It's the place for movie premieres, and it is known the world over. Odeon's Leicester Square cinema has seen it's fair share of stars, but now it is receiving a massive overhaul. Phil Rhodes takes a look at what is being done, and examines the capabilities of the new laser projection system.
We don't talk about exhibition nearly enough, although everyone from directors of photography to cinephiles tends to have an opinion and often a complaint about the standard of projection in a commercial exhibition. In that sense, today's subject is a good news story: the reopening of a major cinema with a large main screen by a company that seems to care about standards. OK, it's the Odeon Leicester Square and it was closed with the specific intention of refurbishment and reopening soon after the Odeon chain was acquired by American exhibition giant AMC.
Insert silver screen here - the famous art deco plasterwork inside the Odeon Leicester Square has been largely retained
The venue, opened by Odeon founder Oscar Deutsch in 1932, is certainly one of the greatest art deco cinemas in the UK, if not the world. It's about to be fitted out with some of the laser projection technology that we discussed way back in 2014, shortly after projector manufacturer Christie showed it at that year's NAB show. It could hardly be a better venue.
Technically, digital projection is quite a lot less fussy on a day-to-day basis than 35mm. Sorry, traditionalists, but it is. There are no scratches, cue dots, pieces of dirt and grime which build up simply through repeated projection of the same print. While the projector lamp is in good condition, colours in film and digital projection should be just as consistent. Film projects whatever colour is on the print. Colours in digital projectors are determined by the filters that split the light into red, green and blue, and dichroic filters aren't really subject to ageing.
The famous black marble frontage of the Odeon Leicester Square either defines or perfectly implements what a cinema should look like, depending on your point of view
Digital cinema, then, ought to be pretty controllable, although Odeon has 3000 screens all over Europe and, therefore, a bit of a task on their hands. By their own admission, it's almost impossible to stay on top of every detail of every setup, but the Leicester Square system seems likely to get a lot of attention. It is to be set up by Dolby and branded with their Dolby Cinema certification, which is based around Christie's laser technology. There's no cause for alarm – modern laser projectors don't send unfiltered beams lancing out across the auditorium; instead, the lasers are diffused and used as a light source to drive conventional micro-mirror devices. This is massively better than the old approach of using discharge lights.
1930s cinemas were not designed for modern sound systems. This perforated wood is designed for a natural finish without excessive reverberation
The advantage is that it's possible to make red, green and blue lasers – solid-state lasers are fundamentally based on LED technology. Usually, white light has to be split up into red, green and blue, then bounced off the micro-mirror chips and recombined. In a laser projector, light arrives as separate red, green and blue streams, so it can go directly to the three micro-mirror chips. There are some problems with the characteristic speckled appearance of laser light which are sometimes solved by vibrating the screen with loudspeaker-like drivers to blur the pattern out.
A new projection port has been cut as close as possible to floor level, to allow the projectors to be as square to the screen as possible
A six-primary laser is also by far the best way of theatrically exhibiting 3D movies. Solid state lasers can be tuned - they can change colour slightly. This means that with six lasers, it's possible to project the left and right eyes using slightly different RGB primaries, having colour-corrected the images to avoid things looking wrong. The 3D glasses have filters which prevent each eye from seeing the other's image by filtering out the three primaries we don't want to see. It's far less lossy than polarisation and doesn't require electronic glasses.
It's possible that cinema-sized LED screens, like those used on buildings for advertising, may become both affordable and reliable. They are more or less the only no-compromises display solution, with huge brightness, contrast and colour capability. A very small number of cinema installations have been done. In the meantime, though, expect to see lasers in premium locations.
This might be the future of cinema, with massive contrast and colour range, but Sony's superb LED display technology is too expensive for most current venues
Good as all this is, it's at this point where a few unflattering comparisons with TV start to emerge. Dolby Cinema screens target 100+ nit brightness for HDR material, but of course, that's only roughly what standard Rec. 709 video displays in post production suites and living rooms have been doing for ages. Cinema, sadly, has never been very bright and cinema HDR, in terms of peak brightness, only achieves broadly what television has long done at standard dynamic range. The blacks are very black, though, and in terms of strict dynamic range, it is impressive. Certainly, it produces a display that's more tolerant of deliberately dull, low-contrast images such as those shot around dawn or dusk. It's possible for a screen to feel dim without feeling dingy.
Odeon's technical chief Mike Bradbury has already spoken at venues such as the BSC show and has cooperated with BSC member Nic Knowland, indicating that Odeon is not unaware of its responsibilities as the final gatekeeper between what hits the lens and what hits the audience's eyeballs. As the photos here show, the Odeon Leicester Square looks to be perhaps a bit further from completion than the company would prefer, but the plans for the interior are a spectacular and appropriate reaction to the famous art deco exterior so that both the interior and the pictures should look equally good.
Title image: 4kclips / Shutterstock.com