Creative BC News

Converting to Electric – How renewable energy can make an impact in the industry

Jul 8, 2017 | News

Take a look at this story about transitioning to electric for the purpose of sustainable production! Billy Baxter, Director of Photography and professional gaffer in Vancouver recalls his experience using electric batteries on set and his original skepticism around electric.




We have been working with Sportsnet since 2009, lighting their promo close-ups for director of photography George Hupka. When Sportsnet carries a game and wants to highlight a player, quick video shorts are used for the rest of the hockey season. The location is always Rogers Arena, and we usually start lighting at about 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. The project is always very time sensitive—the promos are shot before a 10:00 a.m. hockey practice. Logistically, the most important factor is that, although we have two hours to set up, we only have about 15 minutes to rush and take all the equipment off the ice. And it is a rush!

I started working with Portable Electric batteries in early 2017. I was chosen to shoot a Crazy 8 short film called No Reservations by producer Ben Mallin and director Trevor Carroll. The pitch for the film was one that I could not pass up:  a native oil company builds a pipeline under a very suburban, white neighborhood. The story was funny and cuttingly metaphorical.

In planning the shoot, we realized that we would need a certain amount of power, and the obvious choice was a film generator. Film generators are essentially tractor engines mounted on small flat-beds that burn diesel fuel at varying rates, depending on the load. They produce a quiet, low rumble and—because it’s diesel—emit a hot, black smoke.

Mallin approached me about using an alternative source of power. He described a battery power energy source that would keep noise down and cut fuel costs. To say that I wasn’t enthused is an understatement. Batteries have a very bad reputation among film technicians.  A film crew must always be ready to adapt to any situation with a sense of duty and urgency. If the power source does not work, the director of photography cannot execute the primary plan. Lost money, lost time, and stress are usually the result.

Up until the last few years, batteries have not been dependable. Consequently, battery use was the very last thing a lighting department would pick—they were only used when hard power was absolutely not available, such as in a moving car, or when a handheld light is run alongside an actor. The battery life could never be measured with any accuracy; the charge depended on the previous life of the battery. If it was cold, sometimes the batteries did not work at all.

At the time of shooting No Reservations, we had record snowfall. In fact, the only place for the battery on location was in a snow bank, so I was far from happy about running the show off batteries, especially given their background.

To my surprise, the Portable Electric unit we used worked perfectly and I went from a critic to a fan overnight.

The Canucks shoot always has certain logistical problems beyond the time factor mentioned earlier. The power source at Rogers Arena is under the seats near the player’s entrance. Some of the power needs to go to the camera, monitors, and lights sitting on the ice, so cables are thrown over the glass which can be potentially hazardous.

I began to look for solutions to putting cable on the ice, and I didn’t have to look very far. I had been using Portable Electric VOLTstack 2k and 5k batteries instead of our diesel powered generators all through several summer projects and I was more than happy to use them again. As battery systems get larger, and as newer LED lighting technology requires less power, I see this kind of sustainable power as a better source for our power needs on set.