Peerless in Seattle: Enhanced Cinerama selects cream of the technology crop

Cinemas Features

“Customers’ reactions to the new and improved features have been very positive,” enthuses Ryan Hufford, senior systems engineer for Vulcan Inc. and an integral part of the team effort behind the latest and, without doubt, greatest upgrade to the famed Cinerama theatre in Seattle, Washington. “We conducted a survey at one of the first showings after the grand reopening, and many comments we received focused on the new food, better seating, and the immersive experience that the sound and sight technology now brings.”

The public-relations team at Allison+Partner adds that, within the first two weeks of opening, there were more than 1,200 mentions of Cinerama on Twitter and more than 500 Facebook posts. GeekWire’s story about the reopening, celebrated on Nov. 20, 2014 (“The World’s Greatest Movie Theater? Paul Allen’s Cinerama gets a massive, high-tech upgrade”), was shared more than 4,500 times. Let’s see if we can beat that with this article!

Film Journal International is pleased to provide an exclusive look at the technological changes implemented in making this legendary widescreen showcase–which opened in 1963, one year after the World’s Fair had come to town–an equally remarkable landmark of modern cinema times. It was purchased by Vulcan Inc. founder and chairman Paul G. Allen in 1998 when the theatre was facing demolition, and this latest endeavor marks the venue’s fourth and most substantial renovation since.

“Cinerama has been a cornerstone of Seattle’s arts and culture history for 50 years and I’m proud to continue its legacy,” Allen noted for the reopening. “The enhanced Cinerama utilizes the most advanced technology, while maintaining the nostalgia many of us share for this theatre, creating an unparalleled cinema experience for the community.”

In the cinema technology community, all eyes (and ears) have been on Cinerama as well, not only because of its dual Christie 6P laser projectors and audio systems by Dolby Laboratories and Meyer Sound. On a non-technical note for the upgrade, the theatre expanded its menu to include beer (Elysian and Fremont brewing companies on tap), wine (Proletariat Wine) and hard cider (Seattle Cider Company).

“Many of our loyal patrons have given very positive feedback on the additions,” Hufford says. “These new offerings have greatly added to the experience of our adult customers, while not inhibiting their ability to visit the theatre with younger family members.”

Hufford, who spearheaded the roughly three-and-a-half-month-long rehab beginning in early August 2014, offers his valuable insider’s perspective in the accompanying Q&A. We also reached out to the manufacturers and service providers whose products and advancements were selected to participate in this project.

First off is the installation of the world’s first commercial digital laser projection solution. The 4K Christie Duo 6P laser-illumination, with scalable light output up to 60,000 lumens, is currently using six 208V circuits to generate 32,000 lumens per projector. “We’re getting 14 foot-Lambert 2D, and 13 foot-Lambert 3D at Scope, which is our largest image size,” confirms George Scheckel, Christie’s director of business development. “Guest reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone comments on the image clarity and brightness with 3D. I have also heard many comments about the lack of ‘3D fatigue.’”

Dolby Laboratories credits the dual projector system setup, in particular. “Single-head solutions say they can deliver 60,000 lumens, but the actual light output from them is 30,000 lumens. By delivering continuous laser light images to both eyes at the same time, Christie’s 6P product…produces up to 100,000 true 3D lumens, all the time using only half of the laser modules that a single-head projector would require.”

Christie’s Duo brings the number of projectors inside the main booth to five, along with as many equipment racks and the occasional film-related equipment. To make this work, “MiT designed a custom precision horizontal and vertical travel track system with projector bases to align, support and provide service access to the laser projectors,” says operations executive VP Bevan Wright. Moving iMage Technologies “worked closely with the installation team to get them exactly what they needed for this high-profile installation.”

Moving on to sound, speaker arrays were reconfigured in the process, bringing the total number from previously 60 loudspeakers to 110 now, including the first install of the HMS-15, the newest high-power surround from Meyer Sound, in any movie theatre. Another five Meyer Acheron main screen-channel loudspeakers are also part of the mix that represents the first time that Meyer products have been used in Seattle. By contrast, Cinerama has utilized Dolby technologies for the past few decades, ranging from 70mm magnetic Dolby Stereo, to Dolby SR, to Dolby Atmos, of course.

