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Film and TV productions focus on emissions cuts

Green film awareness up as park board pushes elimination of diesel generators
Clarity Films president Clara George says the sustainability measures she has adopted so far have either saved her money or cost her nothing | Rob Kruyt

The heavy roaring and conspicuous spewing of diesel fumes from generators is the top complaint Vancouver residents lob at film crews working on location, according to Clarity Films president Clara George.

“That and ‘Are you going to block my driveway?’” said the veteran film and TV producer, who’s overseen series like The Magicians and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.

But the generators are an industry staple, powering up the lights, cameras and trailers for those shoots at Stanley Park or Trout Lake.

So when the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation put forward a motion last month to develop a strategy to eliminate diesel- and gas-powered generators, response from local producers was as swift as the titular character from Vancouver-filmed The Flash.

“I sent out an email five o’clock on Monday after the initiative went public and by Tuesday evening I had 90% signatures of the people I had sent [emails] to. And then two days later I managed to get almost all of the unions,” George said, adding equipment suppliers and the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of BC soon jumped on board as well.

But it wasn’t a petition to stave off the purge of emissions-heavy generators.

Instead, George had amassed widespread industry support to help the park board go green.

“None of us from an economic level, from a personal level, from a sustainable level want to be paying for diesel, ever,” she said. “We spend a fortune on it. It’s ridiculous. We don’t want to be supporting that.”

Support for shifting the local industry to more sustainable practices has been intensifying over the past five years, according to Zena Harris, president of Green Spark Group.

Her consultancy firm has partnered with Creative BC, the province’s non-profit film promotion agency, to provide strategic planning on Reel Green.

Creative BC’s initiative was launched about 13 years ago to provide film and TV productions resources and information to become more sustainable.

Since then, climate change has surged to the forefront of political discourse and community activism.

And in late July Vancouver city Coun. Adriane Carr tabled a motion to phase out diesel generators on film and TV locations across the city, not just in parks.

“There’s tremendous buy-in from the industry right now,” Harris said. “Folks didn’t have a lot of case studies to show what was possible back then [when Reel Green launched].”

Among the initiatives Harris has spearheaded is the “green” rider – a set of requests made by actors or directors involved in a local production that include dressing rooms or trailers with the capacity to be powered by solar or grid power, makeup artists not using disposable makeup wipes, costume departments sourcing from studio stock whenever possible, caterers donating uneaten food to local charities and producers offsetting air travel with the purchase of carbon credits.

The rider has 21 requests that can be made to the producer, among them the requirement that film sets run on clean energy whenever possible.

There’s also an economic case being made for a greener film industry.

Key to the Vancouver park board motion was that it would explore the creation of electrical infrastructure for film crews, festivals and food trucks to tap into in lieu of diesel generators.

George said industry is on board with plugging into any proposed infrastructure and then using smart meter technology to pay BC Hydro directly for the energy used.

Meanwhile, B.C. companies like Portable Electric are benefiting from the surge in efforts to make the film industry more sustainable.

The Vancouver-based company manufactures electric generators that film crews can tap into while filming on location. The devices – an 86-kilogram, 2.8-kilowatt-hour battery and a 150-kilogram, 5.6-kilowatt-hour battery – plug into walls to recharge or use solar power for remote locations.

The mobile generators are silent and don’t emit fumes, which allows crews to bring them into locations for shoots that previously would have proven impractical.

“Ten years ago when I was doing this people thought it was never going to happen, but now we’re in the right place at the right time,” Portable Electric CEO Mark Rabin told Business in Vancouver. “We’re not going to replace every large diesel generator – yet. But we’re taking steps to move in that direction.”

Next up on Portable Electric’s docket is the planned launch later this year of a two-tonne, 107-kilowatt-hour battery. That will be followed early next year with the introduction of a massive, 400-kilowatt-hour battery – one that Rabin describes as the largest of its kind in the world.

“There’s no question that the upfront capital costs of retiring old equipment and buying new equipment is higher than the older, incumbent 100-year-old technology that’s already there,” he said.

“However, over the long run you’re reducing fuel costs by almost 100%.”

A 60-kilowatt diesel generator – those bulky ones typically hitched to a truck to transport to different filming locations – goes through about 18 litres of diesel an hour at a full load.

That translates into more than 200 litres of diesel over a full day of filming with a single generator, and locations often require multiple generators.

Tapping into the grid would eliminate significant amounts of emissions as well as the cost associated with the fuel.

But it’s not just energy usage on the minds of producers.

For her own productions, George began with eliminating 100 pounds of beef a week provided by catering to offset the methane fumes produced by cattle.

There were initially some concerns raised by caterers about potential reactions on set.

“What if we don’t tell anybody? So we just did it and nobody noticed,” she recalled, adding that sort of experimentation has continued.

“On my last show we reduced 2,200 or 2,700 pounds of beef.”

Also off the menu are single-use plastic forks, knives and spoons.

Instead, George’s production company invested in an industrial washer to clean up reusable dishes and cutlery, diverting almost 9,000 disposables over a three-week period.

And the costume department has traded in 50 to 100 plastic dry-cleaning bags used daily for bags made of recycled garments.

George also persuaded her paper supplier to switch its own supplier so that various production companies could get 100% recycled paper without any surcharge.

“All the sustainable choices I’ve made on set so far have either saved me money or cost me nothing,” she said. •