Filming Aftermath: World Without Oil

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By Aftermath: World Without Oil Production Crew

Day One: Thursday March 26

You wouldn’t think it would be that hard in Canada to find snow. But evidently it is.

This is my first week on the job, and already we have a crew out the door filming. In Edmonton Alberta no less. One of the last, closest cities that has a decent amount of snow.

It’s going to be an adventure. This is a big, in many ways untested series. We’re putting together four one hour documentaries, each one focusing on a different “thought experiment.” They’re like mini feature films. Sure is going to be fun!

Like the first Aftermath (Population Zero) what we want people to do is look at the world around them today differently, based on what happens if we change one of these important variables.

In the original show, we saw how temporary our impact on the Earth is. It wouldn’t take much more than 10,000 years for the world to tear our cities down, destroy our monuments, and all but erase most traces of our existence.

For these four follow-up shows, we want people to realize how much we DO affect the planet. How much oil we use. How much of everything we consume. How much we rely on the sun, and the spinning of the earth. But they’re not hard-core environmental shows – we want these to be dramas. We want to get at the concepts through following characters who are being affected by the changes in the world.

For the next couple of months,  the biggest challenge is that there are going to be tons of people in these shows – whereas there were none in the first show. How much of the story is carried by these actors? How much is documentary? How much is stock footage that we need to find?

It’s going to be a delicate balance.

For the moment, the biggest challenge is actually the snow. To supplement what there is naturally, we’ve got wind machines and snow machines ready to go out in Edmonton.

We don’t have scripts for any of the shows yet, but we know that we’re going to want to have as much variety in terms of seasons as we can possibly get. So Chris Rowley (our director for Population and Oil) Frank Vilaca (our director of photography on those shows) and the rest of the crew is out in Edmonton shooting this week.

We’re going to try to get as much use out of this footage as we can. We’ve dreamed up scenes that could be used in many of the episodes. But whether it will all live and be useful nine months from now when we’re putting the finishing touches on the shows is hard to know.

I just got word that the crew has just finished its first shot – a group of people trudging through the snow, leaving a city that had run out of oil. One shot done! Four more hours of television to go.

Sunday March 29

Just got word that the crew in Edmonton has wrapped four days of shooting. We’ve had dozens of actors braving the cold weather, and – artificial – snow to flee a city that was descending into chaos as the world’s Oil ran out.

One of the points we’re really hoping to make in the No Oil show is just how ubiquitous oil is.  It’s in the food we eat. The clothes we wear. Literally thousands of products – from tooth brushes to plastic bags – are all made from oil. If you took a look around your house, virtually everything you saw, would have some part of it made from oil.

But of course we depend on it most heavily for transportation. What many people don’t realize is how reliant  we are on trucks to get food into our cities. We’ve become such a suburban culture in North America, we’re used to not only having the freedom to travel, but the expectation that everything will be delivered to us. Food. Clothes. Coffee. Products of all kinds.

In our shooting, we’ve had people fighting to get food from a store, struggling to get on a bus leaving a frozen, oil-less city, and people scouring the back alleys looking for things to burn. They’ve walked past abandoned buildings, along the frozen river, through snowy fields, over railway tracks. It’s a great mass of migrating humanity.

We still aren’t entirely sure how these sequences are going to make it into the final show. The research continues and the scripts for all episodes are still being written.

But a world without oil would be dramatically different from the one we live in today. We couldn’t quickly shift into alternatives. It would be a wrenching crisis. As we move ahead, it will be vital to both get that message across – but also try to see what the alternatives would be. Could we replace oil? What with? Is ethanol – made from such plants as sugar cane and corn – really a viable solution? What about electric vehicles? What are the limitations? Maybe bio-diesel is the answer. They’re complex, fascinating questions.

Tuesday April 7th

We crossed our fingers – and the weather gods smiled on us again.

In the script for the No Oil show, there are scenes about a grandfather and a grandson trying to live by themselves in the country. But it would only work if it snowed. And did it ever! At least a foot of new snow overnight  north of the city at the house we’re shooting at. Crew says the footage looks fabulous.

We want to come back to this house in the summer – to get a sense of how possible it would be to make a living for yourself alone in the world. What would it take to survive off the grid? In a world without oil there would certainly be power – coal and hydro electric power would still be in ready supply. But without reliable transportation, we’d need to grow more of our own food. Forget the 100 mile diet, it would likely be the 100 yard diet! We’d eat what we could grow. Not only in the country, but in the suburbs too.