Dolby notes that one of the challenges involved how to fit today’s sound into a building that was built for stereo sound. “The building was retrofitted for Dolby Atmos by placing overhead speaker channels into the unique waveform ceiling,” the company advises. “Cinerama also improved the acoustics by adding insulation on the side walls and installing seats that have acoustic properties.” In addressing these challenges, Seattle Cinerama once again counted on the “ACE” performance of American Cinema Equipment, says company president and chief executive officer Scott Hicks. “We are the exclusive dealer/integrator at Cinerama ever since Paul Allen purchased the theatre. ACE has been intimately involved with every technology upgrade. Our people personally operate the vintage Cinerama three-projector film system when they present Cinerama festivals and provide all maintenance and service for them as they move forward. For this project, we worked closely with the theatre’s project engineer, Ryan Hufford, and its general manager, Greg Wood.”

In film formats alone, elaborates ACE systems engineer Scott Kimber, Seattle Cinerama “can play back 70mm in full-track magnetic, Dolby Mag, Full Track DTS, and 5.1 DTS. 35mm films can be heard in Dolby Digital, four-track magnetic, and optical, along with three-strip Cinerama with three projectors interlocked together with the magnetic soundtrack. The theatre has 10 stage speakers, 10 stage subwoofers, 80 surround speakers, and 10 surround subwoofers (bass extension). There are an additional nine stage speakers wired in for use when they switch to the Cinerama screen.”

Kimber devised the custom way in which audio from any one of the digital or film projectors connects to 14 BSS London DSP processors. With no less than 140 inputs and 132 outputs, he says, those “BSS Londons do any parametric equalization, delays, crossovers, mixing and routing needed to seamlessly connect the audio from whichever projector they use” into the loudspeakers which are wired discretely throughout the auditorium. “The Dolby CP850 is used for processing and final equalization, and [we are] able to switch into Dolby Atmos when needed.”

“We spent two weeks alone on the final audio calibration of the theatre, working directly with Meyer and Dolby.” Kimber himself worked some 400 of the 600 job hours on-site. “Balancing and mixing the audio channels for the balcony and the zones underneath the balcony took a lot of time. We were making sure that every patron has the same Dolby Atmos experience, no matter where they sit. In most cinemas, in areas like these it is nearly impossible to obtain audio that is not muddy or difficult to understand. I designed this system to give us the audio tools needed to make this theatre the best it could be.”

Evidently, being the best also included installing the best screen (and seats) available. “The choice of a Harkness Matt Plus screen delivered a solution where vibration of the screen was not required to mitigate laser speckle.” The manufacturer’s chief technical officer, David Harrison, addresses our question. “Challenges remain to keep laser speckle to an acceptable minimum when gain screens are chosen to increase screen center brightness and lower laser projector investment cost. Harkness Screens are also developing new ‘Laser Perlux’ surfaces that do not require screen vibration when using 6P laser projection systems.”

A lot of smartly designed moving-around is required to reveal the deep-curve Cinerama screen that still sits behind the Harkness Matt Plus (see Q&A). “The original screen strips are constructed from woven canvas that was painted with a matt-white coating and is likely to be acceptable for laser projection without need for vibration.” Commenting on its audio properties, Harrison adds, “While painting the strips white would have blocked most of the open weave, the sound would have access between the vertical strips.” In view of their need of refurbishment, “the challenge is to find the original 1960s canvas used on the screen and also the clips required for each strip. Today’s projection screens are manufactured from flexible PVC that would curl and is not acceptable for Cinerama strips,” Harrison admits. “I wish that I could locate a roll of the old canvas and provide a new Cinerama strip screen for Seattle.”

Figueras Seating provided all new Mega Series seats, which the company’s U.S.-based VP Robert DeVries calls “the most highly developed chair in the industry…installed in more giant screens around the world than any other chair.” Seattle Cinerama “replaced the seating a few years back, but the existing chair was not adequate for the comfort, design or quality that they were looking for today. The installation and production were done under extreme design and production timing,” DeVries says, taking pride in the “fast turnaround” of the project. “This was a great success and Abbott Construction along with the Vulcan team were top professionals…to work with.” Cupholder-equipped models Smart Chair 13011 (rocker with pneumatic lift mechanism) and 13030 (fixed back) were installed in the orchestra and balcony, respectively.

