World Agenda

Last updated: 21 january, 2011 - 16:24 GMT

Filming an electric car’s epic journey

Director Claudio Von Planta with the Racing Green team

Director Claudio Von Planta with the Racing Green team

Award-winning director Claudio Von Planta describes his five-month, 26,000km journey from Alaska to Argentina, filming a team of engineering students determined to test their electric supercar to its limits.

I found out about Racing Green when project manger Alex Schey got in touch after he had seen my previous documentary films.

He explained the project to me and I met the five young engineers from Imperial College, London, who designed and built the electric car.

I immediately had a good feeling about the dynamic within the team. A bunch of guys with a crazy idea and an interest in new technology was a recipe for a good story.

The combination of adventure with a clear purpose fascinated me – to promote electric car technology by pushing the limits of the vehicle in extreme conditions.

Act natural

I had to point out that driving like crazy to make up time between legs was problematic, as it takes time to get good shots during filming.

Director Claudio Von Planta

I met the team of engineers in a London workshop and started filming them in November 2009, following them around for a couple of days a week. In March 2010, the car was running for the first time and by May, with some fine tuning, the car was ready.

When it came to documenting the journey, I had to explain to the team how the filming process works.

During filming, I needed everybody to be as natural as possible, not noticing the camera much and carrying on regardless.

When the team had something to say, I taught them to talk straight into the camera, so the audience would feel like they are being involved and addressed directly.

Efficient filming

The Racing Green team had six deadlines for important press conferences en route, for which they couldn’t afford to be late.

I had to point out that driving like crazy to make up time between legs was problematic, as it takes time to get good shots during filming.

Fortunately, I found support from two motorcyclists along the way. I bumped into the first in a motorcycle shop car park in Alaska when he recognised me from previous documentaries I had made, and the second, a day after I put out a message on Twitter requesting help.

Claudio Von Planta filming the supercar from the back of a motorcycle

Claudio Von Planta filming the supercar from the back of a motorcycle

On their motorbikes, I could sit on the back and film alongside the car – a much more efficient way of filming, as I could race ahead of the car with my tripod and get ready for the next shot without having them stop each time.

Biggest set-back

Mechanical problems were inevitable along the way, as it was a prototype electric car.

The team also suffered a crash while doing a demonstration in Ecuador - the driver miscalculating the break time and hitting a concrete wall. The front end of the car took a week to repair.

However, the biggest set-back was a fire which happened after the shipment from Panama to Columbia. After the panic had subsided, it took a further two weeks to replace the burnt cables.

Helpful people

With documentary film-making, the scenery is one of the highlights. And again and again, the areas people often tell you to avoid turn out to be the best places to visit.

We were warned about bandits, drug barons and kidnappers in parts of Mexico, Central America and Columbia. These were the places where we had the most amazing time.

While there are problems in these areas, you do find that people are happy to help.

Ongoing worries

The Racing Green team celebrate reaching their final destination, Ushuaia in Argentina

The Racing Green team celebrate reaching their final destination, Ushuaia in Argentina

I found the project an extremely worthwhile experience, but there were moments on the trip where I was nervous.

There was always the fear at the back of my mind that they might have a bad accident or a big problem just before they reached the finishing line.

Few would be interested in a film that documents a wholly unsuccessful journey, but thankfully the team came through with flying colours in the end.

Completely embedded

I realised it would be difficult to predict how long filming would take. The team originally thought they would be on the road for three months and it turned out to be five.

Including filming whilst the car was being built, I was on the project for a year. Out of financial necessity I produced the documentary on my own to keep the cost down.

From San Francisco onwards I asked two colleagues to help out on editing and with the second camera. In post-production both of them were involved in editing the series, having the advantage of already being familiar with the footage.

The other advantage to working solo was that my presence was more easily accepted by the team. Eventually I felt completely embedded, which is the best position for a documentary-maker.

Racing Green is being aired on BBC World News, Saturday and Sunday evenings, until 20 February

Claudio Von Planta was interviewed by Hayley London

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