Data Center

Behind the (tech) scenes at the Berlinale film festival

On the flight from London to Berlin earlier this week I found myself sitting next to some real movie folk. One was American, one was posh and English, and the pair spent the entire journey running through their glamorous schedule (and rehearsing their grand film competition speech) for the Berlinale. By the time we touched down I almost felt part of the world of champagne, red carpets and film industry lustre.

This year’s festival has featured the usual cast of Hollywood stars. An opening night of Trump jibes. And a slew of international premieres covering pertinent political themes. My Berlinale, on the other hand, has been a whistle-stop tour, taking in the four racks of data centre space dedicated to hosting the films, looking down a manhole cover at the transmitting fibre optics and visiting the production offices aiming to get such a vast amount of data ready for screenings. Behind the celebrity and artistic cinema, an event on this scale is a vast logistical operation.

In fact, the city is overrun. The event covers 16 venues, 51 theatres and features 2,500 screenings, in just 10 days. There are endless posters – all featuring a bear in different locations around Berlin. While more prosaically perhaps, each of the 400 odd films has to be safely transported from whatever country they were made in to the relevant venue for their very short run.

The digitisation of this entire process has gradually taken hold of this 66 year old event and has led to many changes in the way things are done. “We used to have a lot of work to do after the festival was over sending films back,” an individual in the Berlinale Film Office, who has worked on the event for last three years, tells me. Now, of course, they can just be deleted.

However, instead of spending a lot of time with the postal services, the mammoth modern task is transferring films from location to location digitally and making sure they’re converted into the official Digital Cinema Packages (DCP). Security is also a big concern – with encryption at the heart of operations – as there are a lot of justified fears around piracy.

Colt Technology Services, which organised my trip, has been the official digital network cinema partner for nine years and has just signed up for another three. It has provided the fibre optic network and collocation services at its data centre in Berlin. Other technology partners include ARRI, Dell EMC, Dolby, Aspera (an IBM company) and Rohde & Schwarz. And the whole event provides an interesting example of digitisation in action because – like the flurry of activity around the Berlinale itself – it requires absolutely up-to-the minute IT services for a tiny window only.

“The festival represents where we’re taking Colt as a company,” says Carl Grivner, Colt’s CEO of one year, during a press briefing. This is partly down to the strategic emphasis on software-defined networking – of which Grivner was a pioneer during his previous tenure at Pacnet – and the aim is to allow customers to make flexible adjustments of their bandwidth based on demand.

For the Berlinale, the bandwidth needs a big increase when the films begin to arrive in the Autumn, Colt explains. In the weeks leading up to festival, when the number of films arriving reaches a peak, the bandwidth needs to be 10Gbit/s. While for the duration of the event the bandwidth is increased as needed from between 1Gbit/s to 10Gbit/s.

At the end of a long day, we visit the Berlinale Film Festival Cinema where Ove Sander, Berlinale technical director of digital cinema stands in front of a real movie red curtain to explain how the glut of data is received in encrypted batches and stored temporarily on a local server. The rotation process needs to be very tight because storage is strictly limited, he says.

There used to be an issue with testing encryption keys, add Sander, but software to automate this process has since been developed and now it is easy to generate, test and send keys to the relevant venue together with the film. In fact, security is such a premium in the industry that projectors are starting to include their own storage systems to prevent potential theft of the material in transit.

Before we get up to leave, we get a chance to go through the back of the cinema and into the projection room itself. It looks just like any other functional work station. The difference is behind all the equipment is an oblong glass window looking out onto the big screen. 


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