Originally scheduled to receive 600 seats, Vulcan’s Ryan Hufford explains the reasons why the complexity of the auditorium reconfiguration led to 570 for balcony and orchestra instead, as part of our Q&A. But seating is also the subject of his parting thoughts about what Cinerama guests are enjoying about the newly improved place. “Most people are particularly excited about the more comfortable seats and extra legroom. New, wider chairs…offer the most premium seating options of any theatre in Seattle.”

Peerless indeed.

Want to see the upgrade yourself? Check out this video on the transformation of the Cinerama. Disclaimer: After watching, you may find yourself compelled to book a flight to Seattle.

The Transformation of Seattle's Cinerama Theatre from Dolby Laboratories on Vimeo.

This Is Cinerama! An Exclusive Q&A with Ryan Hufford, Senior Systems Engineer, Vulcan Inc.

How did the team at Seattle Cinerama select the equipment and related manufacturers?
We have known that we wanted to install Dolby Atmos since 2013. Finding the time to make this update took a lot of planning and attention to schedule. When the decision was made to kick off the overall project, Dolby Atmos became one of the technology focal points. Vulcan assembled a group of industry veterans comprised of representatives from Vulcan Technology, American Cinema Equipment, and Visioneering Design Co. to drive the direction on sound. This team met with several speaker manufacturers and listened to their products from April to June 2014. Meyer Sound was chosen to provide the speaker system throughout the theatre due to their exceptional engineering, smooth undistorted sound, and overall build quality.

Cinerama has had a great relationship with Christie since 2010 when the theatre’s first digital projector was installed. When they announced their laser products, it was a perfect opportunity to continue that relationship and get involved in this exciting new direction for projection technology.

Even considering this great relationship with Christie, what motivated you “to take a chance” on 6P laser-illuminated projection? It is still early in the development.
We saw the early demonstrations at CinemaCon 2014 and NAB 2014 and were just blown away with the 3D clarity of the 6P system. In addition, Christie uses dual projectors for their 6P system which contributed to image brightness, and helped with 3D fatigue caused by other single-projector L/R flash systems. With Christie’s dual-head 6P system, the projectors always run at native content frame rates with both images onscreen simultaneously. The other big contribution to image quality is the use of a matt-white screen [by Harkness]. With the brightness the laser systems provide, we were able to go from the previous 2.4-gain silver screen to a 1.0-gain matt-white screen. The image uniformity is striking, and you can sit anywhere in the theatre and get the same perfect image quality. The Christie dual-head 6P projectors and Dolby 3D glasses are much more efficient than any other 3D system available. You notice this right away when the film begins through a brighter image that is completely uniform with high contrast and excellent color reproduction.

Did you have Dolby 3D before as well, or was this move prompted by the unique opportunity the laser illumination provides?
We did not have Dolby 3D prior to this update. Dolby has aligned closely with Christie in the development of the 6P laser system and is the only provider for 6P 3D glasses. With Dolby taking a large role in the technology package with Dolby Atmos, collaborating with them on the glasses was an easy step for us. We worked closely with Dolby on the development of their glasses and helped vet iterations of the product before they produced the CAT 8461-CHR1 glasses now in use. This is the first location to use these products, and we are quite pleased with the results of these early-stage models.

With everyone and everything gone digital, let’s talk about what makes Seattle Cinerama truly special. Please describe the 70/35mm and three-strip Cinerama equipment. Is there room for it all?
Cinerama has two Kinoton combination 35/70 film projectors in “Baker” booth, and one Cinerama projector in “Able,” “Baker” and “Charlie” booths. “Baker” is a very complex booth currently housing five projectors. Use of each is accomplished through a track system [by Moving iMage Technologies] that allows the projectors to move into position as needed. We were able to keep all of these projectors in the booth and ready for use any time. The Cinerama projectors in “Able” and “Charlie” are permanently mounted. We do have plans to continue running 35/70 film and Cinerama three-strip in the future. [For those unfamiliar with the A-B-C booth concept, and Cinerama in general ("the biggest thing since penicillin”), check out in70mm’s “Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Cinerama!” by Thomas Hauerslev.]

Along with the Cinerama projection equipment, you also have the original screen behind the new one from Harkness?
Yes, we are keeping the Cinerama screen in place. In fact, no changes to the 1998 era multi-screen system were made other than the new Harkness Matt Plus surface and some baffle wall modifications for stage channel speakers.

