It’s Not Easy Being Green (or is it?)

From LED to ceramics, there are more environmentally friendly lighting options powering the film and television industry than ever before, as cinematographer Jim Matlosz reports.

Way back in 1970, Kermit the Frog sat perched upon a stump in a studio forest lamenting about the difficulties of being green. Who would have thought that almost 40 years later we would all aspire to such great hues? Being green in 2009 is certainly easier than it was in Kermit’s heyday, however when it comes to lighting a set, the challenges are still pronounced. Creating images with any camera requires lights, which are notorious energy hogs. In simple math, the more lights you use the more energy you will need, and even the most environmentally motivated will acknowledge the hard fact that the production crafts are inefficient when it comes to power consumption. In layman’s terms, the entertainment industry’s carbon footprint, at least for the last century or so, is a lot closer to that left behind by Sasquatch than Tweety Bird.

But things are changing, slowly. And it is possible for cinematographers, gaffers, key grips and the like, to be more pro-green, while still creating high-quality images without creative compromises. The obvious question is how do you light large areas with instruments that require low wattage and consume less energy? Some say shooting HD is a start, because the format purportedly demands less light. But many (myself included) have experienced that to be more marketing buzz than production reality. DPs need light and lots of it, so the options for a greener set must begin with research and an open mindedness to some of the newer products flooding (pun intended) the market.

The hottest trend today in energy efficient lighting is LED technology; nearly every vendor from Eastern Europe to the United States has begun research and development in the advancement of this enigmatic technology. The draw is obvious: lighting units pack a heavy punch relative to their energy draw. European Dynamic Lighting is the North American Distributor for LDDE, Inc., a Vienna, Austria-based firm that has been a leading lighting supplier for the European stage throughout the last 15 years.  The company is new to the American film and television industry, and eager to please its new market. For example, LDDE’s SpectraWowPlus was created as an RGB LED fixture, but, at the request of European Dynamic Lighting, produced a new Tungsten model. LDDE also offers a variety of LED and fluorescent lights that would appeal to production designers as practical units, as well as units that allow cinematographers greater control of dimming and dynamic color control.

The LDDE SpectraWowPlus has an interchangeable honeycomb lens and is available in 20, 30, and 45-degree beam widths, which give the light the feel of a traditional Fresnel. It’s rated at 40-watt, but easily gives the impression of a healthy 300-watt tungsten head. It’s pure and the heat and power draw are almost non-existent.  “The lights burn very cool,” states European Dynamic Lighting’s Gregory Fuller. “I left them running continuously for three days and they never got hot! The LED technology is extremely durable, with an estimated lamp life of nearly 100,000 hours, or more than 11 years of continuous use. That kind of long-lasting technology is much more environmentally friendly because it leads to less waste of materials.”

Fuller cites an outdoor concert he lit up in the hills above Los Angeles as an example of LED’s potential for lighting distant locations for film and television. “Last fall I rigged twelve 18-watt SpectraWow MKIIs as backlight, eight 40-watt SpectraWowPlus as front/side fill light, and a SpectraLed144 (144-1W RGB/Amber/White LEDs) for a Mark Copeland concert that featured a 32 piece band in an outdoor amphitheater,” Fuller describes.  “The total power consumption was 680 watts off of a 20A-120 feed.  I literally ran an extension cord from a wall socket for the event.  It took about 15 minutes to pack it up, as the lights never got hot.”

Despite LED’s rocketing bell curve, there are limitations to the technology, the most glaring of which is a show that demands much larger lamps.  Kino Flo has taken a step in that direction, becoming a go-to option for the green conscious filmmaker who needs to light up a big set. According to President and Founder Frieder Hochheim, “Kino Flo has been green for 21 years. I remember back to a movie called Barfly, where I served as gaffer, and used a prototype Kino Flo system to light the set that only required a stinger and a 120-volt outlet. This allowed us to bypass the need for the two 750 amp generators sitting outside. Nearly all Kino Flo units have a low amperage draw while still providing enough light to cover most of a DP’s needs.”

ARRI Inc. is another firm pushing the envelope of green lighting. According to John Gresch, vice president of ARRI Inc.’s Lighting Division, the firm has used ceramic technology to create a 250 watt arc light that outputs 3200 degrees Kelvin and offers four times the amount of light for the same power draw. [ARRI Inc. has also introduced its lightweight, low power consuming LED Pax Panel Kit. See Gear Guide – this issue.] “The ceramic 250-watt head will give you the approximate light output of a 1000-watt Tungsten head,” Gresch states. “Another perk of the ceramic technology is the life span of the globes, which best tungsten lamps by as much as sixteen times; a typical 1000-w tungsten lamp averages out to about 250 hours, while the ceramic technology lamp lasts as much as 4000 hours.”

Tungsten lights are the most widely used units in the industry but no one would mistake them for being good for the environment. Gresch says ARRI has considered creating larger heads, but needs to first determine the economic viability of a motion picture industry demanding larger ceramic lamps. Like others, ARRI Inc. is investing considerable research into the LED technology. “What most people tell us they want,” Gresch explains, “is a light engine (LED sources are often referred to as Light Engines) for existing light fixtures, that has an extremely long life, variable color calibration, and is reasonably priced. It’s the ‘hat trick’ for any light manufacturer these days.”

