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Floods test B.C. film sector's adaptability and flexibility

Expert warns that the industry must prepare for 'new normal' of extreme weather
TV producer Nicole Tomlinson’s docuseries, Highway Thru Hell, has followed the journeys of truckers navigating B.C. highways for 10 seasons.

Nicole Tomlinson had just gotten cosy at a Burnaby restaurant one exceptionally showery night in mid-November when blasts upon blasts of text alerts kept making her smartphone look like a strobe light. 

The TV producer for the docuseries Highway Thru Hell had multiple crews based in Hope, Merritt and the Fraser Valley as last month’s first atmospheric river began unleashing mudslides and closing highways. 

“We’ve dealt with consequences of weather events before. But then piece after piece of information and stories came in, and it became obvious that this was no normal weather event,” said Tomlinson, whose show has followed the journeys of truckers navigating B.C. highways for 10 seasons. 

While her team had spent years documenting treacherous trips over the Coquihalla Highway, those crews now found themselves documenting first-hand one of Canada’s most devastating weather disasters.

And as such extreme weather events become more common amid climate change, the B.C. film industry is learning to mitigate future disaster. 

“It is the nature of film production to be flexible. To a point,” said Marsha Newbery, director of B.C. industrial relations at the Canadian Media Producers Association. 

Supply chain disruptions were a concern for the film sector in the immediate wake of the floods, she said.  

Some productions may have required significant amounts of lumber from outside the Lower Mainland for building sets, and “films that shoot particularly out on location, as opposed to a studio, are more vulnerable to disruption to things like fuel because they tend to rely on diesel generators to power their sets,” Newbery said.  

“That would be a very big concern. … A lot of film sets can’t operate without fuel.” 

Tomlinson managed to drive a rental car from Burnaby to Abbotsford to join her team amid the floods, eventually turning the rental into a crew vehicle carrying gear and personnel to flood-ravaged areas. 

“We were relying on our vehicles to charge that gear, thinking about [gas] running out and having limited media [optical discs] to shoot on,” she recalled. 

And with some on the team trapped in Hope, the idea was floated that the crew might have to abandon their personal vehicles inside the community to get flown out. 

“They wanted to go out [and film], and get the stories and do what they could with what they had,” Tomlinson said, adding that everyone remained aware of the need to be respectful of those affected by the floods while ensuring everything was being documented. 

“That was an interesting tug of war between those two desires: the desire for respect and the desire to tell stories.” 

While Hope had served as the production’s base of operations, crews were flown to Kamloops to continue following the journeys of the truckers bringing essential goods along the damaged highways. 

Meanwhile, Newbery said despite some supply chain concerns, the floods had mostly localized impacts rather than the industry-wide effects of the pandemic. The broader concern, she said, is how the film sector navigates extreme weather in the future. 

“Climate change in some way has to be the new normal [for industry]. We all have to be more adaptable and find ways to manage the risk of an unpredictable climate.” Newbery added that the issue will likely be front and centre in February at the industry’s Actsafe Safety Association conference. 

She said COVID-19, the recent flooding and this year’s heat dome are waking up industry to the need to plan for potential disasters. 

“What if we had a year to prepare for COVID, right? What would we have done instead of all the panicking and throwing money at the problem, which is what happened?” Newbery said, referring to how the industry shut down from March 2020 until a summer 2020 relaunch plan was developed. 

“Planning can perhaps help mitigate some of those disruptions.” 

Other industry players are also taking aim at the effects of climate change. 

Vancouver-based consultancy Green Spark Group facilitated October’s virtual Sustainable Production Forum  to develop more sustainable practices and reduce the film industry’s carbon footprint. 

A 2020 report from Arup Group and other stakeholders calculated emissions for a tent-pole film production generates 2,840 tonnes of CO2 on average. 

“Film productions need to be more sustainable,” Arup Group climate change consultant Florence Mansfield said during the forum. “And certain circular business models must be adopted.” 

By adopting practices in line with the circular economy – a model of production and consumption that reduces waste and reuses resources whenever possible – Mansfield said the film industry can significantly shrink its carbon footprint. 

Studios tapping on-site renewable energy and harvesting rainwater, sets that can be easily disassembled and reused or locations selected for their proximity to transit hubs to minimize kilometres on the road, are among measures offered in the Arup Group report. 

Newbery said there might also be more future demand for electric generators, such as the ones manufactured by Vancouver-based Portable Electric Inc. 

“We play a very, very strong role within the film industry already,” said Scott Hardy, Portable Electric’s CEO.  “(We’re) very empathetic to all of the tragedies that are going on here in the Lower Mainland and in the Interior of B.C. We believe we can be a responsible organization in support of that as well, as they’re going through crises.” 

While his company is best known for equipping the film sector with noiseless electric generators that can plug into walls, it also provides devices for live events and emergency response. 

Hardy noted Portable Electric is partnering up with large utilities such as California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (NYSE:PCG), allowing for life-saving devices such as ventilators to be powered with generators during power outages. 

Meanwhile, Sai Frame, a location portfolio manager for Vancouver-based Location Fixer Productions Ltd., praised municipal efforts that have provided film and TV crews access to power kiosks or power “tie-ins” to avoid the use of diesel generators. 

Instead, power-sucking lighting equipment and large trucks needed for location shoots can tap into cleaner power sources, such as at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where eight such plug-in power kiosks have been set up. 

“If you think about that, we were shooting 35 TV shows, all averaging three days [at the art gallery] every year,” Frame said at October’s Sustainable Production Forum. “We’re talking thousands of generator days that were in use where diesel was just being burnt, and now we’re not doing any of it.”

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