Picturehouse Central

Picturehouse Central: A Projectionist’s-Eye View

Work is progressing well ahead of the opening of Picturehouse Central in June. With 4K digital cinema, 70mm film projection capabilities and a Dolby Atmos sound system being installed, the project has been a big challenge for Picturehouse Cinemas’ Head Of Technical Operations, Geoff Newitt, but it will yield extraordinary results: watching a film at Picturehouse Central will be a unique experience. We talked to Geoff about the plans, and he gave us a projectionist’s-eye view of the jewel in the Picturehouse crown.

Watching a film at Picturehouse Central promises to be a unique cinema experience. What are the projection capabilities of the seven screens?

GN: We’ve been able to cover a good range of technical standards, from straightforward 2K digital cinema (DCP) in the smaller screens, up to 4K in the two big ones. There are four RealD 3D screens, including the two large 4K screens – 4K 3D doesn’t exist (yet), but the extra bandwidth available in these projectors means they support high frame rate 3D. It will be possible to take Screen Arts live HD satellite programmes in any of the seven screens, along with smaller live satellite events such as cast-and-crew Q&As – although some of these will be hosted by Central in person. By arrangement, we will be able to handle a wide range of analogue and digital video formats, from consumer DVD to professional HD-CAM SR, although we’ll still have to hire in the player for the real top-end formats.

Sound-wise, all screens as a minimum will support 5.1 digital sound, with a couple also supporting 7.1. We’ve spent a great deal of time and money renovating and updating the sound systems inherited from the previous operators. One of the nice – and unexpected – things about the transition to digital has been the general improvement in sound: ‘lossy’ compressed formats such as Dolby Digital and DTS have been replaced by uncompressed digital sound.

The first big piece of technical news falls under sound. We’ve opted to install a Dolby Atmos system in Screen 1. This is still a very new format that’s not yet widely adopted. We have high hopes for it!

The second big piece of technical news is that alongside the digital equipment, we’re reinstating 35mm in Screen 7, and a dual gauge 70mm/35mm projector in Screen 1.

Finally, we have been able to increase the size of the pictures in almost every screen. Screens 1 and 2 (formerly Screens 2 and 1) see the biggest changes. In fact, Screen 1 will be almost unrecognisable; we’ve removed the rear two or three rows of seats and tiered the floor to improve the sightlines. At the same time, the picture increases from 12.2m wide to 13.9m. Screen 2 grows from 10.1m to 11.5m wide, while several others have useful increases in size and/or corrected aspect ratios.

There’s something old and something new in Screen 1, as it will have 70mm film and 4K DCP projection. What can audiences expect when watching a film in 4K?

I was lucky enough to operate the first 4K projectors in the UK towards the end of my time with Odeon – we conducted field trials for Sony in 2007. So I was able to compare the same film, side by side in 2K digital, 4K digital and 35mm. 4K brings an extra clarity compared with 2K. Don’t misunderstand, 2K is very, very good. Broadly speaking, the difference is comparable to that between 35mm and 70mm: there are four times as many pixels, so inevitably the picture is crisper. You can really see the difference with material shot on a 65mm negative (as 70mm presentations would have been – the ‘extra’ 5mm on the prints accommodated the soundtracks). To my eye, 4K gets closer to the look of the best shot, printed and presented film.

At the technical end of cinema exhibition, we’re in the business of creating illusions in support of a film director’s creative or storytelling vision. 4K allows us to get that bit closer to achieving that. The extra clarity aids in the creation of the illusion, or the suspension of disbelief if you prefer to put it in those terms.

How rare are 70mm and 35mm these days, and why is it important to keep these formats alive?

In my time in cinema (I started in 1991), 70mm has always been rare – a bit special. I am astonished at how quickly 35mm has fallen out of use. I first got my hands on a digital projector in February 2007, and by July 2010 Picturehouse had completed the conversion to digital. Five years later practically every screen in the UK is digital, and 35mm prints are getting hard to obtain. Earlier this year, for example, selected Picturehouse Cinemas took Interstellar in 35mm: there were just ten prints for the UK, and a single 70mm print which is touring the country now, after its West End run. To put that in perspective, a decade ago big releases might have gone out on 500 or 600 35mm prints in the UK. It’s reasonably well known that Gladiator went out globally, day and date, on 8,000 prints. That’s 24,000 miles of film!

