Making the best of what you have, with professional upgrades on a budget
This article sprang from an unusual source — a crie de coeur from a volunteer at The Connaught, Worthing. Having seen that CT regularly features state-of-the-art cinemas, he wanted to tell the world a different kind of success story. Owned and operated by Worthing Borough Council, on a limited local-government budget, the Connaught is keeping up with the technologies needed to provide a first-class experience, by building relationships with local companies and using technical skills and know-how of its in-house team. The Connaught’s success comes down to ‘getting the best out of what you’ve got’, so I went to meet the team.
There is a long history of cinema on the site, originally built as the Picturedrome in 1914 with 850 seats. The Connaught Hall (later known as the Ritz for some periods) was built next door in 1916. Since 1987 the site has operated as two dual use cinema/theatres, the Connaught Theatre seating 520 and the Connaught Cinema and Studio, 162. The cinemas are increasingly popular and run a full schedule of mainstream and specialist titles alongside a couple of theatre shows each week. Programming is done through film officer James Tully in conjunction with Picturehouse, and there are about 12,000 cinema visitors a month.
Enthusiasm and ability
Martin Wright is the technical manager leading a team of six enthusiastic technicians responsible for all technology (both for theatre and cinema) in the two adjacent buildings — access to the two projection/control rooms was via an external staircase between the buildings. Remarkably, they attend to technical needs of two other Worthing theatre venues too, the Pavilion Theatre and Assembly Hall.
Kristian Bell, senior technician for the past nine years, showed me around and, with part-time technician Bryan Donnelly, an ex-Odeon projectionist, talked to me about the cinemas and recent improvements made to their sound and lighting systems. Both screens (each 29ft wide when in ‘Scope) have NEC 2000C projectors, fed from Doremi servers. There is 35mm film projection available from an old but good FP20 (the lamp-house was converted from carbon arc) and tower system in the Studio. Both cinemas have flat white screens from Powells that can be used with Dolby 3D, and the screen in the Theatre rolls up to reveal a large stage area behind. The last time the 35mm kit was used in earnest was last year for a Star Trek presentation made up from old prints, part of a season of 1986 classic films. The equipment is kept in good order and was in action earlier this year, and they were disappointed not to be able to get a 35mm print of Dunkirk from the distributors — it would have been of great interest to locals. There are Dolby CP750 sound processors for digital in both screens, and a CP650 for use with 35mm
There are many volunteers among the front of house staff and the theatres get involved with local schools, encouraging visits and sometimes providing ‘treat days’ — special tours to reward children who have done particularly well.
The latest control systems
The first thing you notice in each of the auditoria is that these are real theatres with all the plush magnificence of an earlier age — wonderful venues for watching films and totally different to a multiplex ‘shoe-box’.
The fully remote-controlled curtains swished open to reveal a cinema screen with fully adjustable tabs — Kristian controlled everything from his iPad whilst we sat in the auditorium. An extensive ELS automation system controls a DMX lighting system, sound and projection. This has been fitted tidily into the plinth of the NEC projector. They use a lot of automation with their playlists, controlling masking, tabs, houselights etc. and use toggle signals going to infrared systems (switching between live audio and server audio), signals to bar and foyer speakers, to select different genres of house music, and the server is connected to the theatre’s DMX system, allowing lighting scenes and special effects to be created in playlists. Showmanship is important here.
Servicing and maintenance is done by Sound Associates, and Kristian values the work of SA engineer Will Phillips, who lives locally and has often helped out with valuable advice and guidance when they are considering modifications or new equipment installs. The team can create their own DCPs for in-house advertising and local features. I was interested to see a 15TB storage computer (built by Connaught staff) which pre-dates the arrival of the MPS LANsat and Unique servers. Films are delivered via MPS’s LANsat, Movie Transit and Arqiva — with only about 10% of content now arriving on hard drives.
