most impactful event so far, featuring some high profile attendees as well as a big announcement on the next phase of Earth Angel!
Aside from participating in Earth Hour, what's something simple that we can all do to help the environment?
EOB: There's lots of simple things, but I think the most important one is being educated on environmental issues. The reality is that the planet doesn't need people, people need the planet. Having an understanding of what environmental concerns are happening in your community, be it water shortages, air pollution, land/soil degradation, etc. It empowers you to be a steward of the earth within your community.
That seems easy enough for us all to help! Okay, it's time for rapid fire questions. Are you ready?!
EOB: So ready!!
What's one eco tool that you always have with you on set?
EOB: Our Earth Angel green gloves are our iconic and signature tool, but my personal favorite eco tool is the fanny pack! I'm serious, it's such a versatile tool. You can clip your reusable water bottle to it, your green gloves, your walkie talkie, AND stuff extra compost and recycling bags in there for those occasional leaky bag emergencies.
Bringing the fanny pack back! What’s your most embarrassing moment while on set?
EOB: I once worked with a well-known prankster AD. He liked to purposefully put trash items in the wrong bins just to mess with me. One time he took it too far and buried a bull horn in the bottom of the compost bag and then attached a soda can to the siren lever. When I went to pull the can out of the compost at the crafty table, the siren blared right in the middle of a take! I got some serious side eye.
Wow, mortifying. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
EOB: Eggs and avocados (don't make me choose).
What 90s or early 2000s sitcom do you wish Earth Angel worked on?
EOB: Freaks and Geeks, for sure!
If you had to choose between living on an island without garbage bins so people can only litter OR an island that only lives off of bottled water, which would it be?!
EOB: Both of those sound like horror movies to me, but I guess I would have to go with the island without garbage bins because I would go on a crusade to just do away with disposable things altogether and zero wasteify the crap out of that island.
To learn more about Earth Angel, visit www.earthangel.nyc!