Interview with Stuart Bowling, Dolby, on “Quality Criteria for Today’s Cinema.” - ICTA Interview with Stuart Bowling, Dolby, on “Quality Criteria for Today’s Cinema.” - ICTA

Interview with Stuart Bowling, Dolby, on “Quality Criteria for Today’s Cinema.”

March 2, 2019

By Stuart Bowling

Alan Roe: Next up, we have a presentation on “Quality Criteria for Today’s Cinema.”  Hosting is someone with 30 years’ experience in exhibition working for Warner Bros. International Theaters, in Europe and Asia, as well as serving in technical roles in Warner Bros., Lucas Film THX, and now for many years at Dolby. He’s been involved in the rollout of Dolby 7.1, Dolby Atmos, and now Dolby Vision. He’s a great friend of the ICTA.  And the Director of Content and Creative Relations at Dolby Laboratories, Mr. Stuart Bowling.

Stuart Bowling: Today, filmmakers use a plethora of tools and technologies to immerse audiences in sight and sound to suspend disbelief.  A well-built and calibrated cinema is vital to allowing audiences a distraction-free, comfortable environment where sight and sound can envelop the senses. But oversights and mistakes can and do happen – and they can compromise the experience of your customers. So, what are the key elements that go into building a good cinema experience?  In terms of sound, we need to consider wall isolation, construction, acoustics, design, sound system and equipment, and background noise.  In terms of sight, seating layout, sight lines, distortion, ambient and reflective lighting and other visual distractions all play a role.

All of these elements have to be taken into consideration to help present the best possible cinema experience. We’ll consider some of them today.

If we look at the auditorium, design is key not only to the management of customers efficiently moving through a building, but ultimately as to how they experience the movie. Our goal as an exhibitor is to present the best possible environment to do that – starting with the audio.

Let’s begin with the walls themselves. STC wall rating is the rating given to wall construction; it refers to the amount of noise reduction from adjacent auditoriums.  So, the thing to look for is a good STC rating for noise reduction at different frequencies — and also consider good construction with regards to double walls. It’s always best to try to decouple our auditoriums — in essence, making each a room within a room; and where the architectural joints come together, it’s important to use isolating paths to help decouple any form of structural-born noise.

Sound isolation involves flanking paths, electrical, structural and construction issues. For example, electrical outlets inside theaters are punched into walls and need to be sealed appropriately afterwards. In fact, the whole wall needs to be sealed properly. You can actually lose up to 10 STC rating points just from poor sealing of the wall, so where walls meet – including at the floor and the ceiling — it’s critical to ensure that they are appropriately sealed so there’s no noise intrusion that could potentially take the audience out of the story.

We’ve talked about background noise for years as an industry, yet it still comes up as a problem.  And so we get rattles, rumbling or whistling in the summertime from air conditioning units that are not properly mounted, calibrated, timed and balanced — or register outlets that are improperly sized. I’ve seen examples where the air conditioning system was so unbalanced that the auditorium entrance doors were blowing open and the construction supervisor simply cut another register outlet into the door to allow the air to come out. Of course, that just created even more mayhem because now the audience is hearing everybody in the foyer.

Exit doors and auditorium doors are also challenging for visual distractions as well as audio problems. Not only can noise bleed in, but light can also, including through exit doors on either side of the screen. In some cases, insects may also intrude so it’s important to check and use appropriately-rated doors for your auditoriums – and to check their seals.

In the auditorium itself, the issue with any type of projected image is light control. Today’s movie projectors — on average — are capable of a contrast ratio of around 2,000:1. But depending on the amount of ambient light in the auditorium, audiences aren’t seeing 2,000:1 on that screen; they’re seeing images that can look washed out – or they’re seeing other distractions — and they create a negative impact on the audience. This can all be mitigated by better control of the ambient light – and better control of reflective light — inside the theater.

Some of that reflective light may be coming from lighted decorations or surfaces inside the auditorium. If there are bright colors or ornate decorations, they may look great for the esthetic taste of the owner, but there may still be some light bouncing off the screen when the room goes dark — so it’s not a great experience for a movie-goer. It’s important to remember that in any auditorium, 95% of the time there’s a movie going on with the lights off – and so in essence, we just want a black box.  It’s bland, it’s black, but it’s perfect for the environment that we want.  We want people to forget about where they are; we want them to be lost in the moment.

The other biggest bane of our industry are the Exit lights; since exit doors tend to be close to the screen, they sometimes cast an “incredible hulk” green glow onto the edges of the picture. Fortunately, over the years, some laws have changed in different countries — and even some cities have their own ordinances. In the UK, for example, emergency lighting systems only have to be on for the first X-number of minutes inside a theater.  Once the movie starts, the exit lights go off; if the power goes off, they come back on. In the Netherlands, also, the exit sign is off until there is an issue and then it comes on. My point is — you should check your local ordinances and work with your architect to find a solution.

LED lighting provides another challenge; it’s cost-efficient, lasts a long time, but doesn’t cast a diffuse glow like an incandescent light. LEDs are almost telescopic and the amount of light that they project acts like a mini-projector. So, in particular, pay attention to the seating because a number of seat manufacturers are now putting LED lighting in them to illuminate the seat number or its control mechanisms.  Some of these lights are on the front of the seats and are casting blue light onto your screens. Be aware of that and work with your seat manufacturers to find better covers that focus the light down — not scatter it back at the audience. And for movie-goers sitting at the end of the row, be careful of having floor lighting cascading back at them as they’re trying to watch a movie. It becomes very distracting.

Finally, everything behind your screens should be matte black. Still today, we find silver mounts – and they become glaring little monsters waving at the audience. And everything near the screen should have a matte finish.  For example, don’t put any kind of glossy wax sealant on the floor, down at the front. It may help Coke spills that make their way down there, but it really also creates more reflective light to scatter.

Of course, there are many more specifics we could cover, but they all come down to this: As a business, you need always to put your best foot forward, to have all the details involving sight and sound taken care of so your audiences know: hey, this is the cinema, this is the destination, this is the place to have an amazing shared movie experience with your friends and family — and to come back and see us again.

(Further information on this topic from Stuart Bowling speaking at our 2018 Summer Seminar is available via the link(s) below.

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