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Garvin Eddy, an environmentally responsible set designer, stands in Pacific Spirit Park in Vancouver, Oct. 22, 2012. He works in hollywood and advocates for the use of responsible wood in set design. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)
Garvin Eddy, an environmentally responsible set designer, stands in Pacific Spirit Park in Vancouver, Oct. 22, 2012. He works in hollywood and advocates for the use of responsible wood in set design. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)

ON CULTURE

UBC prof changing the wood in Hollywood Add to ...

If you thought the NBC series Grimm was scary, wait until you hear about the horror story behind the scenes.

The series shot in Portland about a police detective who can detect Wesens – supernatural creatures who transform into monsters – is using environmentally responsible and sustainable wood to create its sets (including a police precinct and a weird apothecary). In doing so, the producers – with the help of a University of British Columbia professor – are taking a quiet stand against the big bad wood, Lauan, that has been the industry standard for some 30 years.

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Lauan wood is easy for set builders and designers to work with, and inexpensive for producers. That is why upward of a million sheets of it are used in North American productions each year. But harvesting it (70 to 80 per cent is believed to come from illegal logging) has caused widespread environmental damage and led to the displacement of indigenous people from their land, mostly in Southeast Asia.

Grimm has bypassed Lauan in favour of a new environmentally responsible sustainable wood alternative called ScenicPly developed by Oregon company PlyVeneer in consultation with Garvin Eddy, an adjunct professor in design at UBC’s department of theatre and film. Mr. Eddy, a TV production design veteran who has won a bunch of Emmys, moved to Vancouver this summer for the UBC teaching position. He’s been on a mission to stop the use of Lauan for three years.

“It’s like Hollywood’s blood diamonds,” says Mr. Eddy, who has worked on series such as The Cosby Show, Roseanne, 3rd Rock from the Sun and That ’70s Show, and continues to commute to Los Angeles as production designer for Disney’s Lab Rats. “They go in, they throw the indigenous people out, they clear-cut, they pay them nothing. That’s why it’s so cheap. … They pay a dollar, seriously, for a tree that they turn around and sell for thousands of dollars.”

It’s not Hollywood that’s doing the illegal logging, but Mr. Eddy says the entertainment industry, which talks a good game when it comes to being green, should practise what it preaches.

Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief, a U.S. environmental group that has advocated against the use of Lauan, says it is “very unusual” to have a Lauan-free production. He estimates Hollywood goes through about 500,000 sheets of the stuff each year. Mr. Eddy puts the number at 600,000 in Hollywood – one million once you factor in New York and other North American film centres, including Vancouver and Toronto.

Beyond the use of Lauan, Mr. Eddy points to overall wastefulness as a major issue in the entertainment industry.

“I can show you pictures of huge dumpsters full of scenery that go out into the L.A. dump. Same thing in New York,” he says. “They’re now starting to grind up some of it and they’re starting to understand that they can’t just dump it. But the majority just ends up in the dump. It isn’t reused. And it’s sad that this stuff only lasts for just an instant in time and then it’s gone. Some of those trees are a thousand years old that they’re cutting down.”

At the same time, he understands why his peers have been quiet on the issue.

“Part of the problem in Hollywood is you can’t make too many waves, because if you do, you don’t work any more. It’s very fear-based. So I can’t go to the studios and say, ‘Look, you either do this or I’m going to talk to the Department of Justice.’ You can’t do that. Or you won’t work any more.”

Mr. Eddy says that being at UBC – where he is helping to develop a new interdisciplinary curriculum for his department’s BFA program – he has a safe platform from which to speak on the issue. He also hopes the university, which has demonstrated its commitment to the environment, can contribute to R&D, because if there is going to be a fairytale ending here, it’s going to involve a viable substitute.

“One of the things that has prevented us from moving forward in this campaign is that there never really was what I’ll term the perfect alternative,” says Mr. Keating, who says Lauan is also widely used on Broadway and in theatres beyond. “[The set material] needs paintability, no grain showing through, bendability … structural integrity in terms of hanging things on it – and you get it for $12 a sheet. That was always a tough nut, because, hey, domestic hardwood plywood like birch will do everything Lauan does, no question about it, only it’s $10 more a sheet.”

So Mr. Eddy has spent countless hours – unpaid, beyond some expenses – helping develop ScenicPly. The product is made in Oregon with domestic Douglas fir and wood imported from a sustainable forest in the Republic of Congo, and it is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. It costs more than Lauan – but Mr. Eddy says the increase in a set construction budget can be less than 1 per cent, and if use increases, prices will come down.

“It’s never going to be as cheap as Lauan,” Mr. Eddy says. “If you’re going to use Lauan, why don’t you just go and hire a bunch of 10-year-old kids to work in the studios? Because it’s the same thing.”

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