Digital cinema, and 50 shades of fibre

Wiring up a city for digital cinema is a challenge that would stretch any IT department, but one Berlin has tackled with verve

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Inside the enterprise: Controversially, the Berlin Film Festival, which runs until next Monday in the German capital, was picked for the first showing of 50 Shades of Grey.

Whatever you think of the film and EJ James' novel festival directors thought the opportunity to premiere 50 Shades was too good to turn down. And, like some 1,100 other films at the event, it arrived at the Zoo Palast cinema digitally, over fibre-optic cables.

The Berlin film festival is one of those projects that puts IT on its mettle. Each digital cinema "package" (DCP) is between 150 and 300GB; the festival screens 400 movies, and the associated film market, which runs in parallel, a further 700. In all, 60 cinemas and other venues take part, and there are 2,500 screenings.

Due to the way digital cinema servers work, most of these films have to be delivered overnight, after the last screening and before the first of the next day. The screening servers can struggle to play out a movie to the projectors at the same time as uploading or "ingesting" a DCP.

Add to that the fact directors might be working on a new release until the very last minute, finishing the movie and creating the DCP on a laptop, and it is clear why time is of the essence.

Nor is delivering a digital film easy for festival organisers. Moving to digital does away with the need to distribute physical, 35mm prints. But digital cinema files can include a huge variety of video and audio files. The Berlin Binale employs 15 people to check submissions, to ensure that the movies play the way the director intended.

The festival also has to bring in and store all the movies, and uses two 400TB servers to do this. During the festival, according to Ove Sander, the organisers will transfer around 500TB of data, or around 50TB a day.

Doing this requires a dedicated network. The Binale originally brought in the British networking company COLT to wire up its venues for the opening and closing ceremony broadcasts.

Now, there are some 250km of fibre connecting the cinemas and the festival office and datacentre. Each screen has at least a 500mbps link and most have a 1gbps connection; multiplexes have a 10 gigabit line, and the festival datacentre has multiple, 10 gigabit connections. "We also have dark fibre, where we can put in our own connections and transmit anything from complete DCPs, to Blu-ray and HDCam tape," says Sander.

This might seem a lot of bandwidth, but the pace of development in the movie industry means it is only really basic future proofing. Digital cinemas are already showing 2K and 4K films, but the latest cameras, such as the Red Dragon can film in 6K. And 8K cameras and so movies - are not far off.

And, if all this seems as remote from the daily lives of the CIO as the antics and wealth of Christian Grey, consider this: movie download services are already gearing up to send 4K films over the public internet.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.

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