While there is still a substantial back catalogue of 35mm prints, it seems highly likely that only directors with the clout of, for example, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino or Terrence Malick will be able to insist on photochemical releases of their movies.

Regarding the importance of maintaining these formats, there are really three reasons. First, it seems most unlikely that the entire back catalogue will be digitised. The conversion process is expensive and, remarkably enough, storage of digitised content is both more expensive and more vulnerable than of the physical copy. So some gems from the past are likely only to be available in legacy formats. Secondly, there are aesthetic questions that an engineer like me is not qualified to answer. For example: to what extent does a digital version of a movie reflect its creator’s intentions? Is the ‘film look’, however you define it, an artefact or part of the experience? The third reason is a matter of heritage. For over 110 years, the movies were film, they were 35mm (or 70mm, or even 16mm). For some people, it’s not really cinema if it’s not film. At Picturehouse, we have kept our film projectors alongside the new digital equipment wherever we’ve had space in the projection room. We’re not so sentimental as to believe that it will ever again be used for more than special screenings (not least because spares are already scarce), but we do want to be able to do those special screenings, and to support those directors who do manage to release prints of their movies.

Do you have a preferred format?

70mm film. Always. I just wish more movies were shot for this format. With modern film stocks, the clarity of images captured in 65mm is just breathtaking. Original three-strip Cinerama is a close second – every show’s an adventure! Alas, it was so cumbersome that only around a dozen movies were ever shot in the format.

I can’t help it – I am mostly persuaded of the benefits of digital cinema. You can do more with it, and in many respects it’s a great deal easier to work with. But I worked intimately with film for 17 years, and it will always be my first love.

“You won’t just hear glass break. You’ll hear each shard flying past you.” Why is Dolby Atmos considered to be so good?

As a format, Dolby Atmos is an extremely sophisticated immersive or 3D sound system. To install it in a cinema, the design process is incredibly stringent.

To dig into that a bit, as well as adding surround speakers on the ceiling, the format breaks away from the idea of a fixed number of channels (5.1 or 7.1 for example) and adopts the idea of ‘object-based’ sound. In a nutshell, when a film is mixed, individual sounds are placed geometrically in the soundscape. During playback the system works out in real time which speakers each sound needs to be fed to in order to achieve that placement. To be able to do this, surround speakers are no longer installed in ‘fields’ – collections of speakers receiving the same signal. Now, each surround speaker has its own amplifier and is fed its own signal. Each Atmos-equipped cinema has as many speakers as the room size dictates. The system is sophisticated enough to take the number of speakers into account when placing sound in the room.

As I mentioned, in the cinema the system design is tightly controlled. Dolby won’t sell a system until they’ve signed off on the make and model of both amplifiers and speakers, not to mention both the position and aiming of every speaker. In Picturehouse Central Screen 1, that’s 36 surrounds (14 of which are on the ceiling), plus three main screen speakers, two conventional subs, and four additional high-level subs to support the surrounds – two behind the screen, and two on the back wall. I think in the end we have 55 channels of amplification!

But what’s the point? Better spatial resolution of movie sound, through better-specified amps and speakers, makes for a more compelling, even realistic viewing experience. Once again, we’re in the business of creating illusions, and this helps us do that.

With seven screens and multiple formats, how big a challenge has this been to undertake?

In general massive, but there have been specific challenges. Atmos is new not just to Picturehouse, but to almost everyone – the expert sent to help us out has installed exactly one system before. Managing the specialist sound and projection contractors on a project of this scale is exponentially harder – it sometimes feels as though half of each day is lost to ‘requests for information’. Then there’s working out how to get the £4,000 screen surface for Screen 1 into the auditorium – it’s delivered in a 7m long, 600mm diameter cardboard tube, and including packaging weighs 80kg. And there is so much to do that it’s often been hard to know where to start! Then there are the smaller things – for example, I’ve been working on this project for two years, and we’ve made so many changes to this enormous and complex building over the last eight months that all my landmarks are gone and I keep getting lost!

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