Recent upgrades — lighting and sound
As a council-run venue, budgets are tight, so to keep up with improving technology the Connaught has had to take a different approach from a normal chain. They use their own team to do virtually all the design and installation work and the recent improvements in auditorium lighting are a good example. In February, Worthing Theatres installed new tiered seating into the studio space using installers Specialists In Seating, creating new bar/ foyer areas and changing the shape of the auditorium. It was then down to the technical team to change all the lighting fixtures in all these spaces. They designed, made and installed fixtures and controls for the auditorium, bar and two foyer spaces — significant changes that would otherwise have cost thousands of pounds. Every light is now LED and most are DMX controlled for theatre and cinema automation use. The main lighting fixtures had been hand-made by the technical staff — they created them from old three hour 35mm spindles and profile lantern yokes. Other fixtures were made from old counterweight pulleys found under the stage. The chandeliers used as houselights are split channel, enabling lanterns within the chandeliers to be controlled in groups — allowing their use as a creative tool.
Great sound on a super-tight budget
Improving the sound system had become urgent, but they didn’t have the budget to go along the normal equipment replacement route, so came up with some interesting ideas, using their own technical team but working with local company Bowers and Wilkins to achieve a new 7.1 sound installation for each theatre on a budget.
The ‘special relationship’ tie-in with Worthing’s B&W is a ‘sponsorship’ idea that will hopefully benefit both sides. The world renowned high-end speaker company provided advice and superb speakers at a great price, in return for which The Connaught has provided some small brand awareness pieces in print and a modest display of B&W products in one of the bar areas. B&W staff are also invited to special screenings and get discounted rates on performances. There are 16 surround speakers in all, 10 in the Connaught, six in the Studio, all are B&W CT7.3 full-range models with 8-inch bass units, a Kevlar mid-range speaker and B&W’s famous Nautilus tube-loaded tweeters. There are two B&W CTSW15 subwoofers in the Connaught and two Custom built B&W 15” cabinets in the Studio. The main stage speakers are BK Electrical ST225 (bi-amped). Amps are 4-channel QSCs, with 2-channel amps for the subs. Kristian was keen also to acknowledge the help of Kevin Marwick, owner of The Picture House cinema in nearby Uckfield, who donated a Dolby CP750 processor — it’s great to see one cinema help another in this way.
Modifications to the acoustics in the Studio have improved the overall sound. Working with a volunteer, the technical team custom built in-house numerous sound absorption panels at a fraction of the cost you would expect. They designed, made and installed inch-thick panels to cover most of the side walls in the Studio space. Filled with fire-resistant, acoustically absorbent foam covered in a flame retardant wool serge material, the idea is to absorb any reflections in the sound to make sound “drier” — giving greater clarity. It helps block outside noises and absorb the sound of fridges in the bar. Heavy black curtaining and track as you enter the auditorium from the bar further reduces extraneous sounds.
I watched and listened to some clips in the Connaught, including the Dolby 7.1 trailer, and was impressed. At a sound level of 5.5 it was loud but not uncomfortable, with the ‘surround’ effects clearly audible throughout the theatre and dialogue crisp and clear. Kristian told me that the staff listen to the sound level in the auditorium at the start of every performance to make sure everything is perfect. The improvement work on the sound systems has clearly resulted in cinema sound just as it should be — a great result at a remarkably low cost.
A real success story
The Worthing staff were modest about their achievement, but they have showcased superb work by a small team of individuals and volunteers. They have made the most of their resources and injected their own creativity and passion into the cinema.
Putting on events
Not surprisingly, event cinema is popular here — people love coming to see an opera, ballet or NT Live performance in a real theatre. The cinema has two dishes to handle signals from Intelsat 10-02 and Intelsat 905, and they have professional receivers from LANsat and Arqiva as well as a ‘domestic’ decoder, which gets used because it often provides the cheapest solution. Event cinema signals can be networked between the two screens.
The cinemas are well-used for conferences, and the technical staff can cope with a range of inputs from various digital players. There are tie lines between the stage areas and control rooms, for microphones and projector control.