90 Years of Innovation

Harkness Screens is celebrating 90 years in the business thanks to the company’s knack for identifying technology trends. CT caught up with CEO, Mark Ashcroft, to learn about its past, present and future.


Starting out in Glasgow in 1929, Harkness Screens have been installed in cinemas worldwide over its 90-year history — and the company’s anniversary celebrations have not gone unnoticed. With a new website and brand identity, Harkness is facing the future boldly, but what of its roots?

Very much the year cinema went global, 1929 also saw the first Academy Awards and the first modern sound and colour film, created by Warner Bros. Added to this, the Eastman Kodak Company introduced its first motion picture film and, finally, Walt Disney Productions was formed. It was also the year a master draper decided it was time to change career. Andrew Harkness and his 18-year-old son, Tom, began laundering cinema screens, before moving from Glasgow to the lots of Borehamwood Studios to manufacture screens. A draper from the age of 15 in 1890, Andrew’s understanding
of fabrics was very different to that of someone who had worked in cinema the entirety of their professional life.

At the time, the quality of a screen would dissipate quickly due to having bright light projected on it consistently. Added to this, the screens were washed, which dulled picture clarity. Thanks to his fabric knowledge, Harkness found a solution, but after establishing his company, just two years later Andrew passed away, leaving the business to Tom — just 20 at the time. Under Tom, Harkness established its reputation for forward thinking and development of new screen technologies.

Identifying PVC (polyvinyl chloride) as a successor to fabric, Tom realised plastic had similar properties to fabric and was more durable, but needed development. One of the key problems was welding edges without leaving visible creases.

Eventually, developing the Tearseal method, these new PVC screens became a success. Over time, Harkness began developing the screens, one of the key innovations being the addition of small perforations. As a result, speakers could be placed behind, creating a more natural audio experience. In 1952, a change in ownership saw Harkness join the cinema juggernaut that was the Rank Organisation. Harkness was later incorporated into Rank Audio Visual in 1960, alongside Odeon and Pathé at Elstree Studios.

Some years later Harkness developed its first coated screen, recognising the need for exhibitors to have brighter, more vivid presentations. With limited power available to put light on screen, coated screens boosted performance. As a result, the Perlux screen was developed. Capable of brighter, more true-to-life presentation, Perlux set Harkness apart.

Identifying that the next ‘big thing’ in cinema would be 3D projection, Harkness began development of a coating that would later become the world’s leading polarised silver screen brand, the Spectral. The company began to establish facilities abroad; acquiring French business Demospec in 1999 and creating manufacturing centres in the US, China and India. It has continued with a mission of innovation, imagination and technology. creating the Digital Screen Modeller app in 2013, the app made it easier for engineers and architects to enhance and optimise the screen and its geometry. In 2019 Harkness announced that with ProAV, they would be trialling an online store for customers to purchase screens.

Past/present/future services

“In my opinion, the introduction of the Digital Screen Modeller was a major introduction to the industry. Getting a room, or space, ready for projection is something that could have taken hours. With the app, it’s mere minutes,” says vice president of technology, Matt Jahans, adding, “In 2013, not nearly as many people used apps as they do today, so it was difficult to explain. Now everyone quickly grasps how it can be valuable.”

“At Harkness, we seem to have made a habit of predicting what the next step may be” says CEO Mark Ashcroft, “For Tom Harkness it was PVC and right now we firmly believe that laser projection is the way that the industry is heading. This is obviously not a big secret in the industry and in October our senior vice president for new business, Tony Dilley, sat on a panel at ExpoCine19 discussing the logistics of laser projection and how a screen is vital to projection.

In recent years, Harkness has strived to shrink its carbon footprint, reducing volatile organic compounds emissions by 94%. It has also switched to water-based screen surfaces and sends all its scrap PVC back to the original manufacturer to recycle. In the next 12 months Harkness hopes to install solar power at each of its plants. “Environmental stability is an important topics in the company. Moving to water-based screen surfaces was a huge step for us in reducing emissions. It hasn’t reduced the quality of the screens one bit,” explains chief technology officer David Harrison.

Harkness has three recognised screen brands found in cinemas. The first, Clarus XC. came as a result of significant work by the R&D team, creating the most immersive screen possible. Working effectively with both 2D and 3D systems, the Clarus XC creates an intense viewing experience, designed to engage viewers with visibly richer colours on-screen, all with a stronger, better-defined picture. With fourth generation d-smooth coating technology, the Clarus XC has similar qualities to white screens. Due to the quality of the coating, Clarus XC is the best prepared screen for laser projection.

Harkness’s second screen brand is the Perlux HiWhite. Introduced to the market in 2018, the HiWhite has the leading white-gain projection surface. A premium surface for 2D projection, the HiWhite is the whitest-ever gain screen with increased uniformity, Perlux is capable of high performance when being used with laser projectors. Perhaps Harkness’s most unique screen available on the market, HiWhite assists in the reduction of digital cinema costs through the use of smaller xenon lamps and reducing power consumption. This results in less frequent lamp replacements, saving cinemas money in the long term. Due to Perlux’s unique properties, it alleviates visual speckles on-screen from laser projectors. Recommended by projector manufacturers, the HiWhite is perhaps the leading screen in the industry. The third brand that the cinema industry know and trust is Spectral, the polarised silver screen that has served the 3D market for years.

Due to its standing in the industry, Harkness’s screens can regularly be seen at the key industry events. Main sponsors at CineEurope, CinemaCon and CineAsia, screens produced by Harkness can be found on the main stage as well as in the exhibition centre. “I was at CinemaCon earlier this year,” says Mark Ashcroft, “and it was amazing to see the world’s biggest acting names not just on our screens, but looking up at them when presenting their upcoming films to the world.”


Reaching a whole new audience

As part its 90th anniversary, the company has launched a new website (harkness-screens.com) and redesigned its brand identity. CEO Mark Ashcroft, believes that the new logo’s full spectrum colour-way better represents the company he is charged with driving forward. “Harkness has been able to bring people films in full, vibrant colour for virtually all of our 90 years and the new logo reflects this. When you look at our old logo, it was a little understated in comparison to the work we do. Our screens enhance the colour of what is being projected onto them ­— and by having a logo that portrays the spectrum, that embodies us.” A complete rebrand has also seen an entirely new website layout, as well as social media accounts getting a makeover. Harkness hopes that as a result, it will attract people outside of the industry too. Posting unique content on the site and social media, it aims to attract a variety of potential customers. Followed by thousands, Harkness has a worldwide audience due to facilities in India, China, France and the US, with its screens in over 130 countries.


About Peter Knight

Peter Knight is the Commissioning Editor for the Cinema Technology Magazine, along with the Managing Editor for the Mad Cornish Projectionist website. He is still a working projectionist and AV technician with an interest in all things projected both in traditional cinema and elsewhere too. Peter has been running his own business since 2017.

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