Server on, curtain up: Digitising Berlinale


Preparations for the digital transformation of the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), started ten years ago with the first digital film being aired in 2010. This was revealed by colourful curtains and a black-and-white film. As the curtains opened, pistons pumped, machines steamed and workers toiled, these were the opening scenes of the seminal silent film Metropolis: the forerunner of modern sci-fi movies, which was first screened in 1927.

Decades later, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and Friedrichstadt Palace were the concurrent settings for the world premiere of the restored version of the film. The Palace is one of eight Berlinale cinemas, which in 2010 were first linked with the Berlinale Film Office, via a dedicated high bandwidth fibre optic network. The video transmission route made it possible to show the film at the two locations simultaneously. It marked the beginning of the end of the analogue Berlinale – thanks to the film festival’s partnership with Colt Technology Services.

Since 2009, Colt has been the official digital cinema partner for the Berlinale, and since 2010, the company has been laying fibre optic cables underneath the pavements and roads in Berlin. Originally, the focus was on the area around Potsdam Square, before expanding to the whole of the city, which allowed the Colt IQ Network to connect the cinemas to the Berlinale film office. The Berlinale’s digital transformation journey began with films being saved on several servers at the festival’s head office. Couriers delivered the films to the office on hard drives, then IT experts checked them and transferred them to the servers. Over time, couriers delivered more and more hard disks instead of the conventional 35mm film reels. “In 2013, our computers were working flat out. The fans blew a constant stream of hot air into the office. Even though it was winter, we had to open the windows to cool them down to a bearable temperature,” says Ove Sander, Berlinale’s Technical Head of Digital Cinema. Since taking on the role in 2005, he has witnessed and driven the festival’s digital transformation. He recalls: “We used to have more than fifty drivers transporting 35mm film reels all over the city. They drove vans and were always in teams of two because the reels were so heavy.”

Since 2014, only data travels around Berlin, made possible by the arrival of Colt’s data centre – the new digital heart of the Berlinale. What’s more, since 2015 the Berlinale has had a direct line to the DE-CIX internet node in Frankfurt. Now, studios and post-production companies can transmit films directly to the Berlinale servers using an upload link. This means a film can travel from Hollywood to Berlin in thirty minutes. The last big step in the digital transformation came in 2018. Now Sander and his team can manage the Berlinale network themselves at the click of a mouse.

What makes this possible is Colt’s Software Defined Networking (SDN) offering and On Demand portal. This technology enables the Berlinale to respond with agility, to load peaks and adjust bandwidth to their requirements in real-time. In the Autumn, the bandwidth requirements grow significantly, as the first contributions arrive in Berlin to be reviewed.

During the festival in February, Berlinale can again scale its bandwidth to between 1Gbps and 10Gbps, depending on the requirement. For the rest of the year, between festivals, the network practically goes into hibernation because of the lower demand for bandwidth. “With SDN, the digital transformation of the Berlinale, is now complete,” adds Sander. At least until the next new technology like virtual reality or glasses-free 3D cinemas changes the market.” Who knows, if this happens, maybe there’ll be another special screening at the Brandenburg Gate. What is known for sure is, when the technology advances, the Berlinale will be ready for it.

To find out more about the partnership between Colt and Berlinale:

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