The ecological impact of film conservation

Famous actors such as Bulle Ogier, Valeria Golino and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the directors Jane Campion, Paolo Sorrentino and Joachim Trier as well as Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos and Margaret Bodde from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation were among the guests at Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux’s Lumière Festival. “Classics and world heritage masterpieces to find, restore, have them circulate, finance, preserve, project, admire for the common good: this is the tireless work that we all carry out in our professions”, says Thierry Frémaux.


Conservation, which consumes a lot of energy and space, remains a major issue for the sector. In the past, 35mm, 16mm and 70mm material, cuts, all kinds of film elements were be kept in proper storage rooms. Today, it is possible to make digital data available 24/7 in data centers but the ecological impact can be tremendously. At the Marché International du Film Classique (MIFC) in Lyon, the ecological impact of film conservation was discussed by industry experts at a roundtable, moderated by Hans-Nikolas Locher, Director of Development at CST.


Julien Tricard, President of the Media Club Green, kicked off the "Conservation and restoration: an ecological challenge for tomorrow" discussion with a keynote: "This is a first, a historic moment, during which we will ask this question about ecology and heritage cinema. I am happy that this is being done at the MIFC because we are all here ecologists, all concerned about the environment, because we are concerned about heritage cinema, which is actually a handover for future generations. A notion of heritage in good condition, a notion of transmission that is close to ecology."


If it comes to film preservation, the digital technology keeps changing so rapidly that some formats becomes obsolete so that it causes trouble to recover material from ten years from now.  For Nikolaus Wostry, Managing Director of Film Archive Austria, the survival of the cultural heritage is a political question. “As an archive we can keep artefacts but we don’t have any artefacts anymore. In the digital age, there is an endless need to take care to preserve the material", states the film archivist.


“We have most of our nitrate film collection. We keep it as long as we don’t have to migrate.” Ninety-seven percent of the material in the Austrian archive remains unseen since many decades. “That is not a business model. It is expensive to keep things alive”, states Nikolaus Wostry. “If we stop digital preservation, the films will be gone. The loss will be enormous in the future. We make decisions about life and death.”


To store films digitally in data centers so that they are available 24/7 can lead to a huge carbon footprint. This depends on various elements such as the location of the data center, the cooling system, the energy mix as well as the kind of connection that is used for the data transfer the data. For the evaluation Cédric Lejeune, founder of the French company Workflowers, looks at all the different parameters. “Carbon is an abstraction that allows us to try to measure many different things with a single figure. However, in environmental issues, particularly in climate change, it is no longer a component of the environmental challenge. There is also the challenge around resources.”


Whenever data are transferred from one device to a newer technical system, it also has to take into account that this process leads to hardware obsolescence, as Birgit Heidsiek, founder of Green Film Shooting pointed out. “We have a massive e waste problem.” According to Global E-waste Monitor about 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) was generated in 2019. This year, the worldwide mountain of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) is estimated to reach 57.4 million tonnes. In the EU, the per capita consumption of electrical and electronic waste comes up to nine kilograms in average. “In Pixar’s Wall E it took about 700 years to turn our planet into a landfill. If the hardware obsolescence will be continued at this rate, we might get there even faster.”


Photo: © MIFC

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