Impact Filmmaking at COP28 with BA Graduate Michael Shaw
By Elise Czyzowska
25 January 2024
‘Change Hearts’ and ‘Change Minds’ are two modules on our BA Content, Media & Film Production degree where students learn to create change and leave a lasting impact through their visual storytelling. A lesson Michael Shaw, a London Graduate and the founder of Two Step Production, has taken with him into his career.
Michael spent the majority of 2023 producing, filming, and editing a documentary about climate change in mountain regions. The final project, Green Mountain Pioneers, premiered at COP28 in Dubai – and recently had its’ European Film Premiere in Austria.
Since then, Michael has been busy finalising his filmmaking plans for the year ahead. Before embarking on his next production, though, he took the time to answer some questions about impact filmmaking, his time on the course, and much more…
Did you always know that your storytelling would be focused on the environment?
When I started filmmaking, I only found corporate or commercial opportunities – while they helped me to learn practical and technical skills, it was never the plan to stay in that industry.
It was in 2021 that I found my passion. I was drawn to create environmental films out of my love for the mountains – and that was the year that I started mountaineering.
I quickly learned how rapidly climate change is destroying the mountains, so I decided to direct my work to make a positive impact on the planet, and hopefully slow down the destruction through inspiration and information.
A 2023 highlight must have been having your film shown at COP28. Can you tell us a little more about the project?
The project came about when a client I had produced a short film for in late 2022 connected me with Sarisher Mann (the mastermind behind the entire project!). She had been building a network over five years of experts, policy makers, and CEOs, who all wanted to make a difference in the climate crisis.
Sarisher told me about an idea to bring everyone together on a trek across the Alps, and my instant response was, ‘this should be a film’.
She agreed, and we started to work together, Sarisher as Executive Producer and Narrator, and myself as Director, DOP, Editor – and everything in between!
What was the reception like at the Conference?
The conference was so forward-thinking and open-minded, watching a film that had never really been done before. They immediately understood the communication strategy we had taken: a film suitable for all ages to learn from, with a network of scientists and experts, all providing real climate action solutions.
The United Nations then showed the film at their official stage at COP28 – and the reception was so successful, they’ve requested us to produce a new documentary over the next two years.
Sharing such an important message through visual storytelling is a big task. How do you approach this style of filmmaking?
When there’s a big message that needs to be communicated, and it has many facets to it, I start by identifying the objective. If you want the film to achieve just one thing, what is that?
Then, for every creative decision you make, ask yourself, ‘does this help achieve my objective?’.
Filmmaking is a responsibility, and I approach each film with a duty to tell the story. The message is far more important than the visuals, but if you can stay on track with the former, then creative freedom and visual aesthetic is yours to play with.
Given your career’s focus on impact filmmaking, how did you find the ‘Change Hearts’ module of your degree?
The Change Hearts module was assigned to give us as an opportunity to practice telling impactful stories that inspire people, and I’ve carried this approach throughout my career.
We were assigned Guide Dogs UK as an Industry Partner, and were asked to produce a documentary about people who are visually impaired. Guide Dogs UK wanted us to tell a story without the dogs, so I learned a lot about keeping to a brief and conveying the message through production, all of which I apply to my films to this day.
From COP28 to the new year… what have you got lined up for 2024?
2024 has some really exciting projects lined up! Firstly, an expedition into Central Asia, where I’ll discover several technological innovations that local people in these remote locations are using for climate change.
I’m also heading to Zimbabwe to produce a short film for an anti-poaching charity about the people who leave their lives behind in first world countries to help with a crisis happening thousands of miles from home.
And finally, with the UCAS Deadline just around the corner, what advice would you give to anyone considering BA Content, Media & Film Production?
If you’re considering BA Content, Media & Film Production, prepare to utilise a massive tool belt of skills, connections, and equipment, to begin a career working with video.
When you learn storytelling through videography, feature films, and even shooting on your phone, you open a lot of doors in the world of communication. And that’s all that filmmaking truly is: communication.