New designs for new technologies: Cinema innovations inspire architectural alternatives


The rollout of digital projection is steaming toward completion. Over two-thirds of the movie screens in the U.S. and Canada are now digital. Hong Kong and Norway are 100% digital. According to John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, film print distribution will likely end domestically in late 2013.

We are often asked about the impact of digital projection on the design of movie theatres and about the potential of boothless cinema. Christie and CineGenesis offer equipment solutions that incorporate the projection equipment into the auditorium envelope. We have explored many architectural options that can combine projection into auditoriums. All are viable options with advantages and disadvantages, depending on your objectives. These solutions provide more flexibility in auditorium configuration and hold potential for converting existing spaces to cinema use. Among the technological considerations:

• Achieve adequate throw distance, generally limited to 1.2 times screen width for 2K projection and 1.07 for 4K projection.
• Provide stability for projection equipment to maintain image quality and alignment.
• Consider sound dampening when equipment is located within the auditorium and the impact of internal equipment on sound-system quality
• Locate other cinema equipment such as sound racks, servers, automation and controls in optimal spaces.

High Frame Rates
One of the most exciting advancements in cinema is the use of higher frame rates. This technology is being driven by content creators like James Cameron and Peter Jackson who want to capitalize on the increased clarity possible through increased frame rates. For decades, 35mm film utilized a 24 FPS frame rate. This was the maximum practical speed that could be achieved for film running through a projector. With digital, there is no longer a need to limit the creative community. Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 FPS. We saw a part of the movie at CinemaCon this year, and I can tell you that the broad landscape shots were spectacular. In my opinion, the presentation was not as satisfying for more intimate scenes. However, this choice should be left to the content creators to determine the best way to convey their stories. Version 2 digital projectors can be upgraded to accommodate higher frame rates by replacing the integrated media block.

3D Audio
Dolby unveiled their Atmos sound system at CinemaCon, and this technology has great potential to improve the cinema experience. Rather than limiting itself to a specific number of sound channels, as has been the case in previous Dolby sound systems, it offers an infinite number of channels. This leaves the choice to the creative community to best decide how to utilize sound to convey the mood and message. According to a promotional piece, the Dolby Atmos platform “was designed to really give the creative community new ways to tell a story. Sound is such an important part of that movie experience. The role of sound is to give you, the audience, the feeling of what is happening…to make you feel the power of that action.”

We are currently incorporating the Atmos system into six auditoria of an entertainment facility under construction. All six are large premier auditoria and we are eager to hear the results.

So much of the recent attention has been focused on digital and 3D projection. I am very encouraged by the potential of these new 3D sound systems to significantly differentiate the movie auditorium from other entertainment options available to today’s tech-savvy consumer.

Laser Projection
I recently talked with Peter Ludé about digital projection and future developments. Peter has many roles—he is a senior VP of solutions engineering for Sony, president of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and chairman of the Laser Illuminated Projection Association. Our discussion, initially, was about the elimination of the projection booth with digital cinema. However, we could not help but talk about the future and the potential advantages of laser projection.

Barco presented a demonstration of a prototype laser projector at the Giant Screen Cinema Association in Galveston, Texas, in January. There are regulatory and financial challenges to the use of laser technology in the U.S. Peter told me, “A laser-illuminated projector doesn’t really represent any more optical hazard than the Xenon projectors that we have been using for over 50 years.” NATO is also working with Congress to try to resolve this issue.

There are several significant advantages to using laser technology as the light source for projection including:

• Lower operating costs due to less energy consumption and much longer light-source life
• Better brightness efficiency, particularly important in 3D since the DCI level of 4.5 foot-lamberts can be improved significantly using lasers
• Higher contrast ratios possible
• Extended color range possible

Peter also suggested that future digital projectors, designed specifically for laser technology, would not need to have the light source in the projector housing. There could be a central laser light farm, connected to the projector via fiber-optic cables. This opens up even more possibilities for truly boothless digital cinema.

Interactive and Alternative Content
All of the new auditorium technology makes alternative content a viable and realistic possibility for many venues. In the U.S., the Metropolitan Opera has been the most successful program added to cinemas’ show schedules. Live music and sporting events have also been successful. These events can be projected in 3D, further enhancing the experience.

Convertible Auditorium
One very interesting aspect of 4D and 5D cinema and alternative content is flexibility in the auditorium. We have new technology for picture and sound. Will we see an extension of that technology to other components of the auditorium which could impact how seating and platforms are arranged?

TK Architects International has developed a design of a convertible, or re-configurable, auditorium. Peak moviegoing hours are weekends, especially weekend evenings. Exhibitors have been exploring ways to bring more people into their facilities during non-peak hours. Rental of spaces and alternative-content presentations are prime examples of ways exhibitors can generate additional revenue in their auditoriums. In both cases, users are given a room designed and equipped primarily for motion pictures. What if the seating and platforms could be easily rearranged to be more conducive to their needs? This flexibility allows for easy conversion to a customized space designed for their specific use which can lead to higher revenue per use and much higher space utilization.

All of these cutting-edge advancements are very exciting for those of us that love gadgets and technology. As Matt Cuson of Dolby said in a recent Film Journal International article on Atmos, we are “elevating the art of storytelling and the art of the cinema experience, getting people out of their homes to come to the theatres.”

It is the shared social experience that the cinema creates that patrons pay to experience.

Michael Cummings is a principal at TK Architects International in Kansas City, Missouri. You can reach Mike at or 816-842-7552. ©TK Architects International 2012