The search for a larger, more energy efficient head that can still fill up a room inevitably leads to Bardwell & McAlister (B&M Lighting) president Ray Wolffe. The lighting firm has been in the motion picture industry since 1926, and the units currently being perfected in their Sun Valley workshop could turn out to be among the greatest advances in tungsten technology since the dawn of the industry. According to Wolffe, it all begins with more efficient globes, higher output lighting units, and less waste at the end of a lamp’s life. The company’s redesign is based on the Par light, which traditionally offers up a self-contained linear filament that looks more like a headlamp from a ’54 Packard than a movie light. The Par generally comes in three styles, wide, medium and narrow, that create an awesome amount of light but are inefficient and end up in the dumpster at the end of their lives. B&M’s redesign creates better reflectors, interchangeable lenses and smaller globe offerings of 375, 575 and 750-watts. The company has also created a unique improvement on Space Lights that is guaranteed to turn heads. It begins with a 12 light (dubbed the Mac Tech HPL 12 Mini Dino) that’s stacked full of 12-750-watt globes, either in tungsten 3200 degrees Kelvin (standard output) or with a full set of specially designed dichroic filters that convert the light to 5600 degree Kelvin. When fired up, the unit spits out what looks like an 18K HMI in hue and intensity for the low power draw of 9000 watts, with no ballasts, at a trim weight of just 60 pounds. Wolffe says that with bulbs and lenses, four of the Mac Tech HPL 12s can be safely loaded, along with a 200-pound electrician, into a Condor. What’s more the 48 light dino system draws only 288 amps, and the HPL 575-watt bulbs use 45 percent less power and heat than a comparable 1000-watt Par light.

Wolffe adds that the firm’s 6 light model “is very popular as a top light for green screens and also has a full on Chimera system.” He calls B&M’s Space Light redesign the company’s “crowning achievement,” given that the fixtures are traditionally illuminated by a smaller 1000-watt linear style globe with a filament that sags and breaks in the downward position. That’s always meant that when the lamp’s 50-hour life gives way, it literally blows out, raining hot glass onto the space light sock and possibly on to the set and the heads of those below. B&M’s 750-watt globe decreases power draw and heat, and the lamp life is four times the original unit, in the realm of 2000 hours. The reduction of the potential for space light damage also means less long-term waste.

But 750 watts, even in a 12 light cranking out 9000 watts, may still not be enough juice for some. So I took a trip across town to a firm that has been making an impact for some 80 years and was actually founded on the concept of a greener way of lighting movies. In 1923 Peter Mole, founder of Mole Richardson, saw the possibility of using incandescent lighting to replace the less efficient industry standard of Carbon Arc lighting. Mole still lives and breathes the tungsten way of life, and strives to offer up units with amazing kick at lower wattage.  “What the company is known for,” states Paul Royalty, director of sales at Mole Richardson,  “are large lamps with very consistent color temperature. With that said, one of our core directions is lamp efficiency. Since we are not known for energy conservation or small niche fixtures, we’re striving to maximize the light from the sources that we do offer.”

Which explains Mole Richardson’s newest tungsten Par line. The Hollywood-based company teamed up with General Electric to create a more efficient large lamp – 2K, 5K and 12K tungsten par lights that make up for their high heat-producing carbon footprint by using half the power draw for two and three times the amount of light. The units employ a highly reflective mirror surface that focuses more of the light forward, keeping it on the subject, reducing light scatter, and increasing efficiency. In its collaboration with GE, Mole has also branched out into more efficient fluorescent globes that push out as much light out of their products as possible. In fact, all of the lighting professionals quoted here electively brought up ideas and techniques for creating a greener industry. First and foremost, they noted, is the quality of the light itself, the look and feel that technicians and artists expect and demand to be maintained.  In addition to that, there is the quality of the construction, a very “green” point to consider. By making a more durable product you extend its life, and by extending its life you keep it out of the landfills. The amount of waste in manufacturing is widely known, and the large amounts of optional recycling done by lighting firms creates a greener industry for the front and back doors as well. For example, Paul Royalty points to the switch Mole Richardson made from its traditional maroon color to the current silver anodized heads.  Many speculated that it was a simple effort to re-brand the product with a “sexier look.” But Royalty says it actually came down to an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) issue. “By switching to an anodizing system or dry powder coating and abandoning the painting process,” Royalty explains, “Mole Richardson virtually eliminated the CFCs that we were releasing into the atmosphere.”

One other area that has caught the attention of many green friendly producers, gaffers and cinematographers, is the source of a lamp’s power. While the reality is that less efficient lights are not always an option, we as an industry can make a conscious decision about where we get our power. There are now generators available that run on partial or 100 percent biofuel that contain no diesel and emit very low emissions. Bob Burrell, whose firm Burrell Enterprises, Inc. builds and sells the popular LitePOWER generators, states that it has been his company’s goal to not only provide biofuel powered units, but ones that are built to eliminate leaking fuel into ground, and hence contaminating the water supply. Burrell’s efforts are a clear indication that the choices toward creating a greener industry, and possibly enhance or inspire our creativity with lighting, are more abundant than they have ever been. After all, as Kermit sang so many years ago, “When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why. But why wonder why [I am green]…it’s beautiful. And I think it’s what I want to be.”