Putting cinema on the right track

How do you fit a three-screen cinema in the railway arches that lead to one of London’s busiest stations and still deliver a quality experience? Sound Associates’ Graham Lodge has the answers. 


Battersea Power Station has been a genuinely iconic part of London’s skyline for many years, frequently appearing in photos, album covers and paintings, but few know anything much more about the power station and its history beyond its four impressive brick-built chimneys. The coal-fired power station was built between 1925 and 1941, creating the  distinctive silhouette still present today. 

The power station operated for just 37 years until it was decommissioned in 1978. Shortly afterwards it was awarded Grade 2 listed status, protecting the important architecture.  Despite many proposed regeneration projects over the years, nothing really happened and the site fell into an increasingly worrying state of disrepair until around 2012 when a Malaysian company started on regeneration scheme that involved knocking down and rebuilding the four chimneys. The project is due for completion in the next couple of years.

One of the key problems with Battersea as a leisure, accommodation and business venue was the lack of transport facilities. The main trainlines from London’s Victoria pass right by the power station but the nearest station is Battersea Park — a 15 minute walk from the power station. Luckily, an extension of the London Underground’s Northern line is also due to be completed in a couple of years’ and there will be a tube station in the heart of the development.

There have been plans and schemes proposed regarding multi-screen cinema developments as key parts of the regeneration project since the late 1980s but now that Apple has confirmed that it will be occupying over 500,000 square feet of space in the main power station building, there was nothing left for any multiplex operator to develop.

A rather special venue  

Though there was no space in the main development, fortunately the main railway lines coming out of Victoria did present a unique opportunity for a local operator to create something rather special right next door to the power station. Stephen Burdge, MD of the lovely three-screen Olympic Cinema in Barnes came to an agreement with the Battersea Power Station Company to develop three cinema auditoriums in three adjacent railway arches directly beneath the train lines coming out of Victoria — the Archlight cinema.

The other arches in the locality already offer a range of restaurants, a microbrewery, bike hire and other small businesses that bring vitality to a newly developed residential area, so three cinema screens would fit in very nicely.

Stephen is always keen to have the latest technological advances in his cinemas so when Sound Associates was appointed to supply, install and commission the projection and sound systems in the cinemas, we were asked to design a completely automatic three-screen venue with Dolby Atmos in every screen, laser projection and the ability to run a multitude of different non-cinema sources such as PowerPoint presentations and, naturally, event cinema in any or all of the three screens.

The arches themselves were not enormous to start with, at around 9.1m wide, 5.2m high at the peak and 12m deep, but the first thing that had to happen was to minimise noise entering from outside — things like the 150 tonnes of train that passes over the arches every few minutes. Luckily, acoustic experts had done a wonderful job and constructed an isolated steel frame within the brick arches and the frame is completely floating off the ground on isolating rubber blocks. This takes up quite a lot of space and the actual auditoriums are around 8.1m wide, 4.1m high and 9.7m deep — sufficient space to accommodate two 60-seat cinemas and one 40-seat cinema by the time the foyer had been constructed.

Now to the technical specs…

Projectors in the venue are all Barco DP2K-10SLP units with Dolby IMS3000 media blocks fitted to allow for the Dolby Atmos decoding. The sound systems comprise of QSC Q-Sys network audio systems that handle all the 35+ channel audio streams coming from the IMS3000 and supply the switching, EQ and systems control required and feeding the QSC Q-Sys amplifiers running speakers provided by Flare Audio.

Each screen has an individual Q-Sys Core 110c running all audio switching and routing and there were up to five 4- and 8-channel Q-Sys amplifiers running all the stage, sub bass and surround speakers — all squeezed into an 18U-high equipment rack mounted directly under each projector.

The screens (installed by Powells) are all matt white miniperf and have multi-stop top, bottom and side moving masking with close-over proper tabs as well — an amazing achievement in such a small space.

Laser light source projectors were selected primarily because of the low level of maintenance required, but also because they generate less heat and hot air compared to an equivalent xenon lamp-based projector. Getting hot air out of what is effectively an acoustically sealed brick tunnel was quite an undertaking — the only way to get power, ventilation, network cables and all audio between the three screens involved a rather tortuous route: coming out to the front of each arch, across a bit and then back in again.

Squeezing in Atmos under the arches

The Dolby Atmos designs were complicated — I don’t believe anyone had (or has since!) installed Dolby Atmos in a railway arch and there was a lot of discussion between Sound Associates and Dolby over where speakers would be located along the sides of the arches that would satisfy the strict Dolby Atmos guidelines while remaining practical and safe for customers watching films. Luckily, once the positions and angles had been agreed, the designers of the internal finishes in the auditoria came up with a set of angled acoustic panels that effectively hid the surround speakers.

For normal DCP playback there is a Rosetta TMS system that handles the scheduling of trailers, adverts and features playing on all three screens and there is a LANsat box from MPS for receipt of content. For day-to-day operations, the Rosetta looks after the three screens with little or no intervention from the cinema managers.

All automation commands from the IMS3000 server go via the QSC Q-Sys cinema sound system that handles not only all the audio needs of the Atmos sound system but it also controls all the automation requirements like curtain and masking control, volume, lights etc. The cinema manager can monitor the sound in each auditorium from a central office and also see sound levels on an iPad display.

The Q-Sys system allows different playback systems to have different EQs for non-DCP playback and allows for multiple microphones to be used in each auditorium with feedback suppression built in — a handy facility when presenters not used to using microphones are involved! The health of the entire system is constantly monitored by Q-Sys and if anything was to go wrong, it can send Sound Associates technical support an email asking for assistance — no remote NOC required and this often allows us to react to an issue before the site is even aware of it. As an example, the site experienced a handful of ventilation issues in the first few days of operation due to hot weather, but we were alerted to the rising temperature in the projection pod and could get the site to take remedial action before the problem took the projector off-line. Q-Sys also handles all the non-DCP cinema signal routing that has been installed, allowing a laptop to be connected in any screen and routed to all other screens if needed, or for a central Blu-ray player to be sent to any screen with audio decoded by the IMS3000 in each projector. Non-Sync music is stored on each Q-Sys core in MP3 format and the manager can create playlists for different feature films to ensure the music is appropriate to the feature shown.

The finished cinemas blend into the surrounding arches and now that awnings have been fitted to the front of each cinema arch, it is an inviting place to go and watch a film. Sound Associates is proud to have been so closely involved. The Archlight cinema pushes the boundaries of innovation, engineering and new sound and vision technologies. We look forward to the next challenge!