The main screen is made up of 11 towers that assemble together to make the main THX baffle wall. The screen attaches to frame sections on the towers. Each tower has integrated caster wheels. During Cinerama events, the main screen is taken down and each tower is rolled into the back of house areas, exposing the Cinerama screen. The Cinerama screen is composed of three sections, and the left/right sections move into place on a track system.

Sounds like you managed to include the classic equipment very well. Did you encounter any particular challenges/opportunities when you added the latest bells and whistles? What solutions did you find?
We had several challenges to overcome: The revised seating plan on the main floor was extremely challenging. Each row is a terrace or step. In order to create more legroom, we needed to remove rows. Since each row is its own step, the challenge was to create a new, regular cadence of steps on top of those existing. In addition, there were load limitations on the existing concrete slab. Studio 440 and Abbott Construction worked together to solve this problem and the results are outstanding.

Integrating Dolby Atmos into Cinerama was another challenge. The curved ceiling has a very iconic design aesthetic, and is also an acoustic device. We were sensitive to the idea of just hanging speakers from this. Also, speakers that would hang far below the ceiling created sightline issues for guests seated in the balcony. Studio 440 devised the “service channel” design that allowed us to recess the speakers into two long voids. This keeps the top channel speakers tucked away and gives the theatre a new look.

The THX baffle was revised to accommodate proper location of the new stage channel speakers. When originally constructed, the stage speakers were mounted too low on the wall. This produced a number of audio issues we wanted to address during the project. In order to fix these problems, each baffle tower was extended four feet higher and the five new Meyer Sound Acheron stage speakers we installed at the correct heights. We worked with Dolby engineers to locate the speaker properly during design. Actual steel and baffle modifications were handled by Abbott Construction and their subcontractors. Though it was a bigger job than anyone had thought it would be, the improved sound quality made it all worth the effort.

Did you find any specific challenges setting up the laser-illuminated projection?
The first was “Baker” booth space planning. Since this booth has five projectors, five equipment racks, a film rewind table, and occasionally accommodates a film platter, making it all fit took a group effort. Use of the track system was key to making this work.
We wanted to keep the new laser projectors as close together as possible. Initially we wanted to use a dual-stack configuration, but the balcony overhang prevented this since it interfered with the upper beam of the top projector. Fortunately, Christie’s Duo system solved this issue. The secondary projector is positioned to the left of the primary unit, and is rotated 90 degrees. The secondary image then hits a mirror before exiting the booth. The beauty of Duo is that is allows the two lenses to be located vertically and very closely together. This maintains image alignment very well.

Of these changes, which ones seem to get the biggest reaction? What provides the biggest bang for the exhibitor’s buck?
Most people are particularly excited about the more comfortable seats and extra legroom. New, wider chairs manufactured by Figueras offer the most premium seating options of any theatre in Seattle. The chairs include built-in pneumatic cylinders for reclining and sport a faux leather red fabric to match the Cinerama theatre color palette. The number of seats in Cinerama’s auditorium has been reduced from 798 chairs to 570 chairs to allow for the increased legroom, resulting in more than two feet of space between the existing rows.

By the Numbers:

Harkness Matt Plus screen, 66.6 x28.9 feet (20.3 x 8.8 m)

Christie Dual-Head 6P Laser Projector
6P Laser Dolby 3D
6 208V circuits powering the laser systems

Dolby CP850 Cinema Processor
Dolby Atmos Sound
11 208V and eight 120V circuits powering the audio system

Prior to this upgrade, Cinerama had 60 speakers; now it has 110:
First commercial installation of the Meyer HMS15 surround speaker (four installed)
110 Meyer Sound loudspeakers, all self-amplified
10 Meyer Sound X-800C subwoofers for LFE, six 500-HP and four UMS-1XP subs for surround bass management
11 BSS London processors for audio routing and distribution
6,500 sq. ft. (604 sq. m) of acoustic insulation added to the room to improve acoustic response
6,000 ft. (1.83 km) Belden 1502R speaker cable used for surround speakers

Nine months’ rotation time for movie and television memorabilia on display inside the theatre lobby, courtesy of the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Currently, costumes from major films including Star Wars, Austin Powers and Batman are on display.