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Low res, high impact: Small File Media Festival raises awareness of the carbon footprint of online streaming

August 03, 2021

By Tessa Perkins Deneault

SFU School for the Contemporary Arts professor Laura Marks recently confirmed The Shift Project’s finding that online video streaming accounts for over one per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions–a figure that has spiked since the the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming is a big chunk of the growing carbon footprint of information and communication technologies (ICT) as a whole, currently estimated at almost 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions and growing fast because of data-hungry applications like cryptocurrency.

Along with her research team, engineering professor Stephen Makonin, engineering student Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva and media scholar Radek Przedpełski, Marks’ SSHRC-funded research looks at the impact of Information and Communication Technologies on global emissions. Streaming media includes video on demand, YouTube, video embedded in social media and websites, video conferences, video calls and games.

To raise awareness about this invisible polluter, Marks founded the Small File Media Festival. The second annual event will present 5-megabyte films August 10 – 20 online, with opening and closing festivities at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

Last year’s ace programming committee is back, working with Marks to bring the festival together: artist Faune Ybarra, media scholar Radek Przedpełski, filmmaker Sophia Biedka, media artist Joey Malbon, and poet and youth ambassador Sanjana Karthik.

“The Small File Media Festival is a joyful and fun way to promote consuming less,” says Marks. “We don’t want it to feel like deprivation.” Przedpełski points out that small-file movies create healthy future scenarios, an alternative to unsustainable growth. Biedka adds, “Films don’t have to be big to be bingeworthy!”

This year’s festival includes 100 curated movies from 16 countries, from New Zealand to Colombia to Iran, with a strong showing from Vancouver, which is after all the epicentre of small-file media. Their impressive array of techniques—suspenseful narrative, sensuous imagery, rich soundtracks, and skillful animation, both hand-drawn and digital‚—more than compensate for the small file size. Reviewing this year’s strong submissions, Ybarra noted themes such as diasporic storytelling, geographies of home, strobing bodies, and data visualization vacations. The team curated these gems into programs including “Imaginary Planets,” “Pandemic Technologies,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Small File,” and “Animal Locomotion.” “For some reason we got a lot of movies about bugs this year,” muses Malbon. New this year is a bingeworthy category for series totaling no more 22-megabytes.

Alongside the mini movies, the festival offers forums with local and international artists on small-file aesthetics, small files and the cosmos, a youth panel organized by Karthik, and an “Engineering Heroes” panel featuring some of the international engineers whose calculations of ICT’s carbon footprint inspired the researchers. On the festival site, the team also shares tips and tutorials on small-file creation, from low-tech media to compression techniques. For example, says Marks, “If you decrease the frame rate from 30 frames per second to 14 frames per second, the video has a soft, poetic jerkiness to it.”

This year’s awards will include recognitions from international partners: VIVO Media Art Centre in Vancouver, the Film and Video Poetrry Society in Los Angeles, and the Cairo Video Festival.

The organizers hope that the festival will raise awareness about environmental concerns and encourage people to think about simple ways they can reduce the carbon footprint of their media consumption, including streaming at a lower resolution, keeping your phone for longer, and watching television and DVDs. The research site shares best practices and recommendations for individuals, organizations, telecoms, data centres, and Canadian and international governments. These last include a carbon tax for ICT, regulating addictive design, and, of course, speeding the conversion to renewable energy.

Learn more about Marks’ research and the Small File Media Festival: https://www.sfu.ca/sca/projects---activities/streaming-carbon-footprint.html https://smallfile.ca/