And what we could catch of course. A world without oil would probably mean a lot more hunting. Animals would be happy there were fewer cars – millions of animals, from frogs to deer, are killed every year by automobiles. But if we were looking to replace the factory farmed meat that now gets shipped to us, would we hunt and trap more? Would the future without oil look more like the past?

Wednesday May 20th

It’s been a couple of whirl-wind weeks. Casting actors. Revising the script. Scouting locations. Ordering camera gear. But finally, we’re ready for our first big day of dramatic shooting for the No Oil show.

To make sure everything was off to a great start I went to set today – and it looks fabulous.

Going to sets is always eye-opening. All the people it can take to make a television show like this one. Make-up and wardrobe, camera assistants and grips and electrics. PAs to keep the traffic from running us down. Actors. Researchers.  Line producers. Assistant Directors to make sure we get the shots we need.

And of course food for everyone. We’ll be out here shooting all day – and crews get hungry. We even have a frog wrangler today!

We’ve found a perfect suburban street to shoot much of what we want in terms of how a world with no oil would hit this part of the world particularly hard. It’s hard to over-estimate the impact cars have.

There are 70 cars for every 100 people in the United States – a total of  255 MILLION cars. It’s an incredible number. We’ve literally built North American culture around the car. Around the ease of mobility. We can drive anywhere. Get anything. But what if that was taken away from us?

The very first scene we shot was about how some common chemicals – including lye and methanol – can be used to great bio-diesel. A home-made solution to the lack of oil. But it would only work for DIESEL cars…and the vast majority of cars in the United States run on gasoline produced from oil, not lower grade diesel.

It’s a DIY solution – but you couldn’t make enough fuel on a mass-production level to get everyone back on the road.

Another DIY reaction to a world without oil – is searching through garbage dumps to find useful items which in the past were thrown away. Some interesting statistics: a ton of used cell phones contains 150 grams of gold, a 100 kilograms of copper and three kilograms of silver – they’d all be vital materials in a world where trade has stopped.

People in Asia already recycle their used electronics like this – will this sort of post-use thinking ever come to America? It’s hard to imagine without the push of a major crisis that we’d look at garbage not as a nuisance, but as a resource.

Friday May 29th

All of the drama for the No Oil is now shot. What a busy two weeks!

We’ve been through an Oil refinery “control room”, hospitals, “New York” apartments, garbage dumps, an abandoned fast-food restaurant, and even back to the same country farm house we shot at in the winter. 

One of the most interesting shoots had to have been this Monday. A local train yard let us use an abandoned spur to recreate what it would look like if emergency food shipments were being made in New York – just like they’re made in the poorer countries around the world which rely on foreign aid to make it through droughts.

A huge crowd was pushing up to the train, demanding powdered milk and rice. It sure felt like a different world – which is one of the marching orders we’ve been given for this series: make it look like a world we’ve never seen.

One of the arguments we’ve be having amongst each other on the team is – what would the financial implications be, if oil really did disappear over night?

There’s no doubt that stock markets around the world would go into freefall. The top ten oil companies have more than two trillion dollars worth of stock. If there was no oil – all of that stock would be worthless. Overnight.  Imagine all of that money – evaporated. It would be like the mortgage  crisis – only hundreds of times worse.

More than 400,000 people work in the US oil industry. And factories that burned oil, or relied on just in time product delivery would be hit hard. The economy would be shattered over night.

After 9/11 the stock markets closed so there wouldn’t be a run on the markets – with the end of oil,  it’s hard to imagine the markets ever re-opening.

There are other industries that rely on oil in a less obvious way. More than 15 billion rubber gloves are used in hospitals every year. Drugs, lubricants, plastic gowns – all are made from oil. What would happen if the oil disappeared? Natural gas can be substituted for oil in some cases – but it would take months if not years to make the switch in large enough scales. And what would happen to health care in the meantime? Already drug resistant bacteria are take lives. Would we be able to create enough medicine and medical supplies without oil to keep us safe? Or would diseases stalk the land?

A lot of us are reading The Long Emergency by James Kunstler. It’s certainly an apocalyptic take on the world without oil.  The difference of course is that our documentary is about the result of an immediate end of oil. But it’s hard to successfully argue that – before too long – we’ll have to address the reality of world with less and less oil. How bumpy that transition is, is ultimately up to us.

Aftermath: World Without Oil encores Thursday March 11 at 10P et/pt