How CLA members are putting nature on the big screen

Based at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, Greens Team creates landscapes and provides natural set dressing for the film industry – with help from CLA members
Barbie movie set
Set for the recent Barbie movie. Credit Warner Bros

Tree stumps and old man’s beard might not sound worthy of the big screen, but for one CLA member, they can be transformed into film sets for major blockbusters.

Greens Team works with several CLA members to source plants and foliage for creating natural film sets. Farms and estates are paid to supply everything from leaves, grasses, mosses and pine needles to whole trees (including dead and petrified ones) to create bespoke tropical forests, jungles and swamps in studios.

Sets can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and be indoors or outdoors at purpose-built, state-of-the-art complexes such as Pinewood, Warner Bros Studios Leavesden or Longcross, offering filmmakers private, controlled environments. They take weeks of painstaking work to source, build, irrigate and maintain, but filming may last a day or two, producing minutes or even seconds of footage.

Justin Richards, Operations Director at Greens Team, sometimes has some unusual requests for CLA members. “It varies from bags of leaves to entire trees, and we get asked for cool shapes and twisted, gnarly roots.

“Often it’s things that landowners are keen to get rid of, such as rhododendron and old man’s beard, or things they don’t view as valuable. To us, old man’s beard is a great part of British nature, as it’s so in demand for films once we’ve painted it green or brown.

“We use lots of ivy and have taken it off an estate’s wall to put it on another wall on-set, and when we’ve needed stubble for the winter, we’ve had to dig it in the summer and store. We’ve even dipped horse manure in varnish and Febreze so it doesn’t smell.”

Blockbuster fame

Greens Team has dressed sets for franchises including Star Wars, Barbie, Mary Poppins, Wonder Woman and Pirates of the Caribbean. They are constantly searching for natural materials, as it can take a lot to fill a set.

“It’s hugely helpful if landowners know what they have and where it is, as access is key. I’d like to build a database of photos and locations because I might not need something for months, then all of a sudden a request will come in.”

It’s advice CLA members have heeded. “Justin comes to me with all sorts of strange requests, from leaf litter to a ‘spooky tree’,” says Forestry Consultant William Hamer, who has helped to supply material from several estates, including Herriard Park in Hampshire.

“I manage thousands of acres of woodland, so I need to know what’s where and how to access it. Knowing your woodland is very important.”

After use, the materials need a new home. The industry is becoming more environmentally conscious, but challenges remain. “We like to donate things; for example, a £20,000 ficus tree is now in a zoo’s jaguar enclosure,” says Justin. “We’d like to find somewhere near the studios for storage.”

Working with landowners

Justin says he enjoys collaborating with landowners, seeing them as the “secret ingredient” of set dressing. “Without them, we can’t do it.”

Supplying materials can be a win-win for landowners, as they are paid to have someone remove something unwanted. Waddesdon Estates LLP in Buckinghamshire has supplied materials such as an entire weeping willow tree, which was listed as dangerous and was going to be felled. “It generates income that can be spent on other things we want to do,” says Chris Leach, the estate’s Head of Sustainability and Conservation. “It’s great to watch films knowing something has come from Waddesdon.”

Giles Paddison, Estate Manager at Hall Barn Estate in Buckinghamshire, says: “We have lots of rhododendrons and are happy to supply a few lorry loads - it’s better than us clearing it. We’ve also got several skeletal trees on standby.”

Richard Morriss, of the Pippingford Estate in East Sussex, first got involved when he supplied the leaves that blow across the street in Notting Hill. He has also supplied heather, which, if cut carefully, “can benefit the age structure” of heathland.

The UK film industry is booming, employing thousands of people. According to the British Film Institute, production spending in 2022 was £2bn – a quarter higher than in 2021. The UK’s tax incentives, diverse locations and talented crews are major pull factors.

Justin enjoys working in such a thriving sector, with Greens Team expanding from a handful of staff to a crew of 240 over the last 15 years. “It’s an immense privilege to be part of something special and play a small part in this industry,” he says. “We have some of the best crews and facilities in the world, it’s very creative, and the rise of streaming services is only adding to the number of projects on the go.

Some of what goes on is mind-blowing. This summer’s Barbie film was a fun one. It was a different creative experience as it’s set in a fake world – greenery but not as you know it

Justin Richards, Operations Director at Greens Team

Another perk is gaining an insight into modern entertainment: “It often takes a year or two for a film to come out, so we know what’s coming. When you do see the final film, you know it’s supposed to be the Maldives, yet it’s really Hertfordshire – but it’s nice to see your work in the cinema. It’s there forever and cemented in history.”

What about the industry’s future and the rise of CGI? “You still need substance and structure for a set,” says Justin. “Foregrounds have to be real - you can’t get away from that, so you need that natural element, as quality does show.”

Trees being removed from Englefield Estate
Trees being removed from the Englefield Estate

Englefield Estate

The Englefield Estate has been working with Greens Team for over a decade. A 14,000-acre estate on the Berkshire-Hampshire border, its trees have featured in films including Jurassic World Dominion, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Fast & Furious franchise and the Netflix series The Witcher.

“As part of our forestry management plan, trees need to be felled and thinned,” explains Forestry Manager Richard Edwards. “Often, it’s these that are used to supply Greens Team, and felled trees are replaced with newly planted trees as part of our sustainable woodland management cycle.

“Providing materials to the film industry is an exciting part of our work, and Greens Team is a pleasure to work with. It also makes commercial sense for us, and we can reinvest back into maintaining and caring for the wider woodland.

“After we have received a brief, the hunt begins – a challenge the forestry team thoroughly enjoys. One request that sticks in my mind as being particularly unusual was when we were asked to provide two matching-sized conifer trees, one of which needed to be completely undamaged, and the other needed to “look like a car had crashed through it 20 feet up in the air”. Through the magic of film and Greens Team’s hard work, the final scene looked